New Zealand Army Ordnance Section

The early years of the 20th century were a confusing time in the field of stores accounting for the New Zealand Military Forces.  Responsibilities were split between:

  • The Director of Ordnance and Artillery, who was responsible for artillery armament, artillery ammunition, fixed coast defences, and supplies for ordnance, and
  • The Quartermaster General, who through the Director of Stores of the Defence Stores Department, was responsible for clothing and personal equipment, accoutrements, saddlery, harness, small-arms and small arms ammunition, machine guns and all stores required for the Defence Forces.

By all accounts, these arrangements were somewhat perplexing, and there was a considerable amount of duplication of responsibility. At the time it was agreed that the practices were inefficient and should be replaced. But as they were very much in line with current British Army procedures there would be no move to change. Eventually, the change would happen, and a New Zealand Army Ordnance Corps (NZAOC)would be formed to manage most army supply matters. However, for the time being Artillery would remain responsible for the management of Gun Ammunition, an arrangement that would endure until 1947.

In 1911, concerned with the artillery ammunition situation, and the associated costs with importation all of the required stocks to maintain training and operational needs. Lieutenant Colonel G.N Johnston, the Director of Ordnance and Artillery, tasked his Artillery Stores Accountant Lieutenant R.G.V Parker to conduct a cost-benefit analysis exercise on the virtues of locally made up ammunition versus the importation new ammunition.

At the time the stocks of New Zealand Artillery consisted of a variety of obsolete, obsolescent and current field and fixed coast artillery pieces including:

  • QF  6-Pounder Hotchkiss gun.
  • QF 6 pounder Nordenfelt.
  • QF 12 pounder 12 cwt gun.
  • Ordnance QF 18-pounder.
  • QF 4.5-inch howitzer.
  • BL 6-inch Mk VII naval gun.
  • BL 6 inch gun Mk V.
  • BL 8 inch Mk VII naval gun.

Most of the Quick Loading (QF) ammunition types consisted of single piece ammunition, which had the projectile mounted in a  brass case which held the propellant charge.  QF cases had a limited life and could usually only be cleaned and reloaded with Cordite charges, up to a maximum of six times before requiring disposal.

BL 6inch Gun Cartridge MkIII. Wikipedia Commons

The Breech loading weapons used a two-piece ammunition system where the projectile and the propellant bags were separate single-use items that could be adjusted to provide different firing characteristics. Propellant charges of the time were cloth, usually silk bag, containing sticks of cordite bound up together with an igniter pad. The nature of the cordite provided the cartridges with some rigidity and a tubular shape so that they could be loaded as a solid unit without a case. 

Lieutenant Parker estimated in his study that by refurbishing by cleaning, inspecting and refilling the QF Casings, and inspecting and refurbishing in service propellant bags, and manufacturing new ones as required, considerable savings could be made instead of importing new items.

He estimated with an initial outlay for specialist equipment and materials exuding labour, the savings would be in the area of £3,333.15 (2017 NZD$555230.08) in favour of the local product which costed out at £5683.11 ( 2017 NZD$ 946,670.23).

To achieve these savings Lieutenant Parker recommended that as part of the Royal New Zealand Artillery (RNZA), a specialist Ordnance Section be established for the manufacture and modification of Ammunition. The initial manpower scaling of the Ordnance Section waS proposed that it would be made up  of either;

  • Six gunners from within the current Artillery establishment, or
  • Six gunners whose time had already expired but had the required ammunition experience.

Both options would be under the supervision of the Master Gunner and would be entitled to the same pay and allowances as other member’s of the Royal New Zealand Artillery as they would just be another section of the Artillery.

The actual formation of this Ordnance Section would have an extended gestation period, and it would not be until mid-1914 that General Godley, the Commander of the New Zealand Forces approved the proposal and work could begin in establishing the Ordnance Section.

