On a quiet beach in Samoa in August 1914, New Zealand forces went ashore in that century’s first amphibious assault and began what is often referred to as the ‘quiet invasion’ however the story begins just over three weeks earlier.
On the night of 6 August 1914, 48 hours after Britain’s entry into World War I, His Excellency the Earl of Liverpool, Governor-General of New Zealand, received from the Secretary of State for the Colonies a secret cabled despatch, part of which reads as follows:
“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…”
The radio transmitter located in the hills above Apia was capable of sending long-range Morse signals to Berlin. It could also communicate with Germany’s large naval fleet (over 90 warships). Britain wanted this threat neutralised and so the day after the despatch, New Zealand pledged their support.
Very quickly a force of nearly 1400, mainly Territorials (Reserves) was assembled (5th Wellington Regiment, 3rd Auckland Regiment, a field artillery battery, and elements from other corps). On the morning of 12 August, the ‘Advance Section/Party of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force” marched through Wellington to board the Union Steamship Company’s transport ships Monowai and Moeraki.
The sight was welcomed by a patriotic crowd and although not widely publicised, many attended the official farewell at the Basin Reserve on the afternoon of the 14th. The stalwart body of men, who were “mostly young and keen, and well set”, were addressed by the Governor which left them in no doubt of their duty to New Zealand and of course, the British Empire.
As they left on the morning of the 15th, cheers ‘rang around the heights of the harbour’. The force, under the command of Colonel Robert Logan was later joined by the ageing British cruisers HMS Philomel, Psyche and Pyramus, and there was some concern that the German East Asia Squadron which included the two heavy cruisers, the SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau were somewhere in the area.
In fact, little was known about the defences of Samoa and a great story (or should we say myth) eventuated whereby when New Zealand asked about possible German resistance, London advised that they should consult Whitaker’s Almanac.
The Company of NZ Railway Engineers (NZRE) were important in getting an existing narrow gauge tramway operational so stores and troops could be moved from Apia to the wireless station 6.4 km inland. They rather grandly described themselves as the ‘Samoa Branch, NZ Railway Department’ or ‘Apia Division, NZ Railways’.
The wireless station had been recently built to improve communications throughout German Pacific territories and was constructed by the German Sudseetelefunken Kompagnie normally referred to by the Kiwis as the ‘Telefunken Company’.
The origins of the tramway are more obscure but located German reports refer to it as the ‘Feldbahnschienen der Telefunkenges’. The New Zealanders referred to it as the ‘wireless tramway’. It would have been originally built to support the construction of the wireless station but could also have been an extension of the existing coconut plantation tramways.
Whatever the original reason, the NZ Railwaymen made excellent use of the railway line although some of the equipment had been removed by the Germans as the occupying force advanced.
In the months that followed, the tramway proved invaluable in getting men up to the wireless station especially when the heavy rains made the road impassable. Very quickly, the railwaymen constructed additional track to link with the camps established at Vaea and Malifa. A further extension was also laid in Apia to the Army Service Corps store.
Throughout occupation by the initial force and then later by the Garrison Force, the tramway was kept busy hauling ammunition, ballast and camp material. This included timber and shingle for the tents and roads in the new camps, and the wireless station. The ‘Apia Express’ was also used by the troops for regular outings on a Sunday when they were on leave.
As well as operating and maintaining the tramway, the men from the NZRE proved themselves useful in other ways – patrolling the area around Apia, guarding the wireless station, unloading ships, working as supply clerks, running the Samoan Postal & Telegraph Service, designing and building barracks, maintaining the wireless and telephone system, and keeping the occupation force’s small boat fleet operational. At one stage, a NZRE sergeant even became the Apia Commissioner of Police for a few months.
Whatever their duties, the members of the NZRE earned accolades as first class tradesmen.