On 1 October 1941, His Majesty King George VI approved the designation “Royal New Zealand Navy” for the regular element of the New Zealand Naval Forces (with Reserve and Volunteer Reserve elements appropriately titled.)
2016 marks the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of our Navy. This occasion will be celebrated with a programme of commemorative events and activities -collectively named Operation NEPTUNE.
The name “Operation NEPTUNE” has been chosen to highlight the greatest single loss ever sustained by our Navy. HMS NEPTUNE (a sister ship to HMNZS ACHILLES of River Plate fame) was being prepared for transfer to the Royal New Zealand Navy when she was lost in an enemy minefield in the Mediterranean on 19 December 1941 with the loss of all but one man, including all 150 of the New Zealanders who had already joined the ship.
While we justifiably celebrate this ‘birthday’, 1 October 1941 was not the actual birth of New Zealand’s national naval forces. Just how old, then, is our nation’s navy?
Naval forces, funded by the settler’s parliament, were an integral part of the NZ militia and security forces in the 19th century. The Militia Act 1858 authorised the formation of citizen militia units for land and coastal duties. As part of the new militia, Coastguard Volunteer units were embodied (later called Naval Volunteers and generally known as the “Navals”). They were responsible for gunnery, boatwork and manning coastal batteries. Later they also trained in submarine mining, being responsible for minefields which were laid in Auckland and Wellington harbours. The first unit was the Auckland Volunteer Coastguards established in 1860, however the name didn’t last long (only until 1861). With the re-organisation of 1862 the unit was called the Auckland Naval Volunteers. Their function was small boat work and supplementing the crew of Government vessels, such as Midnight which were employed on anti-smuggling (to the Maori) patrols.