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Soldier's Navy - an introduction

The following article is a brief history of New Zealand defence vessels and the part they played in their operation by soldiers since the formation of the NZ Permanent Force in 1885/86.

After the 1878 episode historians call 'the first Russian scare', fear of attacks on ports by Russian warships the in the Pacific prompted the Government to do something about coast defence, then virtually non-existent. To obtain expert advice on the situation the Defence Department commissioned Colonel PH Scratchley CMG, Royal Engineers. In his report to Parliament dated 1 March 1880 the Colonel made a number of recommendations on the siting and equipping of coast artillery batteries - with guns purchased in 1878 but still lying in store! To support the guns he advised the Government to obtain 12 spar torpedo boats, three for each of the four main ports. Because the surveying and preparation of sites including the building of concrete emplacement s for the guns would take many months he further strongly advised the torpedo boats be bought immediately - as they could be put into service without delay.

For the next two years the report lay 'under consideration' - politicians' jargon for doing nothing about it. In the meantime more efficient boats had been put into production, but as might have been expected the price rose accordingly. So putting parsimony before expert advice, the politicians reduced the number to four, ie one for each main port.

Towards the end of 1884 the boats arrived in New Zealand as deck cargo on two merchant vessels. Numbered 168-171 by the makers, they were named respectively Tamioha (Lyttleton), Taiaroa (Port Chalmers), Arai-te-Uru (Auckland), and Jervois (Wellington), but officially were designated solely by their numbers. By mid-1885 they had been delivered to their home ports, had been fully assembled, and had successfully undergone trials under the supervision of Government or Harbour Board master mariners and marine engineers. The Officers Commanding the New Zealand Permanent Artillery at each port then assumed responsibility for them.

WL Ruffell
March 1989

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