Trouble in paradise

ISLAND LIFE: Part of New Zealand Expeditionary Force camp at Malifa, Western Samoa, taken in 1914.
ISLAND LIFE: Part of New Zealand Expeditionary Force camp at Malifa, Western Samoa, taken in 1914.

A now-forgotten Royal Navy paymaster standing on a wharf under a white flag of truce and demanding that Germany surrender Samoa marks the opening act in the creation of New Zealand's multiculturalism.

And if it wasn't quite the opening Kiwi shot in the Great War, it could have been.

Lieutenant Edward Church wasn't quite alone that Saturday morning, August 29, 1914. Over his shoulder, in Apia Harbour, was the dreadnought HMAS Australia.

In a couple of other ships waited 1363 men from Wellington and Auckland - along with a military band, a couple of dentists, and New Zealand's first war correspondent.

But Church had a problem - there were no Germans to receive his surrender-or-else demand. Just lots of Samoans, Chinese, and assorted palagi from everywhere but Germany.

The Germans, this time, had decided not to fight.

Colonial Wellington had long aspired to take over Samoa but in 1900 lost any opportunity when, in a three-nation deal, what became Western Samoa went to Germany, American Samoa went to the United States, and Britain picked up other remnants, such as the Solomon Islands.

Samoa was not especially important in 1900 but acquired importance when the Germans installed a powerful radio transmitter in the hills above Apia, to communicate with Berlin and the German Pacific naval fleet.

With the declaration of war, British Secretary of State Lewis Harcourt sent New Zealand Governor-General Earl Liverpool an urgent telegram asking "if your ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless station at Samoa, we should feel that this was a great and urgent imperial service".

There was little knowledge in Wellington of what to expect in Samoa. The government asked London for details of the German forces and defences. "For information regarding the defences of Samoa, see Whitaker's Almanac," was the unhelpful reply.

Thanks to an extensive compulsory military training system, New Zealand was war-ready quickly, and a 1363-strong force - including a field artillery battery, engineers, machine-gunners, doctors and nurses - was ready to go.

It was led by Maniototo farmer Colonel Robert Logan, 51. He had no operational experience of the army; he was sent to administer Samoa, not to fight for it.

If the land forces were ready and capable, the nation's naval forces, a fleet of three ageing P-class British cruisers, were woefully inadequate. All the more so as the main threat in the Pacific was the German fleet commanded by Graf Maximilian von Spee, based in Qingdao, northern China.

With his flagship SMS Scharnhorst and another dreadnought, Gneisenau, Spee could have despatched the New Zealand fleet in seconds.

The only superior force to Spee was across the Tasman, in the form of Rear-Admiral Sir George Patey, commander of the Royal Australian Navy on the 19,200-ton battleship HMAS Australia.

When war broke out, Australia, accompanied by the light cruisers Melbourne and Sydney, steamed out of Sydney Harbour and made for the Bismarck Group, where Patey believed he might trap Spee.

By August 11, the New Zealand force was ready to sail. Two Union Steam Ship Company vessels, Moeraki and Monowai, has been requisitioned, and at 7pm, to an emotional farewell, they dropped their lines and sailed - out to the lee of Somes Island, where the troops found themselves sitting for three days in the ship's dirty holds in cold southerly conditions.

On the Friday, the ships returned to the wharf and the troops were sent on a route march through the Wellington suburbs.

The Evening Post ran an extract from a letter a local man had received from Apia: "The German fleet from their China station will be here next week and things will be pretty lively."

The soldiers sailed on August 15, and two days later met up with the three New Zealand cruisers. They were heading to Fiji, but when Patey heard that so many men were unprotected, the fleet was ordered to New Caledonia, where it could meet up with the Australian ships.

The solitary newspaper reporter with the force, Malcolm Ross, found himself in New Caledonia with an opportunity to file a story to New Zealand, but a patriotic self-censorship came into play.

"One might have sent news of the expedition from here but, so far as I was concerned, I decided to play the game and send nothing. The news might fall into the hands of the enemy and, so far as our expedition was concerned, give away the whole thing."

On August 26 the convoy reached Suva, where Logan met some Samoans who advised him of what to expect.

Soon after the Kiwi troops sailed from Suva on August 27, Operation Order No 1 told them where they were headed. "The object of the Expedition is the capture of the German Possession of Samoa, with special reference to the capital of Apia, and the wireless telegraph station." The soldiers were issued with 150 rounds of ammunition each.

