Telegraphist Ian Middlemiss – Oral History

It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mr Middlemiss. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.

This is an interview with Mr Ian Middlemiss, Telegraphist RNZN Retired, taking place at his residence 427 Linwood Avenue, Christchurch on the 3rd of December 1990.

Now Ian, can I call you Ian ?

Yes sure.

I have explained to you in broad terms why I am here, and I notice that you served in the RNZN during the War, and you have had a long association with maritime matters since then.

I would like to just start by asking you to tell me a little bit about your early life and how you came to get involved with the Navy ?

Well I have always had an interest in things naval and the sea, and always been drawn towards that type of thing, by having boats myself in the Otago Harbour when we used to go for holidays down the bay. Always read things naval, stories, books that were given to me or that I got from the Library. School Libraries in my school days were always, not always, but invariably leaning towards things maritime and navy. I knew quite a bit of history about the Battle of Jutland and the like. Always as I say thought of things naval. When the War came along with my great burning ambition to be in the navy, but at that stage of course I was too young.

How old were you ?

That was 1939, so I would be 17.

What year were you born ?


Oh you were only a youngster 15.

Yes that’s right 15 yes.

The Naval Authorities I guess throughout the country started up what they called the Naval Auxiliary Patrol Service (NAPS), that was made up of people who were interested in boats and boating and had boats to set up a force to look after the harbours around the country, the main harbours, mainly at nights because of the thought of the scare of Japanese submarines coming in to do damage to our Merchant shipping. I went along to Navy Office in Dunedin to the inaugural meeting that they held. I got to know about this through friends of the boating fraternity, and was invited along by one of them. They set up, I think it was seven different Units, each one with a boat and crew, and I ended up being the Signalman on HMNZS Chatham, which was a 32 foot launch, skippered by Chief Petty Officer Jack Kane, who was also the owner of the boat. We used to do our patrolling at night and go to our normal occupations through the day, of course as the NAPS service was in those days. It got to the stage and my age where I was old enough to get into the Navy proper. My application had been in all this time to join the Navy, so that when I turned 18 in 44. The next thing I knew I was heading for Philomel to be sworn in as a Telegraphist in a Class of the 5th TELS. We went to Tamaki and had a basic training course, where we were run around the Island and so on, as the Navy is want to do with raw recruits to pull them into line and make men of them or sailors out of them. We then went to Tasman in Lyttelton, where we did our telegraphy training.

Was there any particular reason why you became a telegraphist, was that your choice ?

Yes, I have always been interested too in radio of course. My brother, one of my brothers was one of the first radio amateurs in New Zealand, Southland, and of course was always interested in listening to him speaking to people around the world. I often used to sit in on the talks and so on that he used to have with these other hams around the world, and of course that sort of coloured my thoughts as to what I would do. I ended up in Tasman as I say. We did the bulk of our Course there and then went back to Tamaki for the last short period of time. I think it was a six month Course we did, probably for the last month I think we went back there to do our final Course, the final parts of the Course at the Telegraphist School. From there we graduated and went to different ships around the place. I ended up at North Head, which was an Army Defence Establishment at the mouth of the Auckland Harbour, and there was a Naval Signal Station there. Above us and behind us was a battery of Army guns that also was the defence for Auckland Harbour. It was our job, the Navy’s job to challenge all the shipping that came, that was coming in mainly to the port, to see who they were, what they were, and if they had authority to be there. Of course if they did we would then just allow them passage and the Army would just stand by, as it were.

You were billeted in ?

In North Head Barracks itself.

They had Barracks ?

Yes it was an Army Barracks and we were billeted there. There was, I think there was two, I can’t remember the names of the Officers now unfortunately. There were two or three Officers there and we had a crew of about a dozen Telegraphists and Signalmen, `bunting tossers’. Each shift there would be a Signalman and a Telegraphist in the office down below the observation tower I suppose it would be, where the Officer of the day and Army people were on duty to see, you know, that everything went right. From there I went back to Philomel for a short period of time, and then was drafted to HMNZS Kiwi, once again as a Telegraphist of course, where we did mine sweeping duties out in the Gulf. On Kiwi I served under Lieutenant Commander O’Neil.

Jim O’Neil, a big fat chap ?

Yes `Bolders O’Neil’ they called him.

