HMS Puriri 1938, NZ Navy

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Originally published in the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved) of March 1983

BEFORE WORLD WAR II the Anchor Line twin-screw vessel Puriri, of 927 gross tons, built by Henry Robb Ltd. of Leith and launched on 25th October 1938, was considered as the most modern collier of that time in New Zealand. Accommodation was good, with two-berth cabins for all crew members. She was then engaged as a cargo vessel around the New Zealand coast, but the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 was to change all that and after requisition by the Government in October 1940 she was to become a minesweeper in the then New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy.

While the vessel was at the Naval Base, Auckland on 27th November 1940, awaiting conversion to a minesweeper, news was received of an early morning attack on the Rangitane, a 17,000-ton vessel owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company Ltd.

This ship had a crew of 200, carried 111 passengers and was fully laden with produce for Britain. The news followed the sinking of the Holmwood, two days before. At first came the QQQQ suspicious vessel report, followed immediately by an RRRR raider report as the raiding ships began firing. The attack, by the armed German raiders Orion (Captain Kurt Weyher) and Komet (Rear- Admiral Robert Eyssen) and the tanker supply ship Kulmerland occurred 300 miles east of East Cape. After transmitting the reports the Rangitane was damaged by gunfire and finally sunk by torpedoes after survivors had been transhipped to the raiding vessels, the blazing ship with seacocks opened taking too long to settle and betraying the position of the attacking vessels. Five passengers and five crew, half of them women, were killed by the gunfire and others wounded, another woman passenger dying next day, and it was only after being signalled that women and children were aboard that the raiders ceased fire.

The raider Orion, an armed merchant cruiser of 7,000 tons was, like the Komet of 3,300 tons, equipped with six 5.9 inch guns, anti-aircraft guns, torpedo tubes and a seaplane and, having entered the Pacific Ocean via Cape Horn on 21st May 1940, was causing considerable havoc to allied shipping. The vessel travelled 102,000 miles during a voyage lasting seventeen months, sinking or capturing 12½ allied vessels, mostly in the South Pacific. (The Rangitane sinking was shared with Komet.) These were the Haxby, Notou, Turakina, Holmwood, Rangitane, Triaster, Triadic, Triona Vinni, Komata, Ringwood and Tropic Sea. Altogether 228 mines were laid by the Orion off the approaches to the Hauraki Gulf, taking seven hours on the night of 13th June 1940 and, when their presence became known after the sinking of RMS Niagara on 19th June, carrying £2.5 million in gold bullion, the four main ports were immediately closed to shipping. It was 10th September before the gulf area was considered relatively safe, after 131 mines had been destroyed, though mariners were warned to watch for isolated mines. The Orion met up with the Komet and Kulmerland on 18th October 1940 at Lamotrek in the Caroline Islands. However, we will return to the Puriri.

Following the raider report from the Rangitane, the Puriri was loaded with blankets, food and survival essentials and despatched at full speed to the scene of the sinking, travelling all night and reaching the area on 28th November 1940. There was little to see, bar an oil slick extending for about nine by two miles, dozens of butter boxes and some red and white lifebelts. The Puriri at this time had a merchant navy captain, and naval personnel aboard were four telegraphists, one being myself, to maintain an around-the-clock listening watch, and one signalman.

While the area was being checked the New Zealand-based light cruiser HMS Achilles turned up, having been sent from Lyttelton, and with the sun behind it immediately flashed out a challenge to ascertain what ship lay ahead. The Puriri had high masts and was probably not unlike a raider from a distance, and she was steaming towards the Achilles. Aboard the Achilles the crews were already closed up at action stations and cheered when it was thought that a raider had been located. Our signalman attempted to flash out a reply to the challenge with his Aldis lamp, but his batteries were flat and no signal was being projected. We saw the 6-inch guns of Achilles swing towards us and expected a shot at any time. The captain, somewhat alarmed, said to the signalman ‘Do something man‘, and the latter asked the captain to turn the ship sideways to provide a good silhouette while he readied flags to run up, which was accomplished to the relief of those aboard. I had served on Achilles in 1939 on a South Pacific Islands cruise, and it was a strange experience being at the wrong end of its guns.

All ships had been warned by radio to avoid the position given by the Rangitane by 200 miles to escape attack, and one wonders how the unarmed Puriri would have fared had it encountered the raiders? How these ships escaped from the scene of the sinking and avoided detection by two patrolling flying-boats, by Achilles and its Walrus plane and by Puriri and other ships is difficult to understand, but they did, and the three vessels anchored on 29th November off the Kermadec Islands, 600 miles north-east of New Zealand. One of the two TEAL flyingboats, Awarua and Aotearoa, probably the former, was actually seen from the Orion on the evening of 28th November, but it was not the other way round, so eight armed RNZAF planes on standby at Gisborne were not called to attack. The civilian prisoners carried by the raiders were landed later, on 21st December, on Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago.

The Puriri was later converted to a minesweeper and commissioned on 9th April 1941, and took its place with the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, organised in April to sweep the Hauraki Gulf to eliminate the mine menace. On 14th May, the same year, two of its vessels, HM ships Gale and Puriri, were steaming to locate and destroy a mine found in the nets of the fishing launch Pearline about eight miles from Bream Head, near Whangarei, when Puriri struck a mine, sinking immediately with the commanding officer and four ratings killed and an officer and four ratings injured. The survivors, five officers and twenty-one ratings, were rescued by Gale. The mine struck on the side of the ship near the bridge and the telegraphist aboard at the time rushed up to the radio office to find just a gaping hole there. At a resulting enquiry, blame was attributed to the senior officer of the searching ships, the commanding officer of Gale, in that an organised search was not carried out and proper charge of Puriri taken.

There this story should perhaps end, but a few years ago when travelling to Onehunga and crossing Mangere Bridge across the Manukau Harbour I was startled to see the Puriri, like a ghost ship from the past, tied up at Onehunga wharf. This was another Puriri, however, built by Henry Robb Ltd. of Leith as a replacement for the first and launched on 22nd July 1948, being actually a larger vessel of 1,248 gross tons. Having a carrying capacity of 1,000 tons, she was employed principally in carrying bulk cargoes, though did carry some general cargo and timber. The ship was employed by the Anchor Line until 1972, when the Union Steam Ship Co. Ltd. took over. In 1974 the vessel was sold to the Maldives Shipping Ltd. and renamed Maldive Pilot, under Maldive Islands registry, and resold in 1975 to Power Shipping Pty Ltd. and renamed Yellow River, and when last heard of was still sailing under that name.

Casualty List:
HMS Puriri
Lieutenant D.W. Blacklaws, RNR
Petty Officer B.A. Matson
Steward G.E.R. Hobley
Steward J Richardson
Able Seaman L. Purkin

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