The tale of the Russian terrorist ship, and why you have to buy the book

Back in mid-February 1873, Auckland newspaper editor David Leckie revealed the dramatic story of a secret Russian cruiser whose crew had taken over a British warship in Auckland harbour, with the help of a ‘submarine pinnace’, and was holding the city to ransom.

David Leckie - sometimes also spelt Luckie - Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23114007

David Leckie – sometimes also spelt Luckie – Photographer unknown :Portrait of David Mitchell Luckie. Ref: PA2-2596. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23114007

Their agent of terror was ‘deadly water gas’ invented by ‘the late General Todtlieben’, which had rendered the crew senseless. Then the Russian terrorists had pointed the British guns at the city, taken leading citizens hostage, and ’emptied the coffers of the banks’.

It was an outrageous act of terror, and half Leckie’s readers believed him. Though anybody reading it aloud would have known they were being pranked, because apart from the silly name of the German inventor (‘Deathlove’), Leckie also dubbed his Russian terror warship (wait for it) the Kaskowiski.

His actual aim was to raise awareness of New Zealand’s vulnerability to the Russian Bear – the Bad Guy de Jour of the 1870s. The ‘Great Game’ – Britain’s tussle with Russia over Afghanistan – was afoot, and with it risk of war. New Zealand, just emerged from the ‘New Zealand Wars’, was a far-flung outpost of Empire, and feeling vulnerable. And so New Zealand’s long naval story –  a story that extended to the furthest corners of the globe – began.

I’ve covered that story – and more – in my book Blue Water Kiwis, just re-released by Intruder Books. It’s the third in a series of seven military titles of mine being reissued by Intruder, and the only one in the re-release programme on matters maritime.

New Zealand’s naval defence has always faced a weird paradox. As a small island nation, we’re not particularly vulnerable to invasion. But our over-water interests stretch far into blue waters – along our trading routes, into the regions given us to protect. Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 pxWe first confronted the problem in the 1870s – and it’s dogged New Zealand ever since. The key issue, as always, is figuring out ways of paying for the navy needed to do the work. The historical solutions, for decades, were entwined with New Zealand’s sense of self, and of its place in the wider British Empire of the early twentieth century. And that, as much as the exciting stories of battles in the First and Second World Wars – is what Blue Water Kiwis is all about.

Blue Water Kiwis was originally published in late 2001, a couple of years after I proposed it. Although not strictly a history of the Royal New Zealand Navy, it was taken up by the service as the book marking their sixtieth anniversary that year. Blue Water Kiwis. Check it out. Now. On Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

And now Kiwis are facing a potential mega-quake and tsunami. But of course…

This week’s news that a previously unsuspected magnitude 8+ mega-quake could hit central New Zealand and then douse the place with tsunami isn’t too surprising to me. I wrote the most recent pop-sci book on our earthquakes. It was published by Penguin Random House last year.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxWhile I was writing the book I had a chat with a seismologist at the University of Canterbury, who pointed out that New Zealand is staring down the barrel of some fairly large tectonic guns. The big one on land is the Alpine Fault, which ruptures with 8+ intensity every few hundred years. The last big rupture was in the 1770s, meaning another is due about now – the probability of it happening before 2100 is around 92 percent.

Another risk factor is the Taupo volcano – another product of tectonic plate collision. This is one of the biggest volcanoes on the planet, and evidence is that a monster eruption about 27,000 years ago threw the world into an ice age. It’s got every potential to wreak similar havoc again – check out Piper Bayard’s awesome novel Firelands for her take on what might happen in the US when Taupo next ‘blows’ the world climate. We won’t mention New Zealand’s likely fate in that scenario…

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

Me in ‘science writing’ mode. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

But New Zealand also faces another major tectonic challenge, the Hikurangi Trench, a subduction zone where the Pacific plate plunges under the Australian, off the coast of the North Island. My contact at Canterbury pointed out that this is the other big gun – a potential 8+ quake followed by tsunami that could wipe out the east coast of the North Island.

That’s where the new study comes in. It’s already known that the Southern Hikurangi Margin – the plate collision between Cook Strait and Cape Turnagain – is locked, meaning strains are building up. When they break, it’s going to be devastating – a quake of magnitude 8.4 – 8.7, triggering massive onshore destruction from Napier to Blenheim, followed by tsunami. Now, it seems, this region generates such quakes a couple of times a millennium. Two have been identified; one 880-800 years ago, a second 520-470 years ago.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn't well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book Quake- Hawke's Bay 1931.

This picture of post-quake Napier isn’t well known; it is from my collection and was published for the first time in the 2006 edition of my book ‘Quake- Hawke’s Bay 1931′.

Uh – yay. On the other hand, it doesn’t really change the risk factors. New Zealand shakes. The end. The issue isn’t worrying – it’s quantifying the risk, which is why work to explore past quakes is so important.

