IN late September 1917, with World War I grinding on toward its fourth horrific year, New Zealand was rocked by the news that German-born terrorists were planting bombs on the nation's merchant ships. Just after midnight on September 18, the freighter Port Kembla had been sunk by an explosion as it approached Wellington the seventh ship reported sunk or missing in the oceans close to New Zealand over the past two months.
Only hours after the Port Kembla's crew were pulled from their lifeboats in Port Nelson harbour, New Zealand's Minister for Marine, GW Russell, rose in Parliament to make a disturbing announcement.
"The cause of the disaster, I regret to say, was an internal explosion," the minister declared. Although he was pleased to note that no crew-member had died, Russell was clearly suggesting a bomb had gone off on the ship.
At a time of almost hysterical anti-German hatred, the news sparked an immediate outcry. The Merchant Service Guild demanded that every German-born New Zealander be imprisoned, and the New Zealand Herald urged a government crackdown on "enemy alien" immigrants and other subversives, pointing out that three other freighters the Wairuna, Matunga and Cumberland had either gone missing or been sunk since June, evidence of a "villainous hand" at work.
"The freedom given to enemy aliens has been a source of public complaint throughout the war," the newspaper editorialised.
"The subject should be dealt with in the light of the Port Kembla, the Cumberland, the Matunga and the Wairuna."
In fact, there were no bombs planted by treacherous Germans, and New Zealanders would eventually learn that their government had completely misled them. For the Port Kembla and her sister-ships had been the victim not of sabotage but of a German warship, the Wolf, whose presence off New Zealand and Australia was a secret allied governments were determined to suppress. Ninety years later, the full story of the Wolf, the first warship to attack New Zealand since white settlement, can be pieced together.
THE WOLF WAS a freighter which the German navy fitted out with a hidden arsenal of guns, torpedos and mines before dispatching her in November 1916, under the command of Captain Karl Nerger, on a suicide mission to disrupt trade in the outer reaches of the British empire. By April 1917 the raider had reached the ocean off southern New Zealand after an arduous 40,000km voyage, during which Nerger had laid minefields off South Africa and India, destroyed 10 British merchant ships and crossed the vicious roaring 40s latitudes below Australia and New Zealand.
Nerger was a fiercely disciplined skipper who fastidiously observed the rules of war at sea, which permitted him to sink enemy freighters but stipulated that all crews and passengers must remain unharmed. As a consequence, the Wolf's 350-strong crew had already been joined by 80 prisoners taken from the ships Nerger had sunk, their leader being a tough New Zealand merchant skipper named Tom Meadows, whose oil tanker had been captured off the Maldives.
Nerger's mission was so secret that he had never pulled into port nor transmitted any radio signal during the five months he had been at sea.
His ship was equipped with state-of-the-art technological trickery drop-down bulwarks hid her guns and torpedo tubes, the funnel could be adjusted in height and width, and a seaplane with a 90-mile radius was carried below-decks, ready to be launched whenever Nerger wanted to check the surrounding oceans. Despite this, the British Navy had learned of the Wolf's existence two months earlier and circulated a description of the ship to Australia and New Zealand, along with a warning that the raider could be heading to the antipodes.
The problem for New Zealand Prime Minister William Massey was that his country was essentially defenceless, because the British Navy had transferred every significant warship in the region back to European waters. HMS New Zealand a battle-cruiser which New Zealand had donated 2 million toward, and which was to have been the flagship of the Admiralty's Pacific fleet had been patrolling the North Sea since 1915.
This left the country she was named after with only the Philomel, a 28-year-old rustbucket which was moored in Wellington harbour in an unseaworthy condition. Australia's entire navy was also in the northern hemisphere, leaving the country protected by one antiquated cruiser on loan from Britain and a motley collection of torpedo boats.
The blunt-talking Massey had complained bitterly about the situation when he attended the Imperial War Conference in London in March.
