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Enemy Attack on Shipping at Nauru - December-1940.
By Captain J.M. Stott

Back to Vinni's story

What follows has been transcribed from original documents received from K. H. Henriksen, Norway, whose grandfather was the captain of Vinni. Obtained from Finn Stensvik, one of Vinni's crew members, who in turn received it from The British Phosphate Commissioners in Apr.-1973.

More details on the incidents discussed below can be found via the external links provided at the end of this page.

On 19th June, 1940 the passenger vessel Nigara (given as Niagara in most sources), which had sailed from Auckland early that morning bound for Suva, struck and exploded two mines in the fairway near Moko Hinau lighthouse and sank, without loss of life, in seventy fathoms of water. (See Victims of Orion and external links at the end of this page).

The war had been in progress for nine and half months and this was the first indication of the presence of a German raider in the Pacific.

On 20th August, the New Zealand Shipping Company's Turakina was intercepted by a German suface raider between Sydney and Wellington (see link to "Victims of Orion" above). When ordered to stop, Turakina engaged the enemy vessel with her single 4.7 inch gun but was soon sunk with the loss of 34 officers and men. There were 20 survivors.

The small steamer Holmwood, 546 tons, was sunk between Chatham Islands and Lyttelton on 25th November (by Komet - see Vinni's story and external link to Komet at end of this page). Forty eight hours later, the New Zealand Shipping Company's passenger vessel Rangitani (this should probably be Rangitane - again, see "Victims of Orion") was attcked and sunk 300 miles east of Auckland. She carried 111 passengers and a crew of 200 and was bound from Auckland to the United Kingdom. Five passengers and five crew members were killed and a number were wounded (ref. external link at the end of this page for more on this incident).

On the morning of Sunday 8th December, four ships were drifting off Nauru in the westerly weather conditions which had prevailed since the end of November. Triaster had arrived on 2nd, had landed Nauru passengers but had been unable to discharge the small quantity of cargo brought from Newcastle. Ocean Island passengers were still on board. Triadic had arrived on 6th and was awaiting suitable conditions to land her passengers. Two other ships, Ditlev Simonsen's Vinni and the Union Steamship Company's Komata were waiting to load. A fifth ship, Triona was expected at Nauru sometime that day.

At 4 a.m., Triaster, drifting 20 miles to the west of the Island, started her engines and set a course towards the Southern end of Nauru. It was intended to arrive off the Boat Harbour at daybreak a procedure which had been followed each morning since arrival. Each morning, so far, the ship had been greeted by the signal "return at 0600 hours" flashed by morse light from the Harbour Master's signal station. Judging from the Weather, it appeared likely that the same signal would be repeated once again. The sky was overcast with frequent rain squalls from the West. Visibility was poor to moderate.

During wartime, allied ships were required to follow certain defensive procedures. These included a black-out which prohibited the showing of any lights, including navigation lights. In consequence, no other ships were visible to Triaster as she steamed towards the Island. All that could be seen, when the rain squalls permitted, was the fixed white light on top of the Nauru radio mast.

Triaster had steamed for about an hour when flashes were seen ahead. These were followed several seconds later by the sounds of gunfire. Triaster turned about at once and proceeded at top speed to the Eastward. Astern a glow, apparently coming from a vessel on fire, could be seen. This continued to get brighter, in spite of the increasing distance between the two ships.

Triaster had steamed for about 10 miles when, in the first light of dawn, a ship was sighted astern. Soon afterwards the other vessel opened fire on Triaster forcing her to stop. A large motor launch was lowered from the enemy vessel which was later identified as Orion. Triaster's crew were taken aboard the German vessel and there met survivors from Triona which had been sunk on 6th December. Three members of the crew had been killed by gunfire. Her passengers, six women and one child, were taken aboard the German ship before Triona was sunk by a torpedo.

The shellfire seen from Triaster that morning had been directed at Triadic which was also steaming towards the Island. She had been attacked without warning by Orion in the darkness. The raider switched on her search lights as she opened fire. The first shell struck Triadic's foremast and brought down the topped up port derrick. The Chief Engineer, awakened by the explosion and thinking it came from the engine room, left his cabin hurriedly to investigate, missing by seconds the second shell which passed through his room and exploded, starting a fire. Several passengers in their cabins on the deck above miraculously escaped serious injury. Only one casualty occurred in this area, a boy being hit in the leg by a piece of shrapnel. The third shell hit the funnel and the fourth exploded in the steering compartment near the stern, killing a man working there.

It was learned subsequently that two other ships had been sunk. Ditlev Simonsen's Vinni on the 7th and the Union Steamship Company's Komata on the 8th, both within sight of Nauru (again, see Vinni's story). It was also learned that three enemy vessels, two raiders and one supply ship, had taken part in the Nauru attack. Orion, which had sunk Triadic and Triaster, was the first raider to operate in the Pacific and had been responsible for the laying of mines off Auckland and for the sinking of Turakina. Orion left Germany in April 1940, and after sinking the British steamer Haxby East of Bermuda, steamed South and entered the Pacific via Cape Horn. She was formerly the Kurmark of 7,021 tons, speed 15 knots and owned by the Hamburg America Line. Her armament consisted of six 5.9 inch guns, one 3 inch gun, six light anti-aircraft guns and six torpedo tubes. She also carried an Arado seaplane.

