After the Second World War the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), like all the services, faced difficulties readjusting to peacetime conditions – not only in drastically reducing numbers but also in determining the shape of the post-war fleet. On the other hand, there was much wartime surplus equipment available, and New Zealand took advantage of this to acquire six Loch-class frigates (HMNZS Tutira, Pukaki, Taupo, Rotoiti, Kaniere, and Hawea) in 1949. These would supplement a force still based around two cruisers, the Dido-class HMNZS Black Prince and Bellona, which replaced Achilles and Gambia shortly after the war.
Defence plans by the end of the 1940s were dominated by the developing Cold War between the Soviet Union and its former wartime allies in the West, led by the United States. They centred on preparing to fulfil the so-called Middle East pledge – the promise to provide forces immediately for the defence of Egypt in the event of war with the Soviet Union. The government promised to send all surplus naval capacity to the region. Readiness was enhanced by the exchange of frigates with the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet in 1950.
In the event, the RNZN became involved in a conflict in a very different setting. The Korean War erupted in June 1950 when North Korea, believed in the West to be a Soviet puppet, invaded its southern neighbour. After the US secured a Security Council resolution calling on members to support South Korea, the New Zealand government agreed to provide naval forces for the UN effort. Two frigates, Pukaki and Tutira, deployed immediately and reached the theatre in early August. They began escorting ships between Japan and the South Korean port of Pusan. In mid-September 1950 they escorted troopships to Inch’on, where the UN landing transformed the war, leading to the rapid liberation of South Korea.
When UN forces attempted to occupy North Korea, China intervened and threw them back. The frontline eventually stabilised near the 38th Parallel, the former border between the two Koreas. An armistice brought the fighting to an end in July 1953. Throughout the war New Zealand sustained its naval contribution, with all six frigates serving tours with the UN Command. The ships formed part of a British squadron which operated mainly on the west coast of the Korean peninsula, patrolling in search of enemy craft and protecting various South Korean-held islands. In all, about 1300 RNZN personnel served in the Korean War; two lost their lives, one during a shore raid on North Korea by HMNZS Rotoiti in August 1951.
During the 1950s New Zealand’s defence focus shifted from the Middle East to South-east Asia.
The RNZN played a small part in the British nuclear testing programme in the Pacific. Its hydrographic survey vessel surveyed sites in the Line Islands, and the frigates Pukaki and Rotoiti acted as weather ships during four tests at Christmas Island in 1957.
In 1955 New Zealand agreed to supply forces in peacetime for the British Commonwealth Strategic Reserve, which would provide the initial response to any attack on the region by China. As a result one RNZN frigate was stationed in Singapore. Although intended to meet a ‘hot war’ situation, the reserve forces became involved in guerrilla warfare then wracking Malaya.
The Malayan Emergency had been in place since 1948, as the authorities battled mainly Chinese guerrillas – ‘communist terrorists’ (CTs), as they were known. New Zealand frigates occasionally took part in shore bombardments of CT positions.
By the 1960s the RNZN, like the other armed services, faced the problem of replacing now obsolesent war surplus equipment. The Lochs in particular were nearing the end of their useful life. Two Rothesay-class frigates (HMNZS Otago and Taranaki) arrived early in the decade. A Leander-class frigate, HMNZS Waikato, the RNZN’s first ship designed to embark a helicopter, joined them in 1966. A fourth frigate, the Leander-class HMNZS Canterbury, was added in 1971, replacing HMNZS Blackpool, which had been borrowed from the Royal Navy.
Meanwhile the RNZN’s cruiser era had come to an end. Black Prince reverted to the Royal Navy in 1961. The last cruiser acquired by the RNZN, HMNZS Royalist, another Dido-class, was by the mid-1960s becoming a liability. Its final Far East deployment ended ignominiously when it had to be towed back to New Zealand, after breaking down in the Solomon Islands. It was scrapped in 1966.
During the 1960s the RNZN became involved in yet another conflict in South-east Asia, stemming from Indonesia’s 'Konfrontasi' policy towards the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. This took the form of armed incursions in Malaya and Borneo. Two minesweepers – HMNZS Hickleton and Santon – deployed to carry out anti-infiltration patrols in Borneo waters and in the Malacca and Singapore straits. The frigate Taranaki was also involved. This commitment ended in 1966 when Indonesia abandoned its campaign.
Hopes within the RNZN that New Zealand might contribute a warship to the US-led effort in support of South Vietnam went unrealised, the government proving reluctant to face the cost of shore bombardments. Instead, the RNZN commitment in Vietnam was confined to medics. Most of the 26 RNZN personnel who served in Vietnam did so in a joint services medical unit, which operated in Binh Dinh province from 1967 to 1971. Subsequently a few served with one of two New Zealand training teams deployed to Vietnam.