In March 1909, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward announced that ‘the Dominion’ (New Zealand) was offering ‘the Motherland’ (Britain) the ‘free gift of … a first-class battleship’. ‘Should later events show any need for it,’ Ward continued, ‘New Zealand will offer again a second warship of the same class.’
Ward explained his decision in colourful Imperial rhetoric:
‘We distant sons desire to stand in any peril beside the lion mother of our race, and to the utmost of our resources prove to her and to the world how dear to us is Britain’s name and greatness. We recognise that Britain’s acknowledged supremacy of the seas goes for the maintenance of peace, and that any weakness, either in the Homeland or abroad, makes what ought to be a dominant position a dangerous one. Sacrifices must be made to show competitive nations that, although separated by seas, we are in reality one for the preservation of our Empire’s greatness.’ (‘The Naval Crisis’, The Evening Post, 24 March 1909)
Ward was positioning New Zealand as a loyal and active participant in the defence of the British Empire. It was a time of increasing naval rivalry among the world’s leading nations, and great anxiety in Britain and the Empire about emerging threats to the Royal Navy’s supremacy. The Japanese Navy had recently annihilated the Russian fleet at Tsushima, and Germany was challenging the Royal Navy by building a fleet of ultra-modern battleships. Ward’s fear was that a defeat of Britain in her ‘home waters’ would be followed by her distant colonies being ‘picked off’ by the victor at leisure.
Pride and interest
Ward thought that his offer to pay for a ship would allow New Zealanders to take ‘much greater pride and interest’ in the Empire’s defence than if they merely paid £100,000 each year as a defence subsidy to Britain. He was right. The offer proved to be enormously popular in New Zealand, and Parliament authorised the expenditure of up to £2 million, spread over 18 years, on the ‘gift ship’. The ship’s construction began in early 1910, and was completed in November 1912, she having been given the name HMS New Zealand in 1911.
Thank you visit
Her ‘thank you’ visit to New Zealand, during April and May 1913, was a triumph. Huge crowds flocked to see her – at Wellington on 16 April alone, over 15,000 people went aboard. She called at most of New Zealand’s major ports, where her visits inspired impressive demonstrations of patriotic fervour. Many gifts were presented to the ship, some of which were kept as her ‘trophies’.
The most famous gift
The most famous gift, now in the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Museum, was the piupiu (Maori warrior’s skirt). This was presented with the strict instruction that the ship’s captain wear it during battle. The ship’s crew interpreted this to mean that the ship would be thus protected.
Following the outbreak of war with Germany on 4 August 1914, HMS New Zealand was soon in action. She took part in the Battle of Heligoland Bight in the North Sea on 28 August, her Captain making sure he wore the piupiu. She was at the Battle of the Dogger Bank on 28 January 1915, and the next year, from 30 May to 1 June 1916, took part in the great Battle of Jutland. HMS New Zealand fired 420 12-inch shells (more than any other ship involved) during the battle. One of her gun turrets was struck by an 11-inch shell, causing some damage but no casualties. The ship’s officers had a piece of damaged armour plate made into a dinner gong for their wardroom.
A lucky ship
Some other British ships hit during the battle blew up, but HMS New Zealand had a reputation as a ‘lucky ship’, enhanced by the now-established tradition of her Captain wearing the piupiu and a tiki (neck pendant) as protection.
After the Battle of Jutland, she saw further action in the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight on 17 November 1917. In 1919, after the Armistice, she made another tour of New Zealand.
Already obsolescent by the end of the war, she was decommissioned on her return to Britain in March 1920. In December 1922, she was sold for scrap and broken up in Scotland.
Some of her still-useful components were sent to New Zealand, including her 4-inch and anti-aircraft guns, range-finders, even her ‘Ship’s Laundry complete for instalment at Naval base’. Her ‘Trophies’ were also sent; some were given to Te Papa’s predecessor, the Dominion Museum, and remain in Te Papa’s collections, others are now in the Navy Museum in Auckland.
Long after her scrapping, New Zealand continued to pay for her, with the last payment on the loan raised to build her not being made until the 1944/45 financial year.
Wright, M., Blue Water Kiwis – New Zealand’s Naval Story, 2001
Te Papa Archives file: MU000001/020/0011; HMS New Zealand, HMS New Zealand trophies; 1919 - 1929