Author Tonson, A.E.
BEFORE WORLD WAR II the Anchor Line twin-screw vessel Puriri, of 927 gross tons, built by Henry Robb Ltd. of Leith and launched on 25th October 1938, was considered as the most modern collier of that time in New Zealand. Accommodation was good, with two-berth cabins for all crew members. She was then engaged as a cargo vessel around the New Zealand coast, but the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 was to change all that and after requisition by the Government in October 1940 she was to become a minesweeper in the then New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy.
While the vessel was at the Naval Base, Auckland on 27th November 1940, awaiting conversion to a minesweeper, news was received of an early morning attack on the Rangitane, a 17,000-ton vessel owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company Ltd.
This ship had a crew of 200, carried 111 passengers and was fully laden with produce for Britain. The news followed the sinking of the Holmwood, two days before. At first came the QQQQ suspicious vessel report, followed immediately by an RRRR raider report as the raiding ships began firing. The attack, by the armed German raiders Orion (Captain Kurt Weyher) and Komet (Rear- Admiral Robert Eyssen) and the tanker supply ship Kulmerland occurred 300 miles east of East Cape. After transmitting the reports the Rangitane was damaged by gunfire and finally sunk by torpedoes after survivors had been transhipped to the raiding vessels, the blazing ship with seacocks opened taking too long to settle and betraying the position of the attacking vessels. Five passengers and five crew, half of them women, were killed by the gunfire and others wounded, another woman passenger dying next day, and it was only after being signalled that women and children were aboard that the raiders ceased fire.
The raider Orion, an armed merchant cruiser of 7,000 tons was, like the Komet of 3,300 tons, equipped with six 5.9 inch guns, anti-aircraft guns, torpedo tubes and a seaplane and, having entered the Pacific Ocean via Cape Horn on 21st May 1940, was causing considerable havoc to allied shipping. The vessel travelled 102,000 miles during a voyage lasting seventeen months, sinking or capturing 12½ allied vessels, mostly in the South Pacific. (The Rangitane sinking was shared with Komet.) These were the Haxby, Notou, Turakina, Holmwood, Rangitane, Triaster, Triadic, Triona Vinni, Komata, Ringwood and Tropic Sea. Altogether 228 mines were laid by the Orion off the approaches to the Hauraki Gulf, taking seven hours on the night of 13th June 1940 and, when their presence became known after the sinking of RMS Niagara on 19th June, carrying £2.5 million in gold bullion, the four main ports were immediately closed to shipping. It was 10th September before the gulf area was considered relatively safe, after 131 mines had been destroyed, though mariners were warned to watch for isolated mines. The Orion met up with the Komet and Kulmerland on 18th October 1940 at Lamotrek in the Caroline Islands. However, we will return to the Puriri.
Following the raider report from the Rangitane, the Puriri was loaded with blankets, food and survival essentials and despatched at full speed to the scene of the sinking, travelling all night and reaching the area on 28th November 1940. There was little to see, bar an oil slick extending for about nine by two miles, dozens of butter boxes and some red and white lifebelts. The Puriri at this time had a merchant navy captain, and naval personnel aboard were four telegraphists, one being myself, to maintain an around-the-clock listening watch, and one signalman.
While the area was being checked the New Zealand-based light cruiser HMS Achilles turned up, having been sent from Lyttelton, and with the sun behind it immediately flashed out a challenge to ascertain what ship lay ahead. The Puriri had high masts and was probably not unlike a raider from a distance, and she was steaming towards the Achilles. Aboard the Achilles the crews were already closed up at action stations and cheered when it was thought that a raider had been located. Our signalman attempted to flash out a reply to the challenge with his Aldis lamp, but his batteries were flat and no signal was being projected. We saw the 6-inch guns of Achilles swing towards us and expected a shot at any time. The captain, somewhat alarmed, said to the signalman ‘Do something man‘, and the latter asked the captain to turn the ship sideways to provide a good silhouette while he readied flags to run up, which was accomplished to the relief of those aboard. I had served on Achilles in 1939 on a South Pacific Islands cruise, and it was a strange experience being at the wrong end of its guns.
All ships had been warned by radio to avoid the position given by the Rangitane by 200 miles to escape attack, and one wonders how the unarmed Puriri would have fared had it encountered the raiders? How these ships escaped from the scene of the sinking and avoided detection by two patrolling flying-boats, by Achilles and its Walrus plane and by Puriri and other ships is difficult to understand, but they did, and the three vessels anchored on 29th November off the Kermadec Islands, 600 miles north-east of New Zealand. One of the two TEAL flyingboats, 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. The civilian prisoners carried by the raiders were landed later, on 21st December, on Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago.
