- Watts Shipping Register
- Watts Shipping Register
German Raiders off New Zealand - Capture and sinking of the Holmwood 25 November, 1940
Angus Campbell’s story of his capture and release as told to his son Nicol Campbell about 1945. Please make allowances for any memory lapses on my part after 60 years or so but this story is as accurate as recall allows.
This has taken much soul searching and recall of memory. I should have written it up years ago but here it is for what it may be worth. There were three raiders operating as a unit. The one in which the crew of the Holmwood were held prisoner was the Kulmerland. In some accounts it is also spelt Kulrnerland which may be the correct German spelling. The others ships were, of course, the Komet and Orion. One of these never came too close to the Kulmerland. I don’t remember which one but Dad said the prisoners called her the Grey Ghost because of her colour and she seemed to be an unpopular ship with the crew of the Kulmerland who would give a facetious Hitler salute towards her when out of sight of their officers. The other one, the prisoners called Blackie. (Both these soubriquets are from my memory recall and may be not correct but the prisoners did give these other vessels nicknames because obviously they were not told the real names.) One of those ships did not treat prisoners very well and had the Nazi ethic but memory does not serve now. The captain of the Kulmerland, Captain Pschunder, was an ex German merchant service officer who treated his captives very well in defiance of the Nazi political officer aboard
Cruiser raider supply ship Kulmerland www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-1Epi.html
At this time Angus was chief officer of the Holmwood. The vessel was returning from Waitangi, Chatham Islands, at the time of her capture and sinking. She carried two mates who worked 6 hour watch and watch with reliefs from the master for meals and also to allow extra sleeping time for the mates from time to time. The vessel having left Waitangi, where the mate was on continuous duty during discharge and loading of cargo, the master was taking the early part of the morning watch to allow the mate extra sleep. There was a raider warning in force but as far as was known there was thought to be no immediate danger in the area in which the Holmwood was operating.
Angus told me he had been served with two lamb chops killed just before departure in the Chatham’s. In those days such fresh meat was a treat. He never did get to eat them!
Quote Angus as I remember. “I’d just sat down in the saloon to a lovely plateful of fresh lamb chops that hadn’t been in the freezer or anything but before I could eat them I was told the old man wanted me urgently on the bridge. I told the steward to keep them hot and went on up. When I got there the Miller (the master) said ‘I’m worried about these three ships out there what do you think?’ They had been in evidence for some time.
Cruiser Raider Orion www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-1Epi.html
“I looked out and saw one closing us on the starboard bow. I told the captain it was flying a message and had he read it? When he said no, I told him we had bloody well better! I was surprised he had taken no action at all after sighting the ships. I grabbed the binoculars and the first thing I saw was I was looking right down the barrel of a bloody big 6-inch gun. The flag signal was YOU SHOULD STOP YOUR VESSEL INSTANTLY AND AWAIT MY INSTRUCTIONS. This was supplemented by an instruction DO NOT USE YOUR WIRELESS. I grabbed the telegraph and immediately rang stop. The master asked what the hell I was doing and I handed him the binoculars as I told him the flag signal code. When the engine-room answered we rang for astern and took off all our forward way. We were sure we were being apprehended by enemy raiding-warships and discussed the advisability of a wireless signal but in view of the guns trained on us, the presence of women and children aboard and the limited range of our wireless equipment, this wasn’t an option.”
Soon a boat put off from the ship nearest. Neither of the other two ships approached very closely. The boarding party was in the charge of a polite young German naval officer who apologised before telling the ships complement they were now prisoners of war and would be taken aboard the German raider. He asked them gather their possessions including what may be needed for the women and their children. He gave his captain’s compliments to Captain Miller and told him that all the officers should also bring all their navigationables (navigation instruments) as his captain and many of his ships crew had been merchantile marine members before the war. Thus they understood that merchant officers had to pay for and provide their own equipment and did not want to deprive them of the expensive tools of their livelihood.
