By Julia Wade
Nearly 78 years ago the eastern waters of Bream Bay became the scene of the first maritime act of war in the Pacific, which led to the sinking of the British luxury liner the ‘RMS Niagara’, aka the ‘Titanic of the Pacific’.
The ensuing recovery mission of a secret stash of South African gold bullion on board the vessel, on its way to Britain to help pay for war resources and worth $120 million today, was in waters of such depth it became one of the greatest marine salvages of its time.
In early June 1940 the German cruiser ‘Orion’, masquerading as a merchant vessel, slunk into the seas between Whangarei Heads and Great Barrier Island and proceeded to carry out their mission – laying a minefield of 228 explosives across the approaches to Auckland Harbour, in order to sink naval and merchant ships.
After refuelling at Auckland’s port on the evening of June 19, the Niagara struck one of the mines, the detonation ripping a large hole in her starboard and leading to the vessels inevitable descent to the depths of the Hauraki Gulf, taking the gold and sadly, possibly the ships cat, Aussie, with her.
Due to the calm conditions of the night and quick actions of the crew, all 351 people on board were saved. The only human tragedy connected to the disaster was when the minesweeper, HMS Puriri was struck and sunk by one of the German mines in May 1941, killing the five people on board.
A salvage mission for the gold began in December 1940, a daunting task due to the depth of the wreck and lurking mines. Out of the 590 bars of gold, 585 were eventually recovered, with the remaining five allegedly still claimed by the Northland waters.
n For a detailed story on the RMS Niagara, visit Mangawhai Museum, Molesworth Drive, or pick up a copy of ‘Deepwater Gold’ by Keith Gordon, for a detailed read on sale at reception.
RMS Niagara, the first British oil fuelled passenger ship to operate the trans-Pacific route for 25 years was described by media as the ‘Titanic of the Pacific’. However the name was soon changed to ‘Queen of the Pacific’ after the Titanic sank in 1912. – PHOTO/nzhistory.govt.nz