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The Royal New Zealand Navy

CHAPTER 10 — Cruise of the Orion and Komet

page 134

Cruise of the Orion and Komet

THE Achilles arrived at Wellington on 7 November 1940 and sailed next day as ocean escort for Convoy US 7, which comprised the Polish vessel Batory, 14,287 tons, and the Union Steam Ship Company's steamer Maunganui, 7527 tons. They were carrying the first section of the 4th Reinforcements, 2 NZEF, numbering approximately 1500 troops. The convoy crossed the Tasman Sea at 14 knots and arrived at Sydney on 12 November.

Four days later the Achilles sailed from Sydney under orders to visit the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, which, it was thought, might be used by enemy raiders as refuelling and refitting bases. After a stormy passage she arrived off the Auckland Islands in the early morning of 20 November. As the weather was too bad for the ship's aircraft to be used, the Achilles entered Carnley harbour and hoisted out a power boat carrying a forward observation party with a portable wireless set and a section of Royal Marines. The boat was ordered in to reconnoitre the anchorages and, in the event of a hostile ship being present, the forward observation officer was to be landed at a suitable position to spot for the ship's guns. Nothing of a suspicious nature was seen in Carnley harbour or in Port Ross where the ship anchored for four hours. The Achilles arrived off Campbell Island early next morning and, after reconnoitring Perseverance harbour, sailed for Port Chalmers.

In the afternoon of 21 November the cruiser received orders that, as an enemy raider had been reported by the steamer Maimoa in the south-east Indian Ocean on the previous day, she was to proceed direct to Lyttelton. The Naval Board informed the Minister of Defence that the change was made so that the Achilles could be refuelled and ready for operations should the raider arrive in New Zealand waters from the Indian Ocean.

The raider, which had attacked and sunk the Shaw Savill and Albion Company's steamer Maimoa in a position about 850 miles west from Fremantle, was the Pinguin (Ship No. 33). Her allotted area of operations was the Indian Ocean, but during October 1940 she and the captured Norwegian tanker Storstad, which had been renamed Passat, had laid minefields in the approaches to Sydneypage 135 Newcastle, Hobart and Adelaide, and in Bass Strait.1 Twenty-four hours after sinking the Maimoa, the Pinguin sank the Port Brisbane and, eight days later, the Port Wellington.

But while precautions were being taken against the possible approach of the Pinguin from the Indian Ocean, a German raider operation was actually in progress in New Zealand waters. At the time the Achilles was on passage from Campbell Island to Lyttelton, two raiders with a supply ship in company were cruising in an area eastward and southward of the Chatham Islands on the prowl for merchant ships. This enemy force comprised the Orion (which had laid the Hauraki Gulf minefield in June and sunk the Turakina in August), the Komet (Ship No. 45), and the supply ship Kulmerland.

After her return from the Indian Ocean in September, the Orion had spent nearly a fortnight cruising in the Tasman Sea and about the Kermadecs without success. On 1 October she headed north, passing close by the Fiji Group and between Nauru and Ocean Islands on her way to Ailinglapalap, an atoll in the Marshall Islands. There she met a supply ship from Japan from which she took some 3000 tons of fuel-oil as well as stores and provisions. After leaving the atoll the Orion captured and sank the Norwegian motor-vessel Ringwood, 7203 tons, on passage from Shanghai to Ocean Island. Four days later the Orion and her supply ship arrived at Lamotrek in the Caroline Islands, where they joined company with the raider Komet and the Kulmerland. The Komet had left the Baltic in July 1940 and arrived in the Pacific after an extraordinary passage across the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea. She was a relatively small ship of 3287 tons gross register, built in 1937 as the Ems for the Norddeutscher Lloyd. Propelled by two oil-engines geared to a single shaft, she had a speed of about 15 knots. She was armed with six 5·9-inch guns, nine light anti-aircraft guns, six deck and four underwater torpedo-tubes. She carried one Arado seaplane and a high-speed motor-launch.