Cruiser Raider Komet www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2-1Epi.html
The evacuation of the ship then commenced while at the same time the ship’s stores and cargo were broached and taken across to the raider. The sheep were killed for meat. When the Holmwood officers arrived on the Kulmerland they were escorted to the captain’s dayroom. Angus said the first thing they saw was a big picture of Adolf Hitler on the bulkhead behind the captain’s desk. The captain apologised to Captain Miller and told him the capture of his ship was a sad consequence of war and he hoped he understood. He then spoke briefly to the officers and told them their “navigationables” would be returned to them after they had been taken out of adjustment and unable to be used but this would be done in such a way that they would be cheap to repair. During this interview an officer wearing the swastika emblem came into the room and after giving the Zig Heil Nazi salute spoke angrily in German to the captain. He seemed upset at the humane treatment of the prisoners. (This reason is only supposed but seems likely as the following may show.) The captain rose from his seat and spoke very sharply to the officer and waved him peremptorily out the door. He told the assembled prisoners they should not be intimidated as in his ship the crew only used the naval salute and did not subscribe to political any nonsense. This independent attitude may have later had consequences for Captain Pschunder, as I understand he was tried and executed on his return to Germany in 1943.
The captain then explained that they had been were aware of the Chatham Island service for many years so had lain in wait for the Holmwood in order to replenish their supplies from her cargo of live sheep and other foodstuffs. He expressed surprise that the Holmwood had taken so long to stop after he signalled her and said that he was on the point of ordering her fired on and sunk when he saw her backwater wash as she pulled up. His guns were trained on her bridge because he did not want her to send a wireless signal warning other ships.
Passengers and crew being evacuated from the Holmwood after her capture.
The crew were then taken down to cells near the tank tops and incarcerated. A guard was on duty at all times outside the doors except when the ship engaged in fighting. This was a worry as if anything had gone wrong they might have drowned like rats in cages. Later an officer told them that several ratings had the duty of releasing them in the event of anything that could cause a foundering. They were allowed a lot of freedom on deck provided they undertook to go straight to their cells when requested.
They heard the shelling as the Holmwood was sunk and were surprised that it went on for so long. Their guard said that this was because they used the opportunity to train new young gunners. True or not is not known.
During their time aboard the raider the Germans spent a lot of time helping the mothers and children, shared family photos, and some even made toys for the children.
A few days later their navigation instruments were returned to them. In the rush Angus had forgotten the key to his sextant case so the German shipwright had had to break it open. There was very little wood to repair it with on a warship because wood disintegrates and the flying splinters are a danger during fighting. The shipwright, however, had saved a piece of apple case from the Holmwood’s cargo and fitted it into the case expertly then added a new lock and key. Nicol later used that sextant at sea and after 60 years the lock is still good. Some years ago the sextant and case was handed on to Captain Bruce Campbell, Angus’s grandson and Nicola’s nephew, who is senior pilot at Southampton UK specialising in Vic’s. The lock and repair are still in top condition even if technology has made the sextant less important as a navigation instrument.
As the raider’s voyage continued Angus told me their greatest fear was being locked in their cells at the bottom of the ship when she went into action with the intense noise of gunfire reverberating within the hull and not knowing what was happening. As other prisoners were taken, some of who were injured, the prisoners conditions deteriorated to the point that some may have died if nothing was done.
The Kulmerland’s captain spoke to all the captured officers. He offered to release all those who would agree not to go back to sea in any armed ship. This was agreed to but the Nazi political officer argued against this but was again overruled by the captain. Shortly after the ship anchored off Emirau Island and they lined up to be put ashore. Angus told of the chief engineer having a container of water filled with a mug, as they waited, for drinking in the heat. The chief apologised that only one glass was available, the rest having been shattered during gunfire and this he constantly refilled and passed to the women.
Some of Holmwood’s crew on Emirau Island. Angus Campbell centre front row.
Those released were later rescued during January 1942 and returned to New Zealand. The rest of this story is well recorded but the bits above tell of one man’s experiences and his conception of his captors.
Fred Abernethy the chief engineer of the Holmwood retired to Otaki and died a few years back. He concurred with this story and didn’t add much but he did say the Germans treated them as well as they could. He said he had friendly chats with the chief engineer of the Kulmerland while a prisoner aboard her.