The second raider Komet was smaller than Orion, but faster. Formerly the Ems of Norddeutscher Lloyd, built in 1937 and of 3,287 tons gross, she carried six 5.9 inch guns, nine anti-aircraft guns and ten torpedo tubes. She carried an Arado seaplane and had a complement of 270 Officers and men. Komet left Gdynia in Poland in July, 1940 and passing North of Norway and Russia, entered the Pacific via Bering Strait through which she passed on 5th September. Komet was assisted during her transit of the Northwest passage by Russian ice breakers.

The third vessel, Kulmerland 7,363 tons gross was unarmed and acted as a supply ship to the raiders. She had sailed from Kobe and was disguised as a Japanese ship bearing the name Tokyo Maru. The raider Komet bore the name Manyo Maru and flew Japanese colours except when going into action when the German flag was flown.

Had conditions been favourable for them, it seems likely that the Germans would have attempted a landing with the object of destroying the Island phosphate handling plant and the power house. Weather conditions, however, made any such attempt impracticable and after sinking the ships off Nauru the three German vessels left for Ailinglapalap in the Marshall Islands. On board the German ships were 675 prisoners; 265 in Orion, 153 on Komet and 257 (including 52 women and 6 children) on Kulmerland.

At Ailinglapalap, Komet refuelled from Kulmerland after which the three ships proceeded to Emirau in the Bismarch Archipeligo arriving there on 21st December. Within a few hours the raiders landed 343 European and 171 Chinese and Native prisoners on the Island. Rear Admiral Eyssen, commanding Komet, landed all his prisoners, but Captain Weyher of Orion refused to land any European prisoners from his ship. He maintained that "trained officers and crews are as much a problem for Britain as shipping itself."

The Germans left supplies of food and a lifeboat. They stipulated that the boat should not be used for 24 hours when it could go to Kavieng for assistance. Two white planters and their families on the Island did everything possible for the women and children until they ambarked on Nellore on 29th December. The Emirau survivors were landed at Townsville on 1st January and then taken by special trains to Brisbane and Sydney. (Again, see Vinni's story for details on life on the island and info on the rescue).

After landing their prisoners the three ships left Emirau and separated. Komet, after an abortive attempt to mine the entrance to Rabaul Harbour, steamed to Nauru and on 27th December shelled the phosphate and oil storage units and the loading cantilever. Over 200 shells were fired and serious damage was done to the installation. Before opening fire, Komet gave warning of her intentions and no injury or loss of life resulted from the attack.

Meanwhile Kulmerland proceeded to Japan arriving there on 31st December. Orion arrived at the Caroline Islands on 31st December 1940. On 5th January, 1941 the ship Ermland arrived there from Japan and Orion's 183 prisoners were transferred aboard her at the Island of Lamotrek (these included the crew of the Norwegian Ringwood). The German ships left Lamotrek on 7th January. On 9th Ermland parted from Orion and left for Europe via Cape Horn. In the South Atlantic she met the pocket battleship Admiral von Scheer and took on board 148 additional prisoners from ships sunk in South African waters. Ermland arrived in Bordeaux on 3rd April and landed her prisoners. After two weeks in Bordeaux the prisoners were taken to Germany where most of them remained until May, 1945. B.P.C. prisoners totalled 36, Triaster 15 (including 1 passenger) Triona 10, Triadic 11.

Orion returned to Germany in August 1941 after a cruise of 510 days during which she steamed 112,337 miles. Komet arrived back in Germany on 30th November, 1941 after 515 days and travelling 86,998 miles. She left on a second cruise in October 1942 but was sunk by British destroyers in the English Channel soon after starting out. Over nineteen months of operations, the two raiders sunk seventeen ships totalling 114,118 tons. All but two of these ships were sunk in the Pacific.

The attack on Nauru Island and the sinking of three B.P.C. vessels including both mooring ships, seriously disrupted phosphate supplies to Australia and New Zealand.

(For more information on the above events, please follow the external links provided at the end of this page).

Crew lists for 3 B.P.C. ships:
A. Rhodes
J. Hughes
*J. Callender
J. M. Stott
J. Semmens
*C. Lowe
V. Wilson
C. Evans
C. Biss
J. Fowles
F. Sutton
S. Young
S. Kersey
J. Bowran
W. McFarlane
J. Douglas
G. Taylor
D. Singleton
H. Wilson
A. McKinna
J. Charlesworth
K. Godridge
I. Bryce
*W. Halliday
B. Spencer
G. Kersey
S. Dockendorff
V. Marks
A. McDonald
*J. Muir
J. Armstrong
W. Croft
R. Rees
R. Swan
Ch. Steward
W. P. Robinson
A. Roger
N. Dennis
H. Enscoe
K. Reid
J. Fraser
* Landed at Emirau Island
P.O.W. Germany
(including passenger J. Fraser
For a total of 36
Position of islands mentioned:
7 32N 169 05E
20 05N 145 10E
1 30S 150 00E

Related external links:
German Raiders of the Pacific - More information on the incidents discussed above, w/many pictures (keep clicking on "next section" at the bottom of the page). From New Zealand Electronic Text Centre. Here's a table of contents.

RMS Rangitane - A website about the sinking of this ship. Includes a crew and passenger list.

Orion - Ship 36 - Has a lot of information on this ship, its voyages and captures ("Mac's Web Log").

Komet - Ship 45 - Another section of site above (her voyages and victims).

The "Komet" Raider - Quite a bit of info. (The main page has links to many interesting stories).

More Komet - Includes and account of her captures, as well as Orion's voyages and victims.

Back to Vinni's story

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