(WWII) Submarine Sightings in New Zealand waters 1944

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.


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[1] 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.[2]  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.[3]

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.


[1] 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.

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

[3] Waters S.D., The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War : Royal New Zealand Navy, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1956 pp214-220