The Puriri was later converted to a minesweeper and commissioned on 9th April 1941, and took its place with the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla, organised in April to sweep the Hauraki Gulf to eliminate the mine menace. On 14th May, the same year, two of its vessels, HM ships Gale and Puriri, were steaming to locate and destroy a mine found in the nets of the fishing launch Pearline about eight miles from Bream Head, near Whangarei, when Puriri struck a mine, sinking immediately with the commanding officer and four ratings killed and an officer and four ratings injured. The survivors, five officers and twenty-one ratings, were rescued by Gale. The mine struck on the side of the ship near the bridge and the telegraphist aboard at the time rushed up to the radio office to find just a gaping hole there. At a resulting enquiry, blame was attributed to the senior officer of the searching ships, the commanding officer of Gale, in that an organised search was not carried out and proper charge of Puriri taken.
There this story should perhaps end, but a few years ago when travelling to Onehunga and crossing Mangere Bridge across the Manukau Harbour I was startled to see the Puriri, like a ghost ship from the past, tied up at Onehunga wharf. This was another Puriri, however, built by Henry Robb Ltd. of Leith as a replacement for the first and launched on 22nd July 1948, being actually a larger vessel of 1,248 gross tons. Having a carrying capacity of 1,000 tons, she was employed principally in carrying bulk cargoes, though did carry some general cargo and timber. The ship was employed by the Anchor Line until 1972, when the Union Steam Ship Co. Ltd. took over. In 1974 the vessel was sold to the Maldives Shipping Ltd. and renamed Maldive Pilot, under Maldive Islands registry, and resold in 1975 to Power Shipping Pty Ltd. and renamed Yellow River, and when last heard of was still sailing under that name.
Lieutenant D.W. Blacklaws, RNR
Petty Officer B.A. Matson
Steward G.E.R. Hobley
Steward J Richardson
Able Seaman L. Purkin
The Evening Post 15 May 1941 reports
MINESWEEPER LOST STRUCK MINE AND SANK OFFICER AND FOUR MEN MISSING
The minesweeper H.M.S. Puriri struck a mine and sank while carrying out minesweeping operations in Hauraki Gulf yesterday. An officer and four men are missing and are presumed to have lost their lives. Three others were injured, but the remainder of the crew, comprising five officers and 19 men, were uninjured and were saved.
The loss of the ship was announced last night by the Acting Prime Minister (Mr. Nash). “The Government deeply regrets to announce the loss of H.M.S. Puriri,” stated Mr. Nash. H.M.S. Puriri was commissioned as a minesweeper in the 25th (New Zealand) Minesweeping Flotilla as recently as April 19 last.
She was engaged in mine-clearance operations in the Hauraki Gulf, when unfortunately at about 11 a.m. today (Wednesday, May 14) she struck a mine and sank immediately.
The Government deeply regrets that one officer and four men are missing and must be presumed to have lost their lives. Two men are injured and one bruised, and were brought into harbour in charge of a medical officer. The two injured are now in hospital. The remaining five officers and 19 men have been saved and are uninjured. “The Government is sure that the whole population of the Dominion will join with it in expressing their deep sympathy with the relatives of the lost officer and men in this, the first casualty to a New Zealand warship. The relatives will, however, derive comfort from the fact that these men lost their lives in the performance of their important and dangerous duty.
The following is a list of the casualties with the next of kin
MISSING AND PRESUMED DEAD.
William Douglas Blacklaws, Lieutenant, R.N.R. (N.Z.). Mrs. Ruth Aline Blacklaws, 35 Argyle Street, Herne Bay, Auckland (w.).
Leon Purkin, Able Seaman. Mrs. Mary Marioty, Te Hoe, Putaruru (m.)
John Richardson, Steward.
George Edward Roy Hobley, Steward. Mrs. Dorothy Hobley, 55 Gribblehurst Road, Sandringham, Auckland (w.).
Barndt August Matson, Stoker Petty Officer. Mr. Benjamin Matson, Whenuapai, Auckland (f.).
Norman Bernard Dunning, Able Seaman, R.N.V.R. Mrs. Arabella A. Dunning, 4 Konini Road, Hataitai, Wellington (m.).
