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HMNZS Charles Upham Logistics Support Ship

HMNZS Charles Upham was supposed to be, to be able to take members of the armed forces and their equipment to help either in civil disasters---as would have been useful in the present case in Papua New Guinea---and also where needed for peacekeeping operations. As long ago as the 1970s the need had been identified for a transport to deploy and sustain a battalion-szed Ready Reaction Force [RRF] from New Zealand's Army. The desperate need for this vessel for New Zealand's purposes was first identified in 1987 - a troopship of use to the Army, supporting developments in such places as Bougainville and East Timor.

The Government's announcement 09 May 2001 that it will sell the HMNZS Charles Upham capped a sad experience with the ship. The Charles Upham - the Chuck-Up or Charles Chuckam, as the seamen on board used to refer to it - was labelled a "lemon" because it was unsuitable for its military role. Even its adopted port, Timaru, witnessed its erratic side - it could not stay upright in the waters for which it was purchased. It was totally unsuitable for work in the Pacific, because of the nature of its shape.The National Government bought a lemon. That vessel was unstable, it was not fit for purpose, it was never used for the purpose for which it was purchased, and it was then disposed of at a huge loss.

During the period from 1964 to 1996 Per Henriksen / MERCANDIA had built a total number of 137 ships and purchased 12 second-hand vessels. The MERCANDIA-ships have been employed almost worldwide. Some of the vessels have transported cars from Japan to China and other countries. Others have sailed along the South American coast with loaded trucks or as freight ferries on the North American lakes. Some transported fruit from Cyprus to Northern Europe, some ran on permanent MERCANDIA-lines or in the Pacific and Atlantic trade.

The 1991 Defence White Paper reviewed transport requirements, and the Air and Sea Transport Review team considered a number of options. The Mercandia 1500 design could deploye 50 percent of the vehicles and stores required for the Ready Reaction Force [RRF]. However, they believed the purchase of a vessels such as the Union Rotorua would be a better option, with a length of 205 meters and a displacemetn of 24,000 tons. In June 1992 further studies within NZDF led to a refinement of the requirements for a new vessel, and the Union Rotorua was considered to be slightly too large for the these new requirements.

The Mercandian Queen II became available, approval was sought from Cabinet to purchase the vessel and this approval was given on 28 November 1994. The HMNZS Charles Upham was purchased by a National Government in 1994, and sold in 2001 for 8 million. In the 1996 coalition document between New Zealand First Party and National Party the New Zealand First Party agreed to the very extensive refit of the Charles Upham. New Zealand First was insistent that some 38 million be spent on pouring concrete into the bottom of the Charles Upham, because it was thought that doing that would stabilise it. No money had been spent to make the vessel seaworthy. The navy planned in 1997 was a lot cheaper than the navy proposed by the Labour Government in 1989 when it purchased two Anzac frigates for $1.2 billion and took an option for not a further one but a further two Anzac frigates. To have three frigates and the HMNZ Charles Upham would be a lot cheaper than Labour's plan of having four Anzac frigates.

The vessel was sailed to New Zealand without modification, after extensive use in Europe, made two operational sea trips, from Napier to Lyttleton and, from 24 June-3 August 1996 from Auckland to Fiji on Exercise Tropic Dust, with plans to visit Tonga, Niue, Western Samoa and Fiji. The trip was one of the most uncomfortable many of the seasoned sailors had ever experienced - a roll of 37 was recorded. Designed to carry up to 7000 tonnes of cargo, and thus loaded the vessel sat low in the water, slowing the period of roll. Lightly loaded, the ship rolled badly, making life on board distressingly uncomfortable, threatening the safety of cargo, and preventing helicopter operations. So great was the concern that the ship was withdrawn from service in August 1996 in order to undertake modifications to reduce the motion problem of the ship and improve the reliability of the propulsion system. The vessel would need to carry at least 3500 tonnes of cargo or ballast in order to produce suitable ship motion.

The need for sealift capacity was once again highlighted in the 1997 Defence Review: "Modern armed forces have a large logistical tail. Troops can be moved by air but their kit and supplies must come by sea. New Zealand has not traditionally maintained a military sealift capability. Instead it has relied on others, most recently the United Nations, to provide transport for our heavy equipment. The risks of continuing to do so are rising."

By 1997 the vessel it on 28 days' notice to put to sea. Originally it was to cost $14 million, by 1997 the full commissioning cost had increased to $30 million. A cost of $25 million had been identified in the defence white paper to cover the modifications required to convert the vessel for military operations. These costs were known when the Government approved the purchase of the vessel in 1994. The vessel would require modifications for its new role. The cargoes it would carry would be different from the cargoes it carried in its civilian capacity.

