Niagara mined off Northland coast

19 June 1940

Survivors from the Niagara (Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-8634)

The Second World War arrived in New Zealand with a bang when German mines sank the trans-Pacific liner Niagara off Northland’s Bream Head. The sinking shocked the public and shattered any illusions that distance would protect these islands from enemy attack.

On the night of 13/14 June 1940 the Orion, a German raider disguised as a merchant ship, had slipped undetected into New Zealand waters and laid 228 contact mines in the approaches to the Hauraki Gulf. At 3.40 a.m. on the 19th, the 13,415-ton Niagara, which had just left Auckland on its regular run to Suva and Vancouver, struck two mines and sank quickly by the bow. Fortunately, all 349 passengers and crew got away safely in 18 lifeboats; the only casualty was the ship’s cat, ‘Aussie’.

Also lost was the ship’s secret cargo of small-arms ammunition and gold ingots worth £2.5 million (equivalent to more than $230 million today). In late 1941, an epic salvage effort recovered almost all of the gold from the wreck, which lay at a depth of 60 fathoms (110 m).