The RNZYS Remembers our Members that Served

 In Member Interest, News

In both world wars, social and recreational activities, including boating, were largely suspended in Auckland. With many of the men away on active duty, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s racing programme was shelved and most of the yachts were hauled and stored on the hard.

Several Squadron members who remained behind during both conflicts volunteered for harbour patrols and more extensive coastal patrol duties.

The following extract is from Salt in Our Blood, the recently-published 150-year history of the Club by Ivor Wilkins …

During World War One, restrictions on the movements of boats were imposed in Auckland. Motuihe Island, for example, was used to house prisoners-of-war, and yachts and launches were warned not to encroach any closer than 400 yards from the shore. ‘Instructions to the soldiers are apparently definite,’ warned the Auckland Star. ‘One boat has already been fired on.’

As the war dragged on, boating in Auckland steadily declined. ‘Many boats have lost their entire crews, almost in a body,’ lamented the Auckland Star. ‘Yachting still goes on in a limping kind of fashion — a few old tars and young children keep the boats sailing while the real men are at the front.’

During the war, 114 RNZYS members enlisted, of whom 13 lost their lives. A memorial to those who died was built and unveiled in a moving ceremony in the Squadron rooms. Lord Jellicoe, who served as First Sea Lord during the war before taking office as the new Governor-General of New Zealand, presided over the event in his full Admiral’s regalia.

Lord Jellicoe

Lord Jellicoe also served as Patron of the RNZYS and in the early 1920s gained enormous popularity by actively racing, not on one of the blueblood keelers, but in a 14ft X-class dinghy he named Iron Duke, in honour of the Dreadnought class battle cruiser of the same name that served as flagship of the Grand Fleet during his time as First Sea Lord.

At the end of his term as Governor-General and RNZYS patron, Lord Jellicoe declared his happiest times in New Zealand were spent sailing the Iron Duke on the Waitemata.

Jellicoe sailing the ‘Iron Duke’ on Wellington Harbour – Te Are

In all its vagaries, war occasionally throws serendipitous situations the way of its participants. For New Zealanders far from home, the privations, horrors and tediums of World War Two were sometimes leavened by friends finding themselves in the same place at the same time. 

One such surprise reunion occurred when RNZYS member John Watson was transferred from what he described as the ugliest ship in the Royal Navy to the second ugliest. He first served as First Lieutenant aboard HMS Locust, which saw heavy action as assault headquarter ship at Sword Beach during the D-Day landings. After 50 days on station under constant bombardment and attack, Locust was relieved.

On promotion, Watson was ordered to report to a small destroyer, HMS Puffin. To his delight, his new captain was none other than fellow Squadron member Alf Miller. ‘The only two New Zealanders in the crew and we were the Captain and First Lieutenant.’ 

Alf Miller and John Watson

Alf Miller was awarded a DSC after Puffin engaged two miniature submarines, ramming one of them, which caused its torpedos to explode. Severely damaged with most of its bow ripped off, Puffin managed to limp home under its own steam by going astern to limit the water coming in. John Watson was down below, shoring up damaged bulkheads and keeping the pumps going.

In WW2, more than 200 Squadron members served in various theatres of the war overseas. By the end of hostilities, with the surrender of Japan, 29 serving members had lost their lives.

Harold James Couldrey George – by Noel Vaultier

In April 1940 the Royal Navy offered to appoint ten New Zealanders to serve in Britain in the RNVR. 500 applied. The three successful Auckland applicants were all RNZYS members. All were skippers of A Class keelers — Harold George of Victory (A8), Scott Wilson of Tawera (A18) and Stan Jervis of Little Jim (A16) and each had recently qualified for the Yacht Master Certificate.

All ten were appointed sub-lieutenants with the intention that they would serve in mine-sweepers and patrol craft. Harold was clearly keen to get a posting as soon as possible. He paid for his own passage to England and, on his arrival there, he volunteered to join a commando force that Churchill had just formed to, in his words, “establish a reign of terror down the enemy coast”. Harold must have made a good sales pitch because together with another Squadron member, Bunty Palmer, he was appointed to establish a training unit for commandos in Mallaig — a remote coastal village in Scotland.

By the following February Harold was a member of the commando force which undertook the first major raid of the War. This was in the far north of Norway on the Lofoten Islands which were an important centre for the production of glycerine  a vital ingredient in the manufacture of high explosives. 600 commandos went ashore, Harold being the flotilla officer of one of the six landing parties. The raid was highly successful. Nine German merchant ships were sunk and a number of factories destroyed. This was great for morale in Britain at the time.