Captain Angus Campbell ca. 1950
There was some talk later that the Holmwood was somehow responsible for the loss of those other ships taken later by the raiders in not sending out a radio message. Obviously this was nonsense but the story got about and I heard it from time over the years from people, usually shore-goers, who did not know my family connections. Trying to find the truth now is difficult, going through the reports of the time tells us little other than the political spin created by the naval authorities.
We now know that the navy made inept mistakes, despite having intelligence they did not interpret it properly and that led to the raiders having a more or less free run. They had advised the NZ Government that it was very unlikely that raiders would come into the Pacific and had not prepared for the eventuality. The story regarding the Holmwood was typical wartime propaganda put out to build moral and place blame elsewhere. Unfortunately most people who were not involved remember the accusation but never the explanation or the truth. Interestingly, naval history still blames the Holmwood for not putting out a wireless message. They call her a small coaster even though she was almost as big as one of their frigates! There is also a supposition that the Holmwood did not destroy her Merchant Navy code book and it fell into the hands of the Germans as a great prize. Angus has said that as far as he knew the Holmwood never had one and this is backed up by Captain A. Copeland and Captain Joe Vangioni, my uncle and also masters in the same company. Capt. Vangioni also stated he never saw one until at least a year after the Holmwood sinking.
Almost every ship at that time, however, carried a copy of Bentley’s Commercial Telegraph codes. These were post office approved short cuts to make telegraph and Morse code messages brief and cheaper. These messages were charged by the word. An example of the Bentley code would be Johnston and Co, Customhouse Quay, Wellington whose code address was simply Stonjon, thus replacing the six word address with one word. This was a freely available publication sold world wide. It is probable this code book is the one in question; it was hardly secret and probably the raiders had a copy anyway. Anyway the story persists and it has a very good spin to give the naval authorities a semblance of justification but lacks any evidence. Also note that those ships that did attempt to send messages, such as the Komata had loss of life and their messages achieved nothing. Somehow the captain of the Rangitane was lauded for trying to run from the raiders and sending a message even though it cost the life of some of his passengers and crew and availed him naught! Therefore it seems that during war disregarding human life in favour of your ship is the stuff of heroes! Makes one wonder what ever happened to the first article of seamanship “Safety of life is paramount then safety of the ship”?
The following year in mid-February 1942, Captain Vangioni sighted what he felt was a submarine in the waters north of Cook Strait. Because of radio silence he reported this in Wellington next day but the naval officer interviewing him suggested he may be mistaken or seen a dolphin or something. Captain Vangioni replied that although he was unfamiliar with submarines he had been at sea for some 12 years and was well aware what normally should or should not inhabit the waters around his ship. He was astounded when the naval officer stated he had never seen a submarine either and had only joined the navy some months before. Shortly after this there was the riot at Featherston prisoner of war camp resulting in many deaths. Captain Vangioni always wondered if the unidentified vessel may have been some sort connection. The prisoners up until then had been moderate and quiet. Maybe coincidence, but there are those in the maritime community who still wonder? He often felt that some aspects of naval procedure were cavalier. .
Below is an example of the nonsense put out for public consumption by Commodore Perry, NZ Station Royal Navy.
No radio message was transmitted by the Holmwood before she was captured and consequently no warning of the presence of enemy raiders east of New Zealand was received. A subsequent commission of inquiry strongly expressed the opinion that, had the sending of a wireless 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 established 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 a.m. 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.
‘We are fully aware,’ said the Commission's report, ‘that any attempt to send the 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, 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.’ Report of Commission of Inquiry on the Loss of Certain Vessels by Enemy Action, and alleged Leakage of Information.
After all the nonsense is filtered out there remains the fact that the Turakina was attacked off Farewell Spit on the 20 August by the Orion and Komet. She refused to stop and sent a radio message advising of the attack. This resulted in her sinking and the death of her master and 34 of the crew. The remainder of the crew were taken prisoner although some were injured and one later died aboard the raider. The Navy sent the light cruiser Achilles assisted by a reconnaissance aircraft to investigate but they found nothing. This took place less than a month before the Holmwood was captured. One is left wondering, after this, how on earth the navy could still insist there was no menace to shipping in New Zealand waters!
