Photo Of The Day

Photo: Unknown source. RMS Rangitane, Crossing The Line

Photo: Unknown source.
RMS Rangitane.

Liner Sunk by German Raiders off East Cape

Seventy five years ago today, in the early hours of the morning on November 27, 1940, in poor visibility, the ocean liner RMS Rangitane was attacked by raiders Orion and Komet. Radio operators reported that the Rangitane was transmitting distress calls, while she was ordered to immediately cease transmissions and to stop.

On 25 November the Orion and Komet (cruising with an unarmed supply ship, the Kulmerland) had sunk the little steamer Holmwood off the Chatham Islands, taking its 17 crew and 12 passengers prisoner.

At 3.40 a.m. on the 27th the German flotilla intercepted a far bigger prize, the Rangitane, three days out of Auckland bound for the United Kingdom via Panama. The liner had a crew of 201 and was carrying 111 passengers, including Fleet Air Arm recruits and radar specialists on their way to Britain, and a group of British women who had escorted 477 child evacuees to New Zealand aboard SS Batory.

Rangitane was owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company. She was one of three sister ships, the other sisters were Rangitata and Rangitiki) delivered to the company in 1929 for the All-Red Route between Britain and New Zealand. Rangitane was built by John Brown & Company and launched on 27 May 1929.

The three ships each displaced 16,700 tons, 530 feet in length and nearly 70 feet in the beam. They could carry nearly 600 passengers in 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes, 200 crew members and substantial cargo. They had Brown Sulzer diesel engines with a total output of 9,300HP, turning twin propellers. In wartime, they carried only token armament. On Rangitane’s final voyage she was armed with a 4.7″gun with only 40 rounds of ammunition.

The Rangitane was loaded with dairy produce, frozen meat, and wool bound for Liverpool, England with a crew of about 200 and 111 passengers, including thirty-six women.

At 3:35am, she was about 300 miles east by north of East Cape off the coast of New Zealand when unidentified raiders were sighted. The ship attempted to send a “QQQQ” (suspicious vessel) message via radio, which was jammed. German raiders Orion and Komet switched on their searchlights and opened fire from a half mile away at 3:37am. The ship attempted to send a “RRRR” message (raider attack), but the radio mast was hit before the message was sent, and an emergency mast was installed. The ship’s steering was damaged and fires on deck.

A trainee airman, Alan Jones, recalled the attack:

Half past three in the morning, the clanging of sirens was going, and there were big crashes…. I went up on deck, and there was one of the raiders on each side of us, and the supply ship in front. You could see some of the shells ricocheting off. To hell with that, so we went down below again. I was a bit scared, a bit bewildered. Then there was another salvo and one of the saloons was on fire…. There was the smell of cordite, and the ship would shudder every so often when it was hit.

Captain Upton ordered the ship to be stopped, and raiders flashed that there were women aboard, and secret materials destroyed, but the raider continued to fire. Upton wanted to return fire, but the telephone line to the deck gun had been damaged. The engines were sabotaged to prevent the ship from being used. Shelling ended at 3:59am killing 10 aboard and wounded six others (who later died).

Orion and Komet sent launches to the surrendered ship, but found it badly damaged, on fire and sinking. Unable to capture the ship as a war prize, the Germans opened the sea cocks to sink the ship, and a torpedo fired from Komet, sinking the ship at 6:30am, the largest passenger liner sunk by surface raiders during World War II. During the sinking, sixteen were killed and 312 taken prisoner.

The survivors were taken aboard the raiders for more than three weeks, while other ships were sunk and more Allied prisoners joined them. Due to the efforts of Captain Lionel Upton, a total of about 500 POWs from his ship and others were released on Emirau Island, where they lived until rescued by Australian authorities of Emirau. The remainder of the crew, most of whom were of military age were transported back to German occupied Bordeaux, France and eventually to POW camps in Germany.

A German raider, often referred to as an auxiliary cruiser or Hilfskreuzer, was a heavily armed merchant ship disguised to look like an innocent trader. Raiders always took on the appearance of a real ship flying a neutral flag and disguises changed many times at sea by adding or removing false decks and masts. Disguises in the Pacific area were predominantly Japanese before Japan entered the war.

As a normal merchant ship, there would have been about forty crewmen; as a raider, there were as many as four hundred including specialist code breakers, surgeons, linguists and intelligence officers.

The accommodation and stores had to be sufficient for a totally independent floating village including provision for survivors from captured ships. Raiders generally worked alone and were replenished at intervals by unarmed Kriegsmarine supply ships.

By mid-1940 there were six raiders at sea causing problems for Allied shipping. The British had little idea of how many raiders there were, where their areas of operations lay and what they looked like.

The significance of this particular incident is that many of the survivors were convinced that the Germans knew exactly where to find Rangitane and that secret information was being released in New Zealand. The British, Australian and New Zealand authorities were thrown into turmoil, resulting in an official inquiry which looked at the whole question of the security of merchant shipping.

But there is an amazing parallel story of how, despite the circumstances, the survivors were treated with great respect by their captors. Rangitane’s captain and the German commander were both seasoned seamen and both had experience of deception ships in the First World War. They were brothers of the sea. Their relationship was instrumental in the raiders sailing over 1,000 miles to a small, remote British island and releasing the majority of the prisoners. They were rescued just two days later.

The prisoners, many of whom were women, endured many problems of poor food and inadequate accommodation and would have been excused for despising their captors. But they reserved their disgust for two fellow prisoners who believed that their status gave them priority over everybody and everything. Many people, with benefit of hindsight, will claim that the Rangitane incident was no different from the thousands of similar losses in the maritime war. To the individuals affected, it was all very personal.

On January 1964 on a fishing trip in the remote Crocodile Bay (90 miles north of Rockhampton) a Barry Close came across a fragment of a lifebelt with “Rangitane” from the ship that had sunk 24 years earlier.

RMS Rangitane

NZETC Holmwood and Rangitane Sunk

MS Rangitane (1929)

The Rangitane riddle


Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.

38%