Stranded on Emirau
You may be surprised to learn that the first large group of New Zealanders taken prisoners during Second World War, and virtually on the country’s doorstep, were not military personnel but civilians. In a two-week period at the end of 1940 a trio of German raiders masquerading as Japanese vessels intercepted and sunk merchant shipping around New Zealand and Australia, capturing crew and passengers. The Merchant Navy (Merchant Marine) is a country’s commercial (i.e. non-military) shipping fleet which carries trade and supply goods, and people, around the globe. During war time these activities continued in support of the war effort and the maintenance of economic life on the home fronts. More than 140 New Zealanders from the Merchant Navy died, and many were taken prisoner. On Merchant Navy Day, we remember these events in the south Pacific over the turn of 1940-41, as we reflect on the important, risky yet subsequently under-recognised role played by our merchant seamen during the First and Second World Wars.
For a long time, the idea of being marooned and surviving on a remote island has held a certain allure for those with a romantic imagination. It has been a foundation plot device in fiction from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) through to Tim Winton’s Dirt Music (2001). The long-running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs leveraged the idea in early 1942 as a light-hearted distraction to lift spirits during the Second World War, and that entertaining escapism factor has also found its way onscreen, including locally with New Zealand’s own creation, TV show Treasure Island. However, the reality of such stranding is seldom as romantic.
On 21 December 1940 some 500 merchant seamen and passengers were landed on Emirau (Emira) Island, one of the St. Matthias Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago in the north-east of Papua New Guinea. These captives had come from a number of civilian vessels sunk by German raiders in the Pacific over the two-week period 25 November – 8 December.
One of those stranded was Eric Milton Denby, Second Engineer onboard the Union Steam Ship Company’s (USSCo) steamer SS Komata, one of the last vessels to be intercepted in this short window. This was Denby’s second significant traumatic experience as a serving seaman. He was born in Warkworth but lived most of his life in Northcote, Auckland. He trained as an engineer and in the First World War was posted to the New Zealand Field Artillery. He survived a gunshot wound to the scalp in Ypres in 1917 but was adjudged no longer physically fit for military service. Denby later joined the Dunedin-based USSCo (1875-2000) and was Third Engineer on the RMS Tahiti on 19 August 1930 when it sank near Rarotonga enroute from Wellington to San Francisco, following a holing two days previously caused by the breaking of a propeller shaft.[i] All were rescued. Three years earlier the Tahiti had accidentally rammed the ferry Greycliffe in Sydney Harbour resulting in the death of 40 passengers, but we don’t know if Denby was present on the Tahiti at that time.
On 8 December the Komata was biding time off Nauru, awaiting an opportunity to load, when it was approached by a ‘suspicious vessel’. It turned out to be the German auxiliary cruiser Komet (a converted merchant ship) disguised as the Japanese ship Manyo Maru. The Komata’s Captain, W. W. Fish, who survived with shrapnel wounds in his leg, instructed his wireless operator to send an SOS and the steamer made ‘a run for it.’ Nevertheless, the raider had a ‘sitting shot from a mile and a-half away’ and the Komata was hit eight times in a matter of minutes. Two seamen lost their lives, Chief Officer and Aucklander Thomas Allan Mack and Second Officer, Australian John Lloyd Hughes.
Fish, Denby and the rest of the crew were taken on board the Komet where they joined the survivors of other cargo and passenger vessels sunk in the previous days by the raider and her two fellow hunters. The Komet was working together with the Orion and a support vessel the Kulmerland, disguised respectively as Mayebashi Maru and Tokio Maru.
This trio of disguised German raiders accounted for a number of commercial cargo and passenger ships over November & December 1940, including New Zealand vessel Holmwood (25 November), the liner Rangitane (27 November), the British Phosphates Commission's steamer Triona (6 December), the Norwegian Vinni (7 December), Komata, and the British Phosphates Commission's motor-vessels Triadic and Triaster (all three on 8 December). You can find an account of the raiders’ unhindered activity over this period and New Zealand responses, here. The Rangitane, Komata, Triadic, and Triona, all experienced casualties. But the result could have been more tragic as by the time the Rangitane was intercepted, around another thirty overseas ships had passed recently, undetected, through the area the raiders were searching.[ii]
Emirau, an uplifted reef, was described in a news report as ‘Flat and measuring about five miles by three, [with] … a fringing reef, but … a good landing-place for boats on a short length of sandy beach protected by a small island near the northern end.’[iii] The Komata’s captain, W. W. Fish confirmed it was ‘a coral island covered with coconut palms and tropical shrubs. The women and children slept at the house of the [Australian] sawmill manager… we slept out under the palm trees. The weather was mild, and life was not unpleasant after the cramped quarters and the uncertainty of the previous 13 days.’ A Christchurch passenger on the Holmwood was stranded with his wife and two young daughters, aged 2 and 11. The 11-year old told an Australian reporter after the survivors were rescued, ‘It was fun being a real-life castaway but I’m sorry it made mummy sick.’[iv] A testament to the optimism and resilience of children.
