History of NZ Coastal Defences and Enemy Operations in NZ Waters

Read about the history of naval defences  and mining strategies in New Zealand.  Learn about North Head, Fort Takapuna, Spa Torpedo Boats and German and Japanese submarines operating in New Zealand waters.


The 1880s Russian Scare / History of our naval defences and mining strategies

North Head and the Auckland Harbour Defences 1885-1896[1]

One of the most popular places to view the city of Auckland is from the volcanic cone of North Head on the city’s North Shore, but many of its visitors are surprised at the superbly preserved, 8 ft disappearing gun located on the south side of the summit, gun No. 4951 built by Sir W.G. Armstrong in 1886, mounted ‘en barbette’, on a platform firing over an earth parapet and recoiling or ‘disappearing’ into a pit to enable re-loading with safety from enemy fire. This 8 ft Armstrong gun is one of the few remaining of this type anywhere in the world and it remains today as a very physical and tangible reminder of another time when New Zealand was first concerned to meet the threat of foreign intrusion from over the horizon.

Protection from an external threat was not a major preoccupation for early New Zealand’s young migrant society as they struggled to consolidate their dual victory over Maori and bush. During these early years, New Zealand was made complacent about its defence by its status as part of the powerful British Empire and benignly took for granted that Britain and the Royal Navy would sail to meet any challenge that their infant colony might face when the internal problem with the Maori was resolved, resulting in the withdrawal of the Imperial troops in 1870, concern began to focus not only on direct threats to New Zealand’s coast but also to its wider aspirations in the south-west Pacific.  The possibility of Russian intervention in the South Pacific that had existed since the Crimean War was now complicated by the growing threat of British rivalry with the USA in the region consequent upon the British alliance with Japan.  The growing imperialist ambitions of the French and Germans in the region further threatened the colony’s assumption of the south-west Pacific as an “Australasian Sea”. For the first time New Zealand began to appreciate that the security of its isolation had a down-side and that there was a fundamental flaw in its traditional reliance on the Royal Navy. The apparent protection offered by the Australian Squadron which had been based in Sydney since 1848 was made inadequate by both its lack of strength and its disposition.

Successive New Zealand governments determined to address the issue of the colony’s vulnerability to foreign aggression particularly in view of the growing frequency of Russian war scares during the 1870s.  It was felt that if New Zealand made some effort to defend itself then the Royal Navy might be more freely forthcoming in an emergency. New Zealand’s first harbour defences began in Auckland in 1854 with the construction of Fort Britomart[2], not only to provide more effective local defence but also as a safe haven for Royal Navy ships. The 1858 Militia Act set up citizen militia units, part of which were the Naval Artillery Volunteers or Navals who were to be responsible for guarding the coast. Effective defence from an external threat was then further assured by a financial contribution to the Royal Navy’s Australia Squadron in 1887 which ensured a permanent cruiser presence in New Zealand waters.

When Britain and Russia found themselves on the brink of war in early 1878, New Zealand was warned by Britain to act at once to meet the danger of unexpected attack. Twenty-two 64-pounder guns were promptly ordered from Britain. But no sooner had they arrived than the scare abated and the familiar pattern of procrastination reasserted itself. Despite the lull in tensions, Col. Peter Scratchley, assistant to Sir W.D.F Jervois, Governor of South Australia and an acknowledged expert on colonial defence issues, was invited to advise on the disposition of the new guns in 1880 with the warning that recommendations which cost too much would not be accepted. Scratchley favoured mounting the guns at harbour entrances supplemented by minefields and spar torpedo boats. North Head was to be the focus of Auckland’s defences with the same pattern to be duplicated in Wellington, Lyttelton and Otago Harbours.  Despite generally endorsing Scratchley’s recommendations the government again hesitated to take action in view of the colony’s deteriorating finances and the new guns were put into storage.  As Ian McGibbon comments, the acquisition of guns represented a major advance towards the development of a harbour defence system for the colony.

The catalyst for further action was the appointment of Jervois as the Governor of New Zealand in late 1883, followed soon after by the biggest Russian war-scare in the colony’s history in early 1885. No sooner had Jervois and Cautley’s[3] extensive revision of Scratchley’s recommendations been completed, than the Russians occupied Pendjeh in Afghanistan, an action that suggested further Russian advance towards British India. Most of New Zealand seemed to consider raids inevitable and such was the public panic that it would have been political suicide for the Government not to have taken immediate action. Modern heavy guns were promptly ordered from London including thirteen 6-inch and ten 8-inch breech-loaders and twenty quick-firing guns. Tenders were quickly called to set up one of the stored 64-pounders on North Head in Auckland. Mines were readied in support of the gun emplacements now being hastily constructed in all the major harbours according to the Jervois scheme and under the guidance of Cautley. The war-scare also encouraged the Government to consider sending a thousand-man force to Afghanistan  in support of the Empire, an action forestalled by the passing of the immediate danger of war with the Anglo-Russian agreement to settle the Pendjeh issue by arbitration.

Despite the passing of the 1885 war-scare, Stout’s government resolved to complete Jervois’s scheme as soon as possible. The 1885 works had been built in haste and provided at best a rudimentary defence system.  With the new guns on order the government felt committed to the fortifications. They would provide a degree of reassurance in the event of another crisis, they would provide work for the swelling ranks of unemployed created by the deepening depression striking the country and so the necessary cash to complete the defences was passed by a large majority in the House early in 1886. The task of re-designing and constructing the new positions was given to Lt. Col. Tudor Boddam and resulted in a much more sophisticated defence system than that thrown up in 1885.  Boddam was most concerned to develop the mine defences which had received scant treatment in 1885, so a new system was devised, new equipment imported from Britain and all the necessary sheds and slips were built. The Mine Store in Torpedo Bay at the foot of North Head, the base for strings of mines to be run across the harbour to Bastion Point, was completed in 1886. The value of spar torpedo-boats was also re-visited as their poor seakeeping qualities made them hazardous when dropping Whitehead torpedoes in anything but calm conditions. So the existing boats were dropped from the defence plan and broken up in the early 1900s.

During 1887 the impetus to complete the plan began to wane once again. New Zealand was sliding into economic depression and the wisdom of further spending was questioned especially after the signing of the Australasian Naval Agreement assured the stationing of two cruisers in New Zealand waters which reduced the urgency to complete the defence works. Nevertheless Premier Atkinson, no doubt influenced by Governor Jervois, determined to pour the decreasing defence budget into completion of the harbour defence system in an effort to prevent the waste of money already spent.

Maj. Gen. J. Schaw was and Arthur Bell, the civilian Engineer for Defence, set about completion of the defence works in the face of a declining defence budget. Over 200 prisoners were employed in the main harbours to quarry stone, collect sand for masonry and concrete and work the varied machinery. The custom built stone barracks for 40 prisoners still stands today as the oldest building on North Head. In this way Bell had virtually completed the original Jervois scheme by the time the Atkinson Government fell from office in 1891. Fort Takapuna and Fort Cautley on North head were completed, the 8 ft Armstrong gun in the South Battery stamped with the name Arthur Bell, 16-2-1889 as a testament to the date of its emplacement. The Forts in Wellington and Lyttelton were completed whilst Dunedin’s defences awaited only the completion of a battery at Harrington Point to cover the entrance to the harbour. When Capt. A.W. Moore, a visiting British naval officer, commented most favourably on the defence works in March 1891, New Zealand had spent more than 416,000 pounds sterling on harbour defences since the 1885 war-scare which was close to Jervois’s original estimate. 191,000 pounds had been spent on materials, 190,000 on the works and 34,000 on the purchase of sites.

