Most merchant ships requisitioned for First World War service continued to carry people or cargo. One Union Company ship, however, entered the Royal Navy and bore the prefix HMS. The Wahine (not to be confused with the second Wahine, tragically wrecked in Wellington in 1968) was no ordinary ship. Just the second ferry built for the prestige Wellington-Lyttelton overnight service, this vessel had been completed in 1913 to partner the Maori (1907). The 4436-ton ship made 21.33 knots on trials, faster than most trans-Atlantic passenger liners. It also had a bow rudder to make it easier to berth stern-first in Lyttelton’s tricky inner harbour.
13 Oct 1915 - 28 May 1916:
Despatch vessel to Gallipoli Forces
22 July 1916 - 21 April 1919:
Number of mining operations carried out: 76
Total number of mines laid: 11,378
Although ‘our Wahine’, as its admirers called the ship, was a vital link between the islands, its speed and manoeuvrability made it an excellent auxiliary warship. On 15 July 1915 the ship left Port Chalmers for an unreported destination, later revealed to be Britain. As the Wahine had been designed for a short sea run, it completed the long voyage on half its boilers to conserve coal.
An extensive refit on the Thames produced the despatch vessel HMS Wahine. To protect them in case of capture, Captain A.M. Edwin was made a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve and the rest of the crew was also given reservist status. For the next eight months, HMS Wahine ran between Malta and Mudros, the support base for Gallipoli. At Mudros, the ship's comings and goings turned many heads. As bow rudders were rare, observers were astonished to see the Wahine leave harbour stern-first at speed. At Malta, Captain Edwin impressed many by berthing stern-first with extraordinary precision.
There was considerable consternation amongst those in the vessels at anchor as the Wahine rushed stern-first at them.
Although HMS Wahine mounted two 4-inch (102-mm) guns, it relied on speed to evade enemy submarines. On one occasion a U-boat captain, under-estimating its quarry's speed, surfaced two miles astern of the fleeing ship. The Wahine’s gun crew claimed a hit with their third shot.
After the evacuation of Gallipoli, HMS Wahine returned to England, where between May and July 1916 it was transformed into a minelayer for North Sea service. This involved stripping out Deck D and half of Deck C to accommodate mines, workshops and minelaying gear. Royal Navy officers replaced the New Zealand deck crew but most of the civilian engineers stayed with the ship.
HMS Wahine spent the rest of the war based on the east coast of Britain, carrying out 76 mining missions. The usual pattern was to be escorted to the target area by a destroyer and then to dash in under the cover of darkness. The mines had to be laid in smooth seas to avoid the risk of accidental explosions from bumping mines. Even so, it was hazardous work, because mines could still explode prematurely. Several ‘prematures’ shook Wahine badly. One such blast shifted three of its boilers and threw up so much coal smoke that the stokers thought the Wahine had been torpedoed. In one particularly hazardous mission, the ship was sent to plug a 5-mile gap in a previously laid minefield. Although that sounds a large space, it is hard to find in an unmarked minefield at night, so the successful raid was tribute to the ship's navigator’s skills.
The Admiralty considered keeping such a useful ship, but returned the Wahine in 1919. After a lengthy refit, it re-entered the Wellington-Lyttelton service early the following year. Regular passengers noticed something new: ‘Our Wahine’ now sported a plaque recording its Great War service, a gift from its wartime crew. It survived the ship's loss in 1951 and is held by Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand.