SS Wahine

SS Wahine

The SS Wahine was a passenger ship of the Union Steam Ship Company engaged pre-war on the Wellington/Lyttelton run.  It was requisitioned by the Admiralty in 1915 and served first as a despatch vessel in the Mediterranean during the Gallipoli Campaign and from 1916  until the end of the war it was a minelayer in the North Sea, laying 11,378 mines.

The SS Wahine was built for the Union Steamship Company for the Wellington to Lyttelton run.  It was built by the Denny Brothers of Dumbarton, Scotland and displaced 4,436 tons.  In design the ship was an improved version of the earlier, Maori, one major innovation being the fitting of a bow rudder to assist in berthing at Lyttelton.  Launched on 25 November 1912, the Wahine was handed over to its owners on 9 April 1913 and departed on its maiden voyage via the Suez Canal to Wellington on 5 May.  On trials a top speed of 21.33 knots was achieved, greater than that of most trans-Atlantic liners.  By July it was employed on the Wellington/Lyttelton overnight service.

On trials a top speed of 21.33 knots was achieved, greater than that of most trans-Atlantic liners.

In July 1915 the Wahine was requisitioned by the Imperial Government and sailed from Port Chalmers on the 15th.  Built for short passages on the New Zealand coast the ship did not have a great range and the voyage to England was made with only half the boilers on-line.

After a refit on the Thames HMS Wahine was a despatch vessel, armed with two 4 inch (102mm) guns and the Captain, A.M. Edwin was given a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve, as were his officers and the ship’s company were similarly entered into the Naval Reserve.  Between 13 October 1915 and 28 May 1916 Wahine was employed between Malta and Mudros, as part of the naval forces engaged in the Gallipoli campaign.

Cutaway from a WWI mine horn from minesweeper HMS WAHINE 1915-19
Cutaway from a WWI mine horn from minesweeper HMS Wahine 1915-19

With the conclusion of operations associated with Gallipoli, Wahine returned to England and was refitted at Blackwall to become a minelayer.  This involved stripping out D Deck and half of C Deck, to not only accommodate 180 mines, but also the associated workshops and minelaying gear. During the refit most of the seamen officers were replaced by Royal Navy officers, although most of the engineers remained.  Indeed the Chief Engineer, Edward Lowe remained on board throughout the ship’s time with the Royal Navy and was still on board when it was refitted for return to the Union Steam Ship Company in 1919.  He was made a companion of the Distinguished Service Order in October 1918, being invested with the decoration at Buckingham Palace in February 1919.

Across the North Sea was a vast network of minefields, both German and British.  The work of the minelayers not just laying new fields or extending existing ones, but also reinstating parts of fields that had been swept by the Germans or damaged by inclement weather.  The basic routine was to leave harbour in the afternoon escorted by a destroyer and then proceed alone after dark to sow the mines.  Even in calm weather this was a dangerous operation.  The mines were mounted on trollies which ran down on railway tracks and over the side.  The mine would then separate from the trolley which would sink to the seabed and act as an anchor, the mine being tethered by a wire.  They were armed (i.e. had the horns fitted) in the hours before laying but there was always the possibility that as the mine hit the water a horn would be broken and the mine explode.   Wahine experienced this several times, one shifting three boilers off their mountings.  Once laying was complete the minelayer would use its speed to clear the area as quickly as possible.

The mines were mounted on trollies which ran down on railway tracks and over the side.  The mine would then separate from the trolley which would sink to the seabed and act as an anchor, the mine being tethered by a wire.

The most dangerous task for minelayers was the reinstating of a field.  This required navigating at night, though a known minefield, without navigation marks (and this was the time before radar) to lay mines in a precise position.

Between 22 July 1916 and November 1918 Wahine carried out 76 minelaying operations and in the course of these laid 11,378 mines.  After the war there was apparently some thought given within the Admiralty to retain the ship and it remained at the Naval Base at Granton, in the Firth of Forth until April 1919, by which time decision had been made not to retain Wahine and it was refitted and returned to the Union Steam Ship Company, re-entering the Wellington/Lyttelton run in 1920.