The report also highlights something for me. The discovery that a mega-thrust quake hit central New Zealand somewhere between 1495 and 1545 – seems to unravel one mystery that has long puzzled me. At a date usually put down to roughly around 1460, plus or minus, New Zealand was riven by a rapid-fire succession of great earthquakes, all thought to be over magnitude 7.5 and most over magnitude 8. They included movement on the Alpine fault, another movement in Wellington that turned Miramar into a peninsula, and another in Hawke’s Bay where a dramatic down-thrust created the Ahuriri lagoon.

Things get a bit vague when sorting out timing because the traces of past quakes are difficult to date beyond a broad range of possible dates.

The Wellington event was so huge it went down in Maori oral tradition – Haowhenua, the Land Swallower. Why swallower? That was odd, given the quake was an upthrust – but actually, it DID eat land that counted to Maori. Massive tsunami flooded the southern North Island coasts, inundating important gardens near Lake Onoke on the south of the Wairarapa. In short, swallowing the land. I was, I believe, the first one to publish that explanation, not that anybody noticed. But I digress.

The point is that the date-range for the “1460” series overlaps the date range for the newly discovered mega-thrust quake – which included tsunami. And it explains why New Zealand was, apparently, hit by so many large quakes in quick succession. Even if they were not the same event – and, seismologically, they probably weren’t – the way strains and stresses redistribute after a major quake is well known to be liable to trigger another. Is that what actually happened? Research is ongoing. We’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Blue Water Kiwis: cover reveal!

I’ve got some exciting news – my book Blue Water Kiwis, my history of New Zealand’s military aviation to the end of the Cold War, is being republished as No. 3 in a new military series by Intruder Books. Here’s the cover.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 450 px

bluewaterBlue Water Kiwis was first published in 2001 by Reed NZ Ltd, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Royal New Zealand Navy’s founding – though the book itself was about a good deal more than that, tracing New Zealand’s naval story from the early 1870s. I received a good deal of support from the RNZN.

The new edition marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It’s being released for Kindle initially, and follows the two earlier titles in my re-released military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here.

If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for PC or whatever device you own, here. And watch this space…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

When ethics overcome history

Another iconic building in my home town, Napier, New Zealand, bit the dust a while back. The Williams building – 103 years old – survived both the devastating 1931 earthquake and fire that followed.

Panorama I took of Napier's Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far left.

Panorama I took of Napier’s Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far right.

Now it’s gone down before the wrecking ball. And a good thing too. You see, it apparently only met 5 percent of the current earthquake-proofing standard. Ouch. Surviving the 1931 quake and retaining its structural integrity were, it seems, two different things.

The Williams building. Click to enlarge.

The Williams building going…going… Click to enlarge.

It’s the latest in a succession of quake-risk demolitions around the city. A few structures – such as the Paxie building, centre in the photo above, or the old State Theatre (where I first saw Star Wars in 1977) have been gutted and the facades preserved. But original ‘deco’ buildings of the 1930s are limited to a couple of city blocks. A single heritage precinct. When I was a kid, deco filled the town.

....and gone....

….and gone…. Click to enlarge

I know, I can hear the howls of protest now. ‘But – but – you’re interested in history…how can you support knocking it down?’

Easy. History is more than the artefacts it leaves anyway, but the real calculation is more immediate. A few years back, Napier’s Anglican Cathedral hall was also under threat of demolition, in part because it was a pre-quake masonry structure. The Historic Places Trust approached me, wanting me to put my authority and repute as a nationally known historian behind their effort to have it listed and legally protected. I was well aware of that history, of course. But I knew the building was a quake risk –and I hadn’t been given any engineering reports on which to base the professional opinion I was being asked to provide by Historic Places.

The biggest horror story of the 1931 quake was the way a doctor had to euthanise a badly injured woman who was trapped in the ruins of the cathedral – the only way to save her from being burned alive by advancing fires. In was an appalling moment. The decision tore at him for the rest of his life.

I wasn’t going to endorse saving a building where that might happen again. Risking human life or preserving a historic building? It’s a no-brainer, really. So while it was sad to see that building go -and sad, since, to see other structures like the Williams Building disappear – it’s really not a hard choice. What would you do?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Lest we forget: a moment to remember, in an autumn dawn

This morning my wife and I rose in the cold pre-dawn hour and – like an awful lot of New Zealanders today – made our way to a public ceremony remembering all our war dead. We have done this many times, but this moment carried particular poignancy because it also marked the centenary of the landings on Gallipoli, one of the defining events in New Zealand’s history.

Dawn parade, 2015.

Dawn parade, 2015.

We eschewed a journey to the national war memorial park, opened just last week with fanfare and solemn reflection. Estimates suggested up to 20,000 people would attend there – forcing street closures and traffic jams. More Kiwis, indeed, than fought in the Gallipoli campaign. Instead, we chose a smaller memorial, one of several around the district where dawn commemorations are being held. A more intimate occasion, befitting the solemnity of the moment and the fact that remembrance is both a shared and an individual experience.