I think the last one we had, and that was about the time we were getting towards the end of the War, was Lieutenant Yule, from Dunedin. Incidentally while I was on the Kiwi, my Divisional Officer was a Sub Lieutenant Beattie, who turned out finally to be Sir David Beattie. I have a photograph of the ships company containing Lieutenant Commander O’Neil and Officers including Sir David as a Subby.

Am I allowed to ask what sort of a Divisional Officer he was ?

He was a very friendly, almost shy guy. How he turned out after that I don’t know. Whether we brought him along or knocked him back or not I don’t know. He was always very easy to get on with. The only funny thing that I can think about, and it wasn’t funny at the time. We had the Jimmy on the Kiwi, as all Jimmy’s are wont to be it seems, didn’t like communications people. Nothing would serve him better than have us working part of ship, chipping waists and so on. One day we were sent to the Bridge, one of the Signalman and I, to polish the brass. We were up there polishing away and thinking we were doing great strokes, and we saw a couple of these great big long brass rods in the compass, and they were hell of things to get a hold of and polish. So we thought “oh these things slip out”, so we did, we slipped them out, and we were sitting on the deck there polishing them and the Navigation Officer came up. He immediately flew into a rage, they were the Flinders bars out of the compass, as you have probably guessed by now. It was lucky that he found that we had removed these things, because when we swung compass, before we went out to do some more mine sweeping a couple of days later, we were seven degrees out on the compass readings. We never got into any strife about that, in fact the Captain never even mentioned it, except our Divisional Officer, “and that’s the last time you bastards are going on the Bridge to polish the brass”, and we said “oh thank you very much Sir”, it achieved it’s purpose. We didn’t know, we were dumb and didn’t know, nobody told us that these things were, you know what they were, but I certainly know now, and I have certainly remembered since, that you don’t fiddle around with those things.

From there I went back to Philomel for a short time before I was demobbed, and came home to Dunedin. Where after a short period of time I joined the Police, the New Zealand Police.

When you first joined the Navy, how did you adapt to Naval life as distinct from civilian life ?

Strangely enough quite well, because I had really never been away from home in my life before, and I had lived in a home with my mother and two, sometimes three sisters. So I came from a background, I suppose of what you would call `Mummy’s boy’ type thing. But it never ever came up, because, well I sort of fitted in. Played football. I suppose if you would like to look back in the records you will find that the 5th TELS Football Team was only ever beaten once in it’s whole history. We played every thing from the Officers of Tasman through to all the crack Teams in the Navy. The only time that we were beaten was by the crew of Viti, the Fijian Navy ship, Viti, and that was in Lyttelton and we never crossed their line, and they played in bare feet.

The disciplinary aspects you took to quite easily ?

Oh yes that was no problem, because I had a disciplined sort of life in my own home, no that was no problem at all.

From what you said, you didn’t regard your time in the Navy as a waste of time, or an interference with your life, or anything like that. How did you feel about it ?

I was still up to that stage, my life’s ambition to be in the Navy, and every thing that happened was interesting, new to me, and took it in my stride, because I was doing the thing I liked, playing around with radio as well as being in the Navy. I didn’t have time to think about being bored. I never got into any strife, apart from one incident, in our early training. But apart from that I never fell foul of the system.

Was there any reason why you didn’t sign on at the end of the War ?

Yes the reason was that by this time I was married, and the Navy gave us the opportunity to stay on as communications type bod. Also at that stage the Merchant Service were looking, or desperately in need of communications people, and they were offering all sorts of great incentives to Naval Telegraphists and Signalling specialists to go with them. I was offered a Second Radio Officers job in the Merchant Navy, as were a lot of other people who were demobbed at the same time. It was tempting, very tempting to stay on. But of course I married, my wife was waiting for me at home, to come home and get out of the Navy, so I thought discretion was the better part of valour and that’s what happened, came out of the Navy and back to civilian life.

Do you think that the Navy had any sort of effect on your attitude towards life later on after the War ?

Oh yes I think it did. It helped to adjust to be able to live and work with other people. To be part of a team, which I have always tried to be. It always made me think of the other persons point of view. To be a successful unit in any thing, particularly then, was to be part of the unit and to do your part, like the cog in the wheel, the cog in the mechanism. It sounds a bit manly pandy, but I am not, I am far from that, don’t get me wrong, I am as bloody macho as anybody.

