Liner sunk off East Cape

27 November 1940

Survivors of the Rangitane
Survivors of the Rangitane (Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

The 16,712-ton New Zealand Shipping Company liner MV Rangitane was sunk by two German auxiliary cruisers (armed merchant raiders), Orion and Komet, 550 km off East Cape.

The British-owned vessel was the largest Allied merchant ship to be sunk by a German surface vessel during the Second World War (German submarines and aircraft sank many larger ships).

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, which was 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. 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.

Seven passengers were killed or mortally wounded, including four of the female child escorts. Eight crew members also lost their lives, including two stewardesses and two brothers who were both engine-room hands. (Many sources erroneously claim there were only 11 deaths.) The other 297 passengers and crew were taken aboard the German ships before the Rangitane was sunk.

Most of the captives were later landed on Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago (near Papua New Guinea), from where they were repatriated to Australia in January 1941. A number of merchant seamen and servicemen, including Alan Jones, were taken to Germany and interned.