Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Earthquake: the Role of H M S Veronica

The Veronica Bell Ceremony at the Soundshell on the Sunday of Art Deco Weekend is one of the most poignant moments in the weekend and is a time for reflection, a time to remember those who perished in the Earthquake and its aftermath and a time for thanks to those who worked tirelessly to rescue and assist those who survived. The Navy played a a central and important role in that rescue because of its presence in Napier in the form of HMS Veronica and her crew.

This year during the ceremony a most moving experience for me was the playing of the recording made at the time some of the actual morse code transmissions received from and sent to Veronica which were listened to in awed silence.

When the Earthquake struck on 3 February 1931 at 1045 HMS Veronica was tied up at the wharf in Napier having arrived at 0200. Her presence was very fortuitous because all communications on the land were damaged in the quake and the sole means of allerting the outside world to the disaster and maintaining communication were through the Veronica. The following is that part of the story during the day of the quake taken from the Veronica's log and the translated morse code signals which were kindly given to me by the Napier Museum.

The following is a selection of notes to indicate timescale:

1045 First shock - severe
1055 Second shock
1113 Third shock
1130 Stern wires parted
1150 First Aid Party landed
1230 Second First Aid Party landed, also food and water (five parties were landed in all).
1900 Quarter deck and Boat deck rigged for accommodation of refugees
1945 Captain landed to attend meeting of local authorities - returned 2030: result reported by signal to C C N Z
2000 Shocks continually recurring

The quake caused buildings on the jetty to collapse and the ship trembled violently and bumped the jetty. Securing wires snapped. The tide ran out very quickly and the ship was in danger of going aground. Extra wires were secured and the anchors were let go. The valves in the radio receiver were smashed but this did not, fortunately prevent transmission. Roads opened, buildings collapsed and fires started.

1054 Earthquake reported to CCNZ [Commander in Chief New Zealand]. No damage to Veronica.
1114 From CCNZ: Do you require assistance of cruisers
1122 To CCNZ: Yes Veronica hard and fast ashore
1141 To CCNZ: Impossible to estimate damage. Feared extensive. Water rising. Veronica afloat.
1153 To CCNZ: Medical assistance required. Fear considerable loss of life.
1156 To CCNZ: Am landing all assistance possible.
1157 From CCNZ: Am proceeding Napier with Diomede [Cruiser] with assistance.
1212 To CCNZ: Store buildings down, fires raging everywhere, all medical assistance possible required. Shocks still recurring.
1245 Broadcast message for assistance sent to all ships
1309 SS Northumberland offered assistance
1313 To CCNZ: All local communications destroyed [in fact there were some amateum hams up and running by this time] Impossible to state damage. Landed every available man. Assistance urgently required.
1331 To CCNZ: Situation appalling. Whole town appears to be on fire.
1455 Reply to Prime Minister: Require as much assistance as possible. Whole town wrecked. Fires raging.
1456: To CCNZ and Wellington: Impossible to estimate damage at present but it is very severe. Have taken charge as S N O [Senior Naval Officer]. Am endeavouring to organise situation ashore. Have assistance of SSs Taranaki and Northumberland. Every available man landed and refugees coming aboard. Veronica will remain in inner harbour in touch with situation ashore.
1629 To CCNZ and Wellington: Information received that Hastings, Waipawa and Waipukurau have suffered equally with Napier. Medical assistance ungently required there and organisation for food. Am endeavouring to do this in Napier but assistance is urgently required elsewhere.
1730 To CCNZ: Situation ashore is still very obscure but damage and loss of life is worse if anything than thought. Water supply has completely failed. Food shortage probable. Have organised food depots. I understand all surrounding towns are equally or worse affected.
2018 From CCNZ: Important. When situation clearer to you I shall be glad if you will forecast what action you would propose on arrivel of cruisers including working parties etc required ashore. We have on board 15 Doctors, 11 nurses, 54 stretchers, x-Ray portable, 5 marquees, 34 tents, 400 blankets [etc etc.]
2051 To CCNZ: Have just returned from going round. Practically whole of stone and brick buildings of Napier have been destroyed and in many cases are blazing furiously. Hundreds wooden buildings shaken to ground, some partially. Casualties list very heavy but impossible to estimate at moment. Water supplies failed. Fire brigade incapable of dealing with all the fires. Populace quiet and appear stunned by magnitude of the disaster. I have organised a food depot and policing of streets. Several temporary hospitals organised and Veronica forming an X-Ray station. All destitute women and children who care to are aboard Veronica. Shocks still recurring.
2249 From CCNZ [aboard Diomede] It may be a little after 0800 before I reach Veronica as we shall approach with caution. Expect to be 10 miles off Napier at 0700.
2337 To CCNZ: Medical assistance has arrived by aeroplane and car and I think situation is slightly easier but that only refers to people who have been rescued and have been able to get to medical centres. Fires still raging.Acacia Class Sloop

Veronica at Napier after Quake

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