Dawn parade, 2015.

Dawn parade, 2015.

Dawn parade, 2015

Dawn parade, 2015

I have always thought it curious that New Zealand – like Australia – remembers its war dead on a day when we landed on the shores of a foreign country. But that does not reduce the solemnity of the moment. New Zealand – a small, isolated country in the South Pacific – has participated in virtually every major conflict around the world of the twentieth century. And with reason; for that isolation has meant that our interests, in reality, stretch to the shores of our friends, allies and trading partners elsewhere.

We despatched our first expeditionary force in 1899, to South Africa.The effort in 1914-18 was an order of magnitude greater – and that war also brought us more than half our war casualties of all time, most of them on the Western Front where over 100,000 Kiwis eventually fought.

A similar number were also despatched to many theatres in the Second World War. New Zealand forces then fought in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam – the hot zones of the Cold War. Since that war ended in the early 1990s we have contributed extensively to international peace-keeping efforts from Kosovo to Timor, from Africa to Afghanistan.

We will remember them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Remembering the whole of New Zealand’s First World War…

As we count down  to the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli – 25 April – we need to remember that New Zealand’s First World War was far larger than just that campaign.

The New Zealand memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Flanders. The wall behind lists the 1200 New Zealand officers and men who gave their lives from August 1917, at the battle of Broodsiende, through to October and the disaster of Passchendaele.

The New Zealand memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Flanders. The wall behind lists the 1200 New Zealand officers and men who gave their lives from August 1917, at the battle of Broodsiende, through to October and the disaster of Passchendaele.

Our soldiers fought from France to Gallipoli to Palestine – and this last campaign, in sharp contrast to the other two, was a fast-moving, far-reaching effort that was in many ways the antithesis of the trench warfare that has become such a symbol of the way we imagine the First World War. Wright_Western Front_200 pxThat’s not to diminish the importance of the trenches as the definition of the war for us. Our largest campaign was the Western Front, where the bulk of the 100,000-plus Kiwis who fought in the First World War were stationed. Memorials scattered across northern France and into Belgium mark the graves of the 12,483 New Zealanders killed in that campaign, between April 1916 when they arrived, and November 1918. We need to remember these brave soldiers too – as well as those who fought in Gallipoli, where 2,779 Kiwis died. I’ve written a variety of books on New Zealand’s First World War. And if you want to learn more, you can grab Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, right now, on Kindle. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Busting New Zealand’s Gallipoli myths

I am often surprised at the mythology swirling around Anzac Day, the day when Kiwis remember their dead of all wars. Unusually, the date – 25 April – commemorates the moment that Australia and New Zealand soldiers stormed ashore on the Gallipoli peninsula; an invasion.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

But outside historical circles, it seems, there are quite a few misconceptions about the whole thing – ranging from the popular idea that the campaign lasted just one day (it didn’t), to the notion that New Zealanders stormed ashore at dawn (they didn’t). So what really happened?

Myth 1. New Zealand forces came ashore at dawn.
The initial landings at what became known as ‘Anzac Cove’ were by Australian forces – specifically,  four battalions from 3 Brigade of 1 Australian Division. New Zealand units were waiting offshore but not scheduled to land for some hours. By the time they did land, Australian forces were already heavily engaged ashore.

Myth 2. The campaign lasted a day.
The Gallipoli campaign lasted from 25 April until 20 December 1915 – just on 8 months. But the Anzac contribution nearly did end on the first day. By the end of 25 April, none of the main objectives had been taken and the beach was under fire from Turkish artillery. Commanders ashore discussed withdrawal, but the Royal Navy couldn’t do it. And so they had to dig in.

So the struggle for the Gallipoli peninsula fell into the same deadlock that bedevilled the Western Front – a deadlock that reflected the way defence (machine gun, sandbag and wire) had overcome offence (infantry advance). Unlike the Western Front, Gallipoli wasn’t well equipped with artillery, which could be used as an equaliser. Naval forces offshore could offer heavy fire-support, but naval guns weren’t suited to ground bombardment.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxBritish officials kept hoping that a break-through might be possible; all the forces had to do was take the peninsula and, with it, the forts that were preventing minesweepers from clearing the Dardanelles and letting naval forces sail through to Constantinople.

Myth 3. Gallipoli was New Zealand’s main First World War campaign.
Some 7991 Kiwis became casualties at Gallipoli, including 2779 dead, but the eight month campaign was a mere aperitif for what followed; a move by the bulk of the New Zealand forces to the Western Front, where they were heavily engaged from May 1916 until November 1918. This was where most of New Zealand’s casualties of the First World War occurred, and the experience profoundly shaped the way the war was remembered.

If you want to learn more about that campaign, check out my book Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015