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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Holmwood and Rangitane Sunk

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Holmwood and Rangitane Sunk

EARLY in the morning of 25 November their fruitless eighteen days’ patrol was rewarded when the Komet sighted and captured the steamer Holmwood, 546 tons, which had left the Chatham Islands a few hours before for Lyttelton. The crew and passengers, numbering twenty-nine, and including four women and two children, were taken off, as well as several hundred live sheep, after which the Holmwood was sunk by gunfire. Less than forty-eight hours later, about 450 miles to the north, the raiders scored a second success when they intercepted and sank the New Zealand Shipping Company’s motor-liner Rangitane, 16,712 tons.

No radio message was transmitted by the Holmwood before she was captured, and consequently no warning of the presence of enemy raiders to the east of New Zealand was received. A subsequent commission of inquiry expressed the view that had a wireless message been attempted ‘it would probably have reached New Zealand, or, if the enemy had attempted to jam the message, this jamming would have been heard in New Zealand…. The receipt of such a message in New Zealand would have resulted in the recall of the Rangitane which had left her anchorage off Rangitoto at about 5.30 that morning. Having regard to the position then existing, it is clear that the receipt of a message from the Holmwood would have given the Navy certain advantages in searching for the raiders which did not exist at a later date.

‘We are fully aware,’ said the commission’s report, ‘that any attempt to send the message would have brought about the shelling of the Holmwood, and that this might have meant heavy loss of life, including the lives of women and children. But, having regard to the methods of warfare with which we are faced, that consideration is irrelevant. Loss of civilian lives must be faced in an effort to locate and destroy raiders….’

The Rangitane was fully laden with dairy produce, frozen meat, and wool for the United Kingdom. Her crew numbered about 200 and she was carrying 111 passengers, including thirty-six women. She was about 300 miles east by north of East Cape when, at 3.40 in the morning of 27 November, the raiders were sighted.

Captain H. L. Upton at once instructed the Rangitane’s wireless office to broadcast the ‘suspicious ship message’ and, immediately the enemy opened fire, to send the ‘raider message’. He also ordered maximum full speed on the engines and altered course to bring his stern on to the Orion, which seemed to him to be in the best position to open fire. After signalling by morse lamp, ordering the Rangitane to stop and not to use her wireless, the Orion switched on a searchlight and commenced firing. When Captain Upton was told that the messages had been transmitted, he stopped his ship. The time was then 3.59 a.m., so that only nineteen minutes had elapsed since the raiders were first sighted. They continued firing after the Rangitane stopped. Captain Upton signalled that there were women on board, and shortly afterwards the firing ceased.

The Rangitane was considerably damaged and well on fire by this time. Five passengers, including three women, were killed and a number wounded, one of the latter, also a woman, dying on board the Orion next day. Two stewardesses and three engine-room hands were killed, and five others of the ship’s crew wounded. The conduct of the ship’s company was exemplary and in keeping with the traditions of the British merchant service. They went about their duties calmly and did everything possible for those in their charge.

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After the firing had ceased, a German boarding party arrived in a motor-launch and ordered the immediate abandonment of the ship. As soon as the passengers and crew had been taken on board, the raiders sank the Rangitane by torpedoes and gunfire and steamed away at full speed to the north-east. That evening, when they were ‘about 450 miles from the nearest possible air base’, a low-flying aircraft on a westerly course was sighted ahead. The Orion’s war diary recorded that ‘as no radio activity followed, however, it was presumed that the aircraft, in spite of good visibility through the light haze, had not seen the ships against the dark surface of the sea’.

When the Rangitane’s radio messages were received, HMNZS Achilles, which was lying at Lyttelton, was ordered to sail with all despatch. She cleared the harbour at 8.10 a.m. and steamed at 25 knots towards the point of attack. HMNZS Puriri, which was at Auckland with her engines partly dismantled, was ordered to sea, and she sailed at seven o’clock that evening. The flying-boat Aotearoa, after refuelling, took off from Auckland harbour at 11.11 a.m. It commenced a search at 2.30 p.m. and carried on till about six o’clock without sighting anything. The flying-boat Awarua arrived at Auckland from Sydney at 11 a.m. and, after refuelling, took off at 2.18 p.m. It began its search at 4.30 p.m. and carried on till dusk, but saw nothing.

