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Chaplains in the Royal New Zealand Navy, 1939–45

Chaplains in the Royal New Zealand Navy, 1939–45

When war began on 3 September 1939, there were only two chaplains in the New Zealand Naval Forces: the Rev. G. T. Robson,1 in HMS Philomel, depot ship of the naval training establishment and the Naval Base at Devonport, Auckland, and the Rev. C. B. Ellis,2 in HMS Leander. (It was not until 1 October 1941, that the King page 148 approved the change of title for the naval forces in New Zealand from ‘The New Zealand Naval Forces’ to ‘The Royal New Zealand Navy’.) Of the three armed services in New Zealand, the Navy was the only one with a permanent chaplain before the war. The Army, of course, had for a long time had its Territorial chaplains on an honorary basis, but the Air Force had none at all. From 1927 to 1939, the chaplain at the Naval Base was often called upon for duty for all three Services.

Mr. Robson's name will long be remembered and honoured in the Royal New Zealand Navy. In his booklet, HMNZS Philomel, published in 1944, Lieutenant O. S. Hintz, RNZNVR, writes:

This is a book about a ship and not about the men who have served in her. A thousand personalities have gone to the making of that one encompassing personality which is Philomel. Nevertheless, the ship for the last seventeen years has had one personality, in the highest sense of the word, whose name requires inclusion in any history. He is the Rev. G. T. Robson, OBE, MC, naval chaplain at Auckland since 1927, and a man who, through his influence with recruits and sailors alike and through his abiding interest in their welfare, has done much to foster in Philomel and in the Royal New Zealand Navy the traditions of a great Service.

It is not thought that Lieutenant Hintz had Mr. Robson still in mind when he began his next sentence: ‘Among other relics in the grounds of the Naval Base….’

Mr. Robson appeared to know every officer and man who had ever passed through the Philomel. A man greatly beloved, he was sure of a welcome wherever he went around the ship or the dockyard. A man deeply versed in the knowledge of men, he was able to help the many who sought his advice by his wise and understanding counsel. A man of infinite patience, he apparently was never in a hurry, never too busy to see any caller, yet he managed to do a vast amount of work among and for the naval men and their families. His long experience of the Service and his wide and deep knowledge of the ways of the Navy made him a mine of information to men strange to those ways. No man ever better deserved the honour of the Order of the British Empire which was conferred upon him in 1940.

In October 1939. the Rev. C. B. Ellis was recalled to England page 149 and he was succeeded in the Leander by the Rev. R. A. Noakes,3 who sailed in her when she left New Zealand in May 1940 for her arduous commission in the Middle East—the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean—which lasted sixteen months. An additional chaplain, the Rev. G. M. McKenzie,4 was appointed in June 1940, and he was drafted to HMS Achilles, in which he served for seven months.

Concurrently with the great and rapid expansion of the Naval Base and its manifold activities during the first months of the war, came a corresponding increase in the work of the Base chaplain. It was not long before training needs went beyond even the largely- expanded training establishment at Devonport, and on 20 January 1941 the old quarantine station on Motuihi Island was commissioned as HMS Tamaki, and this became the principal training establishment for the thousands of men who joined the Royal New Zealand Navy.

Mr. McKenzie was transferred from the Achilles to be chaplain in the Tamaki, a post he was to hold until he was demobilised in May 1946. During that period some ten thousand young men and boys passed through the training establishment in the Tamaki. As this was their first contact with the Navy, the chaplain's work was of primary importance, and the commanding officer paid tribute to that work in these words: ‘He has conducted himself to my entire satisfaction. A most efficient chaplain with a sound knowledge of youth and their problems. He has been most helpful in every way. Himself a keen student of naval history, he has been able to pass on its lessons and its value. His evening work in the library has been invaluable…. Last, but not least, a very gifted and eloquent preacher whose sermons have been an inspiration to us throughout the commission.’

In September 1941, HMNZS Leander returned to New Zealand. Her chaplain, the Rev. R. A. Noakes, having resigned, his successor. page 150 the Rev. C. F. Webster,5 was appointed in October 1941. He served in the Leander during her subsequent operations in the South Pacific and in the Battle of Kolombangara, in the Solomon Islands, in which the ship was torpedoed and so badly damaged that she had to return to Auckland for extensive repairs, subsequently proceeding to Boston in the United States for a complete refit. Mr. Webster was appointed to HMNZS Achilles when she recommissioned in England and he was serving in her at the time of his death at Trincomalee on 13 November 1944. A most efficient and conscientious chaplain, he earned the deep respect of all ranks, particularly for his good work when the Leander was torpedoed in action in the Solomons. Of his service on that occasion the commanding officer of the Leander wrote: ‘Mr. Webster was in the main dressing station in action. On the ship being damaged he immediately asked permission to proceed to the scene of the damage where he did good work among the injured. For the rest of the night and the following day he attended tirelessly on the wounded and dying, performing his priestly duties with marked devotion and his medical duties with efficiency. He set a good example to all around him.’ The casualties in the Leander in this action were twenty-eight killed and fifteen wounded.

