Skip to main content

Merchant marine

Page 6 – Agony on the Aparima

One of the worst losses of New Zealand lives at sea during the First World War occurred on the Union Company’s Aparima in 1917. When built for the Calcutta run in 1902, this ship had been the company's biggest. But it was no flyer. At 11-12 knots (20–22 km/hr) fully laden, the Aparima was usually the slowest ship in a troop convoy. One unhappy soldier, Sergeant J. Wilson, called it ‘a hell ship with some very poor officers’.

In 1912 the Aparima had become the fleet’s officer cadet training ship, providing up to 50 cadets at a time with seagoing experience in a working cargo steamer. After war broke out, it made several voyages with troops and horses before being requisitioned again by the British authorities. As these duties would keep the ship in war zones for much of the time, the Union Company allowed cadets’ parents to withdraw their sons. Fourteen did so, but other cadets continued to sail on troop runs to the UK.

Up went the bows and down went the stern amidst a roar of rushing water.

Captain Gerald Doorly

On the night of 18/19 November 1917, the Aparima was sailing to a Welsh port for coaling when a torpedo fired by the German submarine UB-40 slammed into its stern. The ship shuddered, then sank rapidly. Of the 115 men aboard – a mix of European officers, Lascar (Indian) crew and cadets – 55 were lost, including 17 of the 28 cadets. One casualty was cadet Colin McDonald, the son of Captain Coll McDonald, who had designed many of the Union Company’s ships. 

Cadet Tommy Bevan had a remarkable escape. Thrown from his bunk into surging, rising water, he was tossed against fittings and pushed by the rising tide all the way up to the deckhead (underside of the deck), where he would have drowned had he not been sucked up a tall ventilator ‘and shot clean out of the cowl [hood-shaped covering of the shaft]’. The water pressure tore off all his clothes and tossed him on to an empty liferaft which had been designed by his late classmate’s father. A lifeboat rescued him after he set off a signal light.

Other Union Company losses

Seven other Union Company ships were lost during the First World War. They were:

  • Limerick – sunk south of Ireland by U-86, 28 May 1917
  • Aotearoa – taken over by Royal Navy before completion (as HMS Avenger); sunk in North Sea by U-69, 14 June 1917
  • Wairuna – scuttled off the Kermadec Group by SMS Wolf, 17 June 1917
  • Roscommon – sunk north of Ireland by U-53, 21 August 1917
  • Waikawa – sunk in English Channel by UB-31, 19 October 1917
  • Waihemo – sunk in Gulf of Athens by UC-37, 17 March 1918
  • Waitemata – sunk in Mediterranean by UB-105, 14 July 1918

How to cite this page

Agony on the Aparima, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated