Category Archives: Colonial New Zealand Wars

Converting a toy paddle-steamer into a colonial gunboat

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The maritime element of colonial wargaming normally brings to mind armed steamers on the Nile. But people often forget that gunboats were also used in many other theatres during the 19th century.

My own interest is the colonial New Zealand Wars, which included the use of  a flotilla of converted and purpose-built ironclad gunboats to support the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. A couple of years ago I posted a review of a book about this riverine aspect of the New Zealand Wars. However, until recently, I had never tried adding a river steamer to my army.

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A few weeks ago I stumbled across a plastic kitset of a paddle-driven steam tug on Ali Express. Whilst 1/150 scale is too small for 28mm wargaming, I thought this toy could possibly be converted into a smaller paddle-steamer in a larger scale.

And at only US$22 – which even included free shipping to New Zealand! – it wouldn’t be a big loss if my project didn’t work out.

I’ve now received the model, and think it will indeed work to be converted into the armed paddle steamer HMCS Avon, as depicted in the foreground of Andrew Burdan’s painting on the cover of Grant Middlemiss’s The Waikato River Gunboats.

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According the the New Zealand Navy Museum, the Avon was arguably the first naval vessel purchased by the New Zealand Government. Originally constructed in Glasgow as the Clyde, she was subsequently shipped to New Zealand in pieces and re-assembled at Port Lyttelton.

She was purchased by the Colonial Government in November 1862, and in early 1863 was modified for service at Onehunga. The modifications involved the installation of iron plates, each six feet long by three feet wide and ¼ inch thick, along the bulwarks and down to the water line.

She displaced 43 tons, was nearly 18 metres in length, and mounted a single 12-pounder Armstrong breech-loading gun on her bow. Her shallow draft of just one metre made her ideal for river operations.

Avon even had her own rudimentary self-defence system: pipes were fixed in connection with the boiler, so that a stream or jet of scalding water could be thrown upon any party attempting to board.

In 1864 she was re-deployed on the Waipa River with reduced iron armour, as depicted in the drawing below by the late Harry Duncan for Grant Middlemiss’s book..

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To convert the toy into Avon, I plan to ignore the window stickers, so the current wheelhouse and cabin will look more like the top of the boiler housing.

I’ll add a bridge to link the two paddle-boxes, and scratch-build the double sentry-box armoured wheelhouse. The funnel will need to be taller, too – not a hard job to find something that’ll suit.

I’ll then add armoured plates along the bulwarks (and if I choose to make the later version of Avon, will build a wooden deck-house at the stern).

The hardest job will be to turn it into a waterline model – I’ll have to use a jigsaw to carefully cut round the hull, and then also trim the bottom of the paddle-wheels and rudder.

I’ll also need to find a model of an Armstrong gun of the period, mounted on a two-wheel naval truck. Any suggestions?

I’ll keep you posted on how this project goes.

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A really tough job getting my basing material

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This New Year it was time to replenish my stock of sand for my figure basing. I use a very specific type of sand that comes from a particular beach in New Zealand. So I drove the 600 kilometres to Cathedral Cove on the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, where I grabbed a couple of handfuls of sand to take home.

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Well, to tell the truth it was actually our family holiday. But, hey, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story!

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Why Cathedral Cove sand? Well, it has a unique blend of grainy sand, crushed pink and white shells, and contains minuscule remnants of scarlet pohutukawa blossoms. This combination makes a perfect ground texture and colour that doesn’t need any painting or dry-brushing.

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Just apply it with PVA glue, then once dry, add some patches of static grass, tufts or miniature plants. Simple!

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The hardest part is making sure I always have sufficient stock of this very special sand – it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

Happy New Year everybody!

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A wargamer’s pedantic view of the Battle of Ruapekapeka (1845/46)

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As with most wargamers, I am a bit pedantic about the minutiae of military history. So I get peeved when the media or films get some minor detail wrong, even if these are too small and unimportant to affect the overall history.

