Episodes & Studies Volume 2
From Tropics to Sub-Antarctic
From Tropics to Sub-Antarctic
IN A CABLE MESSAGE dated 8 September 1939, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs informed the British High Commissioner in New Zealand that ‘by placing HMS Achilles* and two escort vessels [Leith and Wellington] under the orders of Admiralty, His Majesty's Government in New Zealand have made the maximum possible strategic contribution at sea under the present circumstances, since HMS Leander requires to be retained on the New Zealand Station to guard against the threat of attack on shipping by armed raiders’. That was indeed a true statement of the position, but there were many young New Zealanders in HMS Leander at that time who thought otherwise. They had said farewell to the other ships a few days before and felt that their Leander had been relegated to a backwater of the war, a feeling that was intensified three months later when news was received of the part played by her sister ship at the River Plate. But they need not have worried. This was to be the greatest maritime war of all time, and the Leander was destined to serve in many seas during the next four years.
On 30 August 1939, barely twenty-four hours after the Achilles had departed for South America, the Leander sailed from Auckland for Fanning Island, an important mid-Pacific link in the submarine cable connecting New Zealand with Canada. The cruiser, which was wearing the broad pendant of Captain J. W. Rivett-Carnac, DSC, RN,1 Commodore Commanding the New Zealand Squadron, carried New Zealand's first expeditionary force of the Second World War, a detachment of two officers and thirty other ranks, whose task was the defence of the cable station on that tiny island lying north of the Equator, more than 2800 miles from the Dominion. Almost exactly twenty-five years before—on 7 September 1914—a landing party from the German light cruiser Nurnberg, a unit of Admiral Graf Spee's Pacific Squadron, had cut the cable and wrecked the equipment of the station. Proceeding at high speed, the Leander called at Suva to refuel and arrived at Fanning Island on 5 September. After disembarking the troops and sixty tons of stores, the Leander returned via Suva, where she landed two dummy coast-defence guns, and arrived at Auckland on 13 September.
Before the end of the month the Leander was in sub-Antarctic waters on a cruise to Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands, which were uninhabited and possible bases for enemy raiders. Nothing suspicious was seen in either locality, but a heavy gale with poor visibility between the rain squalls prevented a close examination of all the anchorages in the Auckland Islands. The Leander returned there six weeks later and anchored in Carnley Harbour, several inlets of which were visited by her boats. Port Ross and other anchorages were reconnoitred by the ship's aircraft, but again no sign of any recent human activity was seen.page 4
There is no doubt, however, that a German ship was lying in a remote anchorage in Carnley Harbour at the time the Leander made her first visit to the Auckland Islands. This was the Norddeutscher Lloyd steamer Erlangen, 6101 tons, which had sailed from Dunedin on 28 August 1939, ostensibly for Port Kembla, New South Wales, where she was to have filled her coal bunkers for the homeward passage to Europe.
The Erlangen was ordered by radio from Germany not to go to Australia, but she had insufficient coal to enable her to reach the neutral waters of South America, 5000 miles distant. She went south to the Auckland Islands and lay concealed at the extreme head of North Arm, the innermost inlet of Carnley Harbour, for five weeks while her crew toiled at cutting rata wood, of which some 400 tons was loaded to eke out her meagre coal supply. A suit of sails was fashioned from hatch covers and spare canvas. The Erlangen put to sea again on 7 October and arrived in a Chilean port thirty-five days later. She subsequently made her way into the Atlantic where, on 24 July 1941, she was intercepted by HMS Newcastle and scuttled by her crew.
* It was not until September 1941, when the King approved the proposal that the New Zealand Naval Forces should be designated the Royal New Zealand Navy, that the Leander and Achilles were styled as HMNZ Ships.