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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Harbour Entrances Mined

Harbour Entrances Mined

WHILE the Komet carried on to a rendezvous near the Chatham Islands, the Adjutant steamed in to the New Zealand coast and laid the mines close to the entrances to Lyttelton and Wellington harbours. In each case ten mines were laid, under cover of darkness, across the approaches to both ports. There is no record of any suspicious vessel having been seen in the vicinity of either port at that time. The Adjutant was a small ship of about 350 tons, closely resembling a minesweeper, several of which were then operating between Lyttelton and Wellington and for one of which she might have been mistaken had she been seen at night. Nothing was known of the minelaying until more than four years later, when it was revealed by captured German documents. Unlike those laid by the Orion in the Hauraki Gulf area, these were a magnetic type of ground mine. It is probable that they were defective when laid, since they have given no indication of their presence. Hundreds of ships have passed safely over the areas in which they were laid and which, during the war, were subjected to routine sweeping by flotillas fitted to deal effectively with magnetic, acoustic, and moored mines.

The following account of the Adjutant’s bold operation is taken from the Admiralty translation of the war diary of the Komet:

At 1130 on 11 June, Ship 45 [Komet] sent Adjutant, as planned, to lay ten T.M.B. mines in the approaches to the New Zealand harbours of Port Lyttelton and Port Nicholson (Wellington) during the next new moon period. Apart from engine trouble, the voyage to New Zealand is uneventful. The Auckland Islands appear to starboard at 1320 on 20 June. At 1600 on 24 June Adjutant sets course 267 deg. [approximately due west] for Lyttelton: wind is force 7 to force 8 [moderate to fresh gale] with corresponding sea. The mines are clear for laying and the ship ready to scuttle herself. It is a dark night. Godley Head light comes into sight at 2130; later, also the Christchurch aircraft homing beacons. They are all burning peacefully. A searchlight at Godley Head directed towards Baleine Point bars the main approach to the harbour.

At 2400 [midnight], when the Adjutant is three miles off Godley Head, the light is kept dead ahead. On 25 June, between 0007 and 0122, the ten mines are laid according to plan at a depth of 16.5 to 22 metres [54 to 72 feet], the ship steaming at seven knots. There is no enemy opposition. The Adjutant then withdraws on course 50 deg. [approximately north-east]. After 0200, this is altered to 70 deg. [approximately east-north-east] and speed increased to ten knots. Shortly afterwards, the lights of a steamer coming in from the south-east are seen. At daybreak, the Adjutant is about sixty miles off the coast. The high snow-covered mountains can be seen clearly; and as the sun rises, it might well be Bodensee [Lake of Constance].

page 27
Black and white map of mine location


‘On the way to Wellington, the second of my objectives, I decided to keep only sixty miles off the coast,’ said Lieutenant Karsten, who was in charge of the minelaying, in his report. ‘I want to lay the mines at Wellington tonight before the harbour is warned—and, so far, Lyttelton has not reported anything. If, however, I proceed at a safe distance of 150 to 200 miles off the coast, I shall not get there today. The same arrangements hold for Wellington as for Lyttelton, except that it will be more difficult, as Wellington is better defended. Another factor in forcing me to take this course is my engine. The knocking of the big-end bearing of the high-pressure piston is getting progressively worse. I made a chart of the operation in relation to the engine. I shall reach Wellington, but whether I shall get away again is a different matter. However, my orders read “Lay mines at Wellington” and I shall carry them out.

‘The vessel has been proceeding at seven knots since 1615 to avoid arriving in position too early. Minelaying is to begin at 2330. The night is dark; there is a light north-westerly breeze, force 3; the sea is calm to slight. Baring Head light comes in sight at 2100 and the one at Pencarrow at 2200. “Stand by for action.” Here again as at Lyttelton, everything is lit up peacefully. The harbour is barred by two searchlights, located between Palmer Head and Pencarrow Head. One acts as a constant barrier and the other sweeps the approach sector at page 28
Black and white map of mine location


page 29 irregular intervals, ending up at three patrol boats with masthead lights, lying to port of the Adjutant as she approaches. Minefield is to be laid at full speed (14 knots) and not at seven knots as arranged. Get-away to be covered by a smoke screen. Events developed as follows:
2312 Challenge from Baring Head. Adjutant does not reply. Steams through at full speed on course 12 deg. [north by east]. Baring Head makes morse signal to searchlight which, however, sweeps right over Adjutant four times.
2316 Order to lay mines, although initial position has not yet been reached.
2320 When laying fourth mine, Adjutant is picked up by a searchlight.
2321 Smoke made. The fifth and sixth mines are laid on the run in, the remaining four under cover of the smoke screen, after turning back, and on a slightly different course from the one intended.
2328 Last mine laid. Depth of mines between 26 and 33 metres [85 to 108 feet].
2330 Smoke stopped. Course set for Baring Head. The searchlight continues to sweep the smoke screen which now separates Adjutant from the patrol boats. Shortly after passing Baring Head, the vessel turns landwards and so becomes obscured from the searchlights.’

