Outbreak of War: Cruise of HMS ACHILLES

THE Achilles had returned to Auckland on 18 August 1939 from a cruise in the South Sea Islands and spent the following week in company with the Leander in exercises in the Hauraki Gulf. In the meantime the situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, and on 24 August the Prime Minister's Office informed the New Zealand Naval Board that the Government had decided to adopt the ‘Alert Stage’ as prescribed in the War Book, in which was tabulated what every Department of State had to do in the event of war and how and when to do it. Each department had its own chapter arranged on an identical plan in sections, each of which dealt with a successive phase of the preparation for an emergency and for war.

On 23 August a signal was made to HMS Wellington recalling her to Auckland from her cruise in the South Sea Islands, and orders were issued to the Leander and Achilles and the sloops to complete to full war storage. Two days later instructions were received from the Admiralty that the Leith and Wellington were to proceed from Auckland to Singapore with the utmost despatch.

The last days of August were a period of intense activity in the naval dockyard at Devonport. The exercises of the Leander and Achilles had been planned to last a fortnight, but they were cut short on 25 August when the ships returned to Auckland. The Leander entered Calliope Dock that evening for bottom cleaning and painting and the Achilles was docked on the following day. The Leith sailed for Townsville and Singapore in the forenoon of 28 August. At five o'clock that evening the cruisers were reported as ready for service, the war complement of the Achilles having been completed with active-service ratings from the Leander and Philomel. Both cruisers were placed at twelve hours' notice for sea.

Meanwhile, many other steps were being taken, in accordance with the plan laid down in the War Book, to bring the naval forces of the Dominion to a state of immediate readiness. The Government was kept fully informed on the measures that were being taken in the armed forces of Great Britain to meet the rapidly worsening situation. For example, general messages outlined the ‘preparations being pushed forward to counter immediately submarine and mining attack in the event of the present critical situation leading to war’. It was suggested that the New Zealand Government might ‘consider the desirability of any possible similar steps for the protection of their own harbours’. Messages were also exchanged between the governments of New Zealand and Australia outlining the naval preparations in their respective spheres.

An Admiralty message of 25 August informed the New Zealand Naval Board that the ‘defensive arming of merchant ships already stiffened is to be proceeded with now’. The Naval Secretary informed the Minister of Defence that, in accordance with Cabinet approval given on 21 June 1939, the Rangatira and Matua of the Union Steam Ship Company had been stiffened to take defensive armament and the Awatea was being similarly prepared at Sydney. The Maunganui had been stiffened in 1914–18. Preliminary arrangements were being made to mount guns in those ships. The gun crews would be drawn from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and would be available by the time the ships were ready.

At 6.30 in the morning of 29 August the Governor-General received a telegram from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs stating that ‘in view of the critical situation vis-a-vis Germany and for reasons which will be fully appreciated, including the protection of trade’, the Admiralty had requested that ships of the naval forces be held in immediate readiness and, where applicable, should move towards their war stations in accordance with the dispositions previously laid down: one New Zealand cruiser to join the West Indies Force. The message added that similar measures had been taken in respect of ships of the Royal Navy.

Prompt action on this message was taken by Navy Office. The Achilles received her sailing orders for the West Indies at nine o'clock that morning, and five hours later she put to sea on her way to Balboa.

It had been long decided that in the event of war a New Zealand military force would be sent to garrison Fanning Island, an important mid-Pacific link in the submarine cable connecting New Zealand with Canada. Almost exactly twenty-five years before—on 7 September 1914—a landing party from the German light cruiser Nurnberg, a unit of Admiral Graf Spee's Pacific Squadron, had cut the cable and destroyed the equipment of the station on Fanning Island. On 25 August 1939 the Government asked the British authorities whether a preliminary detachment or a full establishment of troops should be sent to garrison the island and at what date this was most desirable. Four days later a reply was received that the British Government ‘would be grateful if the preliminary force could move at once to Fanning Island’ and suggesting that ‘it might be transported in a cruiser of the New Zealand Naval Forces’.

"During September 1939 the Rangatira and Matua and three overseas ships were fitted at the Devonport Dockyard with one 4-inch gun for defensive purposes. A 4-inch gun was also shipped to Sydney and mounted in the Awatea"

Accordingly, a detachment of two officers and thirty men embarked in the Leander, which sailed from Auckland at five o'clock in the afternoon of 30 August and proceeded at 24 knots on the 3000-mile passage to Fanning Island. In a message to the Governor-General of New Zealand, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs said that ‘His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom much appreciate the action taken and, in particular, the speed with which it was executed’.

The Wellington arrived at Auckland from her interrupted cruise to the South Sea Islands early on 30 August. This vessel was docked for cleaning and painting and, after completing full war storage, sailed for Townsville and Singapore on Sunday, 3 September. Thus, within the week, the two cruisers and two escort vessels on the New Zealand Station had been brought to a state of complete and instant readiness for action and despatched on their several missions – proof of the efficiency and foresight of the naval administration and dockyard arrangements.

On 1 September the Prime Minister's Department informed the Naval Board that the proclamation of emergency, in terms of the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932, had been signed by the Governor-General. In the early hours of next morning the ‘Warning Telegram’ was received from London announcing that the ‘Precautionary Stage’ had been adopted against Germany and Italy. This meant that relations with these countries had become so strained that the Government had found it necessary to take precautions against a possible surprise attack and to initiate preparations for war. The State Departments concerned could now take the action prearranged in the War Book.

Officers for naval control-service duties at Navy Office, Wellington, and at Auckland had already been appointed, as well as the naval officer in charge at Lyttelton and district intelligence officers at that port and at Port Chalmers. Consequent on the adoption of the ‘Precautionary Stage’ in New Zealand on 2 September, the examination services were put into operation forthwith at the defended ports of Wellington, Auckland, and Lyttelton. Arrangements were made for publication in the press of the Public Traffic Regulations, which were also issued as Notices to Mariners. The Army Department vessel Janie Seddon was made the examination steamer at Wellington – a duty she performed almost continuously for nearly six years. The Hauiti and John Anderson were requisitioned for service as examination vessels at Auckland and Lyttelton respectively. Staffs were mobilised for the examination services, port war signal stations, and wireless stations at Auckland, Wellington, and Lyttelton, as well as for Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve headquarters at Wellington and to complete the complement of HMS Philomel at Auckland.

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