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The Royal New Zealand Navy


page 544

Appendix VIII

HMNZS Philomel, the little old cruiser that for a quarter of century did duty at Devonport Naval Base, Auckland, as training and depot ship, can fittingly be described as the cradle of the Royal New Zealand Navy. Since 1921, the year in which the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy came into being, the names of many thousands of officers and men have been borne on her books. The ship herself has gone and a modern barracks and naval depot now bear her name which has an honourable and enduring place in the traditions of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The Philomel was the fifth ship of her name in the Royal Navy. The first was a sloop of 384 tons, 18 guns, built at Bridport in 1806. She saw service off the Spanish coast and in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1809 she assisted in the destruction of a French convoy under the hostile guns of Fort Rosas, and in October of that year took a leading part in the storming of the island of Ithaca. She was sold out of the Navy in 1817.

Six years later the name was given to a sloop of 231 tons, 10 guns, built at Portsmouth. The second Philomel in 1827 took part in the battle of Navarino, against the Turks. She, in her turn, was sold in 1833.

The brig Philomel of 360 tons, 8 guns, was built at Plymouth in 1842. She took part in the operations on the Parana River and in the action of Obligado in 1845. Her boats assisted in the demonstration against the King of Lagos in 1851.

The fourth Philomel was a steam gunboat of 663 tons, built at Deptford in 1867. Seven years later, she took part in the capture and destruction of the fort of Masmaah, in the Gulf of Oman; and in 1875 was in the Perak expedition. She, too, was sold in 1885.

Designed as a third-class cruiser, the fifth Philomel was laid down at Devonport Dockyard, England, in May 1889, and launched on 28 August 1890. She was a twin-screw vessel of 2575 tons displacement and mounted eight 4.7-inch guns. She cost £141,802 to build and equip. Captain Charles Campbell, RN, was her first commanding officer and her ship's company numbered 221 officers and men. She was commissioned on 10 November 1891 for service on the Cape of Good Hope Station.

In 1893 the Philomel took part in the Bohemie Creek expedition, and three years later, in company with HMS Sparrow (later the New Zealand training ship Amokura) and other ships, she bombarded the palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar which had been seized by a rebel chief. In 1897 the Philomel saw service in the Benin expedition on the west coast of Africa.

After a refit in England, the Philomel returned to the Cape Station in 1899 and took an active part in the South African War. She contributed men to the Naval Brigade which saw service in the field, and two of her guns were landed and used in the bombardment of Boer positions at Colenso prior to the relief of Ladysmith.

page 545

The Philomel was paid off at Devonport on 22 March 1902, and laid up in the Firth of Forth for more than five years. After an extensive refit she was recommissioned on 1 February 1908 for service in the Red Sea division of the Mediterranean Fleet. She was lying at Malta at the time of the disastrous earthquake at Messina. Within a few hours she had sailed with doctors and nurses for Reggio, where an emergency hospital was set up. She also took an active part in relief operations at Messina.

Soon afterwards the Philomel proceeded from Malta to Aden, where she embarked the Royal West Surreys and other troops to suppress disorders in Somaliland. She supported the landings of troops at Berbera and Lashkori, as well as landing a naval armed party and blockading the coast to prevent gun-running. The Philomel served a second commission on the East Indies Station, operations against gun-runners in the Persian Gulf being one of her chief duties.

In 1913 the Admiralty agreed to make the Philomel available to the New Zealand Government as a seagoing training ship, to form the nucleus of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy. On 15 July 1914 she was recommissioned at Wellington by Captain P. H. Hall-Thompson, RN, who had been appointed Naval Adviser to the New Zealand Government.

The Philomel, with her first entry of New Zealand naval recruits, was on a ‘shake-down’ cruise to the Marlborough Sounds when the outbreak of war in Europe recalled her to Wellington. Her ship's company was augmented by naval reservists and she sailed on 8 August 1914 for Auckland, where she joined company with HM ships Psyche and Pyramus. All three cruisers put to sea on 15 August escorting the Union Company's steamers Moeraki and Monowai which were carrying an expeditionary force for the occupation of German Samoa. The convoy proceeded to Noumea, where it met HMA ships Australia and Melbourne and the French cruiser Montcalm. After a call at Suva the ships arrived at Apia on 30 August. The troops landed unopposed and took the German surrender that day.