The Liberal Governments of Balance and Seddon listened patiently to a range of divergent opinion on the viability of the harbour defences throughout the 1890s, confident in the suspicion that a definitive assessment of New Zealand’s defence requirements was elusive. A succession of commanding officers of the New Zealand Forces offered differing opinions and solutions as was clearly the case in 1896 when Col. A.P. Penton’s views were conspicuously at odds with those of Lt. Col. F.J. Fox in 1893.  But such divergence served well the purpose of successive governments as they enabled them to settle for minor modifications at minimal cost content that the defences as they stood would provide an adequate deterrent against foreign incursion into New Zealand.

The harbour defences built in the 1880s were state of the art for the time but some of the equipment never became fully operational and none of the guns ever fired a shot in anger. But as our most eminent military historian, Ian McGibbon explains, “The very existence of these defences provided a deterrent against intrusion by an enemy ship and more importantly, a reassurance to the public of the time that such an intrusion would be resisted.”


History of Fort Takapuna

The RNZN’s association with Narrow Neck really only dates from 1963, when the Training establishment, HMNZS Tamaki, moved into some surplus Army space.  At that time there was still a strong army presence, in fact during the flag raising ceremony on 26 September, what was to become the Administration Block, just inside the main entrance, was still divided into flats and the slightly bemused residents watched the ceremony from their windows.

It was, however, a naval threat that caused this fort to be constructed.  It was part of a series of defences erected at the main ports, to defend them against a possible raid by an enemy cruiser.  The result of such a raid was highlighted in a report published in The New Zealander, the major newspaper of the day, when it reported that Auckland had been shelled by a Russian cruiser, much damage had been done to the business district and Russian sailors had landed and looted shops. In those days before the telephone and mass communications, this report caused considerable alarm and many thought the Empire would go to war.  That is until the phonetics of the name of the Russian ship were realised – it read “Case of Whisky”.

The Navy came to Fort Takapuna in 1927.  By that time the fort was obsolete and not required by the Army.  We used it to house ammunition for our cruisers.  Previously it had been stored at Mount Victoria and then North Head, but by then the storage of explosives at Mount Victoria was considered unacceptable by both the Defence Department and the residents, and the North Head magazines were required by the Army. In addition to actually storing the explosives, there was a requirement to test various parts of the ammunition, and a proofing building was constructed alongside (under the Morton Bay Fig Tree).  As had been experienced from the first days of the fort, there were several drawbacks to using this facility.  Dave Veart of the Department of Conservation, who is here today, will readily attest to one of the main problems – it is readily prone to flooding – even with the best of maintenance.  It was with much rejoicing that in 1936 the Navy moved its explosives to a new, purpose-built facility in a sparsely populated area of the North Shore – Kauri Point.

While the Navy moved, the Army remained.  During the Second World War there was much activity in the area surrounding the fort and over on the southern side of the playing field, a monitoring station for the fixed anti-submarine defences of Auckland – Station Puna – was built.  With the end of the war, the Navy again vacated the area. We came back again, as I mentioned earlier, in 1963.  At that time the old quarantine station on Motuihe Island, which had been built around the turn of the century was in urgent need of serious maintenance and rebuilding.  With all factors taken into consideration, it was decided that we would share the surrounding facilities with the Army.  Although there were periodic conflicts of interest, the relationship was generally satisfactory. With periodic reorganisations of the Army, its presence was gradually reduced, until at last only the Officers’ mess remained an Army facility, although run entirely by the Navy. For most of the time the fort itself was locked up, but for a short time it was used as a recreation space for some of the senior trainees.   Over the years there were several efforts to vest ownership of this fort to the local authority, but for a variety of reasons, this was not possible until 2000.

Background – Narrow Neck Camp/HMNZS Tamaki

Jan 1886         Land purchased from Robert Adam Mozley Stark for £17,000. This transaction was the subject of some rumours of scandal as Mr Stark had been unable to sell ten acres of the land in October the previous year for £3,000.

1886-89           Fort Takapuna constructed, comprising two 6-inch (152mm) breach loading guns and two 6pdr Nordenfelts, plus associated magazines, accommodation etc.

1900-14           Utilised as depot for Volunteers and later Territorial Force elements

1914-1918                   During the First World War the main camp is constructed for use as recruit depot, including Maori and Pacific Island units of 1NZEF

1918                            German POWs formerly held on Motuihe Island held at the camp, prior to repatriation to Germany

1919                            Hospital built for influenza epidemic (used as NTG buildings and OTS Classrooms 1970s and 1980s)

Post-1919       Camp used as HQ for Artillery and Territorial Units

1926                            6-inch guns scrapped

1927-36           Navy uses the magazines and fort for storage of ammunition and as a testing facility

1936                            AA battery stationed at the camp and artillery barracks completed

1937-39           Two 4-inch (102mm) guns installed on right boundary to cover Examination anchorage

Two 4-inch (102mm) guns installed on boundary at centre of camp to cover Rangitoto channel

Officers and Troops Messes constructed

1939-41           48 new buildings constructed, including hospital, recreation huts, stores, messes, canteens and cinema as well as parade grounds and roads

2 x 4-inch (102mm) guns installed on boundary at centre of camp originally from the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand

1941                            Four 4-inch guns are removed – two to North Head and two to Pacific Islands

Post-1945       Was used as headquarters for territorial units and accommodation for Regular Force personnel in Auckland area

1958                            Narrow Neck Military Camp renamed Fort Cautley (desire to continue name with vacation of Army from North Head)

1963                The RNZN relocates HMNZS Tamaki from Motuihe Island – flag shift 26 September.   Base jointly operated. Additional accommodation moved in to provide for Basic Common Trainees – work done by Army Engineers

c1968              ‘New’ accommodation upgraded

Officers Mess extended

Work undertaken by Army engineers

1993                            First RNZN units move to Ngataringa Bay Basic Common Trainees – North Yard HMNZS Philomel

1999                12 March.  A judgement from Justice Anderson found that all Defence land at Narrow Neck was a reserve as defined in S.2 of the Reserves Act 1977

2000                On 26 February the Hauraki Gulf Marine Bill received Royal Assent. The Bill has been enacted, and the transfer of the land has been effected. However, due to tenants requiring 42 days notice the whole site was not handed over to DOC until 30 March.


Torpedo Bay Site

In 1858 a ship building yard was established at the bottom of North Head overlooking Torpedo Bay. Military involvement with the boat yard began in 1871 when Captain Hutton suggested that it would make a good location for a torpedo base (or mining base) as part of Auckland’s defences.

 As a result of the so-called ‘Russian Scares’, between 1885 and 1887 a small area of land was purchased close to the south west face of North Head. Colonel Tudor Boddam designed and began to the construction of a submarine mining station and base at Torpedo Bay. As part of the construction, some reclamation was carried out and a small jetty and sheds were constructed. The minefield would run from this site towards Bastion Point. This minefield was to be supported by a Thorneycroft Spar Torpedo boat No. 170 Waitemata, one of four that were imported into New Zealand for harbour defence.