Lieutenant Karsten describes ‘the measures taken by the enemy after the laying of the smoke screen’ as follows:

‘In the meantime, three searchlights are switched on. One blocks the approach from its position to Palmer Head; the second from the searchlight position to Pencarrow Head; and the third to the south-west. There are three M.T.B.’s [patrol boats] and one minesweeper between the searchlight and Pencarrow Head and one M.T.B. between the searchlight and Palmer Head. One small M.T.B. type of vessel was making black smoke. All the ships were burning navigation lights. The patrol vessels had moved into the beam of the centre searchlight and lay burning masthead lights; they maintained morse communication with the signal station on Beacon Hill.’

After the Adjutant had rounded Baring Head, ‘all speed is made to get away from the coast. At 0100 on 26 June, the alarm is over. Adjutant sets course 90 deg. [east] at 0130 and proceeds at 12 knots. At 0440 a halt had to be made because of engine trouble. At this stage the ship is about seventy miles from Wellington. Considerable W/T traffic can be heard between New Zealand airfields and naval bases. We can expect an organised search. During the day, the vessel proceeds with her engine knocking badly. An unsuccessful attempt is made, during the night of 27 June, to eliminate the trouble. The rest of the voyage has to be made under emergency sail, or using medium and low pressure cylinders; consequently the maximum possible speed is eight to nine knots…. Ship 45 comes in sight at 0730 on 1 July. The Adjutant is sunk at 41 deg. 36 min. South, 173 deg. 07 min. West [north-east of the Chatham Islands].’

In his assessment of the Adjutant’s minelaying operation, Rear-Admiral Eyssen, commanding officer of the Komet remarked that ‘at Wellington, all the depths exceeded twenty metres, but a large number of ships of over 10,000 tons put in there, and as this port is very favourably situated in relation to the magnetic zone (Value “—570”) the mines, if they work at all, should, according page 30 to the data available, also detonate satisfactorily with vessels of 5000 to 7000 tons. I do not think the Adjutant was seen during the operation, in spite of the searchlight activity.’ A late entry in the war diary of the Komet stated that ‘no news of any sort was ever obtained about losses of shipping brought about by the Adjutant minefields.’ In the distribution of awards, the Iron Cross, First Class, was awarded to Lieutenant Karsten, ‘in recognition of the minelaying operation’ and to Lieutenant-Commander Hemmer, ‘in recognition of his former service as a member of the crew of the Pinguin and latterly of his command of the Adjutant.’

At that time, HMNZS Achilles was escorting homeward-bound liners from, various New Zealand ports to dispersal points east of the Chatham Islands and must have been close to the German ships. The Komet then steamed away along the Panama Canal route, and on 14 July 1941, south of the Tubuai. Group, she refuelled from the Anneliese Essberger, 5173 tons.

In the focal area of the Galapagos Islands, on 14 August, the Komet sank the motor-ship Australind, 5020 tons, a well-known New Zealand trader, on passage from Adelaide to England. The ship was shelled ruthlessly when she transmitted a distress signal. Her master and two engineers were killed and forty-two of the ship’s company made prisoners. The Australind was the first ship sunk by the Komet for eight months. On 17 August the raider captured the Dutch motor-vessel Kota Nopan, 7322 tons, which, being loaded with tin, coffee, tea and spices, was retained as a prize. Two days later, the British India steamer Devon, 9036 tons, formerly of the Federal Line, on passage from Liverpool to New Zealand, was sunk in the same area and her crew taken prisoner.

Her presence having been revealed by the distress signals of her victims, the Komet retraced her course to the south-west. She passed close by Pitcairn Island and on 20 September met the raider Atlantis and the supply ship Munsterland in the area west of Rapa Island. The Atlantis had entered the Pacific after a cruise of eighteen months in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, where she had sunk or captured twenty ships totalling 137,000 tons. Ten days before meeting the Komet, the Atlantis had captured the Norwegian motor-ship Silvaplana, 4793 tons, in a position about 800 miles north-east of the Kermadec Islands. This ship was sent away in charge of a prize crew and arrived at Bordeaux in November. After her meeting with the Komet, the Atlantis returned to the Atlantic on her way back to Germany. She was intercepted and sunk by HMS Devonshire, north-west of Ascension Island, on 22 November 1941.

Black and white illustration of ship

the captured tanker ole jacob

The Ole Jacob was a tanker of 8306 tons, built in 1939 and owned in Norway. On her maiden voyage, she arrived at Wellington in the evening of 31 July 1940, and was ordered on to Lyttelton. A few hours later, off Cape Campbell, she crashed into the motor-ship Armadale, 4066 tons, which was on passage from Lyttelton to Sydney. Both ships were badly damaged and put into Wellington. The Ole Jacob was repaired at Auckland, whence she subsequently proceeded to Palembang, Sumatra. On 10 November 1940 she was captured in the Bay of Bengal by the raider Atlantis and sent to Japan in charge of a prize crew.