The Merchant Navy

Page 3 – Under the Southern Cross

New Zealand's domestic shipping industry also played a vital role. A small tributary of the vast British shipping empire, it was largely confined to short-sea (trans-Tasman, South Pacific and coastal) trades. The Union Steam Ship Company (USSCo) dominated the main Tasman, Pacific island and coastal routes, and it also traded to India and North America. The smaller fleets of the Northern, Holm, Richardson, Anchor, Canterbury and other companies bustled between coastal ports. In December 1939 the New Zealand registry listed 186 vessels, which provided jobs for nearly 3000 seafarers. By 1945 the figures had fallen to 136 and 2200 respectively, reflecting the transfer of vessels (and seamen) to naval service, the rationalisation of coastal trades and the departure of seafarers into overseas ships.

Union Steam Ship Company at war

Between 1939 and 1945 USSCo ships carried:

  • 874,000 troops and airmen
  • 18,000 POWs and refugees

The USSCo's large, relatively modern fleet was one of New Zealand's most valuable war assets. The liner Monowai was immediately taken over by the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy for conversion into an armed merchant cruiser, manned by a combination of naval regulars, reservists and merchant seamen. The old Maunganui was converted to a hospital ship, primarily to serve the needs of New Zealand's forces in the Middle East. During the war it carried 5677 patients.

The flagship of the USSCo's fleet, the fast trans-Tasman liner Awatea, completed a number of troop-carrying and evacuation voyages before being sunk during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Vichy-French North Africa, in November 1942. The Rangatira, Wahine and Matua periodically ferried troops around the Pacific, while the Aorangi (flying the Canadian-Australasian Line flag but under USSCo management) also gave outstanding service as a troop ship.

Raiders of the South Pacific

In the early hours of 19 June 1940 the Second World War arrived in New Zealand with a bang. The Canadian-Australasian Line's RMS Niagara had just left Auckland on its regular run to Suva and Vancouver. At 3.40 a.m., as it passed Northland's Bream Head, the Niagara slammed into a contact mine, part of a 228-mine barrage secretly sown, several days earlier, across the northern and eastern approaches to the Hauraki Gulf by the German raider Orion (a fast merchant ship converted into an armed 'auxiliary cruiser'). Fortunately, all of the ship's 349 passengers and crew were rescued.

Over the following six months the Orion and another raider, the Komet, sank a further 11 merchant ships in the Pacific. In August, the New Zealand Shipping Company (NZSCo) freighter Turakina went down with 36 of its (mostly British) crew in the Tasman Sea's first gun battle. In late November, after dispatching the little Holmwood off the Chatham Islands, the raiders snared their greatest prize of the war, the 16,712-ton NZSCo liner Rangitane, 300 miles off East Cape. A hail of German shells killed 15 passengers and crew (many sources erroneously give the figure as 11). Around 300 survivors joined those already aboard the raiders and their supply ship, the Kulmerland.

In early December another five merchant ships succumbed to the raiders' guns off the important phosphate island of Nauru. Among them was the USSCo's Komata, on which two officers were killed. Just before Christmas, the Germans landed around 500 captives, including 58 women and 6 children, at Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago, near New Guinea. They were repatriated from there in January 1941. The remaining 150 captives (including several New Zealand merchant seamen) were eventually interned in Germany.

The Japanese threat

When the German raiders quit the South Pacific in mid-1941, the immediate danger to New Zealand shipping receded. Japan's entry into the war in December that year threatened far greater disruption, but the Imperial Japanese Navy lacked the Germans' enthusiasm for commerce raiding, and its long-range submarines (I-boats) seldom ventured into New Zealand waters. From 1942 to 1943 up to 10 I-boats operated at times off Australia's east coast where they sank 18 Allied merchant ships, including the USSCo's Kalingo and Limerick.

Meanwhile, submarines and surface raiders – both German and Japanese – stalked the vast Indian Ocean, threatening New Zealand's supply lines to its forces in the Middle East. It was here that the USSCo freighter Hauraki was captured by two Japanese armed merchant cruisers in July 1942, condemning its crew to three years of 'starvation labour'.

From mid-1943, as the Americans advanced in the Solomon Islands and the central Pacific, Japan's I-boats withdrew from the Tasman. The struggle for control of the world's sea lanes, however, was far from over. Throughout the war the greatest threat lay not in home waters but in the distant North Atlantic, which the Home boats and thousands of other merchant ships had to cross.

How to cite this page

'Under the Southern Cross', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Sep-2022