1941: Inquiry criticises Holmwood captain

Evening Post, 1 April 1941, p 8


The Commission’s report covers 19 printed foolscap pages, and is made to his Excellency the Governor-General. The whole of the numerous written statements made and signed by survivors from the captured ships after they reached New Zealand were examined by the Commission, and, in addition, 34 of the survivors appeared before the Commission. Fifty-nine other witnesses also came before the Commission, these witnesses including senior officers of the Navy, Army, and Air Force, the Police, Post and Telegraph Department, Censorship Department, Railway Department, External Marketing Department, and the Broadcasting Services. “In short,” the report states, “wherever our own knowledge or communications from members of the public have suggested to us that what is done or neglected in any particular matter might lead to the enemy possessing information about the movements of shipping, we have used our powers to discover by sworn evidence what precisely is happening as to such matters.” Reference is also made to help received from private citizens.

The Commission deals first with the loss of the Holmwood, 247 tons net, which left Waitangi, in the Chatham Islands, at 2.30 am on November 25, 1940, bound for Lyttelton, carrying a cargo, which included live sheep. At 8 a.m. that day she was overtaken and stopped by three German raiders. Of these, the ship known as the Manyo Maru made the closest approach to the Holmwood, and actually stopped her. This ship showed Japanese colours until she was quite close. What colours, if any, the other ships showed, the Commission says, does not appear to have been observed, and may not have been observable.


The Commission comes to the conclusion that each of the three ships must have been visible when it was substantially more than 5 1/2 miles from the Holmwood, and must have been visibly overtaking the Holmwood for a considerable time before the Holmwood was stopped at 8 am.

The Holmwood had wireless, but made no attempt to use it. The evidence, in the Commission’s opinion, did not warrant any definite conclusion as to whether any raider fired any shot.

It was clearly established that, after the capture, the Germans claimed that they had been waiting for the Holmwood, that their meeting with her was designed and not accidental, and that their purpose was to obtain a supply of fresh meat, which, in fact, was obtained. It was also clear that they claimed to have intercepted certain
wireless messages as to the Holmwood which had passed between the Chatham Islands and the mainland, and that they manifested an accurate knowledge of the contents of some of these messages. This, however, did not finally establish that the capture of the Holmwood was designed.


“Mr McMahon, the Chatham Islands postmaster and wireless operator, who was returning to the mainland on the Holmwood,” the report continues, “says that records of all wireless messages which had passed between the Chathams and Wellington from November 8 to 23 were on board the Holmwood as part of the mail. His theory is that the Germans acquired their knowledge of the contents of these messages from a perusal of the captured mail, that their claim to have actually intercepted wireless messages is false, and that, contrary to what the Germans asserted, their meeting with the Holmwood was purely fortuitous. While, upon the evidence, it is impossible to reject Mr McMahon’s theories, in our opinion, the probabilities are against them. This much, however, is plain, and, in our opinion, should be recorded:—

“1. A number of radio messages passed between New Zealand and the Chathams in clear uncoded language which, if they were intercepted, must have assisted the enemy to knowledge of the intended movements of the Holmwood. The practice, both in New Zealand and at the Chathams, appears to have been to code messages which actually mentioned a ship’s name or a sailing date, but to send in clear language other messages from which fairly accurate knowledge of an intended sailing date could be inferred.

“2. The master of the Holmwood and the Lyttelton agent of the owners used a private code word ‘Confirming’ which meant ‘Have arrived.’ This was a dangerous practice and was contrary to the regulations.

“3. Some time before the final voyage of the Holmwood some unrecorded conversation in Morse took place by wireless between Mr McMahon and a wireless operator in New Zealand relative to the furniture of the officer who was shortly to relieve McMahon. This unrecorded conversation may have included some reference to probable future sailing dates. In our opinion, any use of wireless in wartime of which no official record is kept is dangerous, and stringent precautions should be taken that nothing of this kind recurs. There is no ground for thinking that this particular conversation aided the raiders, but we are concerned to condemn the occurrence as one which should not have happened, and should not happen again.