The captains of the raiders decided to ‘operate together in the waters east of New Zealand along the routes leading from there to Panama.’ This was an area of good promise as, on an average, eight or nine loaded ships left New Zealand every month for the United Kingdom via the Panama Canal and an approximately equal number arrived by that route, not counting other ships moving to and from the Pacific coast.

The Orion and Komet with the Kulmerland in company sailed from Lamotrek on 20 October. Passing close by Nauru Island ‘in the rather vain hope of coming upon steamers carrying cargoes from there to Australia’,2 the ships proceeded southward between the New

1 See ante, p. 133.

2 War diary of the Orion.

page 136 Hebrides and Fiji. In the evening of 3 November the American steamer City of Elwood, 6197 tons, was sighted and stopped by warning shots, but when the raiders' searchlights revealed her name and American markings she was allowed to proceed.

On 7 November, ‘having reached the sea lanes Cook Strait-Tahiti-Panama and Auckland-Panama’, the German ships had arrived in their first operational area, about due east of East Cape, and, since they were more than 400 miles from the coast, ‘it was by experience outside the range of enemy aerial reconnaissance’. During daylight hours the three ships cruised in line abreast, at masthead visibility distance apart, the Kulmerland in the centre acting as guide ship. This disposition gave the raiders a range of vision of from 90 to 100 miles in clear weather.

After four days of unsuccessful cruising in poor visibility in the East Cape area the raiders proceeded 300 miles to the southward. This placed them about 530 miles to the eastward of Cape Palliser, ‘so as to concentrate activity on the Wellington route.’ There again the raiders failed to sight any ships, ‘so, assuming that shipping was following a course south of the Chatham group, reconnaissance was transferred there on 20 November.’1 This move took the raiders about 200 miles south-east of the Chathams, where they cruised for four days but sighted no ship. On 24 November they rounded the islands with the intention to proceed direct to Nauru Island, which was to be attacked at dawn on 8 December.

That German raiders had already spent nearly three weeks in cruising to the eastward of New Zealand was, of course, not known at that time. The Achilles arrived at Lyttelton from Campbell Island on 23 November in the expectation that, if operations against an enemy ship eventuated in New Zealand waters, they would be concerned with a raider direct from the Indian Ocean.

Moreover, it had been arranged that the Monowai2 should make a cruise to the islands of the Gilbert and Ellice Groups, which had not been visited by a warship for a considerable time. The Monowai was also to visit Ocean Island and, with the concurrence of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board in whose area it was situated, Nauru Island, which lies about 160 miles to the westward of the former. Usually, there were a number of ships loading at or lying off those islands. It remains a matter of conjecture as to what would have happened had the Monowai encountered two raiders in the vicinity of Nauru Island, especially in view of the unfortunate

1 War diaries of Orion and Komet.

2 HMS Monowai, armed merchant cruiser, 10,850 tons; eight 6-inch guns, two 3-inch AA guns; speed 17 knots.

page 137 experiences of three armed merchant cruisers in action at different times with a small, fast, well-armed raider in the Atlantic.1

At eight o'clock in the morning of 25 November the German raiders happened upon the small steamer Holmwood which had left Waitangi, in the Chatham Islands, at 2.30 a.m. bound for Lyttelton. She was stopped by the Komet, which was disguised as the Japanese ship Manyo Maru. The passengers and crew, numbering twenty-nine in all and including four women and two children, as well as some hundreds of sheep and stores, were taken off the Holmwood, after which she was sunk by gunfire. Less than forty-eight hours later, about 450 miles to the northward, the raiders 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 east of New Zealand was received. A subsequent commission of inquiry strongly expressed the opinion that, had the sending of 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 evidence of Commodore Parry established that 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 a.m. that morning. Having regard to the position then existing, it is also 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.’2

‘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. This should be realised by persons who travel by sea, and by the parents of children who travel by sea; and, lest the cool, prompt judgment of masters be hampered at critical moments, there should, we suggest, be no unnecessary passenger traffic.’