New Zealand had been promised naval protection, said the Prime Minister, "and I am sorry to say, as a British citizen, and (one) who will die a British citizen, that so far as we are able to judge, there was never the slightest attempt made to keep that promise". Australian navy officials had similarly pleaded for more ships, warning that the country's eastern seaboard was at times entirely unprotected.
So when the Wolf began destroying ships off New Zealand in mid-1917, the Admiralty in London was faced with an embarrassing and potentially disastrous situation.
The Wolf's first victim was the New Zealand steamship Wairuna, which Nerger captured on June 2 near the Kermadec Islands, roughly a 1000km north-east of Auckland, where he had stopped to refit his battered ship. The Wairuna's 20-year-old Australian wireless operator, Roy Alexander, later recalled the ease with which the Germans captured their prize: the raider's biplane flew overhead and dropped a warning bomb, the Wolf herself approached with guns swung out, and the Wairuna's captain unarmed and out of wireless range surrendered immediately. The Germans came aboard, cheerfully introduced themselves and ran the kaiser's naval ensign up the flagpole.
Alexander one of 450 prisoners who would survive the Wolf's improbable 15-month voyage later confessed he came to regard the Germans as friends and regarded their captain as "one of the greatest seamen this world has known".
BY JUNE 25, the Wairuna's 46-strong crew had joined the other prisoners in the Wolf's below-deck prison hold nicknamed the Hell-Hole as the raider laid a chain of 25 mines off the north-eastern tip of New Zealand, in the shipping approaches to Auckland. Two days later Nerger laid another 36 mines in the western approaches to the Cook Strait, 140km from Wellington, then crossed the Tasman and audaciously took the Wolf within 15km of the south-east Australian coastline to lay a minefield off Gabo Island.
It did not take long for these labours to bear fruit, for on July 6 with the Wolf still due east of Sydney escaping north the Australian freighter Cumberland hit the Gabo Island minefield and was crippled and beached. What followed was a remarkable campaign of government deception that set the tone for the events which would soon unfold in New Zealand.
After censoring any mention of the Cumberland disaster for several days, Australian Navy officials announced that the freighter had been destroyed by an "internal explosion" in direct contradiction to the advice of their own divers, who were convinced the ship had struck a mine. The suggestion that pro-Hun bomb plotters had infiltrated the docks caused a sensation in Australia, where a fierce anti-German paranoia had taken hold thanks to the efforts of Prime Minister "Billy" Hughes, who claimed the country was being infiltrated by foreign-born traitors, radical pacifists and other subversives.
Although British navy officials had advised Hughes in March that the Wolf could be heading to Australia loaded with mines, he immediately announced a 2000 reward for anyone who could help track down the Cumberland's saboteurs. A feverish witch-hunt ensued, promoted by newspapers such as the Mirror and Sun, which had waged a long campaign against the "menace" of German immigrants and other foreigners.
Over succeeding weeks, several more ships were reported missing first three American sailing barques which disappeared north of New Zealand, then the Matunga, an Australian passenger freighter which had been delivering troops and supplies to the Australian military garrison in Rabaul, New Guinea.
All four had, in fact, been captured and sunk by the Wolf as she escaped toward New Guinea. But Hughes inflamed the public's fears by suggesting the Matunga had also been bombed, and when the New Zealand government announced the Port Kembla's "internal explosion", many people on both sides of the Tasman were convinced a major network of saboteurs was at work.
Declassified military files show that more than two weeks before the New Zealand government made that announcement, navy officials in Australia had advised it that a raider was probably at large, and minesweeping squadrons were being prepared. This information was withheld not only from the public but also from the official maritime inquiry into the Port Kembla disaster, which concluded that the ship was sunk by "a quantity of high explosive substance" in her forward hold.
The chief naval adviser to the New Zealand government at the time was Captain Percival Hall-Thompson, an expatriate British navy officer who worked from an office on the decommissioned Philomel in Wellington harbour.
Hall-Thompson was well aware that a raider was suspected and that warships from Australia and Japan Britain's ally in World War One were heading toward New Guinea in pursuit. In the days after the Port Kembla sinking, Australian navy officials also told him they thought it "improbable" the ship had been bombed, pointing out that it was now believed the Cumberland had struck a mine.
