Saw worst loss before rising in naval ranks
- December 5, 2013
Rear-Admiral Ted Thorne
Former Royal New Zealand Navy chief
29-10-1923 – 23-10-2013
Rear-Admiral Ted Thorne, who has died aged 89, witnessed the worst loss of female naval personnel of World War II.
Thorne, a New Zealander, was under training in the cruiser Hawkins off the Maldives when, on February 12, 1944, he saw ”a sheet of flames and grey smoke” rising from one of the ships of the convoy, the Khedive Ismail. The ship sank within two minutes; the 1511 aboard included 19 Wrens, 54 nurses and nine members of the First Air Nursing Yeomanry. Only 208 men and six women survived. The Japanese submarine I-27 was depth-charged as the survivors were still struggling in the water.
Thorne then returned to England, where he commanded a boat carrying dispatches around the invasion fleet at Spithead. He remembered going out one night to find all the ships had disappeared – it was the eve of D-Day.
Edward Courtney Thorne was born on October 29, 1923, near Wellington, New Zealand, and educated at Nelson College. He was inspired to join the navy when, in 1940, he saw the NZ-manned cruiser Achilles, fresh from her victory over the German pocket battleship Graf von Spee, in Wellington harbour.
Travelling to England in ”a dirty little tramp”, the Gorgiston, he was shocked to find a ”colour bar” in Kingston, Jamaica – his best friends at Nelson College had been Fijians and Maoris. On arrival he was accepted as a cadet at Dartmouth.
He joined the heavy cruiser Devonshire, which was sent to convey troops from Australia to the Middle East – one convoy consisted of several of the world’s greatest liners, the Queen Mary, Ile de France, Aquitania, Queen of Bermuda and Mauretania.
Aged 21, Thorne embarked in the destroyer Lamerton, which operated in the Adriatic, carrying supplies and special forces to Yugoslav partisans and bombarding enemy positions on the coast. A favourite target was the railway; in particular, they tried to knock out both ends of a tunnel while a train was inside. In March 1945, Lamerton returned to Britain to join the Harwich force defending coastal convoys against last-ditch attacks by enemy submarines.
For three decades after the war, Thorne helped to forge close links between the Royal Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy. He served in the Mediterranean with the RN’s 2nd Minesweeping Squadron, which sometimes blew up a dozen mines in a single day. In New Zealand he served in Taupo, Bellona and Kaniere, and in 1951 helped to break a 151-day strike by waterfront workers.
On Christmas Eve 1953, Thorne was commanding the naval radio station at Waiouru when he heard that the railway bridge at Tangiwai had been washed away, causing the night express to crash, killing some 150 people. He led his sailors in the grim business of recovering bodies.
Later, as director of plans, he helped convince the New Zealand government to order the first of its purpose-built frigates, Waikato.
Thorne attended the Imperial Defence College in London, then he commanded Waikato on her trials, work up and delivery voyage to New Zealand. He was soon back in London as head of the NZ Defence Liaison Staff, before being promoted to rear-admiral and chief of naval staff of the RNZN in 1972. As chief, Thorne was involved in sending frigates to Mururoa as part of his government’s protest against the testing of French nuclear weapons in the Pacific.
Thorne was appointed CBE in 1972 and CB in 1975. In retirement, he was appointed the first commissioner of the newly unified New Zealand fire service.
He married, in 1949, Fay Kerr, and is survived by their three sons.