“4. The nature of the then recent wireless messages to and from the Chathams was investigated by the naval authorities after, and in consequence of, the loss of the Holmwood; and on January 9, 1941, consequent upon representations made by them, it was decided that in future all wireless messages to and from the Chathams be in code. In our opinion, the continuance of this precaution during wartime is absolutely necessary, and there should be no relaxation of it or exception to it during the duration of the war.

“5. The fact that the Germans questioned Captain Miller and McMahon as to the meaning of a coded message from the Chathams on November 25 appears to settle that the code in use at the time of the loss of the Holmwood, where code was used at all, had not then been compromised.

“6. But if it is the practice to send the text of all wireless messages back to New Zealand by regular mail service, and if this record gives the clear language of messages sent in code, we think such a practice dangerous and undesirable. If a raider captures the clear language of messages he had already intercepted in code, he may be provided with the key to the code. In any event, and as a further precautionary measure, all codes used should be changed from time to time.


The report then deals with the evidence relating to the fact that no attempt was made to use the wireless apparatus on the Holmwood. In common with other masters, the report states, Captain Miller had received a series of Admiralty instructions as to the sending of a wireless message relative to suspicious ships.

“In our opinion,” the Commission says, “these instructions make it clear to anyone who reads them that the primary purpose of the message is not the preservation or rescue of the ship which sends the message, but the prompt discovery and destruction of the raider, that this primary purpose should be pursued even at the expense of the ship to which falls the opportunity of sending the message, that there is a duty to be vigilant in the discovery of other ships, and to be prompt in entertaining suspicion, and that as soon as there is any ground for suspicion, the sending of the wireless message should be attempted regardless of the consequences to the ship which sends or attempts the message.”


The Commission holds that the evidence establishes that the Holmwood stopped at 8 am, by which time the nearest raider was not more than one mile away, and that, having regard to the weather conditions and consequent visibility, the raider should have been seen from the Holmwood’s bridge when it was 10 miles from the Holmwood. Further, the Commission finds that at least 45 minutes would elapse before the raider could reduce a distance of 10 miles to a distance of one mile, and, that in its opinion this minimum period of 45 minutes which must have elapsed was more than sufficient for discovering the vessel, for suspecting the vessel, and for sending a wireless message.

Reference is made to the absence at different times from the bridge of the second officer (Mr Clarke) and the helmsman (Mr McLeod) for the purpose of attending to the livestock the ship was carrying, but the Commission says it is not disposed to blame either Mr Clarke or the helmsman for the defective manner in which the lookout was kept during their absences from the bridge. They appeared, the report continues, to have acted in accordance with practices which had become usual on small ships similar to the Holmwood. Nor could the Commission say with confidence that either of these absences caused delay in discovering the presence of the raider. The Commission, however, considered it to be its duty to say that in wartime such practices were dangerous on any ship. In the Commission’s opinion—

1. No ship which went to sea was entitled to assume that the portion of the sea in which it voyaged was immune from the menace of enemy raiders;

2. It was consequently the duty of every ship, both to itself and other shipping, to maintain in every direction continuous lookout with the utmost vigilance so as to ensure that it would discover any other ship as soon as it became visible; and 3. This duty was paramount and overrode all peacetime practices and considerations of mere convenience.

The evidence showed that Mr Walsh, national president of the Federated Seamen’s Union, agreed that such a duty existed, and that its performance was feasible.

It was plain that the second officer did not call the captain as soon as he saw the ship. In the Commission’s opinion, he should have done so, and his failure to do so increased the captain’s difficulties. Nevertheless the Commission expresses the opinion that the captain had ample time to realise that the wireless message should be sent, and to attempt to send it.


