HMNZS Philomel

Ship histories and stories
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RAN Ships
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March 1983 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

The cradle of the Royal New Zealand Navy

HMNZS PHILOMEL is the name of the naval establishment at Devonport, Auckland, in New Zealand. This story is not about the naval base, but the ship that last carried the proud name. The growth of the RNZN has run along similar lines to that of the RAN, but has taken a while longer due to the smaller population, and correspondingly the smaller amount of money available.

With the formation of the RAN in 1911, and the arrival of the fleet unit in 1913, there needed to be some reorganisation of the naval forces in the Australasian Area. The Royal Navy’s Australian Station had been commanded from Sydney, but this of course had to be closed down. The New Zealand Government was very keen to play its part in naval defence, and requested the Admiralty to allocate a training ship to be stationed in New Zealand for the training of locally enlisted New Zealanders. The idea was favourably received, and in 1913 it was agreed to turn over HMS Philomel to the New Zealand Government. She was by no means a new ship, and was of the same class as the five 3rd class cruisers that had formed the Australian Auxiliary Squadron in 1891. Laid down at Devonport Dockyard in May 1889, Philomel was launched on 28th August 1890, commissioning on 10th November 1891. She remained in commission until paid off on 22nd March 1902. During this period she had seen quite a lot of service and in 1899 she had landed some of her complement to join the Naval Brigade sent to Ladysmith to fight the Boers. She also sent two of her 4.7 inch quick-firers ashore on field carriages. After paying off, Philomel was laid up in the Firth of Forth for over five years, during which time most of her old Australian sister ships were sold for scrapping. On 1st February 1908, she re-commissioned, and played a notable part in the Messina earthquake relief operations. After her service in the Middle East Area, she wended her way to New Zealand to take over her duties as a sea-going training ship.

The next stage in her long career began when she commissioned at Wellington, New Zealand, on 15th July 1914. On her shake-down cruise when the Great War broke out, she was recalled to Wellington, where her crew was brought up to full strength with the addition of what naval reservists were at hand. Philomel then became an active member of the Royal Navy once more. She escorted New Zealand troops to Samoa to take over the German Colony, and later escorted more troops to Albany, Western Australia, to join the now famous 1st Convoy. She left the troopers at Albany, and proceeded to the Persian Gulf, where she carried out patrol work until 1917. Her commanding officer during this period was Captain P. Hill-Thompson, RN, an officer who was destined to play quite an important part in the early days of the New Zealand Station.

In May 1917, Philomel paid off in Wellington, with a C & M Party aboard. There was still a war to be fought, and the idea of her being a sea-going training ship had to be shelved. The New Zealand Government still wanted a definite participation in naval defence, and so by an Order in Council dated 20th June 1920, ‘The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy’ was authorised. This was a move that was to bear fruit, as the NZ Government undertook to maintain a sea-going force and a training centre, under New Zealand control. The ‘Town’ class cruiser Chatham was commissioned for service with the NZ Division, and the old Philomel was designated to become the training centre in Auckland. In 1921 she raised steam for the last time, departing her cosy berth in Wellington to become a stationary training ship. Her old main armament of eight QF 4.7s and eight three pounders was landed, a couple of more modern guns being mounted for drill purposes. Philomel took up her berth alongside the training jetty near the entrance of the Calliope Drydock, and from 1921 to 1946 became part of the landscape. Wooden buildings were erected ashore near the jetty, but Philomel was home to all the trainees and their instructors, as well as the base staff. Her appearance slowly changed. Large windows were cut in her sides to give better light and ventilation, extra houses were built on her upper decks, but she still retained her two tall, stately funnels, perhaps having some vision of getting back to sea at a later date. By the outbreak of the Second World War it had become quite obvious that the old ship had become far too small to accommodate the increasing numbers that were now appearing. Barracks were built on the shore, but the White Ensign was still worn by the old ship herself.

When the war ended Philomel was a sorry sight. Gone were her funnels, she carried only one mast, and all sorts of huts were built on her topsides. Philomel bore little resemblance to the sleek little cruiser of former years. In January 1946 the ship was declared redundant to requirements, and paid off for disposal. She was sold for the princely sum of 750 pounds to the Strongman Shipping Company for scrapping. Some of her materials were used in the construction of a small coaster, but the hull itself was not an economical proposition to completely dismantle, so in August 1949 the old hulk was towed out to sea and a hole blown in her bottom. As she sank, more than one Kiwi was noticed with clouded eyes.

The signal from the New Zealand Naval Board at the time of her paying off is well worth recording.

From NZNB to Philomel 16-146.

‘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 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 old ship has gone now, but many relics of her have been retained in the shore establishment. At the entrance to the depot and dockyard complex proudly stands one of her close stowing bower anchors, and her crest is mounted on the iron gates. She had a long and worthy career and many Kiwi naval men did their initial training and later courses in her. And to her belongs the credit for the traditions which the Royal New Zealand Navy has acquired. It was a seaman from HMS Philomel who was the first New Zealand casualty in the Great War, so we can safely say that in two world wars, and the peace in between, Philomel did her share. She had been still serving when in September 1941 His Majesty The King sanctioned the title of ‘The Royal New Zealand Navy’. She had trained New Zealanders for thirty-two years, but there was one notable incident that she was unable to enjoy. On 20th June 1968 the RNZN hoisted for the first time its own distinctive White Ensign. The old Philomel Ship, as she became known in her later life, was not there to see it. The Royal New Zealand Navy is proud of the name Philomel, and it has every reason to be.

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