The Rangitane was fully loaded with frozen meat, dairy produce, wool, and other cargo for the United Kingdom. Her crew numbered

1 On 28 July 1940 the German raider Thor (Ship No. 10) was engaged by HMS Alcantara in the South Atlantic. The latter was outranged by the Thor, which was hit several times and broke off the action after the Alcantara had been slowed down by damage in the engine-room. An engagement between HMS Carnarvon Castle and the Thor on 5 December 1940 resulted similarly. On 4 April 1941 the Thor engaged and sank HMS Voltaire in the North Atlantic.

2 Report of Commission of Inquiry on the Loss of Certain Vessels by Enemy Action, and alleged Leakage of Information.

page 138 about 200 and she was carrying 111 passengers, including 36 women. She was about 300 miles to the eastward of East Cape when, at 3.40 in the morning of 27 November, the raiders were sighted by the lookouts.

Captain H. L. Upton, DSC, ADC, RNR, master of the Rangitane, who was promptly on the bridge, at once instructed the wireless office to broadcast the ‘suspicious ship’ message (QQQQ) and if the raiders opened fire (which he expected would happen, as soon as the wireless was used) to send the ‘raider’ message (RRRR). He also ordered ‘utmost speed’ on the engines and warned the engine-room that an attack by raiders was imminent. He made alterations of course to bring his ship stern on to that raider which seemed to be in the best position to open fire. He also ordered the crew of the defensive gun aft to close up and be ready for action. After signalling by morse lamp ordering the Rangitane to stop and not to use her wireless, the Orion switched on a searchlight and both she and the Komet commenced firing.

The Rangitane's wireless messages were repeated, the first two or three times, and the raider message six or seven times, and all got through to New Zealand. The enemy shelling broke a valve of the main transmitter, and while a new valve was being fitted the chief operator, Mr N. J. Hallett, switched on to the emergency set and then back to the main set when it was repaired.

When Captain Upton was informed 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 badly damaged and well on fire by that time. Five passengers, including three women, were killed and a number wounded, one of the latter, also a woman, dying on board the Orion the next day. Two stewardesses and three engine-room hands were killed, and five others of the ship's company were 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 all that was possible for those in their charge.

After the firing had ceased, a German boarding party arrived in a motor-launch and ordered the immediate abandonment of the ship. The sea-cocks were opened and, as soon as the passengers and crew had been taken on board, the Komet sank the Rangitane by a torpedo. The raiders and their supply ship then steamed away at full speed to the north-east. That evening, when they were ‘about 450 miles from the nearest possible air base’ in New Zealand, a low-flying aircraft on a westerly course was sighted ahead. The Orion's war page 139 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 in Navy Office, Wellington, the Achilles, which was lying at Lyttelton, was ordered to raise steam with all despatch. The Monowai, which had sailed from Suva for Nauru Island on 25 November, was instructed to return to Suva to complete with fuel-oil. All inward-bound merchant ships were warned to avoid the area of attack by at least 200 miles. No merchant vessel was due to sail to the eastward from New Zealand on 27 November. The Tasman Airways flying boats were ordered to be fuelled and ready for reconnaissance duties as soon as possible. Eight aircraft of the Royal Air Force were sent to Gisborne airfield to be ready at a quarter of an hour's notice as a striking force.

The Achilles sailed from Lyttelton at 8 a.m. and steamed at 25 knots towards the point of attack. HMS Puriri,1 which was at Auckland undergoing conversion to a minesweeper, was ordered to sea. Though her engines were partly dismantled, she was quickly got ready and sailed that evening.

The flying boat Aotearoa took off from Auckland at 11.11 a.m. with orders to carry out a Vignot search up to maximum endurance with the point of attack as centre, assuming that the enemy had left that position at 4 a.m., steaming at 15 knots on courses south-west, through south and east and north. The search started at 2.21 p.m. and ended at 5.51 p.m. when the failing light caused the operation to be abandoned. The aircraft landed at Auckland at 10.32 p.m. The flying boat Awarua arrived at Auckland from Sydney at 11 a.m. and, after refuelling, took off at 2.18 p.m. with instructions to search on the assumption that the enemy had left the point of attack at 4 a.m. at 15 knots on courses from west-north-west through north to east. The Awarua arrived at the position at 4.30 p.m. and searched till 7.10 p.m., when darkness set in. The aircraft then returned to Auckland and landed at 11.37 p.m. It was probably the Awarua that was sighted by the raiders about 150 miles north-east from the position in which the Rangitane was sunk.