Harold George

In 1942 Harold participated in two raids on the French Coast but unfortunately neither was successful. Both raids were overseen by Lord Mountbatten who at the end of 1941 had taken over the command of Combined Operations (which included the commando forces). Harold was fortunate to miss the next raid in France – the disastrous raid on Dieppe.

Mountbatten had arranged for Harold to be seconded to the Royal Australian Navy where he became the Assistant Naval Adviser and Training Officer for Combined Operations in the South Pacific. As Senior Flotilla Officer on HMAS Manoora he participated in six night landings around New Guinea. This secondment ended in January 1944 when Mountbatten — who was by then Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia Command (SEAC) and was clearly keeping in touch with Harold , appointed him as a member of SEAC’s Combined Operations Headquarters staff based in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), with the rank of Acting Commander. He became the Naval Planning Officer a role he held until the end of the War. It was in this role where he met and worked alongside Sir Keith Park who was the Air Force’s Commander-in-Chief in SEAC. Harold George, Keith Park and Louis Mountbatten remained good friends until Harold’s death almost twenty years later.

Harold’s war career in the navy was clearly helped by his undoubted skills in sailing Victory (an 11.6 metre gaff-rigged keeler), his role as Commodore of the Squadron (from 1937 to 1939 and 1946 to 1947) and his participation as counsel in a number of marine inquiries in Auckland. It appears that Mountbatten recognized Harold’s attributes in appointing him to training and leadership roles.

Bella Johnston’s Escape from Crete – by William Woodworth

Spending his early years sailing the mullet boat “Nomad” with his friends on the Waitemata Harbour from Herne Bay came in incredibly helpful for RNZYS and Herne Bay Yacht Club member Bella Johnston, in his daring 4-day escape alongside 10 fellow Allied soldiers from the German held island of Crete.

By the time Johnston came of sailing age, the old mullet boats used around the Hauraki Gulf to supply Auckland’s fish markets had fallen into the hands of eager yachties looking for small, fast boats. A former ‘Nomad’ crew member, Harry Gillard, said “my days in mullet boats were probably the best sailing days of my life” when interviewed by Sandra Gorter for a piece in the Weekend Herald. Johnston had also developed a wicked sense of humour, through plenty of banter as part of the fashionable mullet boat racing of the time.

Bella Johnston (front centre) and the crew of the Nomad in the early 1930’s – Harry Gillard

Johnston signed up for the New Zealand Army with the 5th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd New Zealand Division alongside the crew from the ‘Nomad’ and many of his fellow sailors. He was posted to Crete, which was invaded by German paratroopers on the 20th of May 1941 and saw some of the most fierce action that New Zealanders would see throughout the war. 

However after 12 days of fighting, the troops that didn’t manage to board the evacuation boats to the North African coast were left to their own devices and either apprehended into POW Camps near Galatas or joined local resistance efforts on the Greek island. Johnston was captured with the remaining Allied troops. POW’s were shepherded into the Galatas camp, which was meant as a holding camp before the captured troops were sent back to Europe. However the camp was hurriedly built and allowed men to escape under the wire or collect locally grown grapes to supplement the meagre rations.

However, Johnston and fellow Allied troops gathering grapes found themselves caught outside the fence one night. Instead of being apprehended trying to return the small band decided to head inland and shelter amongst the local villages. Johnston and this group called themselves “His Majesty’s Bludgers” due to the incredible assistance and generosity that they received from the people of Crete.

In stoic Kiwi style, Johnston refused to give any information away when captured by the Gestapo after months on the run – and infuriated his captor to the point that he was promised that if he was captured again, the German officer had a 4000 drachma price for his capture and a bullet with his name carved into it. This convinced Johnston to start looking for a way out of Crete.

In a tale that seems to have been common throughout the war, Johnston stumbled across fellow Kiwis in Gil Collins and Tom Moir who had found a local fishing village and, subsequently, a few boats that looked to be sturdy enough for the Mediterranean crossing. Collins and Moir had gathered 10 fellow escapees that were just as desperate to get off the island and avoid the increasingly tight German security. Johnston was the exact man that the group needed, with a wealth of sailing experience that the others lacked.

Under the cover of night and with Johnston taking a familiar post as skipper and keeping spirits up with running comedy, the 11 men docked out and began a 4 day, 900 kilometre escape with the stars to guide them south. The boat contained little food or water, but with containers being found with local Cretan wine aboard Johnston remarked “we arrived in Africa with our water supply practically intact”.

