Tuesday, 24 May 2016

'H.M.S. New Zealand' and the Battle of Jutland, 31 May to 1 Jun 1916

"Good Old New Zealand"
Patriotic Sheet Music, featuring
'H.M.S. New Zealand', 1914
[From my own collection]

The 31st May to 1st June 1916 marks the hundred year anniversary of that great sea battle between two well armed and resourced naval adversaries, the Imperial Germany Navy High Seas Fleet ["Hochseeflotte"] and the British Royal Navy Grand Fleet, at Jutland off the coast of Denmark.

New Zealand can proudly claim to have played a part in what is one of the great naval battles of modern times through the inclusion of 'H.M.S. New Zealand'. This indefatigable-class battle cruiser had been funded by the New Zealand Government as a gift to Britain in 1909 in response to a growing naval threat to the British Empire, particularly from Germany (we had in fact offered to pay for two battleships were this deemed necessary). The Battle Cruiser cost New Zealand £1,783,190 (over NZD$240 million in today's values), mostly raised by way of a loan.

The Battle Cruiser 'H.M.S. New Zealand' in 1913
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

Assigned to Admiral Beatty's squadron, the fleet, including H.M.S. New Zealand, steamed out of the Firth of Forth to join forces with Jellicoe's squadron which had been anchored in the Moray Firth and at Scapa Flow. Lady Victoria Wemyss, who died aged 104 years in 1994, recalled dining one evening at Hopetoun House and hearing the "eerie rattle of chains" as the battleships weighed anchor. The party then went up to the roof terrace and watched Beatty's fleet depart on the eve of what would prove to be a great naval battle.  

The fleet had been called to action after enemy radio messages had been intercepted and decrypted confirming that the large German High Seas Fleet had left port and were now heading for the North Sea. No less than 28 Dreadnought class battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 8 armoured cruisers, 26 light cruisers and 79 destroyers of the British Royal Navy would engage with the 16 Dreadnought battleships, 6 'pre-Dreadnought' battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 11 light cruisers, and 61 destroyers of the German High Seas Fleet.

An oilette postcard of "HMS New Zealand"
[From my own collection]

During this fierce battle the German Imperial Navy, with a 99-strong fleet, sank 115,000 tons of British ships, while the 151-strong British fleet sank 62,000 tons of German ships. In total the British Navy lost 3 Battlecruisers, 3 armoured cruisers, 1 flotilla leader, and 7 destroyers while the German Navy lost just 1 battlecruiser and 1 pre-Dreadnought battleship, 4 light cruisers and 5 heavy torpedo boats (destroyers). The British lost 6,094 seamen while the Germans lost 2,551. The battle itself, in which both sides claimed victory, is complex and best read in detail on Wikipedia. Errors on the part of the Royal Navy command and a lack of accurate naval intelligence contributed to a virtual stalemate.

The main 12 inch gun turret on 'H.M.S. New Zealand',
taken at Port Chalmers, New Zealand, 1913
[Source : "The Otago Witness"]

Considering their own losses as "severe", the German High Seas Fleet would only mount a further three "raids" in open waters but were unwilling to risk another major encounter with the British Royal Navy. Their attempt to decisively cripple the Royal Navy had failed. Thus they confined their activities to the Baltic Sea for the remainder of the war. The original goal of operating the Imperial German High Seas Fleet in the Atlantic Ocean could not be achieved and no further attempts were made as the possible losses and damage to the fleet were considered too risky in comparison to what might be achieved. The German naval emphasis would now be placed on submarine warfare and operating by 'stealth'.

But what part did 'H.M.S. New Zealand' play in the 'Battle of Jutland'? Surprisingly, and considering she was fully engaged with the enemy, she only received one major direct hit to a front gun turret. 'H.M.S. New Zealand' fired no less than 420 twelve-inch shells during the battle, more than any other ship on either side. Despite this, the Battlecruiser is only credited with four "successful hits", three on the Battlecruiser 'SMS Seydlitz' and one on the pre-Dreadnought 'SMS Schleswig-Holstein'. By "successful hits" I take this as inferring actual indentifiable major damage of a critical nature. 

The historic Piupiu presented to Captain Halsey in 1913
[Source "RNZN Museum]

The most intriguing aspect of the battle is the relative lack of damage to H.M.S. New Zealand. In 1913 an elderly Māori Chief had presented Captain Halsey with a piupiu (Māori warrier's flax skirt] and greenstone hei-tiki (pendant) and prophesied that while the Captain wore these in battle the ship would be kept safe. According to "lower deck legend", the prophecy also stated that the ship would one day be in action and be hit in three places but casualties would not be heavy. This turned out to be true. During the Battle of Jutland Captain J.F.E. Green is said to have worn both gifts over his naval uniform (or, as one source states, "had them with him") and the only major damage sustained was a hit to a front gun turret with no loss of life. The Captain's piupiu came back to New Zealand in 2005 and is held by the Royal New Zealand Navy Museum at Torpedo Bay, Devonport. As at May 2016 the piupiu, along with a couple of other H.M.S. New Zealand artefacts, are on display in the major "36 Hours : Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won the War" exhibition in the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth England.   

'H.M.S. New Zealand' pictured during Admiral Jellicoe's
Dominion Tour, May - August 1919
[Source : MaritimeQuest

In late 1919, Admiral Jellicoe (later appointed Governor General of New Zealand) brought 'H.M.S. New Zealand' back to New Zealand on what proved to be a very popular but farewell visit. On the 15th March 1920 she was paid off by the Royal Navy and placed in reserve. She was by now regarded as obsolete as her 12 inch guns were inferior to the then standard 15 inch guns deployed on the latest battleships. Thus now unwanted she came to an ignominious end when, on the 19th December 1922, she was sold for scrap in order to meet tonnage restrictions imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty. 

The New Zealand Government did not complete paying off the 1909 loan raised to fund her building until the end of the 1945 financial year. So with additional interest payments the final cost to New Zealand was almost certainly significantly greater than £1.7 million. Two 4 inch guns from 'H.M.S. New Zealand' may today be viewed fronting the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Sources :

- Watson Family papers (held by the writer)
- Wikipedia
- Various Internet resources
- RNZN Museum, Devonport Auckland
- Alexander Turnbull Library / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- "Great Houses of Scotland" by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd & Christopher Sykes (from my own collection)
- "The Otago Witness"
- Portmouth Historic Dockyard website

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