Lost Kiwi Ships

With communist China becoming more hostile and building a naval base on specially constructed islands in the Indian Ocean, it made me think about the New Zealand ships that have been lost to enemy action, especially during the Second World War. The names of these ships have mostly faded into the mists of history even though it has only been 7 decades since the war finished.


In February 1942 the Japanese submarine campaign began in the Tasman Sea  when vessel I-177 surfaced off Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Wellington and Auckland. It’s amazingly the enemy managed to launch its little float plane on reconnaissance flights over each port. The submarine went undetected even though it spent much of its time on the surface, including passing through Cook Strait. During April and May 1943, the Japanese submarine attacked 11 ships, sinking 7 of them.


Built in Glasgow in 1925, the Union Steamship Company’s freighter MV Limerick, 140m (459ft) long with a tonnage of 8,724 and powered by two diesel engines, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cape Byron, Australia on the night of 25th April (ANZAC day) 1943.  The New Zealand ship was used for military purposes during the war, carrying equipment, gear, and troops between Australasia and various war zones. The Limerick was part of a convoy heading north from Sydney to Brisbane and was one of the largest vessels sunk by Japanese submarines off Australia’s east coast during their submarine patrols through 1942 and 1943.

At midnight, when the crew would be asleep to cause maximum deaths, a single torpedo struck midships. However, the sturdy steel ship took 3 hours to sink, taking a New Zealand engineer and an Australian officer with it. It took 10 hours before the rest of the crew, numbering 70, were rescued from lifeboats by HMAS Colac, a mine sweeper accompanying the convoy. (seems odd it took so long to rescue the men if the Australian escort ship was actually sailing with the convoy!)


Along with the Japanese menace, the German navy was also active in New Zealand waters during the Second World War. On 20 August 1940 the New Zealand Shipping Company’s steamer Turakina was sailing from Sydney to Wellington to load frozen meat for England but was sunk by the heavily armed German Commerce Raider Orion. The Turakina only had a feeble single 4.7-inch gun, so was no match for the heavily armed German ship which had been operating in New Zealand waters for sometime. The Orion came across the Turakina in the Tasman Sea approximately 400 miles from Wellington. The Kiwi steamer ignored the raider’s signal to stop and to also stop using her radio. The Germans watched as the gallant steamer went full steam ahead and turned stern on to them.  The Turakina radioed her position and advised that she was being shelled. The Germans unsuccessfully tried to jam the Turakina’s radio transmission so opened fire and within 20 minutes half of the Turakina’s 56 crew were dead or injured and she was sinking by the stern. During the attack, the Turakina managed one hit on the enemy ship. A second torpedo slammed into the Kiwi steamer, while the crew were abandoning her, causing more deaths. The Turakina sank in less than two minutes. Captain Laird and 34 of his officers and men died. The Orion picked up 21 survivors; one severely injured sailor later died.

Assisted by a flying boat, the HMS Achilles went full speed to the location given by the Turakina, but the search was unsuccessful leaving the German raider to continue attacking shipping in New Zealand waters.


The Orion worked in tandem with the two other German raiders, the Komet and Kulmerland. The captain of the Orion had been aware of the Chatham Island service for many years so a month after sinking the Turakina, he positioned his ship, along with the other pair of raiders, in the waters between New Zealand and the Chatham Islands to capture the Holmwood in order to replenish their supplies from her cargo of live sheep and other foodstuffs destined for the Chathams.  When he came across the small supply ship 27 miles west of the Chatham Islands, he expressed surprise that the little freighter had taken so long to stop after he signalled her and said that he was on the point of ordering an attack when he saw her backwater wash as she pulled up. 

The Germans boarded the modest New Zealand ship and politely ordered the women and children, along with the Holmwood’s crew to transfer to the Kulmerland. The Kiwi prisoners were then taken down to cells deep in the ship and incarcerated. A guard was outside their cell at all times except when the ship engaged in fighting. If anything had gone wrong they would have drowned like rats in cages. Later an officer told them that several ratings had the duty of releasing them in the event of anything that could cause a foundering. They were allowed a lot of freedom on deck provided they undertook to go straight to their cells when requested.

The Kiwis heard the shelling as the Holmwood was sunk and were surprised that it went on for so long. Their guard said that this was because they used the opportunity to train new young gunners. The Germans spent a lot of time helping the mothers and children and shared family photos, and some even made toys for the children. As more ships were sunk, more prisoners were crowded into the Kulmerland so the ship’s captain decided to offload all his prisoners onto Emirau Island.

In January 1942, the 500 prisoners that ended up being dumped on the small island off the coast of New Guinea, were rescued by Australian ships and the Kiwis among them were returned to New Zealand.


The sinking of the modern 16,712-ton liner RMS Rangitane was one of the biggest prizes for the Germans in New Zealand waters. The New Zealand Shipping Company’s Rangitane left Auckland for Britain on Sunday 24 November 1940. The ship would travel via the Panama Canal with 111 passengers and 201 crew, plus 14,000 tons of cargo, including foodstuffs and silver bullion valued at over £2 million at 1940 prices.

Early on the morning of 27 November, 300 miles east of New Zealand, the Rangitane was intercepted by the Komet, Orion and Kulmerland. This was just 2 days after they sank the Holmwood off the Chathams. The Germans signalled Rangitane to stop and not to transmit anything. Following standard Admiralty instructions, however, Captain Upton ordered Third Radio Officer Norman to transmit QQQ (“suspicious vessel”). When the Germans heard the wireless transmission, they began shelling Rangitane, destroying the main radio transmitter.  Chief Radio Officer Hallett activated the emergency transmitter and sent the message RRR (“raider attack”) along with their ship’s position, which was received and relayed by New Zealand coastal monitoring stations.

The shelling caused widespread fires on the liner and, with her steering damaged, it was impossible to escape the German gauntlet. Captain Upton ordered his ship’s surrender knowing his distress signals had been received in New Zealand. Eight passengers and eight crew died from the attack. The 296 passengers and crew who survived the shelling were transferred to the German ships by lifeboats.

Knowing that Rangitane’s distress signals had been received, the Germans hurried from the area before Allied aircraft arrived.  As fires raged across the Rangitane, the Komet fired a torpedo into the stricken liner. The ship listed quickly and disappeared under the ocean at 6:30 am. The first Allied aircraft on the scene later that day found only an oil slick and debris. A subsequent air search failed to locate the German raiders.


With communist China increasing its influence over a number of Pacific islands, not to mention its hostile behaviour elsewhere, we can only pray that history doesn’t repeat itself.

(P.S. The wreck of the Limerick was not located until 2012 when two Byron Bay fishermen stumbled across the upturned wreck now home to sharks and other fish.)

Ceidrik Heward

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