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Cover Feature: Shining a light on the Devonport Naval Base banner

Cover Feature: Shining a light on the Devonport Naval Base

When Channel Magazine heard that the Governor General of New Zealand was visiting the Devonport Naval Base last month, we thought it was time that we did too. Having the ‘Home of the New Zealand Navy’ based right here on the Shore, brings over 1290 personnel and a large contribution to the local economy and diversity of our region. We wanted to shine a light on the Naval Base, introduce the woman who leads it, share its history and help connect the Navy with the wider community, which it is very much a part of. So, with polished shoes, Channel’s Heather Vermeer collected her security pass at the gates and went in to find out about the Navy in Devonport, its history, and the woman in charge.

On a tan leather sofa in an office overlooking the harbour, sits a slightly built figure who offers a ready smile between swigs of mud-thick
coffee, a woman at ease. This is a woman of unassuming authority, yet this woman is Commanding Officer of the ‘Home of the New Zealand Navy’ here in Devonport.

If vision and tenacity were to be consumed in volume, this woman would have drunk enough cups to fill the harbour that her unostentatious office overlooks.
Corina Bruce is an unlikely Captain. With regards to convention and traditional expectation, yes. But then convention and expectation have been superseded. Gender barriers have been obliterated. And that is, in large part, a credit to Corina Bruce.
As the first serving female at sea in the New Zealand Navy, Captain Bruce broke new ground and helped forge a pathway for diversity in the military here in New Zealand.
Yet a young Corina never had designs on a military career. An inquiring, brilliant mind led the young Christchurch teenager to the University of Canterbury to study Computer Science, a subject then in its infancy. When nearing the completion of her Bachelor of Science degree, she decided to get some interview practice.
“I knew I wanted to get into something scientific but something slightly different and the ‘digital age’, as it was then called, was very much in its infancy at that stage.
“I went to an interview for the New Zealand Navy, just for practice, and got offered the job.”
So, in 1983, Corina Bruce joined the RNZN as a software engineer.
After initial training at the RNZN Naval College, Corina was posted to Naval Staff as a Programmer within the Directorate of Naval Operational Data Systems (DNODS).
“We were a bunch of young officers who were very much about developing capabilities within the Navy.”
During Corina’s time within DNODS she worked on a number of operational systems, specialising in Weapons Systems implementations, with the department being shifted from Wellington to Auckland. As a lieutenant she was awarded a Commendation by the Chief of Naval Staff in 1987 for her contributions during the First of Class acceptance of the R76 Gun Fire Control System.
She left the Navy in 1992 to concentrate on the challenging but ‘really enjoyable’ role of becoming mother to two daughters, Alanah & Michelle. Belonging to a service organisation, Corina found that relationships continued to be strongly maintained.
“Every six to 12 months some of my previous colleagues would come to visit me in Raglan, where we relocated to. These were people who carried on maintaining these ties even though I wasn’t part of the service anymore. They’d continue to try to coax me back to work and, eventually, they wore me down!”
Back on board in 1996, Corina quickly regained her stride within what had become the Fleet Operational Software Systems Authority and displayed obvious leadership potential. In 1998 she was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and in the following year took on the management of the Authority. She also offered her expertise as National Evaluator for the Baldrige Awards Programme (for the New Zealand Business Excellence Foundation) in 2000.
Changing tack with changing times, Corina was made Weapon Engineering Training Officer in 2001 before being posted to the Fleet Repair Unit as Project Officer for RNZN ship periodic maintenance at Devonport Naval Base.
In early 2003 Corina was promoted to Commander and transferred to Wellington to take up the post of Director Naval Information Systems, followed by a role as Deputy Director CIS Programmes within the Communications and Information Systems Branch of the NZ Defence Force.
In the role of Military Liaison Component Information Officer, Corina undertook a peacekeeping tour in Kosovo before returning to the post of Commander Personnel and Training (Technical) within the Fleet Posting and Training Organisation of the RNZN.
On the road to becoming Commanding Officer of HMS Philomel at Devonport Naval base in October 2011, Corina’s experiences were many and varied. She graduated from the Institute of Strategic Leadership, completing their Leadership Programme for High Potentials, and she now has 860 personnel under her command.
Captain Bruce well knows that remarkable feats can be achieved, with the right amount of vision, belief, and support.
The sacrifices have been many for a mother-of-two, and her return to the service was made possible due to the willingness and capabilities of husband Tony, to whom she is keen to pay tribute. Her ‘surfer’ husband, an unconventional entrepreneur whom she met on the ski slopes, can list skateboard park creator, kite-boarding shop owner, and coffee roaster amongst his business ventures.