In 1885, work began to reclaim further land. A jetty was constructed, along with workshops, offices and a building to store torpedoes. In 1888, a decision was made to extend a mine field from North Head across the harbour to Bastion Point.  By 1891, the mining base included a Whitehead Torpedo store, a general store, offices, workshops, fitting rooms, a forge, and quarters for the men. Further major works were undertaken in 1897 to added further buildings for the mining operation and a boat shed. By 1902, the system was nearly operational and included two launches to service the minefield and the spar torpedo boat for additional defence.

Thorneycroft Spar-Torpedo Boat

These vessels were developed in the 1870s for defensive purposes. These narrow, steam powered craft carried a crew of 7-8 men and initially were equipped with a long wooded spar that had at its end an explosive device with a contact detonator. In theory, the small craft would rush under the guns of a battleship and sink it with the device and then retreat to safety. With the development of torpedoes, the spar was discarded in favour of the new weapon. In the 1880s, New Zealand took delivery of four of these craft one of which, No. 170 and named Waitemata, was housed in a boat shed at Winsor Reserve. These craft were never used in anger and Waitemata was taken out of service in 1902.

By this time however, the Russian threat which had been the initial reason for its establishment had receded. The defeat of the Russian Fleet by the Japanese in Russo-Japanese War made the system obsolete along with the gun positions located at North Head and Bastion Point. In 1907 decision was made to abandon the minefield and it was removed and the equipment progressively disposed of until the 1930s. The base then became an ammunition store, drill hall, and general store. In 1958 the site was officially handed over to the Royal New Zealand Navy and has remained part of the Defence holdings to the present. It is one of the most intact examples of a nineteenth century mining establishment in New Zealand and possibly in the southern hemisphere.

The shipwright’s shop was added to the site post-1945 and was used for the training of apprentices in the trade of ship’s carpenter (shipwright). The loading store was built during the 1880s and was where the mines were connected to the mooring cable and were armed. Once the mines were armed and connected to the cable, the trolleys the mines rested on ran parallel tracks like railway lines to transport the mines from the connecting room to the coast and then by mooring cable out into the harbour thus creating a Boom “Gate” which was then patrolled by the Spar Torpedo boat. A mine cable store was built to contain almost 6km of submarine cable for the mines but it couldn’t be used until a boat was purchased to lay it in 1902. A new floor was poured in 1920s. The mine store was constructed in 1897. In this building the mines would be kept before they were to be deployed. While the mines were unarmed while in they were stored in this building, the walls were constructed to be over 18” thick to contain any explosions. In addition, a casemate was carved out of the cliff wall next to the store for testing mines and with primer pits. The last of the mines and guncotton used for explosive were disposed of in 1930s. The test pits were built between 1897 and 1902 as the mining depot was completed. They were used to test the mines to make sure that the firing system worked before the mines were deployed into the harbour.

The main building was first constructed in 1897 along with barracks, offices, workshops, a casemated test room for the mines in the cliff face, primer pits, the mine stores, hydraulic testing rooms, freshwater cable tanks, connecting up shed and a complete tramway system to move the mines. With the abandonment of the mining operation in 1907, the building was used as accommodation.  There was a refurbishment of the building in 1926 and it was used as a drill hall. There was also ammunition and naval stores kept at the site. During the Second World War the Army used the site and this building as a store. With the conclusion of the war it fell into disuse. From the 1960s, the Sea Cadet units were located in the Main Building along with the RNZN Band. This has been the main use of the building up until the present day although the RNZN Band has now relocated up to Narrow Neck. The winch control room was added to the site by 1902. Its purpose was to control the winch that carried the mines out into the harbour from the connecting up room along the tramways along the cable. This control room enabled three lines of electrically operated mines to be deployed which was possible by 1902. However as the system was never fully operated the cable was disposed of and used for Auckland’s telephone lines. By 1907 equipment in the control room had been disposed of.

The original Boatshed included the Carpenters or Chippies’ Workshop which was built into the cliff face. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame was its use to detain the famous German POW, Count Felix von Luckner during the First World War. von Luckner was held in the workshop for one night after his recapture after escaping from Motuihe Island in 1917. The boat shed was first constructed on the site in 1897. A boat shed for the spar-torpedo boat was originally located at what is now Windsor Reserve. In 1902 two launches were purchased for the mining operation but were disposed of in 1907. This building has been used occasionally since its construction and at present it requires a refurbishment that may be part of the second stage of the museum project. A jetty only accessible at high tide was constructed by 1887. With the expansion of the site in 1897 the jetty was developed so it could be used at all times. In the 1920s the jetty was rebuilt and the Auckland Harbour Board berthed its Pilot Launch there. In 1934 the jetty had further repairs made and during the Second World War, the Army launch  Bombardier  was based there and used to supply personnel and stores to and from the various islands. In 1948, further repairs were undertaken. When the site was given to the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1958, the jetty remained under the control of the Auckland Harbour Board. Subsequently, it was handed over to the North Shore City Council [soon to be the Supercity] which retains the wharf in public ownership and maintains it.

Convalescing Rock Pool

The rock pool was originally built by Alexander Watson, who developed North Head in the 1880s. The pool was directly in front of his house at Torpedo Bay. The plaque set into the cliff near the pool was installed in 1919, when the Watson house was being used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers from the First World War. The fresh salt water therapy was believed to be beneficial for the wounded men’s recuperation. The North Shore City Council has restored the pool to its original form, with a self-flushing system where the water level rises and falls with the tide. Rocks would also be added at the northern end of the pool for easy public access, and to provide protection from erosion.

German Raider SMS Wolf

In December 1917 a bottle containing a message was found on a beach on the Island of Toli Toli in the Celebes, now a part of Indonesia.   This uniquely nautical means of passing a message was used by Captain T.G. Meadows, the Master of SS Turitella, and a British Merchant Service Officer, who was a captive on board the German Raider SMS Wolf.  In his message he stated that mines had been laid by the Raider of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Overall, at Government level, little thought was given to the realities of the world-wide nature of naval warfare.   Certainly interest was taken in our ship, but possibly more interest was actually taken in the activities of HMS New Zealand than those of Philomel.    New Zealand seemed remote from the war and the initial threat of German armed raiders seemed to have been removed in the Battle of the Falkland Island fought in December 1914.   Even the disappearance of a merchant ship, SS Wairuna, in June 1917 and the of sinking another, SS Port Kembla off Cook Strait in September 1917, did little to disturb New Zealand’s complacency.[4]

The Germans had planned a Raider campaign to start two months to one month prior to the implementation of unrestricted submarine warfare, a concept which proved to be valid, causing much effort to be expended by utilising cruisers in the search for raiders, thus negating their use on other tasks.[5]   The German offensive comprised the raiders SMS Moewe (that vessel’s second deployment), Wolf, and SMS Seeadler under the command of Count Felix von Luckner), all of which sailed from their home ports in the month between the middle of November and mid December 1916.[6]   Some efforts to prepare for the possibility of Germany laying mines around the coast had been initiated by the Naval Intelligence Officer in 1915; however these were ignored by both the Military authorities and the Government.   When Captain Hall-Thompson returned in HMS Philomel in 1917, the matter was reviewed and despite some lack of support on the part of the Government, a survey of fishing vessels with the potential to be used as minesweepers was undertaken, although there was no minesweeping equipment available in the country.

