It’s 105 years, this 31 May, since the Battle of Jutland – the only clash of the great dreadnought fleets built during the Anglo-German naval race that came before the First World War. One of my two great uncles serving with the Royal Navy at the time was there, aboard the super-dreadnought HMS Orion. And there was also a sharp New Zealand connection – the battlecruiser New Zealand, a gift from the dominion of New Zealand to the mother country.
Although an outright gift to Britain – and always intended to serve with the Royal Navy – New Zealanders considered the ship morally theirs, a sentiment recognised by the Admiralty who tried to get as many Kiwis as possible to serve aboard her. During that battle she fired more shells than any other British capital ship – this despite having a crack running down one of her eight main guns – and was only hit once. For those aboard it was an exciting time – around five hours of adrenalin-pumping action in which the enemy were visible only intermittently through patchy visibility.
I’ve captured their stories in an upcoming book, Battlecruiser New Zealand: A Gift to Empire. It’s intended to bust some of the many myths wrapped around this ship – myths that are repeated as if true even in authoritative reference works. The intent of the 1909 gift is but one – most explanations so far have been wildly wrong, even down to the chronology and I don’t quite know why as the original documents are available. Then there is the ship’s alleged immunity to damage, put down by the crew to a piupiu and hei tiki given her first captain, Lionel Halsey, during the ship’s visit to New Zealand in 1913. Another persistent myth is the notion of a single loan being taken out to pay for her – thus reinforcing the notion of the ship being unaffordable – and not paid off until the 1944-45 financial year.
I’ve looked into all of these mythologies, and this book covers the actual story behind all of them. Including the story of the loans raised to pay for the ship, for which the pay-off date was actually purely arbitrary. Of course I’m not going to spill the beans here: you’ll need to read the book for that.
Nick Jellicoe, grandson of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander in Chief of the British Grand Fleet at Jutland, kindly wrote the foreword. His grandfather’s story is entwined with that of HMS New Zealand from the beginning – when, as Controller and Third Sea Lord – a post within the Admiralty – he was responsible for contracting her construction. Later, in 1919, the ship became Jellicoe’s home for a year while he toured Britain’s main dominions, advising on naval policy.
The book is being released by Seaforth in the United Kingdom, USNI Press in the United States, and Oratia Books in New Zealand, simultaneously this September. You can pre-order it – right now – from Amazon. Check it out.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021