The Germans put stores ashore on Emirau with the 500 captives who were landed, along with a slow boat with which those left could go for help. The stranded crews rigged this boat, but didn’t use it as one of the locals arranged for help to be sent for, and within three days necessary supplies and a doctor had arrived. The survivors were picked up by an Australian naval vessel on 29 December. Able seaman SC Waterhouse of Christchurch (SS Holmwood) told of being able to shoot pigs and cattle on the island for fresh meat and using dynamite to catch fish, and said that their treatment onboard the raiders ‘was no worse than could be expected, considering they were prisoners of war, and indeed was for better than most of them had expected.’ He noted that there were ‘a lot of distorted stories published in the Australian papers … Many of them are completely untrue. Altogether, … their experiences had not been as bad as the public had been led to believe. They had received considerable praise in Australia, and he only hoped that soldiers in Egypt, who were passing through a worse ordeal than the Holmwood men had done, would receive the same rousing reception on their return.’[v]
By 8 December there had been '675 prisoners in the German ships – 265 in the Orion, 153 in the Komet, and 257, including 52 women and 6 children, in the Kulmerland.’ But the Captain of the Orion ‘refused to release any European prisoners from [that vessel] as he held that “trained officers and crews are as much a problem for Britain as shipping itself.”’[vi] The British ship Turakina (August), French collier Notou (September), and Norwegian vessel Ringwood (early October), were all attacked and sunk by the Orion before the latter joined forces with Komet and Kulmerland. Some of the survivors from those vessels were believed to be among those retained and who were subsequently interned in Germany. The castaways had heard from one of their German captors that only 23 survived from the Turakina which had fought the raider fiercely for two-and-a-half hours, with a single stern gun.[vii]
As he announced the rescue of the Emirau survivors, Australia’s Minister for the Navy, former Prime Minister and political survivor Billy Hughes referred to the Turakina‘s fight saying, ‘Many stories of individual heroism and endurance will emerge from the tale of the British merchant service in the conflict with the enemy at sea.’[viii]
The month before, many local papers had carried text and commentary on the risks run by the men of the merchant marine following a tribute by Royal Navy Vice-Admiral, and New Zealander, J. E. T. Harper. ‘These men … risk their lives daily as surely as do those serving at sea in His Majesty's ships, as those men of the Air Force who actually fly, or as those soldiers who are stationed in the front line. They are taking risks infinitely greater than the majority of those who have the privilege of wearing the King's uniform. They are always in the fighting line. Yet their names figure not in the Roll of Honour.’[ix]
At the beginning of the year, New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage had also acknowledged the dangers our merchant service faced on war-time oceans when he criticised Auckland province farmers who suggested a policy of economic non-cooperation in protest against restrictive policies that were hampering farm production.[x] Nevertheless, many merchant seamen felt public neglect.
By mid-1941 the German raiders had left the Pacific, and the Komet was sunk by a torpedo without survivors on 7 October 7, 1942 near the Cap de la Hague. But it wasn’t long before a new threat emerged in the Pacific’s shipping lanes: that of Japan.
i This vessel had itself ‘had a career full of adventure and unusual incident’. ‘An Eventful Career’, New Zealand Herald, 18 August 1930, 12.
x ‘Selfish Attitude’, Evening Star, 4 January 1940, 8.
RESOURCES & FURTHER READING
- Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 'Merchant Navy timeline', updated 20-Dec-2012
- Nicol Campbell, ‘Holmwood Sinking’, NZ Ship & Marine Society
- ‘Vessels Sunk by Raiders’, Press, 8 January 1941, 8. A collection of comments by survivors from the various ships, reporting on the captures, treatment by their captors, and the stranding. While there is a muddled piece early on caused by the news clippings having been incorrectly reassembled before being digitised, it can be sorted through and the accounts are worth reading.
- ‘Tasman Raider’, New Zealand Herald, 6 September 1940, 9. The Notou and the Turakina.
- ‘Mystery Ship’, Northern Advocate, 12 September 1940, 9. Reports out of Sydney of unknown vessels lurking in local waters.
- ‘Holm Shipping Company’, New Zealand Coastal Shipping website.
Cite this article
Stranded on Emirau. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 31 August 2021. Updated: 3 September 2021.