With the advice that mines had actually been laid around the coast two trawlers were chartered by the Government for minesweeping duties, some equipment manufactured and other necessary supplies ordered from overseas.  Sweeping of the two fields commenced in February 1918 by the trawlers Nora Niven and Simplon and continued until May 1919.  These were manned by civilian crews provided by the owners, supplemented by a small number of naval personnel from Philomel.   A supplementary sweep of the northern field, utilising a different type of sweeping gear obtained from Britain, was undertaken by the whaler Hananui II in May 1919.

At about the same time that the minesweeping operations commenced, some mines began to be found washed ashore, evidently having broken adrift from their moorings.   These caused some danger to the local populace, one owner of a beach front property having his house damaged when a mine exploded outside his front door one night.   On another occasion some cattlemen were killed, evidently when a mine exploded while they were attempting to remove a part as a souvenir. Once the fact that mines had been laid was known, warning notices were broadcast to all merchant vessels.   While there was, of necessity, some vagueness about the actual details of the fields, sufficient directions were given that if obeyed, would keep ships clear of the known danger areas.   Despite these warnings and specific instructions to keep to the northward of Three Kings Islands and outside the 100 fathom line, Captain Kell of SS Wimmera was not convinced.   At about 5.15 am on 26 June 1918, Wimmera struck two mines in the field off North Cape, and sank with the loss of 25 lives, including the Master. [7]

It would seem that the first definitive information in respect of where the mines laid by the Raider Wolf were was received from the Admiralty at the beginning of March 1918.  On 5 March an amplifying cable was received stating that 25 mines had been dropped 25 miles off Three Kings Island Light on 25 June 1917.  The first five were laid about half a mile apart, the remainder being in groups of four.  A further 50 mines were reported to have been laid on the western side of Cook Strait on 27 June, in groups of four, with one mile between each group, a total of 70 mines.[8]  Subsequently, in November 1918, Captain Hall-Thompson was advised that in fact 60 mines had been laid in total:

Off Cape Maria Van Diemen, 25 mines, seven metres deep on a line joining the positions; 34006′ S 172040’E and 34019.5’S 172048’E 

Off Cape Farewell, 35 mines on a line joining the positions; 40007’S 172042’E, 40016’S 172038’E, 40029’S 172026’E. [9]

While the sweeping continued, often with no result, some of the mines began to break free from their moorings and were washed up on the shore.  The first of these came from the northern field and landed on the eastern side of Great Barrier Island on 4 March 1918.  Although considerably damaged, the horns being crushed and the hydrostatic gear missing, an examination of this mine revealed that it was a German Type II mine, although the charge was not the usual gun cotton and a sample of the explosive was sent to the Government Analyst for analysis.[10]  On 7 June and again on 22 August loud explosions were heard at the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound, which were considered to be a mine which had broken adrift from the field off Cape Farewell.  In an effort to ascertain where drifting mines would land a series of floating buoys were released, generally being found on the coastline in the vicinity of the Manawatu River.[11]  In April 1918 a German mine was washed ashore at Great Barrier Island. Samples of the explosive were recovered and sent for analysis. It was found to be a nitro-compound.[12]

At 5.15 am on 26 June 1918 a tragic, but avoidable incident occurred a few miles off the northern tip of New Zealand.  SS Wimmera had left Auckland at 11.20 am the previous day, bound for Sydney with 300 tons of cargo and passengers on board.  The ship was regularly engaged on this run and Captain Kell had been made aware of the danger of mines, to the extent of signing an instruction that he was to proceed ‘outside’, that is to the North of Three Kings Islands.[13]  After leaving Auckland the ship had steered the usual courses travelling northwards up the coast at about 18 knots, passing North Cape at 3.15 am on the 26th, at a distance of 6 miles. The Captain then ordered the Officer of the Watch, who was the 2nd Officer, to alter course 276o, a course which would take the ship 7 Miles to the South of North East King Island.  After being relieved by the First Officer, the 2nd Officer retired to bed, being awakened by a loud explosion, followed shortly after by another.  Wimmera had struck two mines aft of the engine room.  It was not possible to send wireless signals of the event because the aerials had come down as a result of the explosions.  The ship settled on an even keel for about 12 or 15 minutes, enabling five lifeboats to be launched.  It then took a heavy list to port which swamped and smashed No. 4 boat, which contained 6 women and some men.  After this the ship settled by the stern and with stem in the air slipped under the surface about 20 minutes after striking the mines.  Having gathered all the floating persons the remaining boats set out for shore, four landing at Tom Bowling Bay, near Cape Reinga, and the other at Maungaui (sic) the next day.[14]  Of the 116 persons on board, 25 lost their lives, including Captain Kell.

KMS Orion, the sinking of RMS Niagara

German Auxiliary Cruiser Raiders

At the outbreak of war, the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) requisitioned a number of fast merchantmen and immediately sent them into naval shipyards to be converted into offensive auxiliary cruisers. These ships had at the time of building been fitted with extra strong decks specifically to facilitate the installation of military equipment when required, but this was the only difference between them and other merchantmen of the period. No precise plans had been drawn up for the conversion of these ships into warships, and consequently the conversion process was painfully long.

Compared to the diversity of British auxiliary cruisers, the Hilfskreuzer were standardized insofar as possible. The ships themselves averaged approximately 7,000 tons (6,350 tonnes). Armament usually consisted of six 6-inch (152mm) guns, between two and six torpedo tubes, and an assortment of 40 mm, 37 mm, and 20 mm automatic weapons. Most of these merchant raiders carried an Arado Ar-196 seaplane for reconnaissance. Kormoran, Komet, and Michel were also equipped with small motor torpedo boats. In addition to armament, increased fuel, water, and coal storage had to be provided for as well. Furthermore, the raiders could not abandon the crews of their captures, so space had to be provided for prisoners. The first Hilfskreuzer got under way in March 1940, shortly before the Norwegian campaign.

The ships were:

Orion (HSK-1)

Atlantis (HSK-2)

Widder (HSK-3)

Thor (HSK-4)

Pinguin (HSK-5)

Stier (HSK-6)

Komet (HSK-7)

Kormoran (HSK-8) – sunk in action with HMAS Sydney which she sank in the same action in 1941

Michel (HSK-9)

Coronel (HSK-10)

Hansa (HSK-11)

 Supply ship Regensburg also had Japanese disguise[15] and Komet and Kulmerland also had Japanese disguises[16].