In fact you kept up your association with maritime affairs I understand ?

Yes, because when I came out of the Navy I joined the ex Royal Navalmens’ Association, and of course came across and was always mixing with people who were still in the Navy, and had been in the Navy. We were invited as an Association to participate in a small bore Rifle Club, which we formed in Dunedin. And we used to use the Toroa, the rifle range, and we were there once, sometimes two or three times a week, so the Association was with things Naval, was always sort of fairly high up in the agenda. My son of course hearing all these bits and pieces about the Navy, he decided that he would like to be in the RNVR, which he did after being in Sea Cadets, until he was old enough to join the VR. Once again there was this association with things Naval with him coming and going in his uniform, us going to the Naval Balls, and any thing to do with inspections and so on, we always turned out. When I say we, my wife and I and the rest of the family would always turn out to these things. So that association sort of carried on, albeit through my son I suppose.

Can I just ask you. There has been a lot of debate hasn’t there over the last few years on defence matters related to the visits of nuclear powered or nuclear armed vessels, and the ANZAC frigate and a lot of genuine inquiry by all sorts of people into what, as a country, we should do. Whether we should have defence forces or whether we should simply go for a Coast Guard or what ever. Have you got any views of your own on that ?

Yes, I think pulling out of the ANZUS Alliance was a retrograde step as far as our country is concerned. I am a loyalist and you know patriotic as the next one. I think our present situation is a bit isolationist, in as much as that if we need help from anybody for any reason, then of course they are going, when I say they, the Australians or the Americans are going to think “oh well, they are not interested, so why should we help them”. We’ve got to fit into the scheme of things, like a family I suppose. If we don’t do our part to look after our little corner of the earth, of the world, then we can’t expect other people to do it.

The nuclear part of it, I suppose I would liken that to when bows and arrows were first invented. Probably somebody jumped up and down and said “this is the end of the world that you know, we’ve got these things and it will be the destruction of the world”. As different things have evolved from gun powder through to nuclear weapons, this has been the cry right through. Well we find that we haven’t annihilated ourselves yet, in fact we have got to the stage where we have got too many people contrary to the people who speak doom and destruction, “that the human race is going to do ill to itself”. Once again we still don’t know what the nuclear thing is going to do. It will be interesting to see what Saddam Hussein is going to do, and I think he’s fiddling around with the hostages to buy time to evolve the nuclear bomb. That’s my opinion of what he’s up to. I think, my own personal opinion is that when this thing first happened, and he went into Kuwait, if the United Nations were going to do anything about it at all, they should have done it then, not buggerize around like they have been of course. It’s leaving him to settle in, but of course there again, you have got to have world opinion on your side to be able to that. Of course we have now, except I think there is two little countries on the periphery of the thing that voted against it and they were the only two. With the result now that they have got to give him the opportunity I suppose to pull out and save face which is a great thing with the Eastern type bods. In our own, I suppose, our own Desert Shield Forces, as we are calling them at the moment.

So your attitude would be that you would still favour responsibilities towards some sort of collective defence arrangement, like ANZUS ?

Yes I think you have got to be in something like that. We have got to supply, or be able to supply, or have the potential to supply some sort of a force to be involved in the defence of our own country I suppose. We need friends, you’ve got to have friends to exist. If we are cutting ourselves off from other people through any reason, then of course the time comes when you need them, or if you need them, they are not going to be there. I think it’s only a matter of common sense that we have some sort of a defence, whether it be only just a Coast Guard type thing, where by I think the overseas fishing people are raping our waters, and we need somebody who can look after this on the surface. The Air Force do patrols, but there is nothing like hands on, people who can board these ships and actually look at the conditions that are going on. To do that you have got to have a Naval Force of some description.

Do you think that the Force should have a combat role as distinct from a just Coast Guard role. I mean you know, there has been a lot of discussion hasn’t there over the ANZAC frigate project ?

Yes I agree with the frigate type thing, having served in small ships and on the HDML type vessels. I wouldn’t ask anybody to go out and roll their insides out, looking after our waters in these small craft. Lets not look at the cost, it’s the efficiency of the job that we are looking for them to do. You need at least a frigate type size of ship to be able to be effective, and to give the people who are doing the job the necessary strength and sting in the tail if necessary to be able to do the job. Yes we do need some sort of defensive type capability.

