1940: Rangitane sunk

Liner Rangitane

New Zealand Shipping Company liner Rangitane

RMS Rangitane (callsign GBWX) was a 16,712-ton liner owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company. Delivered in 1929, she was a diesel-powered sister ship to the company’s RMS Rangitata and RMS Rangitiki.

Rangitane left Auckland on Sunday 24 November 1940, en route to Britain via the Panama Canal. Under the command of Captain HL Upton, she carried 111 passengers and 201 crew, plus 14,000 tons of cargo, including foodstuffs and silver bullion valued at over £2 million at 1940 prices.

Early on the morning of 27 November, Rangitane was intercepted 300 miles east of New Zealand by the German raiders Komet and Orion and their support ship Kulmerland.

Two days earlier, these warships (disguised as merchant vessels) had sunk SS Holmwood, 27 miles west of the Chatham Islands. Under orders from the Germans, Holmwood had not sent a distress signal, so her fate wasn’t know until she was reported overdue a week later.

Komet was commanded by Captain Robert Eyssen and Orion by Captain Kurt Weyher.

The Germans signalled Rangitane to stop and not to transmit anything. Following standard Admiralty instructions, however, Captain Upton ordered Third Radio Officer Norman to transmit QQQ (“suspicious vessel”). As soon as the Germans heard the wireless transmission, they began jamming the signals and shelling Rangitane, destroying the main radio transmitter.

Chief Radio Officer Hallett (from Wellington, New Zealand) and Second Radio Officer Ward activated the emergency transmitter and sent the message RRR (“raider attack”) along with their ship’s position, which was received and relayed by New Zealand coast stations.

Captain Eyssen of Komet recorded in his diary for the 27th November that at:

0324 hours Wellington Radio (ZLW) acknowledged the radio messages from the steamship

then at:

0327 hours Awarua (ZLB) also acknowledged the messages from the steamship


Once he knew that the distress signals had been received in New Zealand, Captain Upton ordered his ship’s surrender. The shelling had caused widespread fires and some casualties and, with her steering damaged, Rangitane’s escape would be unlikely.

Sixteen people – eight passengers and eight crew – died as a result of the attack, including those who died later of their injuries. The survivors – 296 passengers and crew – were taken across to the German ships by lifeboats.

Knowing that Rangitane’s distress signals had been received, the Germans were desperate to leave the area before Allied aircraft arrived. Rangitane was clearly on fire and sinking, nevertheless Komet fired a torpedo into the liner and Rangitane listed quickly to port before sinking at 6:30 am.

The flying boat Aotearoa ZK-AMA, was the first Allied aircraft on the scene at about 2:30 pm, but found only an oil slick and debris. A subsequent air search missed the raiders.

Map of search for Holmwood and Rangitane

This map shows the paths of the ships and aircraft deployed after the attacks on Holmwood and Rangitane. It comes from a larger Central War Room Report. Source: Archives NZ

German treatment of their prisoners was humane and as good as could be expected in the crowded conditions, and those who died were given proper funerals. The number of prisoners aboard the German ships caused concern to the German commanders and they decided to release most of them on the tiny island of Emirau, off New Guinea, from which they were rescued on 29 December. The remainder, mostly of military age, were transported back to German-occupied Bordeaux in France and eventually to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany.

Rangitane was the largest Allied merchant ship to be sunk by a German surface vessel during the Second World War.

Evening Post, 4 January 1941, p 8


Capt HL Upton

Captain HL Upton

Captain HL Upton, DSC, RD, ADC, RNR, who was in command of the Rangitane, is one of the best-known and most popular officers serving on the New Zealand Shipping Company’s line, and his career is long and distinguished.

Joining the company as an apprentice from the training ship Worcester in 1902, Captain Upton has since served on most of the company’s vessels and commanded several.

Captain Upton is a senior ranking captain in the Royal Naval Reserve and is also an aide-de-camp to the King. Serving with the Navy during the Great War, he was for some time in command of minesweepers and was engaged in this work off the French coast for some months after the conclusion of hostilities. For his services during this period he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

A married man, Captain Upton’s home is in Hove, a suburb of Brighton, England. He has one son who, before the war, was a junior officer in the New Zealand Shipping Company.

Evening Post, 3 January 1941, p 8


The New Zealand Shipping Company’s 17,000-ton motor-liner Rangitane, one of the ships sunk by the raiders, carried 111 passengers and a crew of 201. Among her passengers were 22 men and women who had acted as escorts for British children sent to Australia 14 stewards and 13 stewardesses from a Polish ship, and 20 members of the crew of another British ship who were returning to Britain.

The following passengers were on board the Rangitane:

First Class.

Mr and Mrs WH Stuart.

Tourist Class.

Mr PD Allan, Miss C Alston, the Rev ER Ball, Miss DA Beeston, Miss MR Black, Mr WC Brown, Mr A Cameron, Miss FK Child, Mrs ABR Clothier, Miss EL da Costa, Mr WA Daley, Mrs EM Davies, Mr JY Dixon, Miss ME Dunsmuir, Miss G Edge, Mr ARE Fox, Miss RE Golding, Mr S Gough, Mr BN Harden, Miss EE Herbert-Jones, Mr FIR Hunt, Mr AF Jones, Father DJ Kelly, Mr HM Kimberley, Mr HR Lewis, Miss PM Matthews, Mr W Menzies, Miss FEN Mundie, Mr JD Murray, Mr AG McDonald, Miss F Macdonald, Miss ME Osborne, Mr PS Parker, Miss EM Pearson, Miss B Sandbach, Miss AU Scott, Mr IJ Shaw, Mr KW Shearer, Mr GFS Sommerville, Mrs MEM Sutcliffe-Hey, Mr A Tocher, Miss AA Willis, Mr H Wilson.