On Saturday, August 29, the naval force arrived off Apia.

James Ah Sue, owner and editor of the weekly Samoanische Zeitung newspaper, reported: "Soon after daybreak, smoke was observed on the horizon ... The approach was certainly imposing. Undoubtedly never such a naval display had been seen in the South Seas."

Church was sent ahead with a flag of truce to demand unconditional surrender. When he couldn't find a German, an Australian commercial traveller was sent to find the German governor, Erich Shultz, who wasn't about to put up a fight.

"We realised from the outset that surrender was inevitable, because of the primitive defences of the place," Schultz said later. "Our forces consisted of 20 soldiers and special constables, and our fortifications of one gun. This was religiously fired every Saturday afternoon, and took half an hour to load."

With no resistance offered, the Kiwi soldiers climbed down rope ladders into motor launches, motor surfboats and ship's boats for the landing. The unpowered craft were towed in lines through the reef entrance towards a sandy strip of beach near Matautu Point.

By mid-afternoon, the Kiwis had seized the main area of Apia. Late in the afternoon, a detachment of Aucklanders, guided by some of the Fiji Samoans, set out for the radio station.

About midnight, the small column emerged from the bush into a clearing in which stood the great steel mast of the big Telefunken plant. It had been booby-trapped, and it took the soldiers several days to disarm the explosives and then get the radio working.

Later on Saturday, Schultz returned to Apia and presented himself to Logan, who expressed his regret that the governor was to be arrested and shipped out to New Zealand.

The Evening Post published a story about the takeover on August 31. Datelined London, the report said Apia had surrendered to the British: "The New Zealand Expeditionary Force landed unopposed in the afternoon." Prime Minister William Massey confessed that it had been "much easier than we expected".

Logan commandeered Schultz's car on Sunday morning to drive from his new residence in the governor's house at Vailima, in the hills behind Apia, to the administration buildings.

There, he prepared to raise the new flag over Samoa. In the bay, warships from three nations were at anchor. Formed up in a square outside the white building, the troops, in dusty brown uniforms, paraded with an infantry band that had made the trip.

"A naval officer looked at his watch and, presently, the first guns of the Royal Salute from Psyche boomed out across the bay," Ross reported.

"Then slowly, very slowly, inch by inch, to the booming of the 21 guns, the flag was hoisted to the summit of the staff, the officers with drawn swords silently watching it go up. With the sound of the last gun, it reached the top of the flagstaff, and fluttered out in the southeast trade wind about the tall palms of 'Upolu."

With that, the navy left and the soldiers settled in for the occupation - until the morning of Monday, September 14, when the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau showed up in Apia Harbour.

Spee had been patrolling the Pacific, and while at Christmas Island, in what is now Kiribati, he learned that Apia had fallen.

It occurred to Spee that some major ships might still be at Apia. He decided to attack, figuring that a battleship like Australia would be in a difficult tactical position trapped in the harbour in the grey light of an early morning.

"The Australia is to be attacked by torpedo, the other ships by gunfire at long range," Spee ordered. "In the absence of the Australia, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau will advance towards the harbour from the north and northeast-by-east in order to prevent the escape of any shipping."

The giant battleships sailed into Apia Harbour as the Kiwi troops, interrupted at their breakfast, ran down to the shore.

In a surprising act, two platoons of the 5th Wellington marched across the exposed Vaisigano Bridge as the Gneisenau trained its big guns on them. Had the ship opened fire, the soldiers would have been blown away in an instant.

Spee held his fire, however, and sailed northwest from Samoa, stopping his jamming of Apia radio long enough to allow the New Zealanders to report his direction. Once he heard them do this, he changed course and made for Tahiti.

He bombarded Papeete, inflicting minor damage, before sailing to the islands of Nukuhiva to meet the light cruiser Nurnberg. Sailing on to South America, Spee trapped several British cruisers off Chile and sank them in the Battle of Coronel.

Rounding Cape Horn, he ran into tougher opposition, and in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, the Royal Navy destroyed Spee's fleet.

With that, Samoa disappeared from the Great War. The soldiers who had occupied it were sent back to New Zealand. Many of them then swapped a bit of paradise for a place called Gallipoli.