We have to pay our green fees, in other words. Is that what you are saying ?

Yes that’s right.

Although the cost is high isn’t it. I mean there is no point in denying that the financial cost is great. You would see that as a reasonable thing for New Zealand citizens to pay ?

Yes the cost is one of the things against it of course. But to get any thing worth while, well in any day and age, you’ve got to pay for it, you’ve got to pay for quality. If these ships, and we’ve got to rely on our Naval people and our Naval ones, or the people who know what they are doing, and we hope it’s not toys for the boys that we are buying, and with the integrity of the people who are running our Navy, I don’t believe that that is so. That they need, they feel there is a want there. So that is how they are telling us what is necessary, and what is required, our frigates. I say yes that’s the smallest we need for efficient and comfortable, let’s not forget the comfort. I mean just because people are in the Services, doesn’t mean they have got to rough it. You’ve got to have people happy in the job that they are doing, to be able to do it efficiently, I think, that is part of it.

Do you think the general public get enough information on the issues to make a sensible, come to a sensible decision ?

No, I think, the Defence Department probably are the ones who, in my view, are sitting back a bit, by not letting us know exactly what’s going on, in as much as we can’t speak with any authority. People who are sympathetic to the cause for frigates, or anything else military, so that we can talk with any authority on why, how much, why it’s needed and so on, for any aspect of our Defence Force, the Army, Navy or Air Force. I think, and of course the media like to jump on the band wagon, and any thing to do with the Defence Forces, it’s always the squeaky wheel that gets the oil as I say, because the trendy’s who jump on and say “down with the frigates”, they are the ones that get interviewed. We have got to have some sort of a concentrated effort on the Defence, or Naval in this instance, the Navy’s side of it to give us this background. And don’t be shy, come out and say it properly, come out and say “we need these bloody ships”. It’s as simple as that, we need them and give us the reasons.

I understand that you’ve been involved in a comparatively recent development concerning ex Naval folk and their Association.

Yes it was recently decided by a group of ex Navalmen I suppose in Christchurch, that we should set up an Association reflecting the New Zealand Naval side of ex Navalmens’ Association in the country. With the result that at the Annual Meeting of our group it was decided to apply for the name Royal New Zealand Naval Association. This was decided on, and from there the applications to use the word `Royal’ were made to the appropriate authorities. Later an Order in Council signed by the Minister of Justice of the day was granted to use the word `Royal’. We became Incorporated, with the result that the Royal New Zealand Naval Association Incorporated is now functioning throughout the length and breadth of the country. There are members from North Cape to Stewart Island. There is only one Branch of them in the meantime, and that is in Christchurch. It is also the New Zealand, the parent Association at the moment too. This will happen until there are other Branches throughout the country. It’s hard to explain, but the two Associations run in tandem, the National Association and the Christchurch Branch. Unless and until you have other Associations in other parts of the country, then you can’t have a National Association, President, Secretary, Treasurer and the whole bit, until you have representatives from these other would be Branches to form the National Association. In the mean time, the Christchurch Branch Executive also hold the position of National, President, Secretary, Treasurer and so on.

Yes, I understand.

In our last Annual General Meeting, it was decided to invite Sir David Beattie to become our Patron, and we are still waiting on a reply from that. If in fact they have written and asked him. Admiral Thorn retired, was interested from the beginning, and offered verbal assistance to some of the members of the Club who had spoken to him in Wellington. In fact we had written to him twice to become Patron, but never received a reply. I guess that tells the tale.

There is something wrong there ?

The Association is still going, and we hope to have Branches through out the country.


Well Ian, thank you very much for your time. I was very keen to get the views on this current defence scene from somebody who had served in the Navy during the War, and you have fitted in admirably in that role. And you have also given us an idea what it was like to serve as a Telegraphist during hostilities. Thank you very much for your help.

Good, thank you for the opportunity.

(end of interview)

1 Response to Telegraphist Ian Middlemiss – Oral History

  1. Brian Moyse says:

    When I left the Navy in 1965 I returned to Cheviot North Canterbury where my family was. Ian was the local cop there and I got to know him quite well. I also knew his son Grant, a fellow police officer.

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