It was unfortunate that the aircraft did not sight any of the three German ships. Had it done so it would have afforded a definite clue to the approximate position and course of the raiders for the Achilles, which was coming up from Lyttelton at high speed and which, with the assistance of the flying boats, might well have intercepted the enemy during the following day. As against this it can

1 Puriri, twin-screw motor-vessel; 927 tons gross register; built in 1938 for the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Co. Ltd., of Nelson.

page 140 be said that, had the aircraft sighted any of the German ships and reported the fact by wireless, they might have dispersed, though their relatively low speed would not have taken them beyond the range of the flying boats by the time the Achilles could arrive in the area.

At 4 a.m. on 28 November the Achilles catapulted her Walrus aircraft, which made a reconnaissance flight of two hours but sighted nothing. At 10.30 a.m. the cruiser sighted the flying boat Awarua at extreme range to the north-westward. The Awarua had left Auckland shortly after four o'clock and arrived four hours later at the point of attack, where a large patch of oil and several very small floating objects were seen. After reporting to the Achilles, the flying boat carried out a square search for five hours. Nothing further having been seen, the Awarua returned to Auckland.

The Achilles arrived at one o'clock in the afternoon at the leeward end of the oil patch which extended for nine miles to the southward from the point of attack. She steamed to the other end of the oil and sighted one red and white lifebuoy and a number of boxes of butter, two of which were recovered. No wreckage or boats were seen. The Achilles then proceeded to patrol to the north and north-east to give the maximum cover to shipping during the night, returning to the position of attack before daybreak and then searching to the westward. In the forenoon of 29 November the Achilles met the Puriri, which had nothing to report and was ordered to return to Auckland. The cruiser continued her search for possible survivors of the Rangitane until dusk, when she steamed towards North Cape, patrolling the approaches to Auckland. By that time the raiders and their supply ship were well away to the northward. Early in the morning of 29 November they arrived off the Kermadec Islands. There, while the commanding officers of the Orion and Komet discussed their proposed attack on Nauru Island, the prisoners were more evenly distributed in the three ships, the thirty-nine women and five children being accommodated in the Kulmerland. The Monowai, which had left Suva on 30 November, looked in at the Kermadecs on her way to Auckland but sighted nothing suspicious. The raiders by that time were well away to the north-westward after crossing the Monowai's track.

At that time nothing was known in New Zealand of the fate of the Holmwood which, on 29 November, was reported as being forty-eight hours overdue at Lyttelton. HMS Muritai sailed from Wellington to carry out a search. The flying boat Awarua made two flights from Auckland to the Chatham Islands and two RNZAF aircraft from Christchurch flew a parallel track search for a distance page 141 of 120 miles to the eastward from Lyttelton. Nothing was sighted by the aircraft or by the Muritai, which returned to Wellington on 1 December.

The sinking of the Rangitane and Holmwood, following at intervals of some months the loss of the Niagara and Turakina, caused much anxiety and misgiving in New Zealand and gave rise to many rumours concerning the raiders and allegations that, by some means, they were being supplied with information about the movements of shipping. When the survivors of ships sunk in New Zealand waters and at Nauru Island returned to Australia and the Dominion in January 1941, statements made by them to the newspapers intensified the public suspicion that there had been leakages of information to the raiders.

Accordingly, the New Zealand Government appointed a Commission of Inquiry, presided over by Mr Justice Callan, a Judge of the Supreme Court. The Commission heard voluminous evidence from thirty-one survivors from sunken ships and fifty-nine other witnesses and carefully examined the whole of the numerous written statements made and signed by survivors after they reached New Zealand.

