Devonport: a sea of stories

By Jim Eagles

New Zealand Herald

Commander David Wright inside a room at the Navy Museum dedicated to sailors who lost their lives. Photo by Paul Estcourt

Walk into the first exhibition hall in the new Navy Museum and the thing that catches the eye is an ugly great chunk of shrapnel, roughly the size of a truck tyre, covered in grey paint.

Seeing me staring at it, museum director Commander David Wright explains that a German shell blew this massive chunk of metal out of an armoured gun turret on HMS New Zealand during the crucial World War I Battle of Jutland. The gun crew, miraculously uninjured, simply moved it out of the way, then resumed firing at the enemy.

“This weighs around 500kg. It’s seriously heavy,” he adds. “When we shifted it in here we had three people and an engine lifter and it was still a strain.

“Yet during the battle two of the crew were apparently able to pick it up and throw it outside. It just goes to show what you can do when the adrenalin is pumping.”

It also seems like a great story with which to introduce the Royal New Zealand Navy to the visitors who – since the official opening at the weekend – can now explore this museum at its marvellous new site in Torpedo Bay, Devonport.

Of course this country’s naval connection really goes back to the earliest days of European contact. James Cook, who put New Zealand firmly on the world map, was a Royal Navy officer. A model of HMS Endeavour, the ship in which he made his first voyage of discovery here in 1769, is on show in the museum.

Naval vessels also played a part in the various New Zealand Wars. Probably the oldest artefact exhibited is a cannonball that HMS Hazard fired into Kororareka during the Northern War in 1845.

During the great Russian scare of the 1880s New Zealand acquired four Spa torpedo boats – which were supposed to drop their mines alongside any enemy craft and then try to escape before they blew up – and it was those boats and an associated minelaying operation which gave Torpedo Bay its name. There is a model of one of the ungainly craft on display too, if you look carefully.

The refurbished buildings in which the museum is now housed date back to that time, making this probably the oldest continuously used military site in the country, but for now that historical tidbit goes largely unmarked. “It’s a story we’d like to tell more fully,” agrees Wright, “but that will have to wait until we’ve got the funds to do more site interpretation. That’s stage two.”

Instead the first stage of the new museum is firmly focused on its core job of outlining the history of New Zealand’s Navy.

I’ve made many visits to the old Navy museum, in its rambling wooden building on the outskirts of the Devonport Naval Base, but while it was always a joy to visit, the lack of suitable space meant it was more an accumulation of fascinating bits and pieces than a co-ordinated series of exhibitions.

Wright says the move to Torpedo Bay “provides the opportunity to organise the displays around a series of themes telling the stories – exciting stories I believe – of the Navy”.

Enter the exhibition area and you’ll be greeted by the stirring sounds of a haka performed by naval personnel and then the moving music of the naval hymn.

On one side of the entrance are photos of current Navy people – showing how diverse the service is – and on the other side is a room full of pictures of those who have died. “There’s a story for every one,” says Wright. “Those twins” – he points at a photo in one corner – “tragically drowned. That’s a rating who died at the Battle of River Plate. The officer there was executed by the Japanese. Byron Solomon died recently on the Canterbury … They’ve all got something to say.”

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The new Navy Museum has opened for business and is at 52 King Edward Pde, Torpedo Bay, Devonport. It’s open 10am-4.30pm daily and admission is free. Phone (09) 445 5186 or visit

Image: Commander David Wright inside a room at the Navy Museum dedicated to sailors who lost their lives. Photo by Paul Estcourt