Following WWII, New Zealand’s Navy Was Rocked With Peaceful Mutinies

More than 20 percent of the Royal New Zealand Navy was discharged for protesting low pay

new zealand mutiny
The HMNZS Bellona in April 1947, just before the crew mutinied. Allan C. Green via Wikimedia Commons

As far as navies go, the Royal New Zealand Navy is a relatively young one. For most of New Zealand’s time as a British colony, the island nation was protected by the British Navy. It was only in 1941 that the fleet formally separated from the Royal Navy. During World War II, New Zealand's navy quickly grew into a large and important force in the Pacific theater. But when the war ended, the navy suddenly had to contend with a large number of enlisted sailors itching to be demobilized. That led to a series of peaceful mutinies that rocked the small fleet nearly 70 years ago today, according to a history by the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

“The [Royal New Zealand Navy] has suffered a mutiny only once, although that was one of the most widespread of mutinies in recent naval history,” Tom Frame and Kevin Baker wrote in Mutiny!: Naval Insurrections in Australia and New Zealand. “That a mutiny occurred, notwithstanding whatever mitigation might be offered in defense of either the captain or the ship’s company, is enough to signal serious organizational ill health.”

Without an enemy to fight, some of the sailors who had enlisted for a 12-year term during the war were unsatisfied with their peacetime duties and pay. Meanwhile, the ongoing process of demobilizing the navy led to disorganization among the ranks, according to the museum. At the time the Royal New Zealand Navy paid the least out of the country’s armed forces, and much less than what civilians could earn. While the government tried to rework the navy’s payment system to make it more fair to those still enlisted, frequent delays and a mishandled rollout sparked several peaceful mutinies throughout the navy.

On April 1, 1947, a year after the Royal New Zealand Navy began looking into updating its pay rates, officials announced that the new system would at last be implemented. Just before the announcement, however, a rumor quickly spread among sailors at the navy’s main base that the new pay rates wouldn’t be backdated to the year before as promised. When the announcement made no mention of it, 200 sailors (about 80 percent of the staff) walked off the base in protest.

While the men and the newspapers reported the action as a strike, it was technically a mutiny as they disobeyed their commanding officers and abandoned their duties. Although the government announced it would backdate the pay rates that evening, many of the mutineers refused to return to duty and were discharged a few days later. But that was only the beginning; over the next week, sailors on duty aboard several ships and naval bases throughout New Zealand mutinied, according to the National Museum of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

Mutiny is a serious offense in the navy, but surprisingly many of the delinquent sailors were treated relatively easily. Despite the fact that the navy’s development was set back decades and it had to remove at least one cruiser from the service, most of the mutineers were given relatively light punishments. Most of the sailors served jail time and were soon discharged from service – which many of them wanted in the first place. As far as mutinies go, in the end this one didn’t turn out so badly.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.