On 11 November 2002 the NZ Government announced that frigate HMNZS Te Kaha, as well as a P-3 Orion, would be deployed to the international operations campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, under Operation Enduring Freedom.

The NZ Government had signaled their intent to participate in the response under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, following the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The SAS and a Hercules aircraft support group had been committed to Afghanistan, and the Government was looking for other ways to contribute.

Sending a frigate to join Enduring Freedom’s Maritime Interdiction Operation (MIO) was considered the best option, and HMNZS Te Kaha was closest. She was near the end of a five-month deployment, which had included a series of Five Power Defence Arrangement exercises in South East Asia, as well as port visits to Singapore, Korea, Japan and China. By November Te Kaha and her ship’s company were in Freemantle, Western Australia, conducting a Principal Warfare Officers’ (PWO) Sea Week and looking forward to getting home for Christmas.

The Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Peter McHaffie, decided he needed to talk to the ship’s company in person. He and the Warrant Officer of the Navy (WON), Warrant Officer Master at Arms (WOMAA) Mark Te Kani, flew to Australia. After briefing Commander John Martin, a ‘clear lower deck’ was called and the Ship’s Company assembled on the flight deck.

“I remember thinking: I didn’t see that coming,” says Commander Vicki Stevens, who was Sub Lieutenant Vicki Rendall at the time. “We had just come down from Asia, and the talk around the ship was all about, what are you doing for Christmas. People were saying, I’ve booked my tramping holiday, I’m going for a roadie. And then there was that moment on the flight deck. I was shocked.”

Her recollection was the message was a bit blunt in its delivery, along the lines of ‘you need to get on with it’. It would later inspire an ironic ship’s deployment T-Shirt that read “Last to know, first to go. Get over it”, she says.

In a WON report in Navy Today, WOMAA Te Kani wrote how important it was to make Te Kaha’s mission clear to the crew. “They were going to be part of a multi-national task force, under a Canadian Task Force Commander, purely to support Operation Enduring Freedom. The frigate is not be involved in possible military actions against Iraq.”

Te Kaha would be part of Task Force 50.4, within Coalition Task Force 151, with ships from Canada, France, Italy, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States under the Command of Commodore Roger Girouard, Royal Canadian Navy.

The Task Force would patrol the Arabian Sea up into the Gulf of Oman and through the Straits of Hormuz, into the southern reaches of the Persian Gulf, looking for Taliban and Al Qaeda personnel attempting to leave Afghanistan via Pakistan and travel by sea to re-group in other parts of the Middle East. It would also monitor shipping traffic and escort United States and coalition vessels through the Straits of Hormuz.

Te Kaha had been to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf before. In late 1999 the ship was part of a Multi-National Interception Force enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Frigates HMNZ Ships Wellington and Canterbury had done the same over the last decade. But Operation Enduring Freedom included coalition forces at war in Afghanistan, targeting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Furthermore, a US-led invasion of Iraq was looking likely. It meant Te Kaha would be close to areas getting hot, actively searching for the enemy.

That proximity later sparked debate in Parliament. Referencing a photo in the February edition of Navy Today, Green Party MP Keith Locke implied that Te Kaha’s escort of US coalition vessels carrying war materials was an hypocrisy, given that New Zealand had officially opposed the idea of invading Iraq. He was told the Maritime Interdiction Force did not differentiate between legal vessels needing protection from terrorist attack.

Rear Admiral (RADM) Martin says he considers the biggest challenge of the deployment was adjusting the mindset and culture of the ship’s company. “I don’t think you can underestimate the change to the ship’s company to one that was going home, to one that was going to be on a war footing,” he says. In a report after the deployment he wrote: “Foremost in my thoughts was the sustainment of fighting spirit, a level of morale capable of withstanding the requirement to deploy for longer and ready to accept casualties and if necessary, the loss of life.”

The ship’s expertise was high. Te Kaha had had a very good work-up result in May 2001. When the 911 attacks occurred in September, Te Kaha had come home early from South East Asia exercises to be ready for any Government tasking.

“We knew Te Kaha would have been the first ship to go. I was always aware that New Zealand was looking at operations, and MCC (Maritime Component Commander Commodore David Ledson) was always good at communicating the sort of thinking going on. So a large part of 2001 and 2002 was maintaining that operational capability.” Navies were already practising a heightened state of force protection when they visited ports, following the attack by a boat-borne improvised explosive device (IED) against USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. “A lot of work had been done over those years, to make sure ships’ companies were safe. We were always training, and the PWO Sea Week training kept us on the ball.”

The ship’s company had been well aware that the ship could be called forward, but RADM Martin knew the announcement would hit hard for some. “I think 20 per cent of the crew were really, really enthusiastic to go. And perhaps another 20 per cent were absolutely put out by it. There were people getting married, on courses, due to be posted off. Some had bought and paid for holidays, arranged family get-togethers. There were people who had to leave, and new people had to come on board.

