Wednesday, 4 April 2018

New Zealand and the War at Sea in Belgium

Almost 700 New Zealanders volunteered for duty at sea and most went to Britain to be trained. They spent 1917-1918 serving with the Coastal Forces some (about 200 men) in motorboats and others in minesweepers. During the raid on Zeebrugge and Ostend in April 1918 a number of New Zealanders took part in the supporting forces. Leading Stoker Charles Williams from Christchurch .was one of the volunteers who steamed HMS Vindictive into Ostend under heavy German fire and sank the ship to block the harbour.

Other New Zealanders served with the Royal Naval Air Service [RNAS] that flew over the Western Front and from seaplane tenders. Three of them became 'aces'. Euan Dickson survived the war and had 14 confirmed kills. Harold 'Kiwi' Beamish flew fighters and was credited with 11 confirmed kills. Thomas Culling shot down six aircraft before he was killed in action in June 1917. Another section of the RNAS was the Armoured Car Service. This unit served on the Western Front, Middle East and in southern Russia. A number of New Zealanders joined this unit and served with it until war's end.
HMS New Zealand was New Zealand’s most tangible contribution to the war at sea between 1914 and 1918. It was paid for by the Dominion and fought in the three major engagements of the war, Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland, representing New Zealand in a way that no other ship could.

Dunkirk cemetery is a permanent reminder of New Zealand’s participation in the greatest operation where motor launches were involved - the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend during April 1918. One young New Zealander buried in Dunkirk is Motor Mechanic John Foster Herbin Batey who served in one of these coastal motor boats CMB 33A. His body having been washed ashore on 17 April 1918 after he had been killed in action during the aborted raids on 12 April 1918 in Ostend. He was married since 16 October 1916 and he was living in Clyde, Central Otago, New Zealand.

In the attacking force were a number of New Zealanders, including 14 officers and 15 motor mechanics from the Motor Boat Patrol, of which four officers and eight motor mechanics received awards for gallantry. Among those decorated were Lieutenant M.S. Kirkwood who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Chief Motor Mechanic Edgard Frank Chivers who received the Distinguished Service Medal and was wounded in operation in Ostend 10 May 1918.
Edgard Frank Chivers

Citation for Lieut. Malcolm Stuart Kirkwood, R.N.V.R. Distinguished Service Cross. Volunteered for rescue work, and showed coolness and courage throughout the operations off Ostend. After his vessel was damaged alongside Brilliant and the engineers gassed, he went down to the engine-room, which was full of fumes, and started the starboard engine, thereby saving the vessel from being either sunk or captured. Shortly afterwards he lost consciousness and was rescued with difficulty

Malcolm Kirkwood
Malcolm Kirkwood, aged 28, was an Aucklander and one of two brothers who joined the Motor Boat Patrol Reserve in 1916. During the raid on Ostend he was First Lieutenant of ML 532. The primary task of this vessel, one of three, was to rescue the crews of the block ships after they had sunk themselves in the harbour. During the approach the block ships, the old light cruisers Sirius and Brilliant, were illuminated by search lights and became the subject of intense fire from the shore batteries. ML 532 increased speed and went ahead of the two ships, making smoke and then returning to station on the quarter of Brilliant. The two block ships were close to the shore and with visibility reduced by smoke keeping station on them was particularly difficult and as a result Captain Benn lost sight of Brilliant. In an attempt to follow Brilliant through the smoke ML 532 came bow-on to the port side of the cruiser which
Malcolm Kirkwood
had run aground and swung broadside on. This completely smashed the bows of the ML, shifting both engines on their beds and breaking the exhaust pipes, filling the engine room with dangerous fumes. Keeping the vessel afloat was a major achievement, but only at the cost of the gassing of the engine room personnel. After rescuing the crew of Brilliant; ML 276 towed ML 532 clear and Lieutenant Kirkwood was able to get one engine restarted before he lost consciousness and was hauled free. Getting the engine restarted enabled the vessel to return to England, instead of being either sunk or captured by the enemy. His elder brother Ronald also took part in the operation against Zeebrugge. Malcolm Kirkwood was later to state that: “For three solid weeks we had the thing hanging over our heads and all of us had reached the stage where we didn’t care what became of us. It would be almost impossible to describe the feelings of any of us, but we did ache for the time to be up and doing. As for sacrifice, well ... we never thought of that.”

