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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Sinking of the Turakina

page 7

The Sinking of the Turakina

FROM the early morning of 20 August the raider ‘steered along the route Cook Strait—Sydney’, and late in the afternoon a steamer was sighted on the starboard bow as it came out of a rain squall. This ship was the New Zealand Shipping Company’s steamer Turakina, 9691 tons, commanded by Captain J. B. Laird, on passage from Sydney to Wellington. She was carrying some 4000 tons of lead, wheat, and dried fruit loaded at Australian ports and was to have filled her insulated space at Wellington with frozen meat for England.

The raider signalled the Turakina to stop instantly and not use her wireless. Captain Laird at once ordered maximum full speed, turned his ship stern on to the enemy, and instructed the radio office to broadcast the ‘raider signal’. The Orion then opened fire at a range of about 5250 yards with the object of destroying the Turakina’s radio office and aerials. Nevertheless, the Turakina was able to make her signal several times, and it was received by stations in Australia and New Zealand in spite of the raider’s efforts to jam it. She gave her position as approximately 260 miles west by north from Cape Egmont and some 400 miles from Wellington.

The Turakina at once replied to the enemy’s fire with her single 4.7-inch gun, and, in the gathering dusk, there began the first action ever fought in the Tasman Sea. It was an unequal contest, but Captain Laird had vowed that he would fight his ship to the last if ever he was attacked. At the close range of two and a half miles, the raider’s fire quickly wrought havoc on board the Turakina. The first salvoes brought down the fore topmast and the lookout, partly wrecked the bridge, destroyed the range-finder, and put most of the telephones out of action. The galley and the engineers’ quarters were hit by shells which set the vessel badly on fire amidships. In little more than a quarter of hour she was reduced to a battered, blazing wreck and was settling aft; more than half her crew had been killed and others were wounded. At least one of her shells had burst on board the raider and wounded a number of Germans. To hasten her destruction, the raider discharged a torpedo at a range of about a mile, but ‘due to the swell it broke surface and hit the steamer on the stern. No visible damage results. The vessel burns like a blazing torch,’ wrote Captain Weyher.

Meanwhile, Captain Laird had given the order to abandon ship. The two port lifeboats had been wrecked, but one of the starboard boats got away from the ship with three officers and eleven hands, seven of whom were wounded. A number of wounded were put into the remaining boat, but when it was lowered a sea swept it away from the ship’s side and it was some time before it could be worked back again. When the lifeboat came alongside, the badly wounded chief radio officer was put into it and the others were told by Captain Laird to ‘jump for it’. At that moment a second torpedo struck the Turakina, which sank two minutes later. The only survivors of the explosion were the third officer, the seventh engineer, an apprentice, two able seamen, a fireman, and a steward. They were picked up by the raider, as were the fourteen men in the other boat. An able seaman, who had been badly hurt when the Turakina’s foremast was shot down, died on board the Orion and was buried next day. Captain Laird and thirty-three of his officers and men had died in the Turakina, and twenty survivors were prisoners in German hands.

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In refusing to stop when challenged and in ordering wireless messages to be transmitted, Captain Laird had carried out an obligation that was accepted by thousands of British and Allied shipmasters. The Turakina and her ship’s company paid a great price, but the raider was compelled to leave the Tasman Sea and did not sink another ship for two months.

The only warship in New Zealand waters at that time was HMNZS Achilles, which was lying at Wellington. She received the distress signal at 6.56 p.m. and sailed two and a half hours later, at 25 knots, for the Tasman Sea. The one flying-boat available took off from Auckland early next morning and was sighted by the Achilles at eight o’clock. When the cruiser arrived at the position given by the Turakina she found no sign of wreckage or boats. For the next few days the Achilles and the aircraft carried on their search, but without success. An equally fruitless patrol was made in the south-west Tasman Sea by HMAS Perth and Australian aircraft. The raider had, in fact, succeeded in escaping to the southward.

After picking up the survivors from the Turakina, the Orion steamed away at easy speed to the south-west in generally poor visibility. At midday on 25 August she had reached a position about 200 miles south of Hobart. She then headed north-west and zig-zagged across the Australian Bight to the westward. ‘The hopes of the captain for success in these waters were not however realised,’ recorded the raider’s log. ‘Again and again the shipping-lanes from Capetown to South Australian ports and from Aden and Colombo via Cape Leeuwin to South Australia were crossed without sighting a ship. The weather was, as expected, generally very bad. The vessel rolled as much as 34 degrees….’

Assuming that shipping was hugging the coast, Captain Weyher approached to within twenty miles of the south-west coast of Australia. During the night of 2–3 September, with the object of disturbing shipping traffic, dummy mines were laid ‘in view of the beacon on Eclipse Island, outside Albany harbour.’ The raider then headed out to sea at full speed. At eight o’clock next morning a ‘Hudson bomber appeared and circled the ship twice at an altitude of 600–800 metres’. The bomber made a wireless report as it flew away and from ten o’clock onwards ‘at least six aircraft which had just taken off from Busselton were located by radar.’ They failed to find the Orion, which was hidden by heavy rain squalls. Thereafter, the raider kept well offshore outside the range of air reconnaissance.

For the next five days she cruised along the shipping routes south-west of Cape Leeuwin but sighted nothing. The weather was persistently foul with strong westerly gales. According to the orders of the German Naval Command, the Orion was to have met the raider Pinguin (Ship No. 33) in that area, but the latter was having good hunting in the Indian Ocean and did not come south of Australia till the middle of October. The Orion was therefore ordered to return to the Pacific to replenish stores from a supply ship from Japan and to overhaul her machinery in the Marshall Islands.

Accordingly, on 9 September, the Orion sailed to the south-east for eight stormy days until she reached a position about 400 miles south-east of Hobart. She then steamed up the Tasman Sea to an area midway between Sydney and the North Cape of New Zealand, which she patrolled for five days from 21 September. No ships were sighted. In five days’ cruising in the Kermadec Islands area she again drew a blank. On 1 October she headed north, steamed close by the Fiji Group four days later, and, passing between Nauru Island and Ocean Island, arrived on 10 October page 9 at the atoll of Ailinglapalap, in the Marshall Islands. There she met the supply ship Regensburg, 8068 tons, from which she took some 3000 tons of fuel-oil as well as stores and provisions. Another supply ship, the Weser, 9179 tons, had been captured on 25 September by the Canadian armed merchant cruiser Prince Robert, a few hours after sailing from Manzanillo, Mexico, for the Marshall Islands.

The Orion and Regensburg left the atoll on 12 October. Two days later the raider captured the Norwegian motor-vessel Ringwood, 7203 tons, on passage from Shanghai to Ocean Island. The crew of thirty-six was taken prisoner and the ship, after being looted of stores and equipment, was sunk by an explosive charge. On the following night a steamer of 6000 to 7000 tons with ‘large though unrecognizable neutral markings on the bows’ was sighted steering south-east. The raider’s maximum speed of 12.5 knots at that time was not sufficient to overtake the stranger, which disappeared in the darkness. On 18 October the Orion and her supply ship arrived at Lamotrek in the Caroline Islands, where they met the raider Komet (Ship No. 45) and the supply ship Kulmerland, 7363 tons.