But Hall-Thompson released none of this information to the public and dismissed the need for any minesweepers to be dispatched to New Zealand waters. When merchant shipping officials in Wellington got wind of the raider rumours, he assured them there was not even the "smallest likelihood" that the Port Kembla had struck a mine.
"It is just possible that [a raider]... may be involved," Hall-Thompson told the Secretary of Marine, "but it is very undesirable at present, in the public interest, that any details as to the amount and description of the knowledge in the possession of the Naval Authority should be revealed."
These deceptions continued the following month when an official inquiry into the Wairuna disappearance was held in Auckland.
During the hearings, Crown lawyers accused the ship's owner, the Union Steamship Company, of "extraordinary laxity" in failing to perform character checks on stevedores loading cargo on to the ship, then requested that the inquiry be held in closed session to discuss evidence of "enemy action" within New Zealand. The inquiry subsequently concluded it was probable the Wairuna had been sunk by a bomb.
BY OCTOBER 1917 the New Zealand government had already imprisoned several hundred Germans in an internment camp on Somes Island immigrant labourers, wharfies, cooks, musicians and sheep farmers regarded as potential threats to national security. Under pressure from organisations such as the Anti-German League and newspapers such as Truth, the government now enacted legislation banning anyone of "enemy extraction" from working on the New Zealand wharves.
In Australia, the Hughes government had continued to promote its theories of bomb plots, even offering an extraordinary 5000 reward for information on the Port Kembla's "saboteurs". Those claims continued even after the government was forced to admit, in mid-October, that navy minesweepers had discovered a minefield off Gabo Island. The minefield was immediately blamed on "German agents", and the Navy Minister, Joseph Cook, urged the public to "bend all its energies" to the task of hunting down German spies.
Remarkably, Captain Percival Hall-Thompson had just told his superiors in London that minesweeping off New Zealand "hardly appears necessary" an assessment that proved ill-timed, for three days later a floating mine was reported off Wellington Harbour. Ordered to initiate mine-sweeping, Hall-Thompson began a hapless search for suitable ships to be fitted out for the task. It would be five months before the first of these converted fishing boats was dispatched into Cook Strait.
By then the Australian and New Zealand navies had received final confirmation that the Wolf was responsible for the minefields, for against all odds the raider had made it back to Germany in February, 1918, laden with nearly 800 crew and prisoners after completing a remarkable 102,000km voyage around the world without once pulling into port.
But neither Hall-Thompson nor his superiors were prepared to admit that the Wolf was responsible for the mines, or confirm the size of the minefields. As a result, the public, the press and even some merchant seamen remained confused about the mines and their exact location. Newspapers continued to suggest German agents were involved, and Hall-Thompson's minesweepers did not reach the northern cape until May.
On June 27, 1918, the steamship Wimmera, carrying 75 passengers and 76 crew, sailed past the minesweepers and struck a mine off the cape just after dawn. Twenty-six people drowned, two of them children, when the boat sank.
During an inquiry into the tragedy, shipping officials admitted that the Wimmera's captain, William Kell, had been using a shipping route well-travelled by other ships in previous weeks, and Captain Percival Hall-Thompson acknowledged that his shipping warning advised that mines were "not a menace to navigation".
But Hall-Thompson insisted that Kell had failed to heed a warning to stay within the 100-fathom line. The tragedy was thus blamed on Kell, who was unable to offer a defence, having drowned after making sure most of his passengers reached the lifeboats.
Roy Alexander, wireless operator of the Wairuna and survivor of the Wolf's voyage, later accused New Zealand and Australian navy officials of "an incapacity so hopeless that it remains almost incredible". For his part. Percival Hall-Thompson enjoyed a long career in the Royal Navy after his unhappy tenure in New Zealand, and was later promoted to admiral.
An extract from The Wolf How One German Raider Terrorised Australia and the Southern Oceans in the First World War by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen, William Heinemann, $34.95.
- Sunday Star Times
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