 In the early hours of 19 June 1940, New Zealand was reminded again, of the global nature of naval warfare.  As had happened during the First World War, Germany had sent a ship to the other side of the world for the express purpose of laying mines off the New Zealand coast, in an effort to disrupt this country’s export/import trade. On that fateful morning the Royal Mail Steamer Niagara of the Canadian-Australian Company had left Auckland the previous evening, bound for Vancouver.  On board were 136 passengers and amongst the cargo was £2.5 million of gold bullion.  At about 3.44am Niagara struck a mine while passing off the Hen (Maro Tiri) and Chicken Islands, east of Whangarei.[17]

The mine that Niagara hit had been laid five days earlier by the German raider Orion, ship 36, which had sailed from Germany on 6 April, under the command of Captain Kurt Weyher.  The ship was formerly the Kurmark of the Hamburg-America Line and had been commissioned on 9 December 1939.  Orion’s first victim was the British tramp steamer Haxby which was intercepted and sunk east of Bermuda on 24 April.  After refuelling from her supply ship, Orion arrived off Auckland on the afternoon of 13 June and at 7.26pm that night, began to lay the first of 228 mines, across the approaches to the Hauraki Gulf.  Two strings of mines were laid, roughly from Great Mercury Island to Great Barrier Island, while a third string was laid from the northern tip of Great Barrier Island across to the Hen and Chickens.[18]

It was a clear moonlit night until about 11.00pm, when it clouded over and although Orion sighted three outward bound and one inward bound ships, she was not detected.  That evening the cruiser HMS Achilles and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Hector entered the Hauraki Gulf and anchored in Auckland Harbour.  The last of the mines was laid at 2.36am and Orion cleared to the northeast, at full speed.[19] New Zealand in mid 1940 was very complacent, the coastal lighthouses were still working, there was no blackout and the radio stations not only gave weather reports and shipping movements, but also the programmed operations of the Air Force patrol planes, daily.  Ironically, on the day Orion laid its mines the Prime Minister gave a radio broadcast stressing how Britain could be supplied with food and other items from the Dominion in increasing quantities.[20]

Twenty-three years earlier, to the month, during the First World War, another German raider, Wolf, had laid mines off North Cape and the western approaches to Cook Strait in June 1917.  It had also laid mines off Australia and both fields quickly claimed victims.  Such was the belief in the remoteness of both countries from the war that the sinkings were initially put down as being sabotage.  Even when positive advice of the minefields was received, by that uniquely maritime means of communication, a letter in a bottle, there was almost total disbelief in New Zealand.[21]  Only when two trawlers had been fitted for minesweeping and found a mine on their first sweep were the Military authorities convinced.

In contrast, in 1940 the Navy was prepared for minesweeping.  It had one vessel for training and in 1939 had ordered three more, but the war in Europe had delayed their delivery.  As an interim measure four trawlers were fitted out for minesweeping and commissioned while another two were fitted out and released back to the fishing industry, pending a mining threat.  With news of the Niagara sinking, James Cosgrove and Thomas Currell sailed from Auckland and commenced sweeping in the vicinity of Maro Tiri at 12.25pm, sweeping the first mine at 2.47pm.  The mines were identified as German, of the contact type.

On 5 August Mr D. McKay, the skipper of the fishing launch Ahuriri, found a drifting mine off Red Mercury Island on the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula and towed it to Mercury Island Bay.  Having secured the mine with a boats anchor through a ringbolt on the side of the mine, he remained with it in a dinghy until the arrival of a naval party the next day.  The Squadron Torpedo Officer, Lieutenant Commander P.P.M. Green RN then disarmed the mine and having removed the primer and explosive charge, towed it to the naval base at Devonport.[22]  Examination confirmed that the mine was German and of the Y* type.


The Y* mine:


Diameter:        46 inches (114cm)

Shape:            2 hemispheres welded to a 2 inch (5cm) belt

Horns:             7 lead.  One central on top, 4 equally spaced around the upper hemisphere, 2 in brackets on lower hemisphere

Charge:           660lbs (290kg)

Discovery that the Germans had laid mines off this country resulted in not only the existing fishing vessels fitted for minesweeping being brought into service but also a programme of building minesweepers in New Zealand was initiated.  Seventeen vessels of an Admiralty trawler design were laid down, with a view to them being available for the fishing industry after the war.  Eventually 11 ships of the Castle class were commissioned, four of which were of composite construction for sweeping magnetic mines.[23]

By 1941 the mines were beginning to break loose.  One was washed ashore on the southwest side of Coromandel Harbour and rendered safe by Lieutenant R.J. Greening RN, while others were sighted as far away as 120 nautical miles north of East Cape.  On 13 May the fishing launch Pearline fouled a mine in her net off Bream Head and marked the position with a buoy and contacted the naval patrol launch HMNZS Rawea which was in the area.  Rawea advised the Naval Officer commanding Auckland of the mine and two minesweepers HMNZ Ships Gale and Puriri were sent to the area.  Rawea was detached and as it was by now nearly dark the senior officer in Gale decided to anchor for the night and destroy the mine in the morning.  At daybreak Gale left the anchorage and although Puriri followed, that ship was not given any specific orders.  On arrival in the area where they had left the mine, the buoy marking it was not immediately sighted.  Gale then commenced a circular search, with Puriri following astern.  There was then a violent explosion as Puriri struck the mine, the Commanding Officer and four men being killed.  The ship sank so quickly there was no time to lower boats and the survivors were rescued by Gale.[24]  Sweeping operations to clear the minefields were conducted on several occasions during the war and again following the cessation of hostilities; when the precise locations of the field were know.  A total of 131 mines were accounted for during these operations, including a number of mines which had broken adrift and were sunk or rendered safe.

Adjutant and its Port Lyttleton and Nicholson raids

 On 29 May 1940 the Chief of Naval Staff issued a report that stated that the possibility was that enemy vessels would lay magnetic mines in New Zealand waters.[25] Twelve months later this became the reality with the arrival of the Adjutant off Lyttelton.

Adjutant was a whale chaser named Pol IX built in 1937 for a Norwegian whaling company.[26] She had been captured along with ten other whale chasers and three whaling ships in the Southern Ocean by the Raider KMS Pinguin in 1940.[27] While the other vessels were sent back to Germany with prize crews, she was kept by the Pinguin as a reconnaissance and tender vessel.[28]  In May 1941 Adjutant was detached from Pinguin and met up with the raider KMS Komet who at that time was cruising in an area about 700-1000 kilometres off Wellington. She had previously operated in the Indian Ocean unsuccessfully against Australian merchant shipping.[29]  In June Komet transhipped mines to Adjutant. Komet then went to the Chatham Islands and searched for shipping.  Adjutant then sailed for Lyttelton. Just after midnight on 25 June 1941 Adjutant laid ten mines in crooked line pattern in the approaches to Lyttelton Harbour.  The war diary of the Komet recorded that Adjutant faced ‘no enemy opposition.’[30] She then withdrew about 110 kilometres off the coast and headed north. Her presence was not recorded and given that her appearance resembled a minesweeper of the type that were operating at Lyttelton her presence would not have raised alarms.[31]

Twenty-four hours later she came into a position off Port Nicolson and started to lay two rows of five mines each across the entrance off Pencarrow Head. She was challenged from Bearing Head but did not reply. In response to a signal from Bearing Head a searchlight sweeps over the raider four times. As the fourth mine is laid the ship is highlighted by the searchlight. Adjutant made smoke and laid the rest of the mines. By this time patrol boats are being sent to the area but the smokescreen hides the raider. She also heads closer to the shore to obscure the searchlights.[32] Now there are four patrol vessels looking for the raider but she manages to hug the coast to Bearing Head and then breaks clear and headed east at top speed to rendezvous with Komet whose war diary noted that it was believed she was not seen during the minelaying operation ‘in spite of the searchlight activity [at Port Nicolson]’.[33]

 It would not be until 1945 that this action was known by the New Zealand government upon receiving captured German documents. The mines that were laid by Adjutant were a magnetic type of ground mine. This mine would only be detonated if a large piece of steel, i.e. a ship’s hull activated its detonator which was sensitive to magnetic fields. Waters in the Official history wrote that:

Probably they were defective when laid since they have never given any indication of the presence. Thousands of ship have passed safely over the areas in which they were laid and which, during the war, were subjected to routine sweeping by flotillas fitted to deal with magnetic, acoustic, and moored mines.[34]