By 1997 at least $28 million had been spent on it and an estimated $30 million was still needed to be spent before it is fully seaworthy in 2002. The modifications that were required included such things as changing the accommodation from 25 to 150 so that troops can be carried, putting facilities in place so that helicopters can land on it, providing fuel tanks for helicopters, and all those sorts of things. Modifications were also required for the vessel in its military role, given the type of loads it will carry, the type of weightings, and the bulk that has to be added. This was all planned for and known at the time of the acquisition.

When Paul East became Minister of Defence hed obtained an independent audit on the purchase and seaworthiness of the ship. That audit concluded that the acquisition process was correctly carried out and that the vessel was suitable for conversion to the purpose for which the military planned that it should be used.

By 1997 the ministry was investigating leasing the vessel in the hope of recouping some of the money that has been spent on it. The ship subsequently sailed on 12 May 1998 on a delivery voyage to Spain. This was an attempt to obtain a return from the vessel until it was used for its military purpose. The Defence Force leased the troopship Charles Upham to the Spanish company CONTENEMAR to carry lemons throughout the Mediterranean [other reports had the vessel shipping oranges in the Atlantic Ocean between Spain and the Canary Islands, under the name of Don Carlos]. At that time the Ministry of Defence was in the process of arranging for the conversion of the Charles Upham to go ahead as soon as the charter ended. Following the completion of design work, tenders would be called to undertake the necessary modifications.

At the time of the East Timor deployment, the NZDF had no strategic sealift capability of its own. HMNZS Charles Upham had been chartered out to a commercial firm in 1998 after the vessel failed to meet NZDF needs. When New Zealand focused on intervening in East Timor, early planning documents identified strategic lift capability as a critical planning issue. In July 1999, for example, a number of airlift options were being considered, including use of United States transport aircraft. The need to transport a large amount of equipment by sea was also recognised at an early stage. With the Navy sealift ship HMNZS Charles Upham unavailable, it became clear that alternative options would be needed. This became even more important once planning centered around the deployment of a Battalion Group.

Following the election in 1999 and the subsequent change to a Labour led government, a Strategic Assessment and a report, New Zealand's Foreign and Security Policy Challenges, were completed in 2000, each of these helping to inform The Government's Defence Policy Framework released in June 2000. The Sealift Review was completed in November 2000, and made a number of observations and recommendations. On 21 December 2000, a Sustainable Defence Plan was submitted to Ministers from both the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury, which stated that the Charles Upham should be sold next in 2001 when it came off charter.

A report by the Controller and Auditor-General on HMNZS Charles Upham was commissioned by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee as part of its Defence 2000 inquiry. It was released at a public hearing of that committee. The 2001 naval architect's report on the Charles Upham showed very clearly that the ship is a well-constructed, appropriate military sealift ship. Critics charged that the only reason that the Labour side cancelled it was that it had an ideological commitment against it. But the Minister of Defence at the time, Max Bradford, freely admitted that it was a dog and that purchasing it was a big mistake by the National Government.

Others took a different view. The Admirals, contended Robert Miles - echoing Major General Reid - wanted to concentrate on a blue-water fighting force. Such sentiments were echoed by Peter Cozens, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington: 'The Navy simply did not want it, and did everything in their power to ensure they didn't get it.'

In its Defence Policy Framework, the Government identified strategic lift as one of the guiding principles of New Zealand's military capability, stating that New Zealand requires a flexible and adaptable mix of air and sealift capabilities. The Government confirmed this policy position in its May 2001 policy statement. On 8 May 2001, the Government publicly announced its intention to sell the Charles Upham. Any future requirements for strategic sealift would be met by charter arrangements, while the requirement for limited tactical sealift would be considered as part of a review of the composition of the Navy's maritime surface fleet.

The lemon carrier that unfortunately was given a most distinguished soldier's name. Captain Charles Upham, VC and Bar, was a great New Zealander who served in World War II, and died 22 November 1994. He represented all that was good, representing both the courage and the valour of the New Zealand armed forces. Only three times in the history of the Commonwealth has a Bar been awarded to a recipient of the Victoria Cross. It is correct that it was the only Victoria Cross earned in combat. The other two Victoria Crosses were given to doctors who were members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. So it was a very rare honour indeed.

Charles Upham (Don Carlos)
displacement7220 tonnes
length 131.7m
beam 21.1m

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