Duncan Rex Stewart, Able Seaman. Mrs. Beatrice Stewart, 247 Haven Road. Nelson (m.).
Harold Martin West, Able Seaman. Mr. Noel Hartley West, 11 Fitzroy Road, Napier (f.).
Dunning is suffering from bruises and has left for his home. Stewart is injured and in hospital. West is seriously injured and in hospital. The survivors were taken to Auckland where they were met by an ambulance. Of the two injured men sent to hospital, one was deeply unconscious and the other, though obviously in pain, joked with the ambulance men.
Lieutenant Blacklaws, who was temporarily in command of the Puriri, was formerly an officer in the service of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Ltd.
TWO IN HOSPITAL – ONE CASE SERIOUS
THE MISSING COMMANDER – A FINE LITTLE SHIP
Built by Henry Robb, Ltd., in 1938 for the Anchor Shipping Company, of Nelson, the Puriri was one of the finest cargo vessels on New Zealand coast. She was taken over by the Navy last year. Of 927 tons gross register she was 188 feet in length by 35 feet in width, and was designed to carry 800 tons dead weight on a mean draught of 11 feet 6 inches. Her crew’s accommodation was particularly good. The men’s quarters were two-berth rooms on the bridge between decks, with the engineers’ and officers’ cabins above them. All her auxiliary and _ cargo handling machinery was electrically driven. Two four-cylinder Diesel engines gave her an economic speed of about 10 knots.
(P.A.) AUCKLAND, This Day. The condition of Able Seaman West, who was admitted to hospital from the Puriri, is reported today to be serious. Able Seaman Stewart is in a fairly satisfactory state. The survivors were brought to Auckland last evening. The missing commander, Lieutenant Blacklaws, was 37 years of age. Born in Scotland, he was educated in England, where he trained as a naval cadet. He came to New Zealand while serving in the Mercantile Marine. He was navigating officer on the Aorangi for four years. He was called for service with the Navy on the outbreak of war and had served as navigating officer in H.M.S. Monowai. Four years ago Lieutenant Blacklaws married Miss Ruth Scott. There is a daughter, Sonya, aged two. His mother resides in Aberdeen. A brother was in the Dunkirk evacuation. There are several brothers in South Africa.
LOSS OF PURIRI – STRUCK A MINE FIVE LIVES LOST VERDICT AT INQUEST Evening Post 15 August 1941
That the deceased lost their lives through H.M.S. Puriri, on which they were serving, striking a mine in the Hauraki Gulf, was the verdict returned by the Coroner, Mr F. K. Hunt, at an inquest today on five members of the crew of the Puriri, who were either killed by an explosion or drowned on May 14 while engaged in minesweeping.
They were Douglas William Blacklaws, 37, naval lieutenant, married,. of Herne Bay; Barndt August Mattson, 30, stoker petty officer, single, of Whenuapai; Leon Purkin, 27, able seaman, single, of the Putaruru district; John Richardson,- 31, steward, single, no relatives in New Zealand; George Edward Roy Hobley, steward, married, of Sandringham, Auckland.
Lieutenant Arthur Holmwood Hyde gave evidence that he was an officer on the Puriri on May 14. About 11 a.m. the vessel struck a mine and sank within two or three minutes. Lieutenant Blacklaws was on the bridge, and was carried away by the blast. He was last seen falling into the sea among stone ballast and other debris. Mattson was. in his cabin doing a watch below, and was no doubt killed in his bunk. Purkin was washing his hands in the forecastle, and must have been killed instantaneously. Richardson and Hobley were working in the wardroom or the pantry, both of which were wrecked, and death would have been instantaneous.
Immediately the Puriri sank boats were lowered from H.M.S. Gale, which was engaged in minesweeping with the Puriri, and an extensive search was made for survivors, but none could be found. Since the sinking a search of the waters and the coast had been made by naval patrols, police launchmen, and settlers, but no trace of the bodies was found.
The story continues
HMS Puriri Memorial
By David Wistrand Vice President Waipu RSA
HMNZS Puriri – The Forgotten War Dead in New Zealand
Background Early in 2010 I was approached at the Waipu Golf Club on the grounds I was an ex Navy man and asked if I could help the family of a Lieutenant Blacklaws (the Commanding Officer of the Puriri) install a memorial to the sinking and the consequent loss of five lives. After 24 years in the Royal NZ Navy such a sinking was news to me, so I contacted Ian Sage, the son in law of Lt Blacklaws who was driving the memorial idea on behalf of his wife Sonya, daughter of Lt Blacklaws.