Just something as trivial as a novel set in the mid-18th century talking about the ‘gleaming helmets of the cavalry’ can put me off the whole story (most cavalry wore felt tricornes or caps – shining metal helmets didn’t appear until the 19th century, with the dragoons and cuirassiers of the Napoleonic Wars).

A week or so ago, our national news site Stuff reported that the remains of twelve British soldiers from the New Zealand Wars had been uncovered at a significant battle site in Northland.

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Ruapekapeka Pā was the site of a siege and battle between Māori and British forces that took place in 1845-6. In the above painting by John Williams (Alexander Turnbull Library / nzhistory.net.nz), you can see the fortified pā on the slopes of the hill behind the British camp.

Anyway, when I saw that this media story was proclaiming that the bodies of twelve ‘soldiers’ had been located, I went into full pedantic mode. Colonel Despard’s despatch after the battle shows in fact soldiers were the smallest proportion of the twelve British men known to be killed – most were sailors. An important distinction in my view – certainly any sailor would bridle at being described as a soldier!

Of the remaining five, even two of those were ship-based marines rather than soldiers as such.

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Since first seeing the Stuff article, and making a comment about the correct occupations of these men (see the comment from Arteis_01), I note the article has been changed to describe them as soldiers and sailors. I don’t know if it was my comment that spurred this correction, but I like to think so!

Notwithstanding the confusion between soldiers, sailors and marines, it is sad that these men have become no more than numbers. It was apparently unimportant in those days to list the actual names of those killed or wounded.

I thought I would try to correct this omission. I soon found that one of the marines at least is known by name. William Minifie was a Royal Marine from HMS Calliope. His name is on in a memorial stone in Bolton Cemetery, Wellington.

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The ship’s log for HMS Castor is said to list the names of the seven seamen killed, as well as ten of the seamen and two of the marines who were wounded. So far I have not been able to see this document, as it is kept in the Public Records Office in the UK (ADM 53/2218), and hasn’t been digitised. Apparently some of the Admiralty documents are on microfilm at National Archives here in Wellington, so I must take a look there one day.

Whilst most of the British casualty names are proving hard to obtain, Lindsay Buick’s New Zealand’s First War published in 1926 lists the names of twelve Māori ‘chiefs’ killed at Ruapekapeka. He gives no source, however.

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The Stuff article also stated that the graves had last been seen in 1851. However, the Parliamentary Debates of 8 November 1884 showed that the location of the burial ground was still known at that time.

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Further, an article in the New Zealand Herald one year later on 14 December 1885 indicated that  the location of the graves was ‘said to be’ known, albeit they were now covered in crops.

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As I said, all unimportant details in the greater scheme of things (apart from, of course, for the men themselves and their families and friends). But nevertheless it is good to set the record straight.

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As wrote Alexander Whisker of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot a few weeks after the battle:

It was on the 10th of January to fight we next did go
We had large guns and mortars and Rocket tubes also
they being in there strongest Pah and well secured all Round
We fired on all sides of them in hopes to Break it Down
We made 3 Breaches in the Pah and scattered it about
We kept the fire up all night but could not get them out

When early the next morning to Breakfast they did go
Into the huts outside the Pah not thinking we would know
When 50 men from each stockade they strove with might and main
they kept them all outside the Pah to more assistance came
We fought from 8 that morning to it was nearly 3
When with many killed and Wounded they were forced to run away

Upon our side but 12 were killed and wounded very few
On the next day we burned the Pah before that we withdrew
We Buried our comrades upon that very day
And we planted willows on there greaves before we came away
So now the war is over and we have saved our lives
So let us join in Drinking to our sweethearts and our Wives

I recently posted about a Radio New Zealand video about this battle, which is well worth a look if you want a brief overview of what happened, with some excellent animations and reenactments.

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PS: Remaining in pedantic mode, I must point our that the picture of my 3D-printed model pā by Printable Scenery at the top of this page isn’t purporting to be Ruapekapeka Pā , which in fact looked more like the Radio NZ computer graphic above.

