Turakina sunk by German raider in Tasman

20 August 1940

Turakina in Wellington Harbour
Turakina in Wellington Harbour (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/1-002456-G)

The New Zealand Shipping Company freighter Turakina, en route to New Zealand from Britain via Australia, was sunk by the Orion nearly 500 km off the Taranaki coast after a brief gun battle – the first ever fought in the Tasman Sea.

Thirty-six members of its crew were killed. Twenty-one survivors were rescued from the sea and taken prisoner; one soon died from his wounds. Despite the names of the company and ship, the Turakina was a British vessel with a mostly British crew. One of the victims, 34-year-old greaser John Moloney, was born in Invercargill, but no other New Zealand crew members have been identified.

The Orion was one of nine German ‘auxiliary cruisers’ (merchant ships converted into armed raiders) that stalked the world’s oceans from 1940, laying mines and preying on Allied merchant vessels sailing without naval escort. Between them the raiders sank or captured more than 140 ships. But by 1943, as Allied sea and air power grew in strength, all the raiders had been sunk or confined to German ports.

The Turakina’s captain had earlier promised that he would fight to the last if intercepted by an enemy raider. But the freighter’s single 4.7-inch gun was no match for the six 155-mm (5.9-inch) weapons of the German warship.

Earlier, in June, the Orion’s mines had claimed the trans-Pacific liner Niagara off the Northland coast. Soon after sinking the Turakina, the Orion was joined in the South Pacific by another raider, the Komet, and an unarmed supply ship, the Kulmerland. Operating together, this small flotilla destroyed 10 Allied vessels in the Pacific. One of their victims, in November 1940, was the New Zealand Shipping Company liner Rangitane – the biggest merchant vessel sunk by a German warship during the war. In early December, during a raid on the phosphate-producing island of Nauru, the raiders sank five merchant vessels in quick succession, including the New Zealand freighter Komata.