Bombardment of Nauru Island December, 1940
However, there are even more questions to ponder. The Niagara was sunk by mines on 19 June. Next the Turakina was sunk by a raider on 20 August. We know the Germans were aware of the Holmwood’s regular run and lay in wait for on her so they could replenish supplies from her cargo. Why weren’t naval strategists also aware of this potential source of enemy supply? Until the sinking of the Rangitane on 27 November the naval authorities were still advising government there was small threat to New Zealand shipping. The sinking of the Rangitane, though, could hardly be ignored and the navy did respond. One historian who has studied this period of naval history wrote; ‘How these ships (the raiders) escaped from the scene of the sinking and avoided detection by two patrolling flying-boats, by HMS Achilles and its Walrus plane and by HMS Puriri and other ships is difficult to understand, but they did, and the three vessels (the raiders) anchored on 29th November off the Kermadec Islands, 600 miles north-east of New Zealand. One of the two patrolling TEAL flying boats, Awarua and Aotearoa, probably the former, was actually seen from the Orion on the evening of 28th November, but it was not the other way round, so eight armed RNZAF planes on standby at Gisborne were not called to attack’. Only nine days later the same raiders sunk 5 ships, Vinni, Triaster, Triona, Komata and Triadic in a little more than 24 hours off Nauru Island. Next, unbelievably, 20 days after this, the raider Komet returned to Nauru Island and destroyed the shore/sea interface machinery of the phosphate loading infrastructure. Again one must ask how competent the naval authorities were in not realising Nauru was a gathering place for concentrations of merchant ships awaiting loading nor taking steps to protect these important loading facilities after the mass sinkings of 5 merchant ships demonstrated the importance of the facility? The Germans were certainly aware! One is also astonished to note that all three of the raiding fleet returned safely to Germany. Perhaps after all this a spin (propaganda) doctor was needed to placate public disquiet.
Captain S W Roskill, one of Britain’s most eminent naval historians, remarked in "The War at Sea"
" … it is only fair to mention that the captains of German armed merchant raiders generally behaved with reasonable humanity towards the crews of intercepted ships, tried to avoid unnecessary loss of life and treated their prisoners tolerably"
Kapitan Ruckteschell, in his view, was the "only exception", his conduct being " so far contrary to the Hague Conventions that he was brought to trial and convicted as a war criminal in 1947".
The same Captain S W Roskill in "A Merchant Fleet at War” stated that "under International Law the immunity of a merchant ship from attack depended on her not "resisting’ capture"".
Trying to escape or returning fire was obvious resistance, but the Germans maintained that the use of wireless also constituted "resisting" and so justified their attacking ships that did so. Perhaps it might even be argued that organising ships into escorted convoys was also a form of resistance to capture.
Ships sunk by German raiders in the Pacific
Turakina 9,691 GRT
Ringwood 7,203 GRT
Niagara 13,415 GRT **
Puriri 927 GRT **
Port Brisbane 8,276 GRT **
Britannic 1,500 GRT **
Holmwood 546 GRT
Rangitane 16,712 GRT
Triona 4,413 GRT
Vinni 5,181 GRT
Komata 3,900 GRT
Triadic 6,378 GRT
Triaster 6,032 GRT
** Sunk by mines. The raiders managed to lay 228 mines mainly across navigation routes and outside Lyttelton, Wellington and Auckland harbours. Some of these mines were laid in mid 1941 by the small German auxiliary layer Adjutant.
Map of the attack and sinking on 5 vessels at Nauru Island and the return 3 weeks later to destroy the phosphate loading machinery
This story may not be the version that has been scripted by some war historians but the question one needs to be ask about any version of history is:- Who benifits from that version.
The interests of the powerful, the politicians and of course, the generals and admirals change often, and thus so do the stories that extol their efforts. There are, of course, absolute truths, things that actually happened, genuine facts, but simply because history may have accepted with distortions should not negate an attempt to wrestle out the truth.
Who benifitted from the official version? It would be difficult to find any benifit to the merchant ship survivors. The Politicans? The Generals and Admirals? One must consider the answers for one's-self.
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