- Watt, Robert M
- History - general
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE PEACETIME ACTIVITIES of the Royal Navy have on innumerable occasions included help to those in distress, and right down through the years when great calamities have overtaken peoples of many different nationalities, British warships have often been on hand to render aid.
Be it revolution, civil war, earthquakes or floods, the occasion has found the men of the Navy ready to give a helping hand to those in need.
The city of Napier, situated on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand, has good reason to remember the great service that the Navy gave to it when disaster struck the city in the form of a severe earthquake on the 3rd February 1931.
New Zealand’s Naval Force
Before dealing with the part that the Navy played in the Napier earthquake it is best that we first have a look at the naval forces that were stationed in New Zealand at the time.
New Zealand’s naval force was known as the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy and at the time of the earthquake comprised two ‘D’ class light cruisers, Dunedin and Diomede, the old protected cruiser Philomel which was permanently berthed at the Devonport Naval Base for use as a training ship for new recruits, and a Castle type minesweeper, the Wakakura, in use as a seagoing training ship.
The Dunedin and Diomede belonged to a class of eight ships that were built under the Emergency War Programme of the First World War. Displacing around 4,700 tons they were armed with 6-6 inch, 50 calibre guns, 2-3 inch A-A and 12-21 inch torpedo tubes and they had a speed of 29 knots.
Diomede differed from the rest of the class by having her foremost 6 inch gun housed in a turret, and because of this it was always possible to recognise her from her consort Dunedin, the two ships being, in all other respects, identical.
Dunedin was laid down at the yard of Sir W. G. Armstrong Whitworth & Co. Newcastle-On-Tyne in November 1917, and completed in September 1919, too late for participation in the war. Diomede was laid down by Vickers Ltd., Barrow-In-Furness in June 1918, but after launching on April 29th 1919, she was towed to Portsmouth Dockyard for completion where she was commissioned in 1922.
Also on the New Zealand station at the time were two minesweeping sloops of the Flower class which were also built under the Emergency War Programme of World War I.
These two vessels, HMS Laburnam and HMS Veronica, were maintained in New Zealand waters by the Imperial Government but were under the operational control of the Chief of Naval Staff, New Zealand. They had been on the Station since 1920.
They were single screw vessels of 1,250 tons displacement with an armament of 2-4 inch and 4-3 pdr. guns. One set of 4 cylinder triple expansion engines of 1,800 HP. gave them a speed of 16.5 knots.
The Dunedin had arrived in New Zealand in April 1924 with the Special Service Squadron, which was then making a world tour. Besides the Dunedin the squadron comprised the battle-cruisers Hood and Repulse and the ‘D’ class light cruisers Delhi, Dauntless, Dragon and Danae.
On May 10th at Auckland the Dunedin became flagship of the NZ Division of the Royal Navy in place of HMS Chatham, which had been on the Station since January 1921.
In January 1925, the Imperial Government offered the NZ Government the loan of the Diomede as well and this was accepted. She arrived in New Zealand a year later, berthing at Auckland on January 21st 1926.
The Senior Naval officer on the Station at the time of the earthquake was Commodore Geoffrey Blake CB, DSD who flew his flag in HMS Dunedin.
The morning of Tuesday, February 3rd 1931, dawned fine and bright at Napier. It was a typical summer morning in this town noted for its long hours of sunshine.
At 7.00 a.m. HMS Veronica slowly steamed into Port Ahuriri, the old port of Napier, now used for coastal shipping and other small craft. The ship was under the command of Commander H.L. Morgan. It had left Auckland the previous day on the start of a cruise that was intended to take her to a number of New Zealand ports. Napier was her first port of call and as she tied up at the wharf in the Inner Harbour on this bright sunny morning the ship’s company were looking forward to a pleasant stay in the town.
Like hundreds of other small towns throughout New Zealand the business section of Napier slowly came to life, and by mid-morning there was the usual week-day crowd on the streets and in the shops. There was no indication that a terrible calamity was about to strike the town and surrounding district with appalling suddenness. At exactly 10.47 a.m. an earthquake occurred which for its intensity and destructiveness was the worst that had ever been experienced in New Zealand. The earth suddenly began to sway with the oscillations increasing rapidly in severity. Buildings swayed drunkenly and then collapsed in piles of rubble, telegraph poles leaned over alarmingly at crazy angles, great cracks and fissures opened up in the ground and parapets and chimneys crashed down with thunderous roars. Huge masses of masonry and debris fell into the main streets, making them almost impassable.
The first shock was accompanied by a deep roaring sound and this combined with the noise of splitting timbers and splintering glass and the cries of those trapped and pinned down by wreckage created a hideous nightmare. In three minutes of hell 256 people died.
When the noise of the falling buildings had died away a death-like hush descended on the shattered town. The people were stunned and dazed by the catastrophe that had befallen them. Commander Morgan on HMS Veronica was just leaving his cabin to pay the usual courtesy calls ashore when in his own words, ‘I suddenly heard a terrific roar. The ship heaved and tossed for about 10 seconds. I stood still and then ran on to the boat deck from where I saw houses falling and roads cracking . . .’
Many of those on board the sloop did not realise at first what had happened. There was a terrific jolt as though the ship had been rammed and she started to roll and pitch as if in a heavy sea. The jetty at which the ship was berthed broke up badly.
The wires securing the vessel held. All the watertight doors were closed and the sailors stood and watched the water in the basin running out to sea like a millrace. In a few minutes the Veronica was aground. Luckily the bottom was soft mud into which the ship sank on an even keel. Had she heeled over the jetty would have collapsed and the ship would have been lost. Then the stern wires carried away and the gangway went over the side. Both anchors were immediately let go to stop the ship from being carried out into the torrent of water. It was with some trepidation that those on board watched the water returning but fortunately it flowed back steadily and the ship was once more afloat, although the bed of the sea had been raised by some feet.