According to Captain Upton, master of the Rangitane, Captain Miller of the Holmwood, and other witnesses, the Germans had claimed that they knew the times at which ships left New Zealand and Australia, that they met the Rangitane by design and not by accident, and that they possessed information which enabled them to intercept her. All this was believed by many of the survivors from the captured ships, including Captains Upton and Miller.

The Commission in its report found that ‘having regard to the amount of traffic from New Zealand the actual successes of the raiders in the Pacific over a period of months do not appear consistent with their having had, during that period, any such information as Captains Miller and Upton report the German commander as having claimed. Secondly, if he really had such complete and regular information, it does not seem probable that he would reveal the fact or, alternatively, that he would afterwards release the persons to whom he had made such revelations. The statements attributed to him seem to us to be more likely part of an attempt to impress his captives, and, through them, to disseminate uneasiness and distrust in New Zealand, or they may have been manifestations of boastfulness and of a taste for melodrama. The accounts which Captains Miller and Upton gave of their interviews with this German commander create the impression that he took a good deal of trouble to impress them with his cleverness and his omniscience. …’

Several witnesses informed the Commission that some twenty-eight Polish seamen and women, discharged from a ship of that nationality, who were passengers in the Rangitane, were interrogated in German page 142 and appeared to become friendly with their captors. ‘There was thus available to the Germans,’ said the Commission's report, ‘an obvious source from which they may have obtained information as to the movements of the Rangitane from the time she left the Auckland wharf, even if they did not succeed in getting this from unguarded remarks made by British captives in casual conversation. …’

In general, the Commission of Inquiry found that, while there had been much careless talk about ships in New Zealand, there was no proof of any leakage of information to the German raiders. Neither was there any evidence that any person had, in fact, acted as an enemy agent, but the Commission did not think it followed that the possibility of such a happening could be dismissed.

Since the war the German records of the cruises of the several raiders have become available. These include the official war diaries of the Orion and Komet, and a very detailed narrative of his operations, compiled in July 1945, by Rear-Admiral Kurt Weyher, who was commanding officer of the Orion. These make it abundantly clear that neither he nor Rear-Admiral Robert Eyssen, commanding officer of the Komet, had any fore-knowledge of the wartime movements of New Zealand shipping other than that certain general routes were followed; and that the interceptions of the Turakina, Holmwood, and Rangitane were entirely fortuitous.

As has been recounted, the two raiders and their supply ship carried out an intensive 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 vessels 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 overseas ships which passed through the area searched by them.

That the raiders had not the slightest idea of the identity of the Rangitane when they met her in the darkness of early morning is clearly shown in Rear-Admiral Weyher's narrative. ‘Whether this ship was proceeding to the east or west could not at first be made out,’ he wrote. ‘The size of the ship made me first suppose I had to do with a bigger warship, which, as was found out later on, had also been the idea on the auxiliary cruiser Komet. … Even under the impression to have come across a much more powerful man-of-war, I could not, on account of low speed, get my auxiliary cruiser [Orion] away unseen. It had to be assumed that the supposed warship would have sighted at least one of the three [German] ships. To leave unnoticed and escape was, therefore, on account of the page 143 approach of dawn, most improbable. Accordingly I decided to attack, especially because I could reckon on the gunnery of the Komet assisting me; so that, even at own loss [sic] I could at least expect to damage the opponent and, by holding him, give one of the other ships the chance to escape.’

After describing the preliminary manoeuvres of the raiders, Weyher says: ‘Meanwhile it had been possible to recognise the vessel as a big two-funnel ship, bows to the right, i.e., on an easterly course,’ and, further on, ‘the searchlight showed that a big two-funnel steamer was concerned. …’ He does not mention the Rangitane by name until he gives ‘the findings of the prize crews’, i.e., the armed parties who boarded the liner.

