Thursday, 22 August 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

HMS Philomel - permanently part of the Coromandel

Former banker and long-term Mercury Bay resident, David Langdon, has a passion for maritime history.  He has written a book on scows, “A History of New Zealand Scows and Their Trades,” and has helped the Mercury Bay Museum put together some of their maritime displays.   

I spoke to David about HMS Philomel, a ship that had a starring role in the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Navy. She now rests off Cuvier Island.

The Philomel was the Royal New Zealand Navy’s first warship, in service from 1914 to 1947.  She is also the name sake for HMNZS Philomel, the naval base in Devonport, Auckland where her white ensign still flies.    

HMS Philomel was a third class light cruiser in the “Pearl” class, with eight guns and four torpedo tubes. She was built at Devonport Dockyard in England and first commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1891. She spent most of the next 21 years around Africa, where she largely protected trade and intercepted slave traders along the coast. She was later stationed in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and finally in Singapore, from where she was sent to New Zealand.

On 15 July 1914, the already ageing and outdated Philomel was re-commissioned into the newly formed New Zealand Naval Forces as an ocean-going training vessel, with the condition that she be at the disposal of the Royal Navy in the event of war. War was just around the corner. Only two weeks later, while the Philomel was on her first shake-down cruise in Picton, she was recalled to Wellington to prepare for war with Germany. War was declared on 5 August and the ship and her crew reverted to Royal Navy command.

In preparation for war, the ship’s crew of 165, mostly Royal Navy crew members on loan, needed to be bolstered by a recruitment drive for New Zealand crew, which were not readily available as many had already joined the newly formed Royal Australian Navy. After a difficult recruitment process, the ship finally reached a crew of 221. The bulk of the new crew members came from various Royal Naval and Imperial Reserve forces and a volunteer engagement programme, which promoted the honour of those who joined as being the first men to be part of the New Zealand Naval Forces.  

With the crew confirmed, the next challenge was to get the Philomel ready for war. Not only was the ship old, she was also poorly maintained, with many defects. It was a fulltime engineering job to keep her operational over the first two years of war.

HMZ Philomel’s first major mission of World War I was to invade and occupy German Samoa. She formed part of an escort for a large group of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, guarding them as they went ashore. The Philomel then moved onto American Samoa and other Pacific Islands to inform them of the British occupation of German Samoa.

Later, the Philomel escorted the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force bound for Egypt. She set out from Wellington in October 1914, escorting 10 troopships carrying 8,454 soldiers and almost 4,000 horses. Although the convoy was ultimately bound for Egypt, the Philomel was part of the escort only until the convoy reached Western Australia.  She was then diverted to Singapore to provide an escort for three French troopships returning to France. The Philomel took the French convoy as far as Aden and then proceeded to patrol the Red Sea.

During Christmas of 1914, the dilapidated Philomel was sent to Malta for a refit, funded by the Admiralty. Early in 1915, she joined the Royal Navy’s Red Sea Patrol and then travelled to the eastern Mediterranean where the crew were tasked with monitoring the Ottoman Empire and protecting the Suez Canal. It was in early February outside a town now known as İskenderun, that the New Zealand Naval Forces had their first casualty, able seaman William Edward Knowles from Lyttleton.

Later that year, after returning to the Red Sea where two more crew were lost to heat stroke, HMS Philomel moved to the Persian Gulf where she spent the remainder of the war.    The primary goals for the crew of the ship were to keep the peace in the Persian Gulf, serve as a reminder of the presence of the British and ensure continued oil supply from the region. It was during this deployment when the Philomel lost another crew member to food poisoning in 1916.

At the start of 1917, the Philomel was in desperate need of another refit, but the cost of repairs was simply too great for the New Zealand government. She was detached again from the Royal Navy and sailed back to Wellington, where she arrived in mid-March to a ceremonial guard of 50 corporals from the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces and a number of politicians.  

HMS Philomel’s World War I service was over, although she was given one last job serving as a depot ship from 1918 to 1919, with her crew assisting minesweeping operations in Northland and the Kermadec Islands, disposing of mines laid down by German raider, Wolf.  After 1919, the Philomel spent the next couple of years uncared for at a dock in Wellington. 

In 1921, a working party from HMS Chatham made the Philomel sea-worthy enough to sail her back to the naval base in Devonport to become the depot ship for the “New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy” (as the sea-going elements of the New Zealand Naval Forces were known). Over the years there she provided a training venue for new entrants and specialist maintenance personnel and housed new recruits until 1941 when a training base was commissioned on Motuihe Island. From then until 1945, the Philomel was used for officer’s accommodation and as a base for patrol launches.

In early 1947, the white ensign of the Philomel was lowered for the last time on board the ship, then raised the next morning on shore at the Devonport Naval Base, now named HMNZ Philomel. The hulk of the Philomel was sold to the Strongman Shipping Company of Coromandel for £750. That same day, the hulk was towed to Coromandel to be stripped. The usable parts were salvaged to construct a small coastal vessel named Coromel, built by the Mason Brothers. The Coromel was used as a ferry for goods service between Coromandel and Auckland, with a weekly trip to Great Barrier Island from 1948, until the vessel was sold in 1955 as a fishing vessel in the Chathams. The Coromel later moved to Tonga to serve as a crayfishing vessel.

At the end of her memorable career, the hull of the Philomel was honoured with a ceremonial send off, before 4kg of explosives sent her to the bottom of the sea off Cuvier Island in 1949. She’s now permanently part of the Coromandel.