“If I’m the traditional, he’s the absolute opposite! I find myself getting roped into his ideas. We really bounce ideas off each other. He’s shown me tremendous support.”
Captain Bruce is blindingly aware of the more negative issues associated with the military base being sited in the family-based community of Devonport, and is a strong proponent of its value as a rich part of the community in which it is situated.
“We are so clear that we have to be cognisant of the fact that whatever we do is likely to have an impact on the community, which we are very much a part of ourselves.”
Meetings with Local Board representatives and community groups enable the Navy to discuss anything that may impact on local residents and businesses.
“We get feedback through these mechanisms on any issues and plans we have and they sometimes alert us to things that maybe we hadn’t considered.”
Changes to the main gate are in the pipeline and this has involved linking in with the Council.
“The gate is going to be made wider, as currently it is not wide enough
for some deliveries and we must see how we can reduce the impact on
Queen’s Parade.”
She also recognises another issue of long-standing concern to some locals.
“We are also aware that we have a sizeable number of young people that work here and, as a service organisation, we have a far greater level of control than a standard employer so we work closely with the police and the community around any issues regarding behaviour.”
“However, our people are but a reflection of society, a representation of that society.”
“How do you balance out what our expectations are inside the gate, with what happens outside the gate?”
Questions have also been raised over past months about the rates of attrition in the New Zealand Navy, a point which Corina sees as having been over-stated:
“We have some great calibre individuals coming into the Navy. We are seeing a good number of people wishing to join the Navy, and we are actually finding that we have to control these numbers as we cannot absorb them all.
“People are choosing to leave the service for whatever reason, spending time out in the civilian world and may find that there’s a later time in life when it suits them to re-join.
“Nowhere else in society do we expect people, at the golden age of 17, to sign up and stick with something for the rest of their life. I think life choices now have a lot more impact on people’s careers across New Zealand and we are seeing that referenced more in service life than was ever tolerated in the services in the past.”
“We have more women in our ranks than ever before and if parents choose to contribute to the raising of children and find services life isn’t conducive to that and they choose to leave, then I applaud that. You can go away and learn a lot about leadership and management as a parent!”
And which qualities would Captain Bruce say are important in successful leadership, for either a family or an entire naval base?
“I believe a strong set of values are a barometer for making good decisions.”
“In terms of the skills needed, the ability to truly listen, the ability to see what’s possible rather than what’s in front of you. A lot of people talk about ‘strategic thinking’ but if you can’t actually visualise the possibility then you can’t strategise about getting there.
“It’s about having vision. From there you can develop strategies.”
And what inspires this leader? In a word: People.
“Every day I can get inspired by anyone who crosses my path. It can be a passing glance, or a moment when a young new recruit says ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we did this?’ And you think ‘Great, they’ve got it!’”
“I think that daily top-up of inspiration is, to me, far more valuable than having a well-known figure such as, say, Mahatma Gandhi, whom you aspire to be like.”
Career strategy has never been a phrase that has occupied any space in Corina’s vocabulary.
“Most of the roles I’ve had hadn’t even been created six months prior to my taking them up!” she laughed.
“Throughout my career I have probably been ‘optically different’!”
Being a woman in a traditionally heavily male-dominated organisation hasn’t proved to be a barrier.
“It’s not been a handicap. In some ways it has given me opportunities that others didn’t have the chance to have. I do see challenges as being constructive growth opportunities.
“I’d always recognised leadership as not necessarily being out of the question for people who have a technical background. However, I had never really aspired to a command job and to have the opportunity and the backing to step into this command role was a pleasant surprise.”
“You feel very privileged and honoured, whilst at the same time nervous as you don’t want to let people down when they have that trust in you, either the people I have command over, or the people above me.”
“I have not been a career strategist. In part, I guess, I am an opportunist.”
Where can she see herself going from here?
“I am here to add value. When that stops my husband has 101 ‘out there’ things for me to do!”
“Where is my career going? I am not overly concerned. The NZDF (New Zealand Defence Force) has been investing in my development, which I hugely appreciate.”
“Where will that take me? Well, all I know is that it’s just a great ride!”

