Saturday, 6 December 2014

Survivors of the Rangitane sinking


In January 1941, the SS Nellore steamed into the port of Townsville with a cargo of passengers who had survived the sinking of multiple vessels by German raiders in the Pacific in late 1940.
Survivors from the RMS Rangitane and other vessels sunk by German raiders during World War II, arriving in Townsville aboard SS Nellore, January 1941.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

At 3.30am on 27 November 1940, the New Zealand Shipping Company’s RMS Rangitane was about 300 miles east of New Zealand when it was attacked by three German surface raiders – Komet, Orion and Kulmerland.

En route to Britain, the Rangitane was laden with dairy goods, frozen meat and wool, and carrying more than 300 crew and passengers, including a number of women and children, when it was intercepted.  The Rangitane’s captain sent a distress signal to New Zealand and the German’s opened fire. 
 
Two boys who survived the sinking of their ship by German raiders.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
The heavy shelling claimed a number of casualties and caused fires to break out on the ship.  Passengers and crew were transferred to the German ships by lifeboat and the Rangitane was sunk.

The prisoners spent weeks below decks aboard the German ships in cramped, hot and noisy conditions, with meagre food and water rations.  With so many prisoners on board, the German captains became concerned about the lack of food and water and decided to put the prisoners ashore at an island off New Guinea called Emirau.    

Six days later they were picked up by the SS Nellore, operating under instructions from the Royal Australian Air Force.

The newspapers of the day reported that the survivors had been “disembarked at an Australian port”, unable to give a specific location because of wartime restrictions.  In fact, the survivors were landed at Townsville. 

The Nellore had 496 people aboard who had survived the sinking of seven separate ships by German raiders.
Survivors from the sinking of the Rangitane and other ships sunk by German raiders, aboard the SS Nellore, arriving in Townsville, January 1941.
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Although it wasn’t able to actually say that the steamship had landed at Townsville, the Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on the reception of the Nellore, saying “the refugees received a warm welcome from watersiders and others about the wharves when their ship was berthed”.  A Red Cross truck loaded with fresh clothing and toiletries for the survivors was waiting at the wharf too, along with hundreds of cheering locals.

“Members of the Red Cross Society and the Australian Comforts Fund did splendid work among the raider survivors,” the Bulletin said.  While the former took care of the essentials, the latter handed out cigarettes, newspapers and other little luxuries.

The Cairns Post reported on how grateful the women aboard Nellore were for the reception they received in Australia.

“Although their English is inadequate to express their gratitude, a group of Polish stewardesses smiled their thanks for gifts offered by members of the Australian Comforts Fund and told in quaint, disjointed sentences what had been done for them at New Guinea and Townsville in the way of providing clothes and entertainment.”
Survivors from the sinking of the Rangitane and other ships sunk by German surface raiders.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The Rangitane was the largest passenger liner sunk by surface raiders during World War II.  In a tragic twist of fate, the ship that brought the Rangitane survivors to Townsville - the Nellore - was itself sunk in June 1944, after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

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