Naval Reserve History

There have been Naval Reserves in New Zealand since 1860 when local citizens volunteered to train as 'part time sailors' to help regular naval forces defend New Zealand and her interests.

1860-1902 The Naval Volunteers

The first Naval Volunteer unit was formed in Auckland in 1858. A few months later a Naval Artillery Volunteer unit was established in Nelson. During the remainder of the 19th century, units of Naval Volunteers were formed in various ports as diverse as Bluff, Wanganui, and Wairoa. All were converted into Naval Artillery Volunteers in 1883 and in 1902 they were transformed into the Garrison Artillery Volunteers.

During the 1880's the number of Naval Volunteers, or 'Navals', reached a peak, with a total of 20 units around the country. In addition to boat work, volunteers were taught gunnery, and they were partly responsible for manning the coastal batteries at the four main ports. Later that century they also trained in submarine mining, and were responsible for minefields that were laid in Auckland and Wellington harbours.

The Naval Volunteers supplemented the work of the small number of regular soldiers known as the Permanent Militia. The New Zealand Torpedo Corps, part of the Permanent Militia's No. 2 Company, were responsible for manning the four torpedo boats (1 at each main port) and the Submarine Mining Corps.

The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

The Volunteers became absorbed into the New Zealand Garrison Artillery during the first five years of the 20th century and there were no other Naval Reserve forces until 1926.

Largely because of influential lobbying of politicians led by Navy League President Charles Palmer, a trial unit of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was established in Auckland that year. Two years later, divisions were opened in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. By 1939 there were 78 officers and 610 ratings enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (New Zealand Division). One thousand men had undergone training in the intervening years.

The first twelve years were difficult. Many volunteers were unable to continue their training because the chance of employment away from the four main cities during the depression left them with no choice other than to seek their discharge.

The training undertaken was focused upon seamanship, gunnery, minesweeping, and communications. Whilst the initial intention was to provide supplementary manpower for the Royal Navy and gunnery personnel for Defensively Armed Merchant Ships, the need for a minesweeping capability was recognised after the experience of the First World War, when minefields were laid around the coast and did account for the loss of merchant ships.

Although Admiral of the Fleet Lord Jellicoe's 1919 report recommended the acquisition of 18 minesweepers, the Government purchased only one second-hand minesweeping trawler HMS WAKAKURA, which provided most of the practical sea training for the Naval Reserve until the beginning of World War Two.

The four divisions often paraded on two nights per week with different ratings attending each night. Key personnel had to attend on both evening parades and at weekend activities as well.

WAKAKURA moved around the coast to provide each division with its annual sea training that included practical seamanship and live gunnery firings. In addition there were minesweeping exercises that became more and more important as the decade of the 1930s progressed.

Uniform issues were limited to a blue sailor's suit, a white sailor's suit, boots, socks, collars, shirts, a cap, knife, lanyard, and kitbag.

The declaration of War in 1939 saw the normal activity of the Naval Reserve suspended as its personnel were called up for war service. Some Reserve personnel were drafted very early in the war to duties as Gunners in Defensively Armed Merchant Ships and by the middle of 1940; significant numbers were drafted to ships or embarked for further training in the United Kingdom. New Zealand Naval forces were no longer a division of the Royal Navy on 1st October 1941, when King George VI consented to the formation of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The pen portraits below of the Naval Reserve Heroes are a sample of the activities in which Naval Reservists were engaged during the six years of war. Of the 1700 Naval Reservists who trained prior to the outbreak of war, 139 lost their lives.

The Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve

Towards the end of 1946, plans to reconstitute the Naval Reserve were put into operation with the selection of officers from those who had been demobilised at the end of the war. Recruiting began in September 1948, with the intention of reaching a strength of 70 officers and 600 ratings. It would now be called the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve.

In 1947, the Government decided to allocate a Harbour Defence Motor Launch to each division and this required the introduction of a marine engineering specialisation. Although Naval Reservists undertook training in the cruisers, frigates and minesweepers of the Royal New Zealand Navy, the motor launches became the mainstay of training afloat for almost forty years.

For the next twenty-eight years, Naval Reserve training was focused on the same specialisations as those of the regular force. Seamen, Gunners, Communicators, Radar Plotters, Electricians, Marine Engineers, Medical Assistants and Clerks were trained.