The Achilles arrived at Auckland from her patrol at three o'clock in the morning of 1 December and completed with fuel-oil. During the month of November she had spent twenty-three days at sea and steamed 6161 miles. The cruiser sailed in the afternoon to meet the Vancouver mail ship Aorangi, which was being escorted from Sydney towards North Cape by HMAS Adelaide. The ships met soon after midday on 2 December and the Adelaide turned back for Sydney. At five o'clock next morning the Achilles parted company with the Aorangi and proceeded once more to the Tasman Sea. In the evening of 5 December she met the Shaw Savill motor-liner Dominion Monarch from Sydney and escorted her to Wellington, where they arrived early in the morning of the 7th.

Another raider alarm was given next morning when Auckland wireless station intercepted an RRRR message from the Union Steam Ship Company's motor-vessel Karitane, which gave her position as approximately midway between Tasmania and New Zealand. The flying boat Aotearoa took off from Auckland during the forenoon and the Achilles sailed from Wellington at 2 p.m. to carry out a search for the reported raider. Navy Office, Melbourne, informed Navy Office, Wellington, that the Adelaide was not available, but a search by aircraft had been ordered, with instructions to attack any ship sighted within 200 miles of the Karitane's given position, except the Dutch tanker Nederland, 8150 tons. In reply to a query Navy Office, Wellington, said no other vessel was known to be in the area. At about the time the Achilles left Wellington the master of the Karitane reported that he had sighted a large tanker which was behaving ‘very suspiciously’ and heading west when last seen. Navy Office, Wellington, informed Melbourne that the vessel sighted resembled the Nederland. The flying boat was recalled to Auckland and the Achilles cancelled her proposed search.

At that time the German raiders were more than 2500 miles away to the northward of New Zealand, after striking a resounding blow at Nauru Island shipping. Leaving the Kermadec Islands at the end page 144 of November, they steamed to the north-west and passed between New Caledonia and the New Hebrides and south-east of the Solomon Islands. According to the war diary of the Komet, their intention was ‘to destroy the phosphate works, the harbour installations and the wireless station’ on Nauru Island. This was to be carried out by a landing party of 185 men from the Orion and Komet, which were also to furnish ‘prize detachments to take over any ships lying at the buoys.’

At that time seventeen vessels, including the four steamers owned by the British Phosphates Commission, were regularly employed in carrying phosphates from Nauru and Ocean Islands, mainly to Australia and New Zealand. The annual exports of well over 1,250,000 tons, including shipments to the United Kingdom, Japan, and elsewhere, involved the loading of more than 150 cargoes in twelve months. During periods of unfavourable weather it was sometimes necessary for the ships to drift for a fortnight or more in the vicinity of the islands until conditions became suitable for mooring and loading. At times there were as many as ten ships waiting to load at Nauru and Ocean Islands, where they were fairly easy prey for enemy raiders. And because of urgent needs elsewhere, it was not considered possible for either New Zealand or Australia to spare a cruiser to patrol that distant area. The risk of enemy attack had to be accepted.

In the afternoon of 6 December, when they were a day's steaming from Nauru Island, the Orion and Komet intercepted and attacked the British Phosphates Commission's steamer Triona, 4413 tons, on passage from Melbourne and Newcastle. 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 two raiders sank the Triona with torpedoes.

Next day the chartered Norwegian motor-vessel Vinni, 5181 tons, which had sailed from Dunedin on 21 November and had been drifting for a week in the vicinity of Nauru Island waiting for an opportunity to load, was captured by the Komet, a boarding party from which took prisoner her crew of thirty-two and sank her with demolition charges.

In view of the adverse weather conditions – a strong westerly wind was blowing and a heavy sea running, with considerable surf close inshore – the commanding officers of the raiders decided, after a discussion, that the proposed landing operation was not practicable.

