Troopship Awatea goes down fighting

11 November 1942

Rescued crew from the Awatea
Rescued crew from the Awatea (Wellington Museum Collection)

The Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand’s sleek 13,482-ton trans-Tasman liner Awatea, launched in 1936, was one of the finest and fastest ships of its size in the world at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Like many merchant vessels, the liner was given a coat of grey paint, fitted with defensive guns and pressed into wartime service as a troop transport – still manned by its civilian Merchant Navy crew.

On 8 November 1942 the Awatea took part in Operation Torch, the successful Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria, then ruled by the collaborationist Vichy French regime. After landing 3000 commandos near Algiers and ferrying other troops further to the east, the ship was attacked by German and Italian aircraft off Bougie (Bejaia) on Armistice Day.

The Awatea was raked by bombs and holed by aerial torpedoes. Remarkably, everyone on board escaped safely. The abandoned, burning hulk was later sunk by an Italian submarine. It was a sad end for a ship often described as the finest ever to fly the New Zealand flag.