The commanding officer the Komet reported that:

At Wellington all the depths exceeded twenty metres, but a large number of ships of over 10,000 tones put in there, and at this port is very favourably situated in relation to the magnetic zone…the mines, if they work at all, should, according to the data available, also detonate satisfactorily with vessels of 5,000 to 7,000 tons. I do not think the Adjutant was seen during the operation, in spite of the searchlight activity.[35]

Lieutenant Karsten was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his part in the minelaying operation and to Lieutenant-Commander Hemmer for his service with the Pinguin and as Commanding Officer of the Adjutant during the minelaying operation.[36] Upon making the rendezvous with Komet , Adjutant’s engines were ‘as good as useless’. Her sea-cocks were opened and was sunk by gunfire from Komet northeast of the Chatham Islands.[37]

The Loss of HMZS Puriri 1941 to a Mine

 Puriri was a twin diesel cargo vessel working the West Coast to Nelson and the North Island coastal trades at the outbreak of the Second World War.  She was built in Scotland in 1938. On 20 November 1940 she was taken over for naval service from the owners, Nelson based Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company. She was one of four ships taken over for conversion into minesweepers. Upon arrival in Auckland in November 1940, Puriri assisted the cruiser HMS Achilles in searching for the German raiders Orion and Komet who had sunk the Rangitane.

 These minesweepers were required to sweep mines that had been laid by the German raider Orion in 1940, one of which had sunk the Niagara. After her conversion was completed, HMS Puriri was commissioned into service as a minesweeper on 19 April 1941. The vessel was assigned to the 25th minesweeping Flotilla alongside HMS Matai and Gale. This flotilla carried out routine sweeping patrols out of Auckland from Tiri Tiri up to Whangarei.

On 13 May 1941 the launch Rawea buoyed a mine. Word was received that a fisherman had pulled a mine out of his nets off Whangarei.  He dragged it for a while and then cut it loose.  The next morning she was in company with Gale when Puriri was ordered out to find this mine; Gale was the senior ship and was leading the search with Puriri astern of her.  It was bypassed by Gale but Puriri struck the mine and sank very quickly. Five men including the Commanding Officer were killed and another five injured. The 26 survivors were rescued by HMS Gale. Puriri sank in position 35°46’15” S, 174°43’00” E eight nautical miles 050° from Bream Head.[38]

Chief Petty Officer Ivan Brown was the Coxswain of HMS Puriri, and was drawing the daily rum issue in company with John Rhind, the First Lieutenant when the mine was struck:

“We went down below and brought up the rum.  Right aft in the ship was the Chief’s and Petty Officer’s Mess and I was just stepping over the lintel into the Mess when she hit the mine.  I shot into the far corner with the rum.  The mine blew the bottom of the forward hold.

They had put in 12 x 2 framing in the hold and it was full of rock for ballast.  There had been lookouts right forward on Monkeys Island.  A Lieutenant Matheson I think was Duty Officer and the Captain was Blacklaws, who was on loan to us because our own Skipper had taken ill the night before.  This officer was sent from the Cruiser, he was on the wing bridge.  The rock went up in the air and two of the chaps on Monkeys Island got hit, but Matheson wasn’t.  I stepped out onto the after deck and down came the rocks, so I quickly went back under cover.  By this time she was going.

This was just after 11am and two Stewards were preparing the Wardroom for the Officer’s meal.  The front of the super structure was completely demolished by the rock and those two Stewards were killed.  The 2nd Engineer was sitting in his cabin in the same row of offices.  He was blown backwards out through the door into the passageway.  The Skipper was on the wing bridge with a Signalman.  The Signalman went over the back of the bridge and landed in the lifeboat and the Skipper went over the side, we never saw him again.


The lad that went over the back had the presence of mind to throw out what life belts there were because she was going fast by this time.  There was one chap an Able Seaman who was in the paint locker which was right aft, the lid flew over and locked him in, he got out and I have never seen a chap do such a dive.  I hadn’t left the ship by then.  I saw him, he flashed past me and left the deck and he went over the guard rails, straight over the side, a beautiful dive.  He told me afterwards, he said “the rivets were actually popping in the hold.

I decided it was time for me to leave and I threw off my heavy jersey and I slid down the side of her until my heels touched the belting, then I dived off.  When I came up she was standing on her end and two chaps were going up the guard rails, one of them was the only active service rating on board, a Chief Petty Officer ERA, Trevor Martin from Auckland, `Pincher’ Martin.  The other one was the 2nd Engineer and they just floated off as she went down.  All the bridge area suddenly collapsed and blew the air whistle and down she went in just about a minute and a half.  The Gale which was a mile and a half or more ahead of us came back and lowered a boat and picked us up.  One of the Cruisers was returning to base and she sent over a boat.  They transferred most of our people onto her.  I didn’t go because I had casualties on the Gale, some of whom were badly knocked about.  I opted to stay with them to see that they got to hospital.”

German and Japanese submarines in New Zealand waters

In early November 2004 a caller to talk back host Alan Dick on Radio Pacific identified himself as a recreational diver whose club had recently dived off the Canterbury coast and discovered the hull of a Japanese submarine.  A listener called the well-known author Jack Harker, who in turn contacted Mr George Jones of Picton.  Mr Jones was coxswain of HMNZS Wakakura during the Second World War and had earlier spoken of a submarine contact in either late 1943 or early 1944, in the vicinity of Motunau Island, on which depth charges had been dropped, but without result.

The Wakakura action is mentioned by S.D. Waters in the Official History[39] as are other sightings around the New Zealand coast.  A search of archival sources was conducted and eventually the report of the Wakakura action was located, filed together with several other reports around the same period.[40]  In late February and early March 1944, there were several reports and sightings of submarines off the New Zealand coast, mainly in the area between Banks Peninsular and Kaikoura.  Of the eight reports, four were sightings of torpedo tracks, one was an ASDIC contact and two were sightings of a submarine.


Japanese submarines had been operating off New Zealand since early 1942.  In March of that year I-25 had passed through Cook Strait, transited up the East Coast of the North Island before departing to the North.  Its aircraft flew over Wellington on the morning of 8 March and later over Auckland.  I-25 was sighted by a fishing boat, a resident of Mayor Island, a fisherman from Tauranga and HMS Viti picked up hydrophone effect in the Bay of Plenty.  The Navy Office analysis of the sightings was that they were actually sightings of Viti, while her hydrophone effect detection was classified as being a fishing boat.  In May 1942 I-21 cruised off the northern part of the North Island, again sending its seaplane on a reconnaissance flight over Auckland.  This submarine was the leader of the midget submarine attack on Sydney on 31 May.  In February 1943 another submarine, to date unidentified, cruised through Cook Strait and up the East Coast of the North Island.  This submarine was detected by coastal radar stations and by D/F fixes.  Air searches failed to locate the submarine, although an oil slick was sighted.  In October and November 1943 there was considerable evidence of another submarine operating off New Zealand, initiated by a United States Submarine reporting that two torpedoes had been fired at her when about 300nm North East of Auckland, which was followed by several sightings in the Cook Strait area and finally a sighting by an RNZAF aircraft of a periscope about 100nm north of North Cape.[41]

Given all these earlier ‘positive’ submarine sightings and contacts it is difficult to understand why the assessments of the February/March 1944 sightings were so negative.  All were officially classified as whales/dolphins. Whales and dolphins are common off the Kaikoura coast, as evidenced by the currently thriving whale watching business there today, although there were fewer whales in 1944, but still enough to sustain the coastal whaling industry which was still operating.  This meant that mariners who regularly plied those waters, such as the crews of inter-island steamers and coastal freighters were familiar with whales and dolphins.  It is also relevant that HMNZS Wakakura had been based at Lyttelton for over two years by 1944, regularly patrolling the area.