In the forenoon of 8 December the Union Steam Ship Company's steamer Komata, 3900 tons, which had arrived off the island from Auckland two days earlier, was ruthlessly attacked and sunk by the page 145 Komet. When the Komata's wireless officer, Mr E. H. Ward,1 tried to send the ‘suspicious vessel’ signal, it was jammed by the enemy and he then attempted to transmit the ‘raider’ message. The Komet opened fire at close range, one shell putting the transmitter out of action and another carrying away the main aerial. The chief officer, Mr T. A. Mack, was killed and the second officer, Mr J. L. Hughes, mortally wounded. Captain W. W. Fish and several of his men were slightly wounded.

In the meantime the Orion had intercepted and sunk the British Phosphates Commission's motor-vessels Triadic, 6378 tons, and Triaster, 6032 tons, within a few miles of Nauru Island. There were now 675 prisoners in the German ships – 265 in the Orion, 153 in the Komet, and 257, including 52 women and 6 children, in the Kulmerland. The raiders did not visit Ocean Island, 160 miles to the eastward of Nauru, or they might have found the steamer Silksworth which had been drifting there for some days waiting a chance to load. She and the Union Company's steamer Kaikorai, which was on passage to Nauru Island, were subsequently ordered by wireless to return to Suva.

The Komet refuelled from the Kulmerland at Ailinglapalap atoll in the Marshall Islands on 12–13 December, while the Orion cruised in the direction of Ponape, in the Caroline Islands. The three ships reassembled on 15 December about 250 miles north of Nauru Island. A plan to land the prisoners there and shell the phosphates plant was abandoned and the Germans steamed to Emirau Island, in the Bismarck Archipelago, where they arrived on 21 December. While the prisoners were being disembarked there, the Orion lay alongside the Kulmerland and took in the 1100 tons of fuel-oil remaining in that ship. The raiders landed 343 Europeans and 171 Chinese and natives. Weyher refused to release any European prisoners from the Orion, 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 families, Mr and Mrs Collett and Mr and Mrs Cook, who did everything possible for the castaways. They sent some natives in a canoe to Mussau Island, 15 miles away, for a motor-launch in which a party went to Kavieng, New Ireland, for assistance. On 24 December the schooner Leander arrived with food and other stores and a doctor with medical supplies. The Administrator of New Britain also 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

1 For his good service in the Komata, Ward was awarded a mention in despatches and Lloyd's war medal for bravery at sea.

page 146 embarked the stranded people on 29 December. The overcrowded ship arrived on 1 January 1941 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 and repatriation of all those who had suffered so trying an experience.

After leaving Emirau Island, the German ships parted company. The Kulmerland went to Japan, where she arrived on 31 December. The Orion steamed north and met the tanker Ole Jacob, 8300 tons, and the German motor-ship Regensburg, 8000 tons, with supplies of fuel and stores from Japan.1 The three ships arrived on 31 December at Lamotrek, in the Caroline Islands. The Orion, which had been under steam for 268 days and had covered 65,327 miles since leaving Germany, started an overhaul of her engines and boilers.

Both Captain Weyher of the Orion and Captain Eyssen of the Komet were much perturbed when they learned from wireless reports that their former prisoners had been found and released from Emirau Island. Weyher had all along opposed the landing of prisoners, but had been overruled by Eyssen, who was the senior officer and regarded them as an encumbrance. In his war diary Eyssen recorded that ‘had he been able to foresee the repercussions of his putting white prisoners ashore’, he ‘would have acted differently.’ Their early return to Australia and New Zealand ‘meant that the enemy was now in possession of not only a description of the two raiders and the routes and tactics used on previous operations, but also that he was aware that German ships could read the [British] Merchant Navy code.’ On 19 February 1941, after a study of the war diaries of the two raiders, the German Naval Staff issued a directive to ‘all ships outside home waters’ that the practice of putting prisoners ashore ‘is not to be condoned’, and that ‘wherever possible, they should be sent back to Germany for internment.’