“We were under no illusion. We were going into a war zone. It was interesting leadership challenge, to reach down and raise them up, and provide a pathway for them to be successful. The Maritime Component Commander had to have confidence the ship could do the job.”

He says the Rules of Engagement were the most robust he had ever seen. “We had always been prepared to defend ourselves. Now, in this case, we would attack if we saw the enemy. That’s a significant change, to have orders for attack rather than defence. The NZ Government said, you can take the initiative. That required a change of thinking in the ship.”

From an early stage, it was realized that the families of the sailors needed to be on board with the deployment. “MCC ran seminars for the families at Ngataringa in Devonport, explaining what the deployment meant. Parents were invited as well, and newsletters were sent to everyone. It was really cool and really helped the families.”

Following a work-up by the Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Training Group, Te Kaha sailed from HMAS Stirling (Western Australia Naval Base) on 26 November, with a ship’s company of 178.

The ship entered a busy routine of patrolling the Gulf of Oman, undertaking “unopposed or compliant” boardings where the vessel’s master has agreed to be boarded.

“Hands to Boarding Stations, Hands to Boarding Stations,” would have been the announcement from the Officer of the Watch as Te Kaha approached a vessel of interest. CDR Stevens, as a Sub Lieutenant Officer of the Watch, wrote in Navy Today March 2003 that many vessels didn’t respond to hails, lacking a radio and sufficient English.

“Carry on seaboat.” A RHIB crew would undertake a ‘Close Investigation’, closing with a vessel of interest to establish particulars. Usually the investigation – after a few minutes of animated gestures and broken English – would turn into a ‘Consensual Visit’. The team would interview the Master, inspect documentation, record details of the crew, cargo, last and next port of call, and take photos. Even with no issues, the boardings were useful because word would get around to other vessel owners, perhaps giving them second thoughts about transporting illegal passengers.

The ship’s Seasprite SH-2(NZ) was usually overhead, the loadmaster providing cover with a mounted M60D machine gun. Boardings could take some time, perhaps up to two hours for a larger vessel, with Te Kaha waiting between 120-150 yards away.

Escorting merchant shipping was a technical challenge in seamanship, says RADM Martin. “You’re driving your ship 150 yards from extremely big, fast-moving merchant ships,” he says. Te Kaha developed a routine of placing a representative on escorted vessels to improve communication. “I remember sending Sub Lieutenant Alastair McHaffie (the son of the Chief of Naval Staff) across in the middle of the night. He would go up to the bridge and explain what we were doing. The merchant ship masters were nervous, because we were really close.”

Christmas at sea was one of the most memorable moments, says Commander (CDR) Stevens. “The officers served food in the Junior Rates mess. People were wearing Santa hats, and we judged which mess had the best Christmas decorations. I think it must have been the communicators who got a whole bunch of shredded paper and spread it around the mess like snow.”

The crew received presents from two sources: the Navy’s chaplaincy service and the RSA. “Those RSA Christmas boxes turned up on board, and they had mini bottles of Watties tomato sauce in them. I remember the mess asking if people had any to spare because they had run out, but oh no! We kept them in our coveralls. If you brought it to the table it was gone.”

On New Year’s Eve, as per naval tradition, the ship’s bell was rung to “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Sixteen boxes of mail arrived on New Year’s Day.

The mission continued through January and into February, with Te Kaha setting records for boardings among the ships in TG 50.4. According to Navy Today, from 14 December to 25 February, Te Kaha made 970 hails and 72 close inspections, resulting in 36 boardings. In February, Te Kaha accounted for 42 percent of Task Force boardings.

“To see HMNZS Te Mana on the horizon was a beautiful sight for us,” wrote CDR Stevens in Navy Today. The two frigates proceeded to Bahrain for a handover, with Te Mana continuing the work until June – with the P-3 Orion operating as a surveillance asset.

Te Kaha arrived back at Devonport Naval Base on 27 March 2003. A later letter from CDRE Girouard praised the ship as a “tremendously capable participant, effective, well-led and engaged”.

In a lessons learned report, RADM Martin said the operation proved that RNZN frigates were quite capable of conducting sustained operations over a variety of tasks and areas, redeploying with little difficulty.

“We took a ship about to go on Christmas leave onto a war footing. How much harder that would have been had we not been constantly preparing for two or three years before. It means with current navy training, every bit of training is important. You’re paying it forward, in the event we have to go and do something.”

RADM Martin was often interviewed, and he remembers telling TV presenter Paul Holmes, “I don’t think New Zealand truly understands just how good its sailors are. How good the men and women of Te Kaha are. They were the All Blacks on that mission. Their efforts were second to none.”