At one o’clock in the afternoon of 28 November, the Achilles reached the southern end of an expanse of oil which extended for nine miles from the position where the Rangitane had been attacked. The cruiser sighted a lifebuoy and a number of boxes of butter. The flying-boat Awarua, which had been ordered out a second time, arrived at the position at 8.10 that morning. It saw the oil ‘slick’ and a number of very small floating objects which she reported to the Achilles. Not another trace of the Rangitane was found.

On 29 November the raiders arrived at the Kermadec Islands and the prisoners were partly re-distributed among the three ships, the thirty-nine women and five children being accommodated in the Kulmerland. The raiders then steamed to the north-west, passing between New Caledonia and the New Hebrides and south-east of the Solomon Islands. On 6 December, a day’s steam from Nauru Island, the Orion intercepted and shelled the Pacific Phosphate Commission’s steamer Triona, 4413 tons. The crew, originally sixty-four men, of whom three were killed, and the passengers, six women and a child, were taken on board the Orion and Kulmerland. The Triona was sunk by a torpedo.

Next day the Komet sank the Norwegian motor-vessel Vinni, 5181 tons, which was loaded with phosphates for Dunedin. On 8 December the Orion sank the Pacific Phosphate Commission’s motor-vessels Triadic, 6378 tons, and Triaster, 6032 tons, and the Komet sank the Union Steam Ship Company’s steamer Komata, 3900 tons, all within sight of Nauru Island. There were now 675 prisoners—265 in the Orion, 153 in the Komet, and 257, including 52 women and six children, in the Kulmerland.

The German records of the cruise of the Orion make it abundantly clear that her commanding officer had no fore-knowledge of the movements of New Zealand shipping, other than that certain general routes were followed, and that the interceptions of the Turakina, Holmwood, and Rangitane were fortuitous. The Germans claimed to their prisoners that they met the Rangitane by design and that they possessed information which enabled them to intercept her. This was believed by many survivors from the sunken ships, including the masters of the Rangitane and Holmwood. But such knowledge of the movements of the Rangitane as was paraded by the Germans doubtless was obtained from foreigners among the passengers who were segregated and interrogated in German.

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As has been shown, the two raiders and their supply ship carried out an extensive patrol of the trade routes east of New Zealand from 6 to 24 November without success. They were actually leaving the area when they happened first upon the Holmwood and, two days later, upon the Rangitane. Yet, during that period of three weeks, eleven large ships had arrived at Auckland and Wellington from the Panama Canal and seven had left for Balboa, while seven ships had arrived from, and five had sailed for, the South Sea Islands and North America. In other words, the raiders intercepted only the Rangitane out of thirty large overseas ships which passed through the area intensively searched by them.

Moreover, when the dim shadow of the Rangitane was first seen in the darkness by the raiders, they had not the slightest idea of her identity but believed her to be a warship. ‘The first impression received by the two AMC’s* was that of a large warship, at least as big as a cruiser,’ states the war diary of the Orion. ‘As evasion now seemed quite impossible, the commander of the Orion determined to attack, in the hope that one or other of the German ships would have a chance to escape. As became apparent later, the commander of the Komet came to the same conclusion. Under these circumstances, after the position of the four ships became clearer and the possibility of firing on one’s own ships in the confusion had lessened, the commander of the Orion gave orders for the searchlights to be switched on, in order to open fire with his main armament against the supposed enemy warship.’ Not until then was she seen to be a two-funnel merchant ship, and not until after she was boarded was she identified as the Rangitane.

The Komet refuelled from the Kulmerland at Ailinglapalap and the three ships then steamed to Emirau Island, in the Bismarck Archipelago, where they arrived on 21 December. While the prisoners were being disembarked, the Orion lay alongside the Kulmerland and took in the 1100 tons of fuel remaining in that ship. By midday, 343 Europeans and 171 Chinese and natives had been landed. Captain Weyher refused to land any European prisoners from his ship as he held that ‘trained officers and crews are as much a problem for Britain as shipping itself.’