I will not go into all the details of the events leading up to the sinking, but a description is provided at the end of this briefing. Sufficient to say that in the last few months some progress has been made on the possibility of the memorial, in fact better than that, the memorial will become a fact, but some assistance is still required, hence I am addressing this group.
When Puriri sank five lives were lost – the result of hitting a mine laid by the German Raider “Orion” and in the official records “Orion” is credited with the sinking (along with RMS Niagara) in the same area of Bream Bay Whangarei. Puriri lies 050 degrees 8 nautical miles off Whangarei Heads and this is how close the war came to this part of the world and sailors died as a direct result of enemy action. They didn’t have to be “Returned”, the war come to them in the form of death and indeed “forgotton”. covered up due to wartime secrecy issues and it is now time to “Remember Them”
What has Happened?
- The Whangarei District Council has approved a site on park land at Whangarei Heads and it could not be a better site, from both a public viewing point of view, or proximity to the sinking.
- The Veterans Association has approved a grant of $5000.00 and the cheque is in the bank.
- The Chief of the Navy has promised an Inshore Patrol Vessel to stand off the site for the opening and unveiling of the memorial on the 14th May 2011, 70 years to the time and date of the sinking and loss of life.
- The Chief of the Navy Rear Admiral Parr has agreed to dedicate the memorial.
- Whangarei based Funeral Directors and Masons have agreed to contribute to the construction of the memorial and engraving costs.
The History and Facts
On the 14th of May 1941 five sailors of the Royal New Zealand Navy died when their minesweeper hit a mine bearing 050 eight nautical miles of Bream Head Whangarei. These crew members of HMS Puriri, a converted minesweeper, were actively searching for a reported mine in company of the “HMS Gale” “when a violent explosion occurred and she blew up. Her Commanding Officer Lieutenant Blacklaws and four ratings – Stoker Petty Officer Mattson, Able Seaman Purkin and Stewards Richardson and Hobley – were killed and one officer and four ratings were wounded. The vessel sank so quickly that there was no time to lower boats and the crew were ordered over the side by the first lieutenant. The surviving five officers and twenty-one ratings were picked up by the “Gale”.
The loss of HMS Puriri and the death of members of her crew were subject to War Time censorship and the event has largely been ignored since then. The mines laid by the German Raider Orion also claimed the RMS Niagara in the same general vicinity, though with no loss of life. It is possible that these Naval Officer’s and Men were the only active servicemen killed in New Zealand waters, who were actively conducting operations when they were killed.
HMS Puriri (No. 93,999) was a steel hulled, twin-screw motor ship of 927 tons gross. Built in 1938 by Henry Robb Limited, at their Victoria Shipyard in Leith, Scotland. Length 188.2 Feet, beam 35.2 feet with a draft of 12.05 feet. Prior to being taken over by the Navy Department she was owned by the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company of Nelson. The New Zealand Maritime Index lists her – Type of Fate “Destroyed by Enemy Action”. The exact position of the wreck was established (date unknown but probably between 1970-80) by an under water camera operated by Mr Keith Gordon from the launch Cara Mia out of Tutakaka. The camera was able to look inside the Puriri identify a toilet bowl, intact porthole and a mounted gun on the stern. The wreck was covered in fishing nets and at that time leaking a small amount of oil. The newspaper report by Graham Scott in Tutakaka also indicated that an inquest had been told that the ship sank in three minutes.
At the time of sinking Puriri was in company with HMS Gale searching for a reported mine in the area. The mine had been located by a fishing launch Pearline, which reported having fouled the mine when hauling in her net. The naval launch Rawea located the mine and secured it to a buoy. Gale and Puriri left Urqharts Bay and proceeded in rough seas. Puriri followed Gale seemingly without any specific orders to do anything else. When unable to locate the buoyed mine Gale turned to starboard in a circular movement. The Puriri followed Gales wake with a bearing placing her 1.5 miles due west of the reported position of the mine. Puriri was taking another set of bearings when she struck the mine and blew up.
A subsequent enquiry placed the blame on the Commanding Officer of the Gale (as the senior officer of the searching ships) “in that he did fail to carry out an organised search and to take proper charge of HMS Puriri”.
The site – The memorial will rise two metres from below the viewing deck for the plague to be readable from the deck.