Orders were placed on Great Britain for the supply of the required machinery, components and most importantly cordite, with the some of the machinery received in good time, the delivery of the remainder was promised to be delivered as soon as possible by the British suppliers. Given that war had broken out the importance of setting up this capability and securing New Zealand’s immediate supply of Artillery Ammunition for training and home defence became evident,  Lieutenant Parker must be commended for his proposal which laid the foundations for the modern Ammunition Technician Trade.

As the new Section was to be another uniformed section of the RNZA such as the Field Artillery or Electric Light Company. It was to be under the administration and control of the OC RNZA and not the Quartermaster General, and on  1 March 1915 authority was granted under New Zealand Defence Forces General Order 90 to raise the New Zealand Army Ordnance Section with effect from 1 April 1915.

Given that the creation of the Ordnance Section within the RNZA had been anticipated for some time it was not an entirely smooth transition. The OC RNZA Lieutenant Colonel J.E Hume was away from his  Wellington HQ at the time, with many of his responsibilities carried out by a subordinate,  Lieutenant J Burberry, and was somewhat out of the loop when the Defence Force general Orders were published. Lt Col Hume was at the Regimental HQ in Auckland when he received the file with the names of the selected men for his approval, replied a week later that he was unaware of the formation of such a section. As it had been settled on without referring to him to proceed, adding that if it was intended to appoint serving soldiers, then seniors with good records should be selected.

All those selected had retired and declined re-enlistment, except for an Ex sergeant Murray.  Applications were widened to both former and serving members of the RNZA and although, with not as much service and experience as those selected initially  the following were the Foundation members:

  • Bombardier John Murray,
  • Gunner Hugh John Adams,
  • Gunner Maurice Francis Johnstone,
  • Gunner Patrick Kesham,
  • Gunner Charles William Marshall,
  • Gunner R Ross,
  • Gunner William Thornton,

Members of the section were classed as non-combatants and were to be employed wholly on their own particular work and were not to be detailed for any other duty or task whatsoever.

Located Fort Ballance at Mahanga Bay on Wellington’s Miramar Peninsula, the section’s primary duties was the assembling of ammunition components for the artillery, with care and upkeep of the magazines becoming part of their responsibilities.

Mahanga Bay, Miramar, Wellington, c1910 (Colourised) Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

As the Ordnance Section was a component of the RNZA its members continued to wear the standard RNZA dress embellishments.

With an extensive stock of neglected cartridge cases requiring inspection, it seems that the first priority was clearing this backlog until the balance of the equipment and material was received from England, and after a short period of training, it would have been a steady state of work inspecting and manufacturing artillery ammunition components.

Removing primer from a round of fixed QF ammunition. Australian War Memorial
RAN personnel inspecting cordite then tying it into bundles. Australian War Memorial
Base fuze or plug being removed from, or replaced in a large calibre BL projectile. Australian War Memorial

With the creation of the NZAOC in 1917, it seems that the administrative responsibility for the Ordnance Section passed from the RNZA to the NZAOC with its members becoming Ordnance soldiers, but with technical control remaining with the RNZA.

The immediate post-war years into the mid-1920’s were a busy time for the NZAOC Ammunition Section.  The Kaiwharawhara Magazine close to the city was closed, and the Mahanga Bay facilities expanded from the original magazine and laboratory building on the foreshore to include Fort Balance, Fort Gordon and the Kau Point Battery as these were decommissioned, their armaments removed, gun pits covered over with roofs and turned into additional magazines. The area went from been Wellingtons premier Defensive location to been the first large scale ammunition depot of the NZAOC, a role it would fill until 1929 when purpose-built facilities were constructed at Hopuhopu in the Waikato.

The RNZA would still maintain overall control for Artillery Ammunition with their own Artillery Directorate until 1947 when this was also handed over to the RNZAOC.

AT new
Modern NZ Army Ammunition Technician Badge. Dave Theyers Collection

Copyright © Robert McKie 2021

One thought on “New Zealand Army Ordnance Section

  1. Pingback: The First Cohort – Ordnance Soldiers of 1917 – "To the Warrior his Arms"

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