George McKnight
George McKnight was born in Dunedin on 6th April 1887, his father emigrated from Edinburgh in 1874. George had a successful career as runner and in 1910 he became Individual Cross Country Champion of New Zealand and won the New Zealand Cross Country gold medal. In 1920 he operated a taxi business from his home in Pacific Street and owned the first sedan taxi in Dunedin.
1910 was a big year for George McKnight. In addition to holding the National cross-country title he was married on 13 April 1910 to Alma Isobel Wheeler.
George McKnight
The couples’ first son George was born on 1st June 1910 and a second son Ian Ernest on12th January 1914. However, married life for the McKnights was about to undergo a drastic change as New Zealand called up its young men to fight for the Empire in the Great War.
George McKnight travelled to England where he enlisted as a naval Petty Officer with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves (R.N.V.R.) on the Dover patrol .He would later take part in the famous 1918 “Zeebrugge Raid” one of the most gallant actions of the Great War.

At the time of the Raid George was serving as Chief Motor Mechanic McKnight on “Coastal motor boat, CMB 15.  George died on 31st March 1980 in Invercargill, at age 92.

Chief Motor Mechanic Roy Alexander DSM RNVR won the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM), while serving with the Royal Navy’s Patrol Service in the First World War in one of the largest raids carried out by the Royal Navy.

Alexander was born on the outskirts of Auckland, in February 1898, and grew up there. He was working for the well-known plumbing merchants A & T Burt[1] and living in East Tamaki with his parents, when he left New Zealand to join the Royal Navy Patrol Service in November 1916. He was promoted to Chief Motor Mechanic in November 1917.[2]
In 1918, Alexander was one of a number of New Zealanders serving with the Royal Navy’s Motor Patrol Service. He served with the ship’s company of Motor Boat 1839, one of a flotilla of 18 motor launches and six coastal motor boats based at the port of Dunkirk.[3] This flotilla was assigned the responsibility for rescue work, to make smoke screens or lay smoke floats for the raids launched at Zeebrugge and Ostend.[4] The DSM was awarded to Roy Alexander for services during the operation against Zeebrugge on the night of 22-23 April 1918.[5]

Vice Admiral Roger Keye’s report on the raid praised the small fleet of craft that supported the warships during the operation, noting the skill and coolness of the men who manned these craft while under heavy fire. Sadly, Alexander was wounded during the raid and died of his wounds in South End Hospital on 21 August 1918.[6] His award was gazetted in the “London Gazette” dated 19 July 1919, along with a number of other sailors awarded the DSM for their service on the small craft attached to the raid.[7] He is buried in Southend-on-Sea (Sutton Rd) Cemetery, UK in the Commonwealth War Graves section.[8]
In a reply card to the many people who sent their sympathy for the family’s loss, Alexander’s parents included the passage:
            “He played the game, ran the race and finished the work allotted to him.”
A fitting memorial for one of New Zealand’s naval heroes.
Roy’s medals are held by the Papakura Returned Services’ Association in Auckland, New Zealand. 

This is not the whole story of the Royal New Zealand Navy and its involvement in the War at Sea in Belgium. I'm very sure that some beautiful stories are still known in families but are not documented. If possible, please share your stories with us; it would be good to remember all those who have been here at the Western Front during WWI, Sailors included.

It's good to know that the majority of the New Zealand Sailors have been in the Royal Navy but one may never forget that the New Zealand Navy existed already as part of the Royal Navy and did good work at home.  HMS Pholomel is a good example and the history of that ship can be read here:

Motorboat vessels were known by numbers rather than names, were 25 metres in length, displaced 34 tons had a speed of 19 knots and were armed with one 3 pounder gun and two depth charges. The launches operated in areas such as the English Channel, the coast of Ireland and the Mediterranean

This article was written using material first published in 1997 by Lt Cdr P.Y. Dennerly RNZN, a past New Zealand Navy Museum Director and noted Naval Historian.

The story of George McKnight was written using material from the research in 2013 by Lesley Treweek .
Photos are from the Auckland War Memorial Cenotaph. The story of Chief Motor Mechanic Roy Alexander DSM was written by Michael Wynd, Researcher - The National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

All photos credit:  Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, Devonport Auckland New Zealand and Lesley Treweek.

©Freddy Declerck Lt Cdr (Rtd) Be Navy, Hon Captain RNZN, MNZM, OAM

[1] Alongside C.H. Dryland whose personal collection holds material on his friend Alexander.
[2] C.H. Dryland Personal Collection – newspaper cutting 4 May 1918.
[3] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations Vol. V, History of the Great War, Longmans Green & Co: London, 1931, p. 250.
[4] W.H. Fevyer, The Distinguished Service Medal 1914-1920, Polstead: J B Hayward & Son, 1982, p. 77.
[5] W.H. Fevyer, The Distinguished Service Medal 1914-1920, Polstead: J B Hayward & Son, 1982, p. 86.
[6] Dryland Personal Collection – newspaper cutting 4 May 1918 and sympathy card issued in 1918.
[7] London Gazette No. 30807 19 July 1919 p.8.
[8] See – grave reference F5847.