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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Hunting Enemy Raiders

Hunting Enemy Raiders

AT THIS TIME considerable anxiety was expressed by the New Zealand Government concerning the protection of shipping on the New Zealand Station, where two German raiders had been cruising for some months, and a request was made for the return of the Leander. In response to the urgent personal representations of the First Lord of the Admiralty, however, it was agreed that the New Zealand cruiser should remain on the East Indies Station. Actually, though it could not be known at that time, the immediate danger in New Zealand waters was past, both German raiders being on their way to the Indian Ocean, where several others were also operating. During the last week of January 1941, the Leander took part, with three other cruisers, in an unsuccessful hunt for a raider in the wide area between the Maldive Islands and the Seychelles. She was to have better luck a month later.

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After escorting the Aquitania, Mauretania, and Nieuw Amsterdam—the last-mentioned was carrying the 4th Reinforcements, 2nd NZEF—from Colombo to Bombay, the Leander sailed to patrol an area west of the Maldive Islands. In the forenoon of 27 February a ship was sighted steaming fast on an easterly course. She was overtaken and challenged, but her replies to signals were dilatory and evasive and she kept her course and speed. When ordered to stop she hoisted the Italian ensign and opened fire at 3000 yards. A few shell splinters hit the Leander, who fired page 9 five salvoes in one minute. It was then seen that the Italians were abandoning ship and that their flag had been struck. Their ship had been hit many times, and through a large hole in her side it could be seen that she was burning. The fire spread rapidly, and after a great internal explosion the ship sank under a vast cloud of black smoke. The Leander picked up the captain, ten officers, and ninety-two men, one of whom was seriously wounded. He died during the afternoon and was buried with full naval honours. From the prisoners it was learned that the ship was the fast motor-vessel Ramb I,* which had been fitted out at Massawa with four 4.7-inch guns and eight anti-aircraft machine guns. She had sailed from Massawa on 20 February, under orders to raid merchant shipping during her passage towards the Dutch East Indies. The Leander transferred her prisoners at Addu Atoll to the Admiralty tanker Pearleaf, which took them to Colombo.

Wireless direction-finding bearings indicated that enemy ships were in the vicinity of Saya de Malha, a vast coralline bank lying some hundreds of miles south-east of the Seychelles Islands. This area was, in fact, much frequented at that time by German raiders and their supply ships. On 2 March the Leander met the Australian cruiser Canberra at sea and, in accordance with the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, they searched the area. In the afternoon of 4 March 1941, the Canberra's aircraft sighted a cargo ship in company with a loaded tanker. Suspecting the former of being a raider, the Canberra opened fire on her at 18,000 yards. She did not reply; subsequently she proved to be the German motor-vessel Coburg, 7400 tons, which had left Massawa about 21 February. She was soon burning fiercely and sank not long afterwards. The tanker was the Norwegian Ketty Brovig, 7030 tons, which had been captured on 2 February by the German raider Atlantis. When threatened by near-miss bombs dropped by the Canberra's aircraft, the Ketty Brovig was scuttled by her prize crew. The Leander arrived on scene at sunset and assisted the Canberra to pick up eighteen German officers and forty-seven seamen and five Norwegian officers and thirty-three Chinese, the latter from the tanker, all being landed at Mauritius four days later. The destruction of the Ketty Brovig, which was not known to the Germans for nearly two months, caused a considerable derangement of their plans for refuelling the several raiders in the Indian Ocean.

From 10 to 20 March the Leander, Canberra, and armed merchant cruiser City of Durban carried out an unsuccessful search for an enemy supply ship and a submarine from Massawa which were thought to be making for a rendezvous 400 miles south-east of Madagascar. On 23 March the Leander, patrolling between Mauritius and Madagascar, intercepted the Vichy-French motor- vessel Charles L.D.,** 5267 tons, which was sent into Mauritius in charge of an armed guard. Less than three weeks later the New Zealand cruiser was on her way from Madras to Singapore, escorting a convoy of four troopships, when she was relieved by HMS Ceres and ordered to Colombo to prepare for a mission to the Persian Gulf.

A situation which for a time appeared very threatening to British interests had developed after the Government of Iraq was overthrown on 3 April 1941 by Rashid Ali, with the connivance of

* Ramb I, 3667 tons gross register, 17 knots. One of four sister ships built for the Italian Ministry for Africa (Regia Azienda Monopole Banane) and employed in the banana trade to Italy.

** Owned by Louis Dreyfus and Company, Paris.

page 10 German agents. The British Government accepted an offer of Indian troops from Karachi, but it was laid down that force was to be used only if the landing of the troops at Basra was opposed. The Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, Vice-Admiral R. Leatham, CB, embarked in the Leander, which sailed from Colombo on 14 April and arrived off the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab on the 18th, a few hours after the troopships from India. The landing was unopposed and the official attitude friendly for the time being. Admiral Leatham returned to Colombo in the Leander on 29 April and the ship went to sea again the same day to take part in a search for the German raider Pinguin.* She was back at Colombo three days later and sailed on 6 May, escorting thea Aquitania and Mauretania, carrying the 5th Reinforcements, 2nd NZEF, and the Ile de France, bound for Suez. Three hours after clearing Nine Degree Channel between the Laccadive Islands and Maldive Islands on 7 May, the Leander turned the convoy over to the Canberra and steamed at speed to the westward. The hunt for the elusive raider was on again. Early that morning and more than 1000 miles to the westward, the Pinguin had sunk a British tanker. HMS Cornwall was barely half that distance south of the position given in the tanker's distress signal. Her aircraft sighted the Pinguin next morning and she intercepted and sank the raider during the afternoon.

On 23 May 1941 the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. P. Fraser, who was then in Cairo, reported in a cable message to Wellington that at the special request of the First Lord of the Admiralty he had agreed to the Leander being sent to the Mediterranean, where matters were going badly and where the ‘help of Leander type of cruiser is essential to support our men in Crete….’ But when the Leander arrived at Aden from Colombo on 29 May, she was already too late to 'support our men in Crete’, who were then being evacuated by the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, when she arrived at Alexandria on 5 June, she was a welcome addition to the sadly depleted Mediterranean Fleet, and Admiral Cunningham informed the New Zealand Naval Board that he was ‘very glad to have her’.

Early in May, concurrently with the arrival in Syria of a German economic mission and other signs of enemy penetration, German aircraft began to make use of the Syrian and Iraq airfields. The situation had serious possibilities if the Germans should obtain complete control of Syria. To prevent this it was necessary to occupy the country, which was invaded on 8 June by British and Free French troops. During the next four weeks the Leander took an active part in naval operations in support of the army, bombarding enemy positions and engaging Vichy French destroyers. Hostilities ceased at midnight of 11–12 July and the armistice agreement was signed at Acre two days later. After taking part in the transport of British troops from Port Said to Cyprus, the Leander received orders to return to New Zealand. She sailed on 31 July and ended an eventful cruise of sixteen months by escorting the Aquitania across the Tasman Sea, arriving at Wellington on 8 September 1941. During that period she had steamed more than 100,000 miles, mostly in tropical waters and with only two brief spells in dry dock for cleaning, painting, and minor repairs.

* Pinguin, formerly Hansa liner Kandelfels, 7766 tons gross register. During her cruise of eleven months, this raider captured or sank twenty-eight ships totalling 139,120 tons and laid mines in Australian waters causing the loss of three ships of 17,790 tons.