The next duty of the Philomel was to assist in escorting the transports carrying the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to Egypt. The convoy of ten troopships sailed from Wellington on 16 October 1914, escorted by H.M. ships Minotaur, Philomel, Psyche, and Pyramus, and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki. At Albany the Philomel and Pyramus parted company with the convoy and proceeded to Singapore, whence the former escorted three French transports to Aden. After a short patrol in the Red Sea, the Philomel left Suez on Christmas Day escorting nine transports to Malta, where she underwent a refit.

At the end of January 1915 she sailed for Port Said, where she received orders to patrol the coast in the Gulf of Alexandretta and harass the Turkish communications. As well as shelling the railway and its rolling stock, frequent night landings were made. On 8 February a party of two officers and fifteen ratings encountered a strong force of Turkish troops and, in severe fighting, the Philomel's casualties were three killed and three wounded, one of the former being the first New Zealander to fall in action in the war.

In July 1915 the Philomel was ordered to Aden, where the Turks had driven the British garrison into the town. An armed party was landed to stiffen the defences. In September, Philomel's men took part in an attack on the enemy's lines, capturing a village but being thrown out of it by a greatly superior force. The British casualties included three of Philomel's page 546 party killed. The Turks were driven off eventually and the threat to Aden receded.

The Philomel then went to the Persian Gulf, where apart from two brief visits to Bombay for repairs, she remained on patrol duties from November 1915 until the beginning of 1917. When she was docked at Bombay, it was found that she needed a long and costly refit to condition her for further sea service. She returned to Wellington in April 1917 and was paid off, recommissioning next day with a nucleus crew. The old cruiser was stripped of her guns, her last warlike activity being to act as depot ship for the minesweepers which swept the mines laid by the German raider Wolf off the Three Kings and Farewell Spit.

The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy came into being in 1921 when HMS Chatham arrived from England. In company with that ship, the Philomel made her last sea passage under her own power from Wellington to Auckland where, moored at the Devonport Dockyard, she became the training establishment and depot to which she gave her name.

Two years later the Philomel received many relics from HMS New Zealand, which was scrapped in accordance with the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. Besides an assortment of silver plate, mostly gifts to the battle-cruiser in 1913, the relics included the main steering wheel, the ship's bell, and a massive carved panel formerly mounted on the superstructure on the quarterdeck of the New Zealand. The panel was incorporated in the pulpit in the chapel of St. Christopher of HMNZS Philomel. The battle honours of HMS New Zealand in brass letters on oak panels, and relics of most ships of the Royal New Zealand Navy, are also housed in the chapel.

The old cruiser was little more than a shell when she ended her long career of fifty-six years on 16 January 1947. The occasion was commemorated in the following signal from the New Zealand Naval Board to HMNZS Philomel:

The Naval Board record their regret at the passing from the Service of the first of His Majesty's New Zealand Ships, a ship that has meant so much to all who served in her. She goes as many good ships have gone before her; but when HMNZS Philomel's colours are hauled down for the last time at sunset this evening, the tradition which she has established during her long career will live on in the depot to which she has given her name.

The Philomel's hulk was sold for £750 to the Strongman Shipping Company Ltd. It was towed to Coromandel harbour, where it was stripped of its teak decking and other material. Much of this was worked into a small twin-screw motor-vessel built by Mason Brothers for the Strongman Shipping Company for service between Auckland and Coromandel. This vessel, named Coromel, was launched on 4 October 1947. Many souvenirs made from teakwood and metal from the Philomel were presented to persons associated with her during her long career, one of the recipients being Mr H. S. Moreton, a brother of Able Seaman J. T. Moreton who was killed on active service in her in 1915. As it was not practicable to break it up, the hulk of the old ship was towed out to sea in August 1949 and sunk by explosive charges.