1941: Captain Upton recalls attack on Rangitane

Evening Post, 6 January 1941, p 8


(By Trans-Tasman Air Mail, from “The Post’s” Representative.)
SYDNEY, January 4

All the evidence of survivors from the British liner Rangitane, sunk by enemy raiders 320 miles off New Zealand on November 27, show that the shelling and sinking of the ship provide one of the most ghastly incidents of the war.

Six women killed and another fatally wounded were among the dead as the result of the shelling. Some of the survivors, including women and children, lived for weeks in the prison ships in agony from wounds. Some had lost limbs. Some still wore splints and bandages when they reached Australia. Many are penniless, have lost all their belongings, and were wearing rags when they landed. The food they were given on the raiders was described as abominable, and washing and sanitary arrangements were disgusting.

Captain HL Upton, master of the Rangitane, in an interview, said that at least one of the raiders carried torpedoes and that New Zealand planes which went out to search were seen by the raider, but did not see it.

“When I sighted the raiders before dawn on November 27,” said Captain Upton, “I ordered the wireless officer to send out a message, ‘Sighted suspicious vessel.’ The raiders fired on us as soon as we wirelessed. I then told the chief officer to prepare the stern gun for action. They had their searchlights trained on us from either side. Their first shots put the wireless out of action while the wireless operator, F Norman, was sending out the message.


“I then ordered the chief operator, N Hallett, and his assistant, G Ward, to radio that we were being fired on by a raider, and to give our position. They put the emergency set into action, and with the greatest calmness began to send out the message while the raiders fired on us in an effort to stop them. In the meantime, Norman remained at his post, trying to repair the main set. The chief officer rang to say that the gun was ready for action, but fearing that we would be torpedoed, and knowing that we had got the message away, I told him to hold his fire, but if they continued shelling we would go into action and fight until we sank.

“By then the ship was badly battered. The telegraph from the bridge had been blown away, and she was on fire below. The behaviour of the ship’s passengers and crew was wonderful. All engineer officers were standing to at their posts in the engine-room, and the doctor, aided by stewards and nurses, was dealing with wounded.

“The shelling began at 3.47 am. At 3.59, when my operators had sent out our position, I ordered the engines to be stopped. The shelling continued for three more minutes. The bridge was wrecked, and the glare of the raiders’ searchlights made range-finding almost hopeless. Then their shells stopped hitting us and I gave the order to abandon ship.

“The behaviour of everybody was magnificent. They might have been going to church parade. Never in my life have I seen women behave more valiantly. Some of them were helping to bind up wounded, and others displayed no panic, though the ship was burning. It was dark, and they had been ordered within a few minutes of an unexpected attack into open boats.


“Then a motor-launch raced alongside with the boarding officer in a hell of a stew shouting, ‘Hurry! Hurry! Abandon ship before the planes come.’ He knew that we had got our message away. We destroyed all code books and records that might have been of value, and as soon as we left, they began to fire on the burning Rangitane. She did not sink immediately, so they launched a torpedo, and she capsized and went to the bottom.

“At about 5 pm that day on the prison ship they sighted planes that had come out to look for us. ‘Action stations’ was sounded, and I was confined to my quarters immediately, but apparently the New Zealand planes did not see us.”