The Komet arrived off Rabaul during the night of 23 December with the intention of laying mines in the fairway. She hoisted out her fast motor-launch Meteorit which was to have dropped the mines, but, due to the failure of the boat's port engine, the operation was abandoned. The Komet then steamed to Nauru Island, where, in the early morning of 27 December, she bombarded and wrecked the phosphates plant, including the great cantilever loading structure and the oil storage tanks. The raider then made off in the direction of the Gilbert Islands, north of which ‘she chased a Norwegian ship for four hours on 31 December, but without success.’2

1 The Ole Jacob, a Norwegian tanker, was captured by the raider Atlantis in the Indian Ocean on 10 November 1940. (See Chap. 7; p. 100.)

2 War diary of Ship No. 45 (Komet).

page 147

The German Naval Attaché, Tokyo, reported to the naval staff in Berlin that the ‘Japanese Navy were annoyed about the bombardment of Nauru as this has interfered with its phosphates consignments. Collaboration is threatened; possible restriction of Japanese aid’. The Naval Attaché recommended ‘avoiding operations of this type near the Mandated area.’ The German Naval Staff considered that the bombardment of Nauru Island was outside the scope of the Komet's operation orders and ‘could not, therefore, approve of it, though recognising that, as an isolated case, it had been a success.’1

According to the reports received by the British Phosphates Commission, about 200 shells had been fired at the shipping plant and fuel-oil storage, besides hundreds of rounds of armour-piercing and incendiary bullets. One of the concrete foundations of the loading 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 tanks 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 German raiders' attacks on Nauru Island and its shipping 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 Phosphates Commission's steamers which had been specially designed to meet the peculiar requirements of the trade, was a heavy blow in view of the increasing shortage of tonnage and the consequent difficulty of chartering suitable vessels.

But far worse were the drastic reduction in the 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 Island 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 450,000 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,

1 Cruise of Ship 45; captured German document, TR/PG/18554.

page 148 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 (for Australia) from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. But, again because of the shortage of shipping tonnage, 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 some 200,000 tons of phosphate rock. Supplies of phosphates from Nauru and Ocean Islands ceased entirely when those islands were occupied by the Japanese in 1942. It was some years after the war ended before the damage done by the enemy had been made good and shipments of phosphates from the two islands reached anything like their former volume.

After six days in harbour, the Achilles sailed from Wellington on 20 December 1940, escorting Convoy US 8 carrying the second section of the 4th Reinforcements, 2 NZEF, totalling some 2300 troops. The convoy, which comprised the Dominion Monarch and the Empress of Russia, arrived at Sydney early on 23 December. The Achilles left Sydney seven days later escorting Convoy UST 1 – Empress of Russia, Port Chalmers, and Maunganui – for Auckland. In the evening of 2 January 1941 the cruiser parted company with the convoy off Cape Brett and returned to the Tasman Sea to meet the Shaw Savill steamer Akaroa and escort her to Auckland.

For the third time in less than three weeks the Achilles was called upon to escort the Empress of Russia, which on this occasion was carrying some 450 Australian and New Zealand airmen to Vancouver for advanced training in Canada. Both ships sailed from Auckland on the night of 6 January and arrived three days later at Suva, where the cruiser refuelled. About nine hours after leaving Suva on 10 January, the Achilles sighted a darkened ship which was identified as the southbound Aorangi.

At that time the Australian and New Zealand Governments evinced much anxiety regarding the safety of the drafts of air trainees proceeding regularly to Canada. This was natural in view of the fact that the Rangitane was carrying naval and air force drafts when she was sunk only 350 miles from the New Zealand coast. Nothing was known of the movements of the German raiders since 27 December when the Komet had bombarded Nauru Island; but there was, of course, always a possibility that one or other of them might reappear on the Pacific trade routes at any time. The Empress of Russia was an elderly, coal-burning steamer and, when page 149 steaming at speed, made much smoke which would betray her presence at a distance of many miles.

For these reasons the Government particularly desired that the Achilles should escort the steamer as far as Honolulu, in which case the cruiser would require to bunker 800 tons of fuel-oil at that port. The Naval Board informed the Admiralty to that effect and asked that permission should be got from the United States authorities. There was some delay before a reply was received, and in the meantime the Achilles had parted company with the Empress of Russia about 350 miles north of the Equator and was on her way back to Auckland.