As the ships of the regular force became more and more complex it was decided in 1978 to concentrate Naval Reserve training on patrol craft seamanship and engineering and on the Naval Control of Merchant Shipping. This latter specialisation stemmed from the realisation that military control of vital seaborne trade was imperative for survival. That had been very clearly demonstrated by effectiveness of the convoy system during World War Two. While the Atlantic, Arctic and Malta convoys are most widely known, the system of protecting groups of ships was employed in every trade in the world between 1939 and 1945. There have been subtle changes to that philosophy in the intervening years but the basic principle of effectively managing and protecting our seaborne trade remains the basis of a key Naval Reserve task today.

Naval Reserve Heroes and Historical Articles:

2005: HMNZS WAKAKURA: Final Reserve Weekend

Easter 2005 was a special time for the Ship's Company of HMNZS OLPHERT and our attached Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC) HMNZS WAKAKURA.

2005: HMNZS MOA'S Departure From Dunedin

On Thursday 24 March 2005 HMNZS MOA, the Inshore Patrol Craft attached to HMNZS TOROA, the RNZNVR Headquarters in Dunedin, departed for Auckland where her new role will be to assist the RNZN with sea training.

2008: Devonport Navals return home

The Auckland Division of the Naval Reserve (first formed as the Devonport Navals in the 1880’s), came home to Devonport Naval Base in a ceremony that took place on Saturday, 30 August 2008. The event included family members of the Reserve and...

WWII: Acting Leading Signalman Buchanan

Acting Leading Signalman Buchanan, who was born in Port Chalmers in 1920, joined the Otago division of the Naval Reserve.

WWII: A/LT CDR George James (Mac) Macdonald DSO, DSC and Two Bars, MID (2), RNZNVR.

A/LT CDR Macdonald, born in 1921, joined the Wellington Division of the Naval Reserve in 1938. When he went to the United Kingdom in 1940 he was an Able Seaman who had already served as a Gunner in TRIENZA, a phosphate carrier trading to Nauru...

WWII: Commander Lewis King DSC VRD RNZNVR

Wellingtonian Lewis King joined the Naval Reserve in 1931. He was one of the 25 officers and 219 ratings who left Wellington as the first New Zealand Naval Draft in the RMS AQUITANIA in May 1940 with the Second Echelon.

WWII: Lieutenant Commander D J M Glover DSC RNZNVR

Denis Glover is remembered for a wide range of accomplishments. A poet, author, printer and typographer who was fluent in Latin and Greek, Glover was also a capable rugby forward and a champion welterweight boxer. His World War Two (WWII) service...


HMS NEPTUNE sank with the loss of all but one of her Ship's company on the night of 19 December 1941. The tragedy took the lives of 757 officers and ratings; Able Seaman John Norman Walton was the sole survivor. Of those lost in NEPTUNE, 150 were...


The explosion in a fuel tank on board HMNZS Achilles at Portsmouth on 22 June 1943, which killed 14...

WWII: Vice Admiral Sir Peter Phipps KBE DSC VRD

In 1965, Sir Peter Phipps was the first Chief of Defence Staff to be appointed in New Zealand. He began his military career in Christchurch in 1928, when he joined the Canterbury Division of the Naval Reserve as an Ordinary Seaman.

WWII: Kiwi RNVR Officers in the English Channel 1940-1

In July 1940, fourteen pre-war Kiwi RNVR officers, freshly arrived in the UK, were only a voyage away from being members of their RNVR Divisions in New Zealand.

WWII: Commander Charles G. Palmer DSC & Bar MID RNZNVR

Born 30 April 1910, a with a father so prominent in the formation of the Auckland Division of the RNVR, and a love of the sea, it is no wonder that his son Charles Palmer (or Bunty as he was known) joined the RNVR as an Ordinary Seaman as soon as he...

WWI: Captain Wybrants Olphert DSO DSC RD RNZNVR

Wybrants Olphert went to sea in 1893 aged fourteen. Shortly afterwards he joined the New Zealand Shipping Company Limited, and sailed between the United Kingdom and New Zealand for many years. He married a New Zealander. In 1902, Olphert was...

WWI: Captain Charles Henry Tarr Palmer OBE

Charles Palmer was born at Patea on 16 November 1882. His father was a sailor in the Royal Navy who transferred to the Merchant Marine then settled in

WWII: Captain Ralph Newman CBE DSO* VRD RNZNVR

Ralph Newman, who was born in London in 1898, pursued a career in the Merchant Navy. He was present at the Gallipoli landings in 1915 whilst serving in a ship that took part in the second group of landings on the peninsular.

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