After arriving in Africa and regrouping with the chain of command, Johnston was asked to return to Crete as part of long rumoured submarine evacuation missions, with ‘Thrasher’ arriving in July 1942 with two Kiwis aboard to rescue 70 troops and ‘Torbay’ evacuating 130 escapees in September. Johnston never revealed his mission as part of these evacuations, but was awarded a Military Medal for his service from General Freyberg for his escape and subsequent return to save more of his colleagues trapped on Crete.

After the war, Johnston returned to sailing aboard his Logan B-class Kotiri until selling her for an engagement ring for his future wife Nancy. Bella passed away in 1975, but his legacy continues to be remembered when Kotiri or Nomad take to the water just as he used to do while cracking jokes with his friends and fellow soldiers aboard. The Nomad was restored after lying idle off Point Chevalier by Ron Copeland alongside many of the other mullet boats, with Johnston’s sister Jean and his daughters Robyn, Dale and Briar joining Copeland aboard Bella’s first boat once it was restored in 2002 to remember Bella and reconnect with some family history.

Arthur Angell’s Dash into Venice – by William Woodworth

RNZYS member Major (subsequently Lieutenant-Colonel) Arthur Angell, alongside fellow New Zealanders R.W Thompson and J. Stewart, found themselves in a daring cross-country escapade as Allied forces approached Venice towards the end of World War 2. Angell, the commanding officer of the 6th Field Regiment, was in hot pursuit of the remaining German forces and was tasked with ensuring the advancing column had a free run along the Autostrada from Padua into the city.

Fellow New Zealander and Angell’s commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Sawyers had split from the column and raced towards Venice, while Angell was given orders to clear the route between the spearhead force of Sawyers and the rest of the troops. After commandeering a Jeep and confirming that the pockets of resistance Sawyers had come up against were cleared, Angell, Thompson and Stewart were unable to return to the main group and so continued towards Venice to inform Sawyers.

As Angell met with the spearhead of the advancing Allied force, a report came through saying that the German troops had left the area, Venice was mainly in Italian partisan hands and that Sawyers was the first into the city. Sawyers was concerned that the small arms fire he ran the gauntlet through was re-organising and could regroup, so asked the local Air Observation Post to make a trip down the Autostrada and ensure the road was clear. However, Angell and his Jeep were already on the way to Venice and were relieved that they didn’t have any surprises left with the Ponte Nuova causeway cleared.

The Jeep screeched into the Piazzale di Roma half an hour after leaving the main force, which is as far as vehicles can go in to Venice. With small arms fire coming from the city and no more reports from Sawyers coming through, Angell was incredibly sceptical of the original report. However, after a careful venture into the city he realised the gunfire was from celebrating partisans. Sawyers was still unable to be found, but his armoured vehicle was located. The three New Zealanders were walked to the Partisan headquarters at the famous Hotel Danieli by an honour guard, and found Sawyers being handed celebratory drinks while trying and failing to get any information from over-the-moon locals.

Angell and Thompson arriving at Partisan Headquarters in Venice – Auckland Museum

The New Zealanders were welcomed into Venice by a packed crowd outside the Hotel Danieli, and were hailed as saviours by the city’s citizens from the hotel balcony before a triumphal tour down the Grand Canal. Angell, speaking about the day to the Auckland Star, stated that “no welcome for a Doge, Prince or Emperor could have surpassed that ecstatic frenzy”

Angell’s story doesn’t finish in Venice, as in 1945 the New Zealanders were stationed in the city of Trieste. The 2nd New Zealand Division found themselves entering the city in a joint liberation with local partisans and the 4th Yugoslav Army under Tito. 

During their explorations of the area, brothers P.A and W.M Macindoe came across 8 16-foot yachts similar to Finn classes, and a few 20 foot keelboats, hidden in the city. They asked their commanding officer, Angell, for assistance in setting up a yacht club out of the Royal Adriaco Yacht Club facilities while they were in the area – and subsequently found an 8 meter keelboat and a cruising yacht. Each of the boats were restored by the New Zealand troops, and the New Zealand Yacht Club formed at Trieste was set up. 

With Angell as commodore and the Macindoe’s on the committee alongside other sailors in the ranks, the club ran until the New Zealanders embarked for home and the club was handed to British troops. In 1968 Baron G. de Banfield, a member of the Adriaco Yacht Club, asked for their burgee to be hung at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron as a symbol of the history of the New Zealand Yacht Club.  

Each of these men served their country with absolute distinction, and we at the RNZYS are incredibly proud to have had them as members and in the cases of Harold George, Scott Wilson, Alf Miller and Arthur Angell, former Commodores of the Squadron.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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