Apart from the natives, the only inhabitants of Emirau Island were two white planters and their wives, Mr. and Mrs. Collett and Mr. and Mrs. Cook, who did everything possible for the women and children. The shipmasters and their officers organised their respective ship’s companies into camps. The Germans had provided food and other supplies, and these were generously supplemented by the settlers from their own stores.

The Germans had left a lifeboat on the condition that it would not be used to communicate with Kavieng, seventy miles away, until twenty-four hours after the raiders had left. The planters, however, sent some natives in a canoe to Mussau Island, fifteen miles distant, for a motor-launch, in which a party went to Kavieng for assistance. On 24 December the schooner Leander arrived with food and other stores. A doctor also brought medical supplies. Under much improved conditions, the castaways spent Christmas Day in a spirit of festivity. During the day the Administrator of New Britain arrived from Rabaul in a flying-boat bringing still more supplies.

Meanwhile, the Naval authorities had arranged for the steamer Nellore to proceed from Rabaul to Emirau Island, where she embarked the stranded passengers on 29 December. The overcrowded ship arrived on 1 January at Townsville, whence special trains took her passengers on to Brisbane and Sydney. The Australian and New Zealand Governments had made elaborate arrangements for the well-being of those who had passed through so trying an experience.

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After leaving Emirau Island, the German ships went their separate ways. The Orion steamed north to the Caroline Islands to carry out a much-needed overhaul of her engines and boilers and effect further changes in her outward appearance. The Kulmerland left for Japan, where she arrived on 31 December. The Komet steamed towards Rabaul, arriving off the harbour during the night of 24 December. There she hoisted out her fast motor-launch Meteorit to lay mines in the fairway; but the engines of the launch failed and the operation was abandoned. The Komet then steamed to Nauru Island where, on 27 December, she shelled and wrecked the phosphates plant, including the great cantilever loading structure.

According to reports received by the British Phosphates Commission ‘about 200 shells had been fired at the shipping plant and oil storage, besides hundreds of rounds of armour-piercing and incendiary bullets. One of the concrete foundations for the cantilever was so damaged that apparently another shell would have brought the whole structure down on the reef…. Of the three sets of main moorings holed by armour-piercing bullets, two of the large buoys were saved by the four-watertight-compartment construction. The oil storage and about 13,000 tons of oil were destroyed and the blazing oil spread in all directions. The 12,000-ton shore bin of the cantilever suffered badly as the blazing oil made the heavy steel [supporting] columns white hot and they collapsed….’

The raiders’ attacks on Nauru Island were, in effect, their greatest success in the Pacific, since they seriously affected the volume and continuity of the supplies of phosphates to New Zealand and Australia and, in less degree, to Britain. The sinking of five ships totalling 25,900 tons, including three of the Phosphate Commission’s steamers which had been specially adapted to the peculiar requirements of the trade, was a bad blow in view of the increasing shortage of shipping tonnage and the consequent difficulty of chartering suitable vessels. But, far worse was the drastic cut in available supplies of Nauru phosphates and its ultimate economic effect.

The output of phosphates from Nauru and Ocean Islands had reached a peak of nearly 1,500,000 tons in the year ended 30 June 1940, of which the former provided 919,750 tons. It was ten weeks after the bombardment before shipments from Nauru were resumed, the loading of the first cargo starting on 6 March 1941. The British Phosphates Commission estimated that shipments from both islands during 1941 would total 600,000 tons, including 250,000 tons from Nauru, but in the event, because of the bombardment damage and a long period of bad weather, the actual shipments were far short of the estimate. To supplement Nauru and Ocean Islands’ shipments of phosphates the British Government refrained from drawing supplies for the United Kingdom from those islands and arranged through the Phosphates Commission to give New Zealand and Australian requirements preference up to 120,000 tons from Makatea Island in the Pacific and 100,000 tons from Christmas Island (for Australia) in the Indian Ocean, but, again because of the shortage of shipping, supplies from those sources were relatively small. Several ships chartered to bring phosphates from Egypt to New Zealand were requisitioned for urgent war purposes. It was officially stated in July 1941 that New Zealand farmers were on a ration for fertilisers, based on a total annual importation of 200,000 tons of phosphate rock. Supplies of phosphates from Nauru and Ocean Islands ceased when those islands were occupied by the Japanese in 1942.

* Armed merchant cruisers