Friday, 16 September 2011

The Emirau Incident - 1

This account of the sinking of the Rangitane (full story on link) seems to make fairly light of the incident and its aftermath. For historical record, it is worthy of a read though.

Stornoway Gazette, 28 November 1941


The brief dark hours of a November night last year "down under" were nearly over. At radio stations in Australia and New Zealand, operators, earphones clasped to their heads sat bored but alert. The night had been uneventful except for routine traffic. Then out of space came a message which was to prove the prologue to a drama of murder and piracy almost unparalleled in the annals of the sea.

Rangitane calling - Rangitane calling - suspicious vessel in sight. Stand by for further news.

It was 3.40 am and the captain had retired to his cabin when suddenly the lookout man saw a dark blur on the port bow. The officer of the watch rang for Captain Upton, and in two minutes the master of the ship, with a dressing gown over his shoulders, was on the bridge. The two officers were dumbfounded when they saw not one ship but three, perilously closed to the Rangitane.

The Rangitane's decks were now a blaze of light. From the three ships that had closed right around her searchlights operated from the mastheads closed on her like a trap. As the gunners got the range, shell after shell began to fall on the liner. In five minutes, the Rangitane became a shambles. She was ablaze. Women in their ganoy were calling for help. Many cabins on the port side had been wrecked and to add to the confusion, the electric light had failed. Officers and men comforted the passengers as the shells exploded. In the bowels of the ship, the crew fought fires. Passengers, choked and blinded, struggled into alleyways in the darkness, groping for staircases and lifts. From smashed pipes came streams of water.
The women were marvellous as the Germans themselves testified later. Captain Upton said it might have been a church parade, so calm was everybody.

On the raiders

The 300 odd survivors from the Rangitaine drew alongside the raiders to be greeted by a crowed of shock-headed young Germans, who hung over the railings and jeered. Some of them were taking movie pictures.
Coffee brought from the galley was filthy stuff, full of grounds and black as ink. For food, the Huns provided large slices of bread, smothered with evil-smelling lard that no one could eat.
Heaven alone knows what some of the passengers endured. Children with shattered limbs, women suffering agony from shell wounds and members of the Rangitane's complement with nothing but what they stood up in were herded indiscriminately by the raiders.
Many of the Nazi officers spoke excellent English. The stout doctor,clad in spotless white drill and only anxious to please, expressed great wonderment that none of the women ever gave way to tears. "Well, you see, doctor," replied one of the women, "How can we cry, we haven't any handkerchiefs". This failed to penetrate the doctor's sense of humour, but he sent down half a dozen handkerchiefs. The women complained that they had no clothes, apart from what they were wearing, so he gave them sheets to cut up. Forty-eight hours later English women were walking about the decks of the raiders wearing white shorts and skirts.
When dusk came, the prisoners had to return to the holds, hatch covers were clamped over them and for 16 hours at least there was nothing to do but to sit and stew in the foul airless atmosphere and discuss with endless argument how the raiders had almost to a hundred yards the Rangitane's route.
After wearisome days of steaming, days interspersed with tragedy as ship after ship was sunk by the pirate flotilla and the Island of Nauru was shelled, the raiders reached Emirau Island in the Bismarck archipelago. That was on December 21st. To their joy, the prisoners were told they were going to be put ashore.

On Emirau Island

On the jetty, hands outstretched, were four lean sunburnt Aussies, taking as a matter of course the arrival of the strange convoy and eager to hear what had happened. They had brought a motor lorry to carry women and baggage to their plantation.
On the verandas of their home, the planter and his wife, undismayed at the prospect of looking after 500 strangers, waited to greet them. The guest house was turned into a hospital for the wounded and the rest of the castaways, tired out, slept on the grass.
A greater problem was food. Cook, the cobra planter, who ruled Emirau, slaughtered a greatly prized bullock for fresh meat, and by midday this was cut up and sizzling appetisingly over scores of camp fires dotted along the sands. But a bullock was barely a day's ration among so many, and parties of castaways went roaming over the island for papayas, limes and yams. The natives, descendants of fuzzy haired head hunters and fierce cannibals, were friendly. From their villages they brought sweet potatotes and other tropical vegetables as gifts.
The sunkissed days that followed were as near perfection as anything can be in this world. Around the fires, they would be listening to the whispering surf and talking of home and presently someone would begin to sing "Lily of Laguna", "Home Sweet Home", or some other nostalgic melody. Then they would all join in and the tune would go sweeping over the island to the wheezy accompaniment of an old concertina.
Often the natives would come down from the village and listen to their singing. A missionary had taught them English, and they would sing in high pitched voices, old Chapel hymns or sometimes, to the soft background of strumming ukuleles, they would chant the haunting folksongs of the island. At sunset on Christmas eve, a party of carol singers, men, women and children, set out to tour the principal camps. Twelve thousand miles away in England, other carollers were singing "Good King Wenceslas" and "Oh Come Let Us Adore Him" and there on Emirau the same words went echoing sweetly through the palm trees.
On December 27th, a small steamer dropped anchor off the island. She was the SS Nellore from Queensland and by noon the 500 castaways were lining her decks, waving a last farewell tot he planter and his wife.

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