Submarine Sightings February/March 1944

Serial  Ship                      Time                        Position

  1. Bald HeadT 260025M Feb 44      090 Mercury Bay 75nm

36o 50’S, 177 o 00’E


  1. McFadden/Hahn 260900M Feb 44      Rafa Downs, North Canterbury*


  1. CoquilleT 280315M Feb 44      37o 54’S, 178o 55’E


  1. HolmdaleT 291920M Feb 44      42o 44’S, 173o 28’S


  1. RangitiraT 010157M Mar 44     42o 24’S, 174o 01’S


  1. Aircraft 011305M Mar 44     7nm NE Kaikoura


  1. PahauA 080435M Mar 44     41o 29’S, 174o 47’S


  1. Wakakura 082108M Mar 44     050 Godley Head 40nm


A ASDIC contact

T  Torpedo attack

* discounted as an aberration/unreliable


Speed of Advance

1-3    112nm/52hrs = 2.2kts

3-4    270nm/40hrs = 6.8kts

4-5    30nm/6.6hrs = 4.5kts

5-6    10nm/12hrs = 1kt

6-7    66nm/7days = minimal

7-8    60nm/16.5hrs = 3.6kts


Circumstances of Sightings


  1. On 26 February the United States Navy tug Bald Head, 1117 tons was enroute from Auckland to Balboa and reported that a torpedo crossed her bow at 0025. The position was 75nm off the East Coast.  Classified porpoise by SOT&M.


  1. Two farmers were shooting on Rafa Downs station in North Canterbury on the morning of 26 February, when they looked out to sea from the cliffs at about 0900. McFadden reported seeing a long black vessel with a deckhouse midships, that was unlike a fishing vessel.  Hahn made a short statement that his eyesight was not as good as McFadden’s and that he could not give any details of the vessel.  The report was only made some days later, after the Prime Minister made a public broadcast on the radio, about the attack on Rangitira [serial 5].  Classified non-sub by SOT&M.


  1. The United States tanker Coquille, 10,450 tons was on passage to Lyttelton on 28 February, when naval ratings in her gun’s crew reported sighting a periscope and the track of a torpedo, at 0315. Classified porpoise by SOT&M.


  1. The coastal freighter Holmdale was drifting near Bushett Rocks off the Canterbury coast on the evening of 29 February, with the crew fishing, when a torpedo was sighted running past the ship. The time was 1920 and the Captain considered the possibility that it could have been a porpoise, but this was discounted because there were none in the area at the time.  Classified porpoise by SOT&M.


  1. At 0157 on the morning of 1 March the inter-island steamer Rangitira was northbound for Wellington, off Kaikoura, when the gun’s crew reported seeing the track of a torpedo pass close under the stern. **clear night and the moon had set at 2228.  Classified porpoise by SOT&M.


  1. Early that afternoon, at 1305, the pilot of a Union Airways aircraft reported sighting a submarine off Kaikoura. Because he did not report this by radio immediately, but instead made his report on landing at Wellington, the sighting was discounted by SOT&M.


  1. On the morning of 8 March the A/S M/S Trawlers Pahau and Maimai were on an A/S patrol off the entrance to Wellington Harbour and Pahau gained a contact on ASDIC. This was classified submarine and an attack carried out.  Contact was lost and the target was subsequently classified non-sub by the ships.


  1. That night the minesweeper Wakakura was on patrol in Pegasus Bay when what was believed to be the periscope of a submarine was sighted at a rage of approximately 200m. The ship altered course to ram and increased speed, but the submarine was seen to submerge.  An attack was conducted with three depth charges (out of the four carried), the last of which resulted in a more violent explosion than the other two.  The contact could not be further prosecuted because the ship was not fitted with ASDIC, but Wakakura continued to patrol the area until 090200M, when relieved by the A/S M/S trawler HMNZS Awatere.  Sunset had been at 1902 and the sighting was at 2108.  It was a clear moonlit night (moonrise was at 1825 and it was nearly a full moon). The contact subsequently classified as the fin of a whale, by SOA/S.  Awatere passed over the position a little over two hours later and saw some small oil slicks on the surface, previously noted by Wakakura, which were assumed to be residue of Amatol from the depth charges [not uncommon].  The position given by Wakakura may well be somewhat inaccurate, given that the ship did not have radar and it was night time, nevertheless, Awatere made a rendezvous at the spot some hours later. The officer responsible for analysing submarine contacts in Navy Office, Wellington, was the Staff Officer A/S (Anti-Submarine), Commander (A/S) J.A. Smyth VD, RNZNVR


While at this remove, some 60 years after the events, it is difficult to be completely aware of any extraneous circumstances that may have been relevant in 1944, a fresh review of the sighting evidence and documentary analysis is justified.  Japanese submarines are known to have been operating around New Zealand in 1942-43 and one German submarine operated off the East Coast in 1945, so it is entirely possible that a Japanese submarine was off New Zealand in February/March 1944.

The observers involved in serials *** and ** were adamant that the tracks seen were torpedoes, not porpoises.  Similarly the pilot of the aircraft of serial 6 was very experienced and could be expected to be able to distinguish the difference between a whale and a submarine, especially as he flew that route regularly.  The sighting of Messers McFadden and Hahn (serial 2) has been discounted as being unreliable, as it was in 1944.  Additionally the date of this reported sighting does not conform to the other contacts. Taken together with the completely feasible speed of advance between contacts, the evidence is considered to be entirely consistent with that of a submarine on patrol down the East Coast of the North Island and in the choke point at the eastern approaches to Cook Strait. Given the relatively shallow water in the position of the Wakakura attack (approximately 125m) it is possible, albeit unlikely (the usual pattern was 12 depth charges), that one of the three depth charges did mortal damage to the submarine.

 German U Boat U862 off the New Zealand Coast 1945

A German U-Boat penetrated Gisborne Harbour, and later fired a torpedo at a New Zealand vessel off Napier in the closing months of the Second World War. This vessel was the submarine U862 which entered New Zealand territorial waters on 9 January 1945. Unterseeboot 862 (U862), also known as the Japanese submarine I-502, was a Type IXD2 submarine. It was the only German submarine to operate in the Pacific Ocean during the Second World War although some German submarines had sailed to Japan to provide secret equipment to the Japanese forces.

U862 was laid down on August 15, 1942 by AG Weser of Bremen. She was commissioned on 7 October 1943 with Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Timm in command. Timm commanded U862 for her entire career in the Kriegsmarine, receiving a promotion to Korvettenkapitän on 1 July 1944. U862 conducted two patrols, sinking seven ships totalling 42,374 tons. U862 was one of the most travelled of all U-boats. She sailed from Germany in May 1944 and eventually reached Penang, in Japanese-controlled Malaya, in September 1944. Penang was the base for U-flotilla 33, code-named Monsun (”Monsoon”).

