by Matthew Wright
Published by Reed Publishing. Reviewed April 2002
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Ian Hunter RNZN (Rtd)
The title of this book and the quote in the author’s introduction "…discover the past, but to explain it, and in doing so provide a link with the present.…What we want to know is why, as well as what.", must whet the appetite of any potential reader. While what follows may well satisfy a general reader, it sadly falls short of providing adequate nutrition for those expecting fulfilment of the quotation. Now and again a tantalising glimpse of the why is given, but never in the depth to explain the critical determinants that shaped the Navy as it is today. For example on page 65 mention is made of the lack of success of the 1921 training scheme, which is again mentioned on page 67, but apart from the comment on page 66 "Perhaps this was not too surprising in the wake of the ‘war to end wars’ ", no explanation as to why is given. Throughout the book there is considerable mention of the problems of recruiting, retention and personnel imbalances that affected operations and yet nowhere is an attempt made to analyse or explain the causes, external and internal that gave rise to them.
Most of the well known events of New Zealand naval history are well covered and the inclusion of reminiscences of those participating enables the reader to capture the atmosphere of the event that is often lacking in other accounts. What is missing however is the placing of the implications of the event in an historical context as far the development of the New Zealand Navy is concerned. For example, nearly 11 pages are given to the Battle of the River Plate and its aftermath, but not mentioned is perhaps the most important consequence for the future of the New Zealand Naval forces was that it dispelled some relatively widespread Imperial concerns about the ability of New Zealand Naval elements to perform in combat.
More disappointing however, is the number of factual errors and miss-captioning of illustrations. The problem that this creates for the reader is that when an error is noticed in something of which they have knowledge, they immediately wonder about the accuracy of the things they do not have such knowledge. Some prominent examples are the photograph at the top of page 16 which is certainly not the construction of Calliope dock in 1884, but the coaling of a ship c1915/16 (the lemon squeezer hat came into use in 1914 and shorts in 1915). The photograph of Royalist on page 181 is not of her "wallowing in the Pacific after breaking down" but entering harbour at an earlier time as the STAAG mounting abaft B turret had been removed prior to her last commission. Leander class frigates only had one, never two Limbo anti-submarine mortars as listed in the Armament section. The frigate with Endeavour in the photograph on page 207 is Wellington not Waikato.
There also seems to be in the descriptions of some events, omission of details which would have much better enabled the reader to appreciate the significance of the event. For example, the rescue of dockyard workers by Stoker First Class Dale is described. If the fact that Dale was awarded the Albert Medal, the only one awarded to a member of the New Zealand Naval Forces in World War II had been mentioned, then his actions would have been able to been seen in context. Similarly the magnitude of the achievement in the sinking of Takao by XE-3 described on page 112 would be better appreciated if mention had been made that the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Fraser, and Leading Seaman Magennis were both awarded the VC and the fourth crew member the DSM.
My overall impression is of a book that was over ambitious in its conception and produced in too much of a hurry. The result is that the author never conveys to an informed reader that he has really understood the quite complex relationships that combine to produce all the influences that have shaped the Navy and naval events. The consequence is disproportionate weighting to some items and omission of others altogether.
It would appear that the definitive work that would fulfil the ambition of the author in his introduction has yet to be written. In the meantime this is a highly readable, well illustrated and informative account which provides the reader with a very good overview of the development of the RNZN.