I am an Assam man,’ my beloved tells me

The cafe is in a museum. The museum is in a 19th century torpedo store. And the torpedo store is built into a 50,000-year-old volcano.

Britain’s Royal Navy first raised the flag in Devonport in 1840, and there’s been a connection between the seaside village and our maritime forces ever since.

Torpedo Bay and North Head, as they were.

These days, the Devonport Naval Base, known as HMNZS Philomel after an old Royal Navy light cruiser which became the New Zealand Navy’s first ship, is home port to New Zealand’s fleet and the Navy’s major training base.

The Navy museum, however, is not on the base but in the Navy’s historic buildings at nearby Torpedo Bay.

In 1885, amid fears Russian warships were about to attack, a torpedo base was built inside caverns hollowed into the volcanic rock of Maungauika (North Head).

According to the museum chap, the torpedoes were never fired in anger, which is just as well, because they were wildly inaccurate and sailors had to rush to the other side of the boats to stop them capsizing.

Cups from the ward room.

The museum’s exhibits cover everything from delicate teacups found in the ward rooms of old-time ships to the stream anchor for SMS Adler, an Imperial German Navy gunboat destroyed in a cyclone in Samoa. The storm that rolled into Apia in March 1869 was vicious and the only ship that survived was HMS Calliope, whose captain managed to get out her out of the harbour and into open seas, a feat attributed to a well-built ship and outstanding seamanship, and, according to the ship’s engineer, the superior properties of the West Coast coal that fired the boilers. The story is remembered in Banjo Patterson’s poem The Ballad the Calliope.

My own connection to the naval base is my great uncle who was in the Navy from 1928 until 1945 and was based at HMNZS Philomel when World War 2 broke out in 1939.

He served on both HMNZS Leander and Achilles. two light cruisers originally in the New Zealand Division of Britain’s Royal Navy and transferred into the Royal New Zealand Navy when it was established in 1941. The museum’s evocative exhibition gives me a glimpse of what he went through.

HMNZS Achilles name plate
Crew quarters on HMNZS Achilles
Recreation of the ward room on HMNZS Achillies.
A sailor’s “ditty” box from HMNZS Achilles. This man, who had been married just two weeks before sailing, didn’t make it home.

Uncle Os was not on Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, when three smallish British vessels took on the Germany battleship General Graf Spee in the South Atlantic near Argentina, but he was on board Leander when she was holed by a torpedo in the Battle of Kolombangara in the Solomon Islands.

Uncle Os in his Navy uniform

I didn’t know about this battle until our visit to the museum. The details of what happened when a Japanese torpedo slammed into Leander’s hull are disturbing. My uncle was part of the crew that had to patch up the hole to stop the ship sinking. I won’t go into the gruesome details here, but you can read about it if you want to.

A torpedo crew on HMNZS Leander
HMNZS Leander coming into drydock at Devonport, Auckland, after the Battle of Kolombangara. My uncle is on board.
Repairing the hole a Japanese torpedo left in the side of HMNZS Leander.
A burial at sea.
HMNZS Leander’s nameplate, now in the Navy museum at Torpedo Bay, Devonport, Auckland.

But back to tea. Will the cafe at the Torpedo Bay Naval Museum prove ship-shape when tea-time comes around, or will it be the cat-of-nine-tails or a spot of keel-hauling for whoever made this slop?

My marks out of 10

CUP 1.5: Acme, but a bonus half-point because the cups have been heated.

TEA 8: NZ Live loose-leaf in pots. This is Bell Tea’s premium tea and I haven’t had it since I visited Piccolo Cafe in Taupo back in 2017. My beloved says his Breakfast Assam is full-bodied and refreshing. “But then, I am an Assam man,” he says. I push the boat out with a Kowhai Ceylon. It’s a bit lighter than the Assam, but still a good brew; excellent for afternoons. On the food front, we go for a late lunch, and are very happy with our filo, savories and caramel slice.

Playground with a big gun.

SETTING 8: Few cafes in Auckland would be more waterfront than this. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and the French tourists at the next table are practising their English by saying “no worries” to everyone. After our late lunch, we wander around the museum, which is free.

Twelve-year-old Shelley makes her self comfortable at an outside table.

DOG-FRIENDLY? Yes.

Open every day from 8am until 5pm, except Christmas and Boxing Days.

OPEN AFTER 3PM? Yes. Cabinet food-only from 3pm, but there’s till plenty to choose from. And you can get tea until 5pm.

Torpedo Bay Cafe, 64 King Edward Parade, Devonport, Auckland.

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