In early August, the sound of a 21-Gun Salute rang out across the harbour when the Governor General, Lt Gen Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, was welcomed to the base in August with a 100-Man Royal Guard of Honour. Four days of training made for an exemplary display of military uniformity from the Navy personnel selected to take part in this spectacle usually reserved, as the occasion’s name suggests, for royalty.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Royal New Zealand Navy, carried out an inspection of the parading personnel and made a speech in which he commended the gathered servicemen and women on the excellency of their drill. He also paid tribute to the two New Zealand soldiers killed in Afghanistan in the week prior to his visit. A tour of the naval grounds followed, including his first Powhiri onto the base’s marae, before a ceremony to celebrate Sir Peter Blake Trust award winners setting sail on HMNZS Canterbury that day.
Channel Magazine was given access to the base to photograph the visit, people and features of interest inside the gates for the North Shore community to see.

The Navy in Devonport: The History

1841    Storehouse erected on what is now Windsor Reserve. Later included: blacksmith shop, boatshed, slipway, barrack block (1864), caretaker's cottage (1882)
1862    Admiralty granted exclusive use of land
1892    Admiralty Reserve at Devonport exchanged for 5 acres of swamp adjacent to Auckland Harbour Board Dry Dock.
1906    Storehouse and slipway constructed
1909    Formally designated naval base
1921    HMS Philomel berthed at base to be depot and training ship, gunnery store built
1923    New Zealand Government took over annual subsidy payment for priority use of Auckland Harbour Board Dry Dock and Workshops
1926    First oil storage tank erected
1927    Number of persons employed in Naval Base was 47; comprising 5 Officers, 33 Ratings, 9 civilians
1935    Major upgrade of buildings and facilities throughout naval base and dockyard
1939    New construction included: coal store (1935), additional classrooms (c1935), administration building (1936), no. 2 Store (1936), inflammable store (1936), timber store (1936), boiler shop (completed 1937), foundry (1937), new galley (1937), washhouse (1937), joiners shop (completed 1939), electrical shop (completed 1939), hospital (1940)
1936    Admiralty purchased Auckland Harbour Board workshops and equipment (excluding the dry dock)
1940    Considerable wartime construction, including new wharf and workshops,
1946    underground fuel tanks, dockyard administration block (1940), welders shop (1940) air raid protection constructed (1942), Calliope Wharf extended (1942), administration/barrack blocks (completed 1943), Calliope Dock extended to take USN heavy cruisers (1943), ICE Workshop (1943), boiler wharf (1944), boatshop (ML Base - completed1944), boiler shop (completed 1945), Naval Stores Depot built in Shoal Bay (completed 1946), fuel tanks (completed 1946)
1942    Royal Commission enquires into administration of dockyard. Recommendations included planned layout of base for future. Naval Base restructured with separation of Philomel and Dockyard
1945    Total number of civilians employed in Dockyard approx 500
1947    The ship HMNZS Philomel paid off and sold
1958    Fleet swimming pool opened (built from monies received for work during 1951 strike)
1965    Approximately 2095 persons employed in Naval Base: Dockyard 914, Naval Supply Depot 181, Navy 1,000
1983    Ngataringa Bay Sports Complex opened
1992    New Damage Control School constructed on site of previous NBCD School
1994    New main storehouse at NSD completed
1994    Dockyard leased to Babcock-Skellerup Ltd
1995    Maritime Operations School constructed – all facilities relocated from North Head
1998    Approximate 2,235 persons employed in Naval Base: Navy 1,500, Civilian 510, Babcock (Dockyard) 275. Note: these figures include those relocated from Tamaki (approx 600)
2008    RNZNVR Auckland Division relocated to Philomel – HMNZS Ngapona commissioned November 2008
2012    A total of 1295 personnel based at the Devonport Naval Base

Disclaimer: The information contained here is the result of research undertaken by Navy Museum staff utilising the resources held in the museums collection. Information from external sources has not been consulted in the preparation of this enquiry sheet. This research is not definitive and information supplied here does not imply or infer that further information may not be available from other sources.

by Heather Vermeer