Once again, after the death of Mr. Webster, the Achilles was without a chaplain. The shortage of chaplains in New Zealand for naval service was a major problem and repeated requests to the Archbishop of New Zealand for more men met with no practical response. The Bishops were loath to part with more priests from their dioceses—the not unjustified excuse being that so many had joined the Army and the Air Force.

The successive captains of the Achilles did not wish to go to sea without a chaplain and so, at intervals, the Royal Navy lent two of its chaplains for service in the cruiser. The Rev. W. G. Morgan6
black and white photograph of soldier and priest

RNZAF fighter pilot describes an action to Rev. Father W. W. Ainsworth, July 1943Guadalcanal

black and white photograph of soldiers sitting in chapel

Midnight Mass in RNZAF Chapel, Christmas 1944, celebrated by Rev. Father P. BattersbyGuadalcanal

black and white photograph of soldiers and priest on ship

Divine Service on HMNZSLeander, July 1941Alexandria

page 151 had himself served as an able seaman in trawlers and minesweepers around the coasts of Britain at the beginning of the war; but when his clerical status was discovered he was appointed a chaplain. He did excellent work and was well liked in the Achilles, the ship's company being sorry to see him go. He was followed by the Rev. C. G. J. Evans7 who remained in the Achilles until she returned to England in 1946 to be paid off, thus severing her connection with the Royal New Zealand Navy. Another English chaplain, the Rev. T. R. Parfitt,8 served in HMNZS Gambia from October 1943 to July 1946, when she, too, reverted to the Royal Navy. He was a conscientious, painstaking, and popular chaplain.

Though he did not serve in any ship of the Royal New Zealand Navy, mention must be made of the Rev. W. G. Parker,9 formerly of Wellington, who had completed nearly seven years' service as a chaplain in the Royal Navy when he met his death in action in December 1941. He joined the Royal Navy on 31 January 1935, and at the outbreak of war was chaplain in HMS Daedalus, Royal Navy Air Station, Lee-on-Solent. He was appointed to HMS Prince of Wales on 14 February 1941, and was in her when that ship and HMS Hood attacked the Bismarck in the North Atlantic on 24 May 1941, the Hood being sunk. Mr. Parker was among the many missing after the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft off the Malay Peninsula on 10 December 1941.

But what of the ‘little ships’ such as the Matai, Kiwi, Moa, Tui, Gale, Breeze and others, as well as the Fairmile motor-launches, all of which did duty in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere? They were not neglected, for when they were occupied in their arduous and monotonous duties in the South Pacific, the Bishop and clergy of the Melanesian Mission did all they could for the spiritual welfare of officers and men. Not only did they conduct services on board the ships but they also entertained the men on shore, arranging sightseeing trips and sports. The Bishop of Melanesia, the page 152 Rt. Rev. W. H. Baddeley, DSO, MC, was a great friend to the Royal New Zealand Navy. He and the Rev. H. V. Reynolds were commissioned as honorary chaplains in recognition of the many services they gave to officers and men serving in the South Pacific. After the Leander had been damaged in the Battle of Kolombangara, the ship's company could not speak too highly of what the Bishop had done for them. The Rev. A. T. Hill, of the Boys' School at Pawa, Ugi, was also of great service to our ships in that area.

In addition to those already mentioned, there were a number of chaplains of the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve who did good work in shore establishments at various ports in New Zealand. The spiritual care of officers and men, and of the ‘Wrens’ in HMNZS Cook, the naval base at Shelly Bay, Wellington, was undertaken by the Rev. B. J. Williams,10 chaplain of the Flying Angel Mission to Seamen, and the Rev. Father N. H. Gascoigne,11 chaplain of the Wellington Institute of the Apostleship of the Sea. The Rev. J. F. Feron,12 the vicar of a large parish in Christchurch, gladly accepted the responsibility for the spiritual care of the men in HMNZS Tasman, the shore establishment at Lyttelton. At Auckland, too, the Rev. Father M. Kenefick13 and the Rev. D. N. Pryor14 took a zealous interest in the welfare of their respective flocks, both in the Philomel and the Tamaki.

A special and most important work was undertaken by the Rev. H. K. Vickery,15 RNZNVR, who, as chaplain to the Flying Angel page 153 Mission to Seamen at Auckland, was unable to do normal chaplaincy duty. This was the arrangement of hospitality for Royal Navy officers and men whose ships, for various reasons, had to spend varying lengths of time in Auckland. These ships were manned by men from the United Kingdom, very few of whom knew anyone in New Zealand and for whom a crowded city was not the ideal place in which to rest and recuperate. The chaplain at the Devonport Base had begun a hospitality scheme in a small way, but with his many other duties he had found it impossible to carry on let alone develop the scheme. Mr. Vickery undertook the work. It involved making arrangements with hosts and hostesses, securing transport, writing letters, and the hundred and one details which can make or mar the success of such a scheme. Many hundreds of men were given hospitality under this plan.