On the way there, she launched a T5/G7es Zaunkönig I acoustic homing torpedo at a tanker. The Zaunkönig came around full circle to home in on U862 itself. Only an emergency crash dive saved the U-boat from its own torpedo. She also shot down an Allied PBY Catalina aircraft on 20 August 1944[42] and then escaped an intense search for her. She sank several merchant ships in the Mozambique Channel between Africa and Madagascar.

U862 departed for her second war patrol from Jakarta in the Japanese-occupied Netherlands East Indies in December 1944. Assigned the task of operating off Australia, she sailed down the west coast of Australia, across the Great Australian Bight, around the southern coast of Tasmania and then north towards Sydney where she sank the U.S.-registered Liberty Ship Robert J Walker on Christmas Day 1944. She then crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

The first sight of New Zealand was the Cape Reinga lighthouse from which the submarine took bearings. On 11 January, the U862 moved south again and sailed into the outer Hauraki Gulf. At dawn the next day the submarine dived to pass Great Barrier Island and by nightfall it was just a single nautical mile off Cape Colville. On 14 January U862 rounded East Cape and spotted a small 600-ton steamer just out from Gisborne Harbour but decided not to attack. Korvettenkapitän Timm decided the ship was not worth a torpedo and use of the deck gun would have given notice of the submarine’s presence in New Zealand waters. On the 15 January, U862 went to the entrance of Gisborne Harbour and surfaced and was able to see the brightly light town. However there were no boats to sink in the harbour. It then sailed toward the Mahia Peninsula and the entrance to Hawkes Bay and surfaced within sight of Napier Harbour.

On the night of the 16 January, U862 had a target in its sights which was the 1000-tonne coaster Pukeko. The U862 fired a torpedo which missed. Timm felt it had been detected and therefore took the vessel south and on 19 January 1945 surfaced in the Cook Strait. A message was received from Indonesia ordering it to return to Batavia. U862 made its way across the Indian Ocean and on the 5 February 1945 about 1,520km (820 nm) southwest of Fremantle sighted and sank the 7000 tonne Peter Sylvester with three torpedoes. U862 arrived back in Batavia on the 15 February. U862 was also a trial boat for the FuMo 65 Hohentwiel radar system. This was cranked out of a casing on the port side of the conning tower and rose on a mast. The aerial was hand trained onto targets whilst the U-boat was at the surface. The radar had a range up to 7 nautical miles (13km) and was very effective where there was little risk from air attack on the U-boat.

When Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945, U862 put into Singapore and was taken over by the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). On 15 July 15 she was commissioned into IJN service as I-502. With the surrender of the Japanese forces in Singapore in August 1945 was captured by the Allied forces. On 13 February 1946 she was scuttled off Singapore after the submarine was investigated by Allied naval personnel. Korvettenkapitän Timm and his crew suffered no casualties and were captured in Singapore in 1945 and were returned to Britain and were interned at Kinmel Camp, Bodellwyddan North Wales. Some returned to Germany several years after the war while others having been were to remain in Wales and settled in the neighbouring communities of Rhyl, Rhuddlan and Prestatyn. This was due to the risks of returning to the Soviet occupied areas of Germany after the war. Two of the crew who died in the camp buried at the new cemetery at Rhuddlan.



Ehrlich, H.J., Weyher, K. The Black Raider, London: Elek Books, 1955.

Glackin, J.R., ‘NZ and Imperial Defence:  The Development of New Zealand’s Strategic Attitudes, 1870-1893’, MA Honours Thesis, University of Canterbury, 1966.

McDougall, R.J., New Zealand Naval Vessels, Christchurch: GP Books, 1989.

McGibbon, Ian, The Pathway to Gallipoli: Defending New Zealand, 1840-1915, Wellington:  GP Books, 1991.

Muggenthaler, August Karl, German Raiders of World War II, London: Robert Hale, 1978.

Newbolt, Henry, History of the Great War: Naval Operations Vol. IV, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1928.

Waters, S.D., The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch Department of Internal Affairs, 1956.

__________, New Zealand in the Second World War: German Raiders in the Pacific, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1949.

[1] Published originally in The White Ensign. 

[2] Fort Britomart was located in the area of the confluence of Fort St. and Britomart Pl. in modern downtown Auckland and gives its name to the city’s new railway station.

[3] Jervois is remembered today on Jervois Quay in Wellington whilst his assistant, Maj. Henry Cautley gave his name to Fort Cautley on North Head.

[4]Wairuna was captured by Wolf on 2 June 1917 and Port Kembla struck a mine in the Cape Farewell field on 18 September 1917.

[5] Henry Newbolt, History of the Great War: Naval Operations Vol. IV, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1928, p. 176.

[6] Ibid., p. 179.

[7]See various correspondence on N series 20/11

[8] ibid., Admiralty Cable S/No. 3677 dated 5 March 1918

[9] ibid., Memorandum for Minister of Defence dated 28 November 1918

[10] ibid., Senior Naval Officer, New Zealand Cable S/No. 3806, dated 30 March 1918

[11] N series 1, 14/5/2 Washed Ashore in New Zealand and Destroyed

[12] NA Series 14/15/2 Mines Washed Ashore in New Zealand and Destroyed: Note dated 18 April 1918 Remarks by Dominion analyst.

[13] N series 1, 20/11 – Routing Instructions SS Wimmera dated 24 June 1918

[14] ibid., Wilson Charles F, 2nd Officer SS Wimmera, Statement to the Collector of Customs, Auckland dated 1 July 1918

[15] August Karl Muggenthaler, German Raiders of World War II, London: Robert Hale, 1978, p. 63.

[16] ibid., p. 63.

[17] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, p. 120.

[18] ibid., p. 4.

[19] ibid., pp. 4-5. See also H.J. Ehrlich, K. Weyher, The Black Raider, London: Elek Books, 1955, p.59.

[20] K. Weyher and H.J. Ehrlich, The Black Raider, London: Elek Books, 1955, pp. 57-58.

[21] ADM 137/1430 Telegram CinC China to Admiralty 15 Feb 1918

[22] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, p. 174.

[23] R. J. McDougall, New Zealand Naval Vessels, Wellington: GP Books, 1989, pp. 64-65.

[24] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, pp.179-180.

[25] ibid., p. 177.

[26] ibid., pp. 100, 156.

[27] ibid., p. 106.

[28] ibid., p. 151.

[29] ibid., p. 155.

[30] S.D. Waters, New Zealand in the Second World War: German Raiders in the Pacific, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1949, p. 26.

[31] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, pp.156-157.

[32] ibid., pp.27,29.

[33] ibid., p. 30.

[34] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, p. 157.

[35] ibid.

[36] ibid.

[37] ibid., p. 158. See also New Zealand in the Second World War: German Raiders in the Pacific, Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1949, p. 29.

[38] R.J. McDougall, R.J., New Zealand Naval Vessels, Christchurch: GP Books, 1989, pp. 69-76.

[39] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, Wellington: War History Branch Department of Internal Affairs, 1956, p. 221.

[40] Archives New Zealand, N series 1, 16/8/46 – Submarine Attack, inter-island ferry Rangitira

[41] S.D. Waters, The Royal New Zealand Navy: Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939-45, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1956, pp. 214-220.

[42] By 1944, most German U-boats were armed with 20mm anti-aircraft guns to offer some protection from Allied aircraft when they were on the surface.