When HMS New Zealand sighted enemy ships and went to action stations, a seaman was seen climbing a ladder to the bridge to take a quick look around.“It’s alright, he’s got ‘em on!” he shouted to his mates on the deck below, a shout to assure them the captain was wearing the piupiu and tiki. 

In the early 1900s, the British Admiralty declared the naval defence of the British Empire should be the responsibility of the Royal Navy so at the 1909 Imperial Conference, the Admiralty proposed the creation of Fleet Units. These forces would consist of a battlecruiser, three light cruisers, six destroyers, and three submarines.

While Australia and Canada were encouraged to purchase fleet units to serve as the core of new national navies, other fleet units would be operated by the Royal Navy at the distant reaches of the empire so New Zealand was asked to partially subsidise a fleet unit for the China Station.

To meet this request, on 22 March 1909, New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward announced his country would fund a battleship. It is unclear why this design was selected, given that it was known to be inferior to the battlecruisers entering service with the Imperial German Navy. Despite this knowledge, the New Zealand Government took out a loan of £1.7 million (equivalent to $270 million today) to fund the cost of the ship.

HMS New Zealand‘s keel was laid down at Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering’s yard on the River Clyde in Scotland on 20 June 1910 and was one of three Indefatigable Class ships commissioned by the Royal Navy. Launched on 1 July 1911, the warship was commissioned four days before she was completed on 23 November 1912. The ship sported 8 twelve-inch guns and 4 twin gun turrets. Her secondary armament consisted of 16 four-inch guns positioned in the superstructure. There were also 2 eighteen-inch submerged torpedo tubes with 12 torpedoes being carried onboard.

HMS New Zealand (Wikipedia)


The Royal Navy wanted to show its gratitude for the gift so sailed the battleship (now reclassed as a battlecruiser) to the country that paid for its construction. HMS New Zealand arrived in Wellington as part of a 10-week tour of the Dominion. 368,118 people visited the ship, from a total population of about 800,000. Ten sailors deserted in Auckland, while boats ferried Dunedin sightseers to the ship because it was too large to enter Otago Harbour.

The giant ship visited 18 ports. In many places, gifts were presented to the ship including a magnificent silver tea service from the Auckland Harbour Board and a pair of silver drums from the Women’s Patriotic League who also presented the ship with a silk White Ensign and Union Jack. After the visit medallions were struck to commemorate the visit: The HMS New Zealand Medal, the HMS New Zealand medallions and then following the Battle of Jutland the HMS New Zealand Medal of 1916 was created.


While in New Zealand a prominent Māori leader joined the ship between some ports and instructed a number of the crew in some aspects of Māori culture and instituted the formation of what was called a “Haka Party”. This was maintained until the ship was finally decommissioned in 1920. Māori presented the ship’s captain, Lionel Halsey, with a piupiu (flax skirt) and a Tiki (sacred greenstone pendant) to ward off evil. “There’s a lot of power with a tiki. It can mean life or death.”  the captain was told after being handed the gifts. He wore them during the early part of the First World War, and they were on board the ship during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916. Some attributed New Zealand’s reputation as a ‘lucky ship’ to the presence of these items. Also, during the visit, a Māori Chief made a prophesy that the ship would soon be in battle, but that none of the crew would be injured. At the time it was dismissed, because it was expected that on return to England the ship would be recommissioned and manned with an essentially new group of personnel.    


At the start of the First World War, HMS New Zealand became part of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet to confront the German High Seas Fleet. The ship participated in all three of the major battles of the war, Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland. It was also involved in the Raid on Scarborough and the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight. The ship was responsible for the destruction of two enemy cruisers. During the Battle of Jutland, the fiercest and deadliest sea battle of the First World War, itwas attacked simultaneously by two German ships but was not hit by either. During the three battles it was engaged in between 1914 and 1918, the ship was lightly damaged by enemy fire only once, sustaining no casualties among the 800 crew onboard. The men attributed the good luck to the Maori piupiu and tiki worn by the captain during the battles. By contrast, Britain lost14 ships and more than 6000 crew, while the Germans lost 9 ships and had more than 2500 casualties at the Battle of Jutland.


The ageing battlecruiser returned to New Zealand in 1919 during a post war tour of the Dominions. Kiwis were just as enthusiastic over her return visit as they had been during her first one. After sailing home for the last time, the tired old ship was placed into reserve on 15 March 1920. HMS New Zealand was now regarded as obsolete by the Royal Navy, because her 12-inch guns were inferior to the 15-inch guns deployed on the latest generation of battlecruisers. She was sold for scrap on 19 December 1922.

New Zealand taxpayers finally finished paying for the ship in 1944, 22 years after it was sold for scrap.


Many items from the warship were sent to New Zealand after she was scrapped. Equipment including several four-inch guns, a range finder and laundry equipment, were used by military units while other artifacts were placed on display in museums. During the Second World War, the guns were the main armaments protecting the entrances to the harbours at Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton. The captain’s piupiu was returned to New Zealand in 2005, and is on display at the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum in Devonport, Auckland alongside the ship’s bell and other artifacts. Several other items from the ship can be seen at Te Papa Museum, Wellington.  

Ceidrik Heward

Speak Your Mind