Tourist B Class.

Mr B Baryla, Mr J Bieniaszczyk, Mr J Bolenski, Mrs A Borkowska, Mr FC Briggs, Mrs MH Burn, Mr CR Connolly, Mr H Cookson, Mr W Corcoran, Mr W Czajowski, Mrs J Daramoniec, Mr JH Dark, Mr HM Dowding, Mr B Dynarkowski, Mr J Engel, Mr F Fagan, Mr BG Fitzsimons, Mr T Garnett, Miss M Gorecka, Mr K Grajewski, Mr L Grimes, Mr D Handley, Mr EHL Hawkhead, Mr AA Haworth, Mr AE Hayer, Mr TA Hooper, Mr BM Huggett, Mr F Jackson, Mr J Jastrzybski, Mrs JJM Jeffery, Mr JA King, Mr JR King, Miss M Klos, Mr AG Kofoed, Mrs M Korek, Mrs A Labanowicz, Mrs A Lorenc, Miss S Maslinska, Mr AC Millar, Mr F McComish, Mr DIN MacLean, Miss KH McLean, Mr H Nawraccala, Mr R Navarkowski, Mr TS Newland, Mr WM Panton, Mrs L Pilcek, Miss P Podgorska, Miss M Pratzerowa, Mr W Quenalt, Mr JH Roberts, Mr J Smith, Mr RO Schmidt, Mr H Schneider, Mr H Shaw, Miss H Stolecka, Mr N Strawinski, Mr T Smith, Mr J Thomas, Miss M Tomczak, Mr D Trend, Mr EJ Voss, Mr W Wallis, Mr AGR Williams, Mr J Wilmowicz, Mr M Zawada.


Apart from passengers, many of whom were New Zealanders, several members of the Rangitane’s crew had their homes in the Dominion.

The complement of the Rangitane included the following additional to the names published yesterday:


Mr N Hallett, first radio officer; Mr F Ward, second radio officer; Mr G Norman, third radio officer; Messrs M Scott, J Stewart, P Barker, H Robinson, A Macdonald, J Snowden, C Carrothers, J Walker, R Woolacott, F Rees, E Phillips, H Young, L Vallerie, R Winn, T Francis, R Smith, F Miles, C Maynard, W Jenner, L Bass, D McBride, A Griffin, A Mason, D Macky, P Fanning, J Reilly, J McNulty, J MacLaughlin, F Harrington, F Hall, T Hughes, J Hobbs, J Kennedy, J Gorman, J Corcoran, R Watkin, F Kingsford, G Wilson, DF Windridge.


Mr J Johnston, chief electrician; Mr D Sinclair, second electrician; Mr J Almond, third electrician; Messrs S Strickfuss, W Moore, R Findlay, J Rowe, F Strickfuss, E Hogarth, W Stanford, SH Strickfuss, D Healy, F Pybis, A Cheeseman, J Cook, P Hutchison, W Hogg, M Ragg, K Lock, RL Bowering.


Mr EM Maunghan, steward in charge; Mr H Anker, head steward; Messrs V Lawrence, P Woods, F Norrington, W Collison, E Turner, B McMahon, E Cannan, T Bourgoing, H Barnes, G Galloway, G Lake, J Hales, F Howells, J McDuff, J Mahoney, L Eaglestone, J Lyng, W Francis, W Thompson, R Thorpe, JJ Hall, H Kerr, C Dean, J Dye, W Rouse, P Zerface, C Carpenter, S Clarke, A Summers, R Moore, H Knight, A Becker, C Pring, J Hunt, S Glew, A Norton, G Hardacre, H Scott, E Groombridge, T Lacey, J Hayes, J Henderson, F Harris, J Adams, V Vanner, J Edwards, A Dowsett, E Shearing, A Riomme, C Ray, E Heels, W Burn, J Woods, H Adams, D Tasker, D Smillie, W Parrott, A Dixson, T Forster, B Robins, D Jefferson, A Mills, A Green, W Wetherill, H Hamilton, C Gellatly, W Small, H Potts, J McCarthy, J Cavanagh, W Bryan, J Claridge, P Cunningham, F Smith, L Sowerby, J Cuthbertson, L Bell, H Price, T Pritchard, J Pegler, J Brabbins, D Hird, W Ashcroft, J Sheehan, R Knowles, J Hanson, F Clint, W Courtney, C Henderson, WM Evans, J White, J Grogan, F Rogers, P Grey, T Muller, W Nottley, P McMurray, F McCristall, A Jenkins, D Moriarty, J Houligan, F Ellison, R Cowan, N Jeffery, F Pithers, S Hankin, G Harrison, J Porter, J Finn, R Jarvis, A Cain.


E Plumb, C Costella, J Skinner, J Balding, G Perry, R Mannington.

Nursing sister.

C Harries.

The chief officer, Mr Hopkins, is married and his home is in Hamilton Road, Ponsonby, Auckland. His wife is a daughter of the late Sir Henry Buckleton. Mr Williams, the second officer, and his wife live at Port Chalmers, and Mr Hallett, first radio engineer, has his home in Wellington. Mr Taylor, fourth officer of the Rangitane, has a brother who occupied the corresponding post in the Turakina. Neither has been mentioned among the casualties.

As mentioned by the Prime Minister in his broadcast on New Year’s Eve, the following were killed on the Rangitane:

Passengers: Miss Scott, Miss Beeston, Mrs Davies, Miss Herbert-Jones, Mr Tocker, Mr DY Dixon.

Crew: W Moore, P Strickfuss, SH Strickfuss, Miss Skinner (stewardess). In addition, Mrs Costella, stewardess, is missing and believed dead.

Read more about the German attacks on merchant shipping in the South Pacific