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Cardboard Māori buildings and pā

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The Virtual Armchair General from Oklahoma City has just announced a range of easy self-assembly cardboard designs of Māori building designs in 25mm.

Sold as a set, by printing as many of the component pages as desired, a complete pā (fortification) of virtually any size and shape can be assembled.

The set comes with sections to make the outer palisade, then the primary inner palisade, complete with trench markers to lay inside to indicate warriors under cover and capable of defending the wall at point blank range. Additional trench markers allow complete trench complexes to be laid out, ensuring the entire pā can be defended.

PDF files are, of course, delivered postage-free via email as soon as your order is processed.

It’s over to you whether you prefer the 3D-printed houses and pā by Printable Scenery, or these new cardboard ones by VAG. The former aren’t pre-painted, of course, but are fully … er …3D. The latter are full-colour, but the detail is two-dimensional.  Your choice!

Meeting House 1

Supply Hut 3

Whare 2B

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Display game of the colonial New Zealand Wars

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Our display game of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm (1846) took place today at the Paraparaumu Public Library. This was to help mark the inaugural Rā Maumahara National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars, fought from 1843 to 1872 between many Māori groups against British and New Zealand forces supported by other Māori allies.

Last year a petition to Parliament organised by Otorohanga College students called for a national commemoration day of the New Zealand Wars.  They felt the wars fought on our own soil had been forgotten in comparison to our involvement overseas during WW1 and WW2. As a result, the government instituted 28 October as the new annual ‘Rā Maumahara National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars’.

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With the release by Empress Miniatures a few years ago of a wonderful range of figures for this period, the wargaming hobby was well-suited to contribute in a small way to the day. And thus our display game in the Paraparaumu Public Library was born.

The intent of the game was more to engage with the public, than to actually play the game seriously. So we had a leisurely game with lots of stops to talk to spectators, and even to be photographed by a local paper.

In fact, we had already got some decent media pre-coverage the day before in our major daily paper (click on the picture below to read the full article).

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We interacted with quite a few people during the day. Some had come specially to see the game, others just happened by. As you can imagine, a display in a public library got a totally different crowd than what you would get at a wargames show.

But everyone we spoke to (and we made a great effort to ensure we did speak to everyone) seemed very interested and engaged, with some people spending a considerable amount of time chatting with us, either talking about the history of the New Zealand Wars, or curious about the hobby in general.

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We thought the game would also be slow because we were all newbies to the rules we were using – The Men Who Would Be Kings. However, aided by a quick reference chart I drew up, the game went remarkably smoothly, and we even had time to run it through twice on the day.

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I can’t comment too much on the narrative of what happened in each game, as it was a fairly hectic day chatting to people, learning the rules etc. The incidents I particularly recall were:

  • a party of Māori warriors trampling through tents to charge the sleepy British outlying picket site
  • the  garrison of the stockaded farmstead taking too much time stirring in response to the frantic bugle blowing from their over-run picket
  • a war-party of Māori scambling right over the palings around the farmstead, only to be blasted away by a close order volley from the defenders inside the stockade
  • the Hutt Militia in a nearby village milling around in confusion rather than marching straight towards the sound of gunfire to reinforce the beleaguered farm.

Suffice to say everything that happened seemed to reflect what either did or could have happened in reality.

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Unfortunately I was a bit disappointed by the photos I took.  Because of the continual public interaction, I didn’t have time to set up and take as many photos as I would normally do, so the selection from which to pick the best shots for publication was quite small!

Nevertheless, I do hope from these few photos you can see that the display achieved its purpose of promoting the history of the New Zealand Wars. And of course we all played our part seriously, as you can see Bala Menzies doing in the pic below …

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New video and VR tour of Battle of Ruapekapeka Pā (1845)

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Radio NZ has just launched a 30-minute online documentary about the 1845-6 Northern War in New Zealand.  It is about the Battle of Ruapekapeka, but also covers some other battles from the campaign.