Former banker and long-term Mercury Bay resident, David Langdon, has a passion for maritime history.  He has written a book on scows, “A History of New Zealand Scows and Their Trades,” and has helped the Mercury Bay Museum put together some of their maritime displays.   

I spoke to David about HMS Philomel, a ship that had a starring role in the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Navy. She now rests off Cuvier Island.

The Philomel was the Royal New Zealand Navy’s first warship, in service from 1914 to 1947.  She is also the name sake for HMNZS Philomel, the naval base in Devonport, Auckland where her white ensign still flies.    

HMS Philomel was a third class light cruiser in the “Pearl” class, with eight guns and four torpedo tubes. She was built at Devonport Dockyard in England and first commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1891. She spent most of the next 21 years around Africa, where she largely protected trade and intercepted slave traders along the coast. She was later stationed in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and finally in Singapore, from where she was sent to New Zealand.

On 15 July 1914, the already ageing and outdated Philomel was re-commissioned into the newly formed New Zealand Naval Forces as an ocean-going training vessel, with the condition that she be at the disposal of the Royal Navy in the event of war. War was just around the corner. Only two weeks later, while the Philomel was on her first shake-down cruise in Picton, she was recalled to Wellington to prepare for war with Germany. War was declared on 5 August and the ship and her crew reverted to Royal Navy command.

In preparation for war, the ship’s crew of 165, mostly Royal Navy crew members on loan, needed to be bolstered by a recruitment drive for New Zealand crew, which were not readily available as many had already joined the newly formed Royal Australian Navy. After a difficult recruitment process, the ship finally reached a crew of 221. The bulk of the new crew members came from various Royal Naval and Imperial Reserve forces and a volunteer engagement programme, which promoted the honour of those who joined as being the first men to be part of the New Zealand Naval Forces.  

With the crew confirmed, the next challenge was to get the Philomel ready for war. Not only was the ship old, she was also poorly maintained, with many defects. It was a fulltime engineering job to keep her operational over the first two years of war.

HMZ Philomel’s first major mission of World War I was to invade and occupy German Samoa. She formed part of an escort for a large group of the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, guarding them as they went ashore. The Philomel then moved onto American Samoa and other Pacific Islands to inform them of the British occupation of German Samoa.

Later, the Philomel escorted the main body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force bound for Egypt. She set out from Wellington in October 1914, escorting 10 troopships carrying 8,454 soldiers and almost 4,000 horses. Although the convoy was ultimately bound for Egypt, the Philomel was part of the escort only until the convoy reached Western Australia.  She was then diverted to Singapore to provide an escort for three French troopships returning to France. The Philomel took the French convoy as far as Aden and then proceeded to patrol the Red Sea.

During Christmas of 1914, the dilapidated Philomel was sent to Malta for a refit, funded by the Admiralty. Early in 1915, she joined the Royal Navy’s Red Sea Patrol and then travelled to the eastern Mediterranean where the crew were tasked with monitoring the Ottoman Empire and protecting the Suez Canal. It was in early February outside a town now known as İskenderun, that the New Zealand Naval Forces had their first casualty, able seaman William Edward Knowles from Lyttleton.

Later that year, after returning to the Red Sea where two more crew were lost to heat stroke, HMS Philomel moved to the Persian Gulf where she spent the remainder of the war.    The primary goals for the crew of the ship were to keep the peace in the Persian Gulf, serve as a reminder of the presence of the British and ensure continued oil supply from the region. It was during this deployment when the Philomel lost another crew member to food poisoning in 1916.

At the start of 1917, the Philomel was in desperate need of another refit, but the cost of repairs was simply too great for the New Zealand government. She was detached again from the Royal Navy and sailed back to Wellington, where she arrived in mid-March to a ceremonial guard of 50 corporals from the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces and a number of politicians.  

HMS Philomel’s World War I service was over, although she was given one last job serving as a depot ship from 1918 to 1919, with her crew assisting minesweeping operations in Northland and the Kermadec Islands, disposing of mines laid down by German raider, Wolf.  After 1919, the Philomel spent the next couple of years uncared for at a dock in Wellington. 

In 1921, a working party from HMS Chatham made the Philomel sea-worthy enough to sail her back to the naval base in Devonport to become the depot ship for the “New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy” (as the sea-going elements of the New Zealand Naval Forces were known). Over the years there she provided a training venue for new entrants and specialist maintenance personnel and housed new recruits until 1941 when a training base was commissioned on Motuihe Island. From then until 1945, the Philomel was used for officer’s accommodation and as a base for patrol launches.

In early 1947, the white ensign of the Philomel was lowered for the last time on board the ship, then raised the next morning on shore at the Devonport Naval Base, now named HMNZ Philomel. The hulk of the Philomel was sold to the Strongman Shipping Company of Coromandel for £750. That same day, the hulk was towed to Coromandel to be stripped. The usable parts were salvaged to construct a small coastal vessel named Coromel, built by the Mason Brothers. The Coromel was used as a ferry for goods service between Coromandel and Auckland, with a weekly trip to Great Barrier Island from 1948, until the vessel was sold in 1955 as a fishing vessel in the Chathams. The Coromel later moved to Tonga to serve as a crayfishing vessel.

At the end of her memorable career, the hull of the Philomel was honoured with a ceremonial send off, before 4kg of explosives sent her to the bottom of the sea off Cuvier Island in 1949. She’s now permanently part of the Coromandel.

Pictured: HML Philomel now rests in the water off Curvier Island

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