Friday, 8 July 2016

GozUNderGozBang - Mine Warfare and New Zealand.


An anecdotal account of Mine Warfare in New Zealand.

Identifying and recognising the naval service dealing with protection or defence of waterways, harbours and sealanes – self protection Mining and enemy Offensive Mining.

There is plenty of material in book form and on the internet pertaining to the Mine Warfare component of Naval service both in our country and overseas. And a lot of those books deal with the specialty aspect of Mine Warfare, the facts, the figures and the history. To read all those accounts you'd have to spend hours upon hours of research and reading. Not such a bad thing but one that, in today's gadget driven world, is becoming outdated. So hopefully this abridged account will give some insight into Mine Warfare (MW) in our (NZ) region..

Yes, some account is not worthy without history, but in our case it is somewhat surprising. New Zealand never really had a navy until 1941 and since being rediscovered by James Cook, the occasional Royal Navy ship was stationed here only. Not much history of these ships being utilised in open warfare. In fact, the two major figures that shared a maritime purpose were Te Rauparaha (Ngati Raukawa) and Te Kooti (Ngati Maru hapu of Rongowhakaata subtribe of Ngati Porou) . The former was by aggressive deception, the latter through self preservation of he and his followers. What is known, there was no form of mine warfare until much later (1st World war.)

Fair to say New Zealand, a group of (underpopulated) islands in the bottom of the world would not be a target for direct warfare and largely that is true. Through all european history there has not been a shot in anger, from surface vessel, submarine, or aircraft. There have been old wives tales about a Japanese Zero over Wellington and a German submarine anchored off Hawkes Bay and replenishing food stocks with local farmers animals and vegetables. And until not long ago not many records were present for building a decent picture. 

The advent of maritime mine warfare manifested itself in the USA in the late 1900's and was quickly utilised by all major nations with a maritime component to their attack and defense capabilities. The 1st World War and the use of submarines and Mine layers saw a rude weaponry utilised. But we (NZ) lost our innocence in a peaceful country. The German Raider "Wolf" mined areas around the country in 1917 (Off Farewell Spit and Three Kings Islands).  These minefields caused the loss of two steamers in NZ waters, the Port Kembla, 4700 tons, off Farewell Spit on 18 September 1917, and the Wimmera, 3022 tons, off the Three Kings on 26 June 1918. Fishing trawlers Nora Niven and Simplon were requisitioned by the Government and equipped as minesweepers. They swept seventeen mines off Farewell Spit and eighteen in the Three Kings area.

So that facet of warfare suggested that Germany and it's allies took as a serious threat our ability to supply men, machines, and supplies.

Between the Great Wars, war machinery advanced at a great rate and the weapons of war became so advanced that other means to waging war were evident. Just like the anti personnel and anti Tank mines and their numerous production and eventually their laying. But what was happening on land was also being readied in large numbers for further combat reasons at sea. Special ships were being built to lay large numbers of offensive minefields and also for deploying in defensive minefields in important harbours and waterways. Early mines were simply contact mines, laid at about 3-5 metres below the surface with horns carrying the contact trigger. However as mentioned earlier mines advanced in technological means. Contact mines were joined by both Magnetic and Pressure mines and sailing on the oceans became a hugely dangerous activity (and still is to some extent). At the start of WWII New Zealand had one specialist Mine Warfare vessel (HMS Wakakura) used as a MW and training ship for Reservists. In 1940 a German Raider, "Orion", laid a field of Mines south and East of Hen And Chickens Islands, and also between Little Barrier and Great Barrier Islands.

The minefield was only discovered when the Royal Mail ship Niagara hit a mine south east of Hen and Chicken Islands. She eventually sunk but all 336 personnel made it safely to lifeboats and were recovered in good time. Two trawlers being converted to mine sweeping in Auckland were tasked to seek out any other mines and made it to the sinking zone and recovered a great number of mines. However the newly formed RNZN suffered it's first uniformed loss when the CO and 4 ratings were killed on mine sweeping duties over the area the Orion had been. The Puriri exploded and sunk very quickly with 21 sailors being rescued.

Second world war saw the secondment of many fishing trawlers converted as minesweepers and mine layers. The large defensive minefield serving Rangitoto Channel in Auckland saw the laying of mines and also the working of the Boom Defense (Loop) that stretched from Whangaparaoa to Tiri Tiri Matangi, across to Rakino to Waiheke and also from Rangitoto to Motuihe. Also at the time new vessels were on the offing, purpose built minesweepers from RN.

Originally purchased in 1939, HMNZS Tui, Moa, and Kiwi were laid down and completed in 1941. Research suggests a lack of any evidence what these vessels took a part in between 1941 and 1943 but they were specialist Minesweeping vessels so one assumes that's what they did. You would think! All three served as a flotilla in the Solomon Islands but once again little evidence they were active in Mine Warfare. But these little babies have a very rich story which you, the reader, should entertain.

But our largest loss of life did happen due to a sea of mines. RN flagged ship HMS Neptune, officially our 3rd cruiser with 150 kiwi sailors, sank in the Mediterranean with the loss of all hands. Personally I think that loss galvanised us as a nation. Knowing that these, like most mines, are easily laid, easily hit and easily activated, and the threat shows even after cessation of wars/activities these insidious weapons still remain active (or a threat).

After WWII all defensive fields here (and as many offensive) were deactivated through innovative means. As far as anyone was aware, these minefields ceased to be a threat.
New Zealand and her mine warfare capability to some extent were maintained through the use of some vessels (Tui, Moa, Inverell and Kiama) who spent most of their service as training vessels until 1976 when the last,Inverell decommissioned. During the mid 60's, RNZN sailors manned and served on HMNZ ships Hickleton and Santon in the Indonesia theatre and as the last “active” mine warfare manned ships.

From 1966 to 1993 the only Mine Warfare capability was conducted by The Diving Team, usually dealing with mines dredged up in trawl nets from Fishing boats and a small component set of Hydrographers. In the mid 90's an active MW unit was implemented where the Diving Tender, Manawanui was retrofitted with a container complete with scanning and
recovery identification equipment and working in conjunction with Divers/Surveyors. At the same time, four vessels of the Reserve (remember these – Kiwi, Moa and 2 newbies, Hinau & Wakakura) were retrofitted for MW survey duties and the reserve trained and tasked with tasks for targeted surveys. Interestingly enough, when Hinau was involved in the Hauraki Gulf surveys her equipment found and identified a number of round objects on the seabed, which, when dived on later turned out to be mines from the defensive minefield (no longer active) from WWII. All mines were recovered and disposed of.

It's fair to say we have a rich history in Mine Warfare. Being a maritime nation it's only just to say we get targeted. But with the change in warfare, i.e. Long Range, Over the Horizon, I am assuming that Mine Warfare is a thing of the past, unless submarines and aircraft continue to stealthily lay them?

The Famous Mokau “German” Mine (North Taranaki)

Researched and written by former CPOAHS Thane "Zaps" Zander (Survey and Mine Warfare 1975 - 2002)

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