The video has been timed to mark the Rā Maumahara National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars, which takes place this Saturday (I am also hosting a New Zealand Wars display game  on Saturday to mark this important event).

You can see the whole documentary on the Radio NZ website.

I found it a very moving film. It shows the battle from a Māori perspective, when in the past we might have seen it more from an Anglo-centric point of view.

I’m a little surprised the movie still depicts that the defenders were at a church service when they were surprised by a British raid. There has been a newer theory that the Māori intentionally tried to get the British to attack and chase them through the empty pā and into the bush, where the Māori would then have the upper hand.

From a wargamer’s perspective, the video contains some amazing animations and reenactments. I thoroughly recommend it.

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British camp

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British forward position shelling Ruapekapeka Pa

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Ruapekapeka Pa

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Cutaway view of the dugouts, tunnels and trenches at Ruapekapeka Pa.

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Radio NZ have also produced a terrific virtual reality tour of the battle-site.

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Gathering the forces for my colonial New Zealand Wars game

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I am putting on a colonial New Zealand Wars demonstration game at the Paraparaumu Public Library on Saturday 28 October to help mark our National Day of Commemoration of the New Zealand Wars.

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Today I started gathering together the resources I’ll need for a game set in 1846, using Dan Mersey’s The Men Who Would Be Kings colonial wargaming rules.

The Māori warriors

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Obviously one of the first essentials will be a force of Māori warriors. These are the beautiful 28mm metal figures produced by Empress Miniatures in the United Kingdom, and painted by yours truly.

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At this stage I’m still not sure if I’ll have them grouped as three 16-figures as prescribed in the rules for ‘Tribal Infantry’, or if they will be regrouped into four 12-man units to be classed as ‘Irregular Infantry’. It is a bit of a conundrum as historically the Māori warrior fell somewhere between these two types.

The rules call for forces to usually total 24 points, so if I do use the 16-man ‘Tribal Infantry’ units at 3-4 points a unit, I’ll have nowhere near enough figures.

You’ll see my Māori force also has a carronade available if we choose to use it in the game. This model is based on the famous ‘Kawiti’s Carronade’ used in the Northern War, and which can still be seen at Ruapekapeka Pā to this day.

The British and colonial troops

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I have far more figures for this side than I do for the Māori – an imbalance I must address in due course. So not all these troops will take part in the game. These are again figures by Empress Miniatures.

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The force consists of two units of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot, who are ‘Regular Infantry’ under the rules. They are accompanied by a unit of colonial militia, whom I am going to class as inferior to the regulars.

There’s also a unit of Royal Navy sailors, who will be classed as ‘Irregular Infantry’, but with good fighting skills – sailors could almost be regarded as the ‘shock troops’ of this period. The sailors have two pieces of artillery that might or might not be used in the game – a Congreve rocket tube and a massive 32-pounder cannon.

Finally, there’s a pair of officers and a pair of marksmen. I don’t think they’ll play a part in the game, but might still appear on the table as vignettes.

The bush

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An essential part of any game set in the New Zealand is the archetypal bush that covers much of the country. I’ve gathered quite a selection of trees and shrubs from a variety of sources, mostly via cheap eBay stores. The latest find are the palm trees on the right.

What is missing of course are the large fern shrubs that should cover the ground, as well as the huge tree-ferns you often find in the New Zealand bush. I haven’t found a good source for these as yet.

The rules

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As mentioned, I’ll be using Dan Mersey’s The Men Who Would be Kings rules. These are generic rules for the entire ‘colonial’ period (thus the above cover illustration that has nothing to do with the New Zealand Wars!).

As we’ll all be newbies to using these rules, I’ve put together a Quick Reference Sheet that includes all the basic things we’ll need to refer to often. But it only lists the actual troop types and weapons applicable to our game, so for instance you won’t see any cavalry listed on my QRS.

I’m still tinkering with the various abilities and points values, so the QRS shown here may not yet be the final. If any TMWWBK  players have any thoughts or suggestions, please let me know.

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