Captain Miller had put forward the contention that it would have been useless to send the message, because his wireless set could not reach New Zealand and because the Chathams’ wireless station would not be open till 9 am. For the following reasons the Commission states that it is unable to accept this explanation:—

1. It is not established that the set could not reach New Zealand. On the contrary, the weight of evidence is distinctly against that view, and suggests that any difficulty experienced with the set in pre-wartime was due to faulty manipulation. It had been passed by the Post and Telegraph Department as recently as June, 1940.

2. Even if the set could not reach New Zealand, or if Captain Miller thought it could not, he could not be sure that a message might not reach some other ship.

3. If he thought his set insufficient to reach New Zealand, he should not have been travelling with it without complaint to his owners. And he had made no such complaint.

“It seems to us,” the report proceeds, “that Captain Miller lost valuable time in endeavouring to decipher a flag message exhibited by an alleged Japanese ship, the bona fides of which he then suspected, or should have suspected. During this time, or earlier, he should have been sending his wireless message. We recognise his difficulties were increased by the circumstance that he was himself the wireless signaller and that to send the message he would have to leave his post on the bridge at a moment when he felt the captain should be in charge. In this respect he was at a disadvantage compared with the masters of the Rangitane and the Komata, each of whom had a wireless operator, or operators. Further, it is not reasonable to expect of a master the technical skill of a specialist wireless operator; and it is a natural human weakness to he slow in attempting strange duties. But, though we think it fair to mention these matters, we are clear that they do not excuse Captain Miller’s failure to attempt the sending of the wireless message. He should have realised that this was by far the most urgent of his duties. He alone could do it. Others could have read the flag signal or have destroyed the confidential papers.”


The report at this point mentions the gazetting after the sitting of the Commission began of the Shipping Radio Emergency Regulations, 1941, one of the objects of which appeared to be to provide, so far as was reasonably possible in each particular case, for the carriage of a wireless operator or operators who would be free from other duties. How far it would be found possible to go in this direction, the Commission comments, must depend on the supply of operators available. Even under the new regulations it might sometimes prove difficult to avoid a situation in which the captain or some officer was the only wireless operator.

The report next refers to evidence that an International Convention to which New Zealand was a party was infringed, because the New Zealand authorities should have compelled the Holmwood to carry an operator possessing a higher certificate than Captain Miller, and who was free to keep hours of wireless service scheduled in the Convention which Captain Miller, in view of his other duties as master, could not keep. The Commission commends to the attention of the authorities the question whether the continuation upon a ship trading with the Chathams of the wireless arrangements which existed on the Holmwood would be in accordance with the International Conventions to which New Zealand is a party. “But, in our view,” the Commission adds, “if it ever happens that the captain is the only person who can send the wireless message, then when the position arises that the message should be sent he should leave his post on the bridge to send it.”


The Commission states that it is fully aware that any attempt to send a message would have brought about the shelling of the Holmwood, and that this might have meant heavy loss of life, including the lives of women and children.

“But,” the Commission adds, “having regard to the methods of warfare with which we are faced, that consideration is irrelevant. Loss of civilian lives must be faced in an effort to locate and destroy raiders. This should be realised by persons who travel by sea, and by the parents of children who travel by sea; and, lest the cool, prompt judgment of masters be hampered at critical moments, there should, we suggest, be no unnecessary passenger traffic.

“In this particular case it must be recorded that the consequences of Captain Miller’s failure to send the wireless message were, in all probability, serious. In our opinion, had the message been attempted, it would probably have reached New Zealand, or if the enemy had attempted to jam the message this jamming would have been heard in New Zealand. The evidence of Commodore Parry establishes that the receipt of such a message in New Zealand would have resulted in the recall of the Rangitane, which had left her anchorage off Rangitoto at about 5.30 o’clock that morning. Having regard to the position then existing, it is also clear that the receipt of a message from the Holmwood would have given the Navy certain advantages in searching for the raiders which did not exist at a later date.”