All On Board Behave Splendidly
Evening Post Headline Saturday June 29th 1918
Courage and pluck on the day the S.S. Wimmera went down
SS Wimmera 1904 - 1918
Although removed from the seat of hostilities during World War One, New Zealand's coastal waters and her domestic shipping were far from immune from its ravages. Enemy raiders commonly prowled the South Seas lying in wait along known shipping routes or lacing them with mines. Sometimes these mines would break loose, becoming passengers of tide and current and creating a fatal hazard to the steamships plying the waters between New Zealand and Australia.
One such ship, the Wimmera, was a well known carrier between the Tasman Sea neighbours and a favourite with the travelling public. Built at Greenock, Scotland in 1904, Wimmera was a small passenger steamship of 3022 tons register common during the era. She was owned in New Zealand by the Australian based company Huddart Parker whose Wellington office building remains opposite the waterfront to this day.
On July 25th 1918 Wimmera left Auckland at 10:00 am bound for Sydney with 76 passengers and 75 crew on board. Her route was to take her north towards the Three Kings Islands where she would turn West and South towards Sydney. At 8:00pm the following day, after a period of rumour filled silence, her owners received information that Wimmera "had been lost off the north coast of New Zealand by external explosion". At 5.15am on Wednesday June 26th 1918, 18 miles North of Cape Maria Van Dieman, Wimmera struck a mine placed by the German raider Wolf. The explosion shattered the stern of the ship and she quickly settled but remained on an even keel. All lighting went out within two minutes of the explosion making the evacuation of passengers all the more difficult. Thirty minutes after the explosion Wimmera's bow shot 50 feet up into the air and she plunged stern first to the bottom sending up a huge 100 foot high geyser of steaming water. Describing her final moments Mr F. W. Mole, a passenger on that fateful trip, said; "The scene as the vessel sank was as impressive as I desire ever to see".
In those feverish and terrifying last minutes the crew and passengers remained remarkably calm and stoic. In the dark, many dressed only in the flimsiest of garments having minutes before been snug in bed, the passengers clambered their way up unseen stairways and along unfamiliar corridors to the open deck. Douglas Bradney, a Union Steam Ship Company officer travelling to Australia made the observation that in "passing along the alley-way to the saloon companionway, where he met several of the ladies coming out in perfect calmness. They were "bricks" he said..."
The Wimmera's Captain, Herbert Kells, remained at his post until the last along with the Chief Officer Mr A J Nicol and the Chief Steward Mr H Verge. These and 23 others lost their lives on the ship. The lifeboats were launched but one was swamped and a second stove in leaving the remainder to rescue the surviving 125 passengers and crew. Once launched and at the mercy of wind and current the lifeboats drifted far and wide. Four boats containing eighty four survivors landed at Tom Bowline Bay near the very tip of the North Island in the evening of July 27th. On the afternoon of this day a fifth boat came ashore at Taemaro, four miles east of Mangonui while another boat was blown clear of North Cape and drifted down the coast to a landing at Kaiamou Beach
Survivors landing at Tom Bowline Bay were the first to be advised to the eagerly waiting media and the Evening Post of Thursday June 27th published the following list of survivors:
At the shore the survivors were met by Mr Murrdoch Munro and some of his men who had seen sighted the boats approaching the shore. It was dark and cold and the survivors could not stay long on the beach. Thus began a journey of eight miles over rough and mountainous country. Barefoot and clad in the most meagre attire, they followed a faint bridal path having, at times, to crawl on hands a knees. On arriving at the Homestead of Mr Munro, hot food and hot coffee, prepared in advance for their arrival, were dished out to the grateful survivors. It was from here that the Assistant Purser, Mr K Gorrie, accompanied by a local Maori, rode 17 miles to the nearest telegraph station to cable the news of the wreck
Earlier on the same day another lifeboat containing 30 more survivors had drifted ashore at the small settlement of Taemaro, 4 miles east of Mangonui. Rowing until daybreak and sailing for most of the next day, the survivors of Number One Lifeboat surviving on biscuits and water were grateful to feel dry land under their feet. Mr Stacey, the school teacher at the Native School at Taemaro, reported at 8:30pm that four survivors had reached his house and approximately another 26 were waiting on the beach. Mr A McKay, the local storekeeper at Mangonui took his launch and a relief party across the water to Taemaro. The early report received advising of the survivors arrival was not clear and the names of survivors, written on a scrap of paper were barely legible. The names of the Mangonui survivors are copied below:
A further boatload of survivors later drifted ashore at Kuimora Beach. These survivors were:
By June 28th all boats had been accounted for and further searches yielded no additional survivors. Twenty Five passengers and crew had lost their lives in the incident. The many acts of heroism occurring on board Wimmera and later as the survivors struggled to make landfall are reported in local newspapers. Each heralds and praises the self-control, composure and unfaltering courage shown by all. As if to cap off this tragic story the Evening Post for Friday June 28th 1918 makes the following reflective remark:
"In connection with the disaster, it is interesting to note that on this trip the Wimmera left for Sydney direct. Had she made her usual trip down the East Coast of New Zealand, it is very probable that nothing out of the ordinary would have occurred."
But for the hand of Fate?
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