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RMS Niagara: New Zealand’s close encounter with WWII enemy action

By Julia Wade

RMS Niagara-336Nearly 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.

Light leakage for now but…

Coincidentally, the Gold & Oil exhibition in Mangawhai is showing a year after the Auckland Conservation Board received a detailed report about the RMS Niagara from Auckland councillor Mike Lee. The report explains that a risk assessment survey is required to assess ‘the structural integrity… and degradation of hull and tank area’ and when heavy bunker oil is released into the ocean ‘it breaks into patches or forms tar balls rather than forming a single slick, with 5-10 percent evaporating within hours of release.... and the remaining oil drifting and coating everything it comes into contact with – ships, birds, marine life, beaches and coastlines.’

Oil has been reported to be leaking for several years from the Niagara according to a spokesperson from Maritime NZ who monitor the shipwreck site.

“It is standard practice internationally for vessels to report oil in the water to maritime authorities. The Niagara wreck lies below one of New Zealand’s busiest shipping routes… and small traces of oil leaking from the shipwreck are reported to Maritime NZ by the many vessels that use this area,” the spokesperson says. “All the small spills in recent years have been found to have naturally dispersed, with no observed environmental impact.”

Focus also contacted Greenpeace for comment however a reply was not received at time of print.

n To read the Mike Lee report go to mikelee.co.nz/2017/10/the-wreck-of-the-niagara-a-clear-and-present-danger/


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

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