The ship we know as the Wanganella had a long career, but it was not without its setbacks; and indeed she was not even built for the service in which she spent most of her life, but was rather a by-product of a maritime scandal. Owen Cosby Philipps [1863-1937] began his entrepreneurial career when he bought a tramp steamer. By 1903 he had become the managing director and chairman of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, and he set about a policy of purchasing a range of shipping companies, including the major line on the West African service, Elder Dempster (which he bought in collaboration with William Pirrie, his opposite number at Harland and Wolff’s shipyard, in 1909). Along the way Philipps acquired two knighthoods in the Order of St Michael and St George and, in 1923, a barony as Lord Kylsant. This further fuelled his ambition and he set his sights on the prestigious White Star Line, which he bought, with borrowed money, for £7 million in 1927. The following year he set about having Pirrie (himself a viscount by now) build a new Elder Dempster flagship for him. But, with the Depression looming, he found his loans impossible to service, and a Government investigation revealed that the financial situation of the Royal Mail Group, as presented by Lord Kylsant, was highly fictitious. He was tried in 1931, was jailed for a year and stripped of his knighthood.
Harland and Woolf found themselves with a new 10,000 ton motorship (named Achimota after the first university college in what is now Ghana) sitting idle in their fitting out basin, awaiting a buyer. Their salvation proved to be an Australian company, Huddart Parker, founded at Geelong in 1876, which was seeking a replacement for the coal-burner Ulimaroa, of 1908 vintage, on the trans-Tasman service operated jointly with the Union Company – and now under threat from a couple of heavily-subsidised American Matson liners. Huddart Parker had had previous dealings with Harland and Wolff, and to the relief of both parties Achimota, now renamed Wanganella, changed hands (after modest alterations to make her accommodation more in keeping with Antipodean standards and climate) for a sum of £420,000.
She left Belfast in November 1932; came out by way of Suez, paused in Sydney long enough to be photographed with the new Harbour Bridge as background, then made her first trans-Tasman voyage in January 1933. This was prolonged with a short cruise to Milford Sound: the cost, first class £8; second class £6. Thereafter Wanganella settled into a routine in which she made Sydney to Auckland or Wellington crossings (and occasionally one to Melbourne) in tandem with the Union company’s Monowai, and later Awatea, with sufficient success to blunt the Matson threat in the years between the Wars. She was a popular ship, but no ocean greyhound, and had a service speed of 14 knots.
The reality of war came in 1940 when, on 19 June the Union company’s Pacific veteran Niagara struck a mine, laid by a German commerce raider in the Hauraki golf, soon after leaving Auckland en route to Suva. Wanganella was in the vicinity, and was able to pick up a number of Niagara’s people from their lifeboats, but was forbidden to come closer in case the raider had laid a row of mines; and indeed two more were gathered in by minesweepers. A year later both Australia and New Zealand had large numbers of men serving in North Africa, and a series of hospital ships were needed to carry wounded to their home countries. Wanganella became AHS 45, carrying mostly Australian wounded, but did the occasional voyage for this country, when NZHS Maunganui was under repair after breaking a tail shaft.
Her most futile exploit would be in mid1941, when one of her early tasks was to take the staff of a military hospital to Singapore where, like the Australian troops they were intended to care for, they became prisoners of the Japanese when the island was overwhelmed. That apart, she was a valuable workhorse for the remainder of the war. She was handed back to her owners late in 1945 and refitted in Melbourne; she was equipped to carry 316 first class and 108 second class passengers, and her crew accommodation was improved by raising, by one level, the small deckhouse at the stern.
She made one trans-Pacific voyage at the end of 1946, before resuming her trans-Tasman activities. Amid great rejoicing and with a full load of passengers, she set out on 16 January 1947 in good weather, which continued for the entire voyage. On Sunday evening, 19 January, she was approaching Wellington in calm conditions, her Master (Captain Robert Darroch, who had commanded her throughout the war) being on the bridge, keeping an eye on the Fourth Officer, who had the watch, while below the passengers celebrated the success of their voyage with a Ball. Their rejoicing was premature: at 11.35pm Wanganella impaled herself on Barrett’s Reef, Darroch having mistaken the flashing light on the reef for the first of two leading lights that marked the channel into the port.
A flotilla of small craft gathered: the coaster Gale, the Day’s Bay ferry Cobar, and assorted tugs and pilot launches, to help transfer passengers ashore; and the first were landed just before Monday’s daybreak. They included some elderly and eminent figures, including friends who had come out to visit the recently arrived governor-general, Sir Bernard Freyberg VC. Sir Noel and Lady BeresfordPeirse were old friends of the Freybergs; he had been a corps commander in the Desert in Wavell’s day. And Lord Nuffield, who built both cars and benefactions, was an equally old friend, whose gift of a residential college as part of the rebuilding of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (sorely damaged by the Luftwaffe in 1941) would be opened by the then Lord Freyberg in 1957. Another eminent passenger was Admiral of the Fleet Lord Tovey, who commanded the British force that dealt with the German battleship Bismarck in 1941.
And then there were the Butt girls. Their parents were close friends of my wife’s parents, and it had been arranged that the two daughters, having lately finished school, would enjoy a first visit to New Zealand. Being judged fitter than many of their fellow passengers, they were among the last to leave the ship, minus luggage, of course – but their luggage was not in the pile that reached the wharf. Nor had it reappeared when the party were due to leave on their tour; and clothing coupons were still required before garments could be bought! – so the Butts, being well-built Australian girls, travelled round New Zealand in the more roomy of the Clarke girls’ spare gear.
(End of Part 1 ― Part 2 will continue in the May 2017 issue)
― Wyn Beasley, Bay View newsletter 68, November 2016