WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

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When the war came to New Zealand waters

Michael Wynd - Historian at the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Museum

Did you know that in 1917 a German raider named SMS Wolf brought the war to New Zealand waters?

Group portrait of German naval officers with their Dachshunds aboard the SMS Wolf. Courtesy of AWM: P05338.031

In 1917 a German surface raider operated in New Zealand waters laying minefields off Cape Reinga and off the north coast of the South Island. The name of the raider (an armed merchant ship) was SMS Wolf and she arrived off the New Zealand coast in June 1917. Wolf was able to carry out her mission undetected and our government remained unaware of the threat to shipping until after she left New Zealand waters.

It would not be until December 1917 when a bottle containing a message was found on a beach on the island of Toli Toli in the Celebes, now a part of Indonesia. This uniquely nautical means of passing a message was used by Captain T.G. Meadows, the Master of SS Turitella, and a British Merchant Service Officer, who was a prisoner on board the Wolf. In his message he stated that mines had been laid by the raider off South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

How did a German surface raider get to be in New Zealand waters? By late 1916 the German battleships were tied up in port by the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the only avenue for striking at Allied merchant shipping was through the U-boat fleet and surface raiders. Wolf was a merchant ship fitted with seven hidden 150mm guns, four torpedo tubes, 465 mines, and a seaplane. Her major task was to lay mines off Allied ports in the Indian Ocean and act as an independent marauder.

German dock workers at Keil, preparing to load contact mines onto SMS Wolf. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.004.

Starboard view of the German Armed Merchant Raider, SMS Wolf. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.173

Wolf departed Kiel on 30 November 1916 and her first task was to break out of the Royal Navy’s blockade which she successfully managed. She was one of only three surface raiders that managed to fool the British with their disguise as a neutral merchant ship. She laid her first mines off Cape Town in January 1917 and then off Colombo & Bombay the next month. After the presence of Wolf was discovered in the Indian Ocean, the Wolf’s captain took the ship southwards and sailed around New Zealand ending up at the Kermadec Islands in May, where the crew refurbished the engines and fed themselves with the crops left on the island by evacuated farmers.

On 2 June 1917 the cargo ship Wairuna was spotted, and the Wolf’s seaplane dropped a message that if the ship did not stop it would be bombed. The crew complied and did not send out a distress signal. They were taken on board as prisoners of war, joining the other prisoners held aboard the raider. After taking everything from the ship that could be used such as fresh meat, coal, and water, the Wolf’s guns sank the steamer. When Wairuna failed to arrive at its destination on time, it was assumed that she had been lost at sea. Shortly after sinking the Wairuna, a sailing ship was captured and sunk. Wolf tracked potential targets by radio messages sent by radio operators in New Zealand and Australia.

The Friedrichshafen FF.33e two seater biplane aircraft which was stowed on board SMS Wolf. The aircraft was affectionately named 'Wolfchen' meaning wolf cub or little wolf and was used to send a message to SS Wairuna. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.110

The New Zealand steamship, Wairuna, anchored at Raoul Island after being captured by SMS Wolf on 2 June 1917. Once her crew of 40 and the cargo of cheese, milk, meat and 1200 tons of coal were transferred aboard the raider, the steamer was sunk by explosives on 17 June 1917. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.053.

Burning on the surface in the distance is the 567 ton United States four-mast schooner, Winslow, captured off Raoul Island by SMS Wolf on 16 June 1917. Her crew and cargo were transferred aboard before she was set alight and left to burn on 22 June 1917. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.057.

Wolf then headed south to New Zealand to lay mines. On the night of 25 June 1917, 25 contact mines were laid in the shipping lane from Auckland to Australia near the Three Kings Islands. She then steamed down the west coast of the North Island and on the night of 27 June laid 35 contact mines off Farewell Spit at the northern tip of the South Island. This was a point where ships coming from the Tasman had to enter the Cook Strait. In 1917 New Zealand had no navy to protect our home waters. Our only warship, HMS Philomel, was tied up at Wellington and unable to carry out patrols.

There would be deadly consequences as a result of the mines laid by the raider SMS Wolf in New Zealand waters. The first victim of the Wolf’s mines was the steamer Port Kembla which left Melbourne on 12 September 1917, carrying general cargo for London via Wellington and Panama. At 12.50am on the morning of the 18th while approaching Farewell Spit Lighthouse a terrific explosion was experienced by the crew. They – and a later government inquiry – assumed it was the result of a bomb placed in the cargo rather than a mine. Fortunately, none of the crew were injured, and they were rescued from the ship’s boats by a passing vessel later that morning.

Group portrait of unidentified German naval officers aboard SMS Wolf. The four officers sitting in the front row each hold a Dachshund dog, the first of which was brought on board the ship as a pet and gave birth to a number of puppies during the voyage. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.031.

In February 1918, after the discovery of Captain Meadows’ message in the bottle, the government announced that a mine had been located near Cape Farewell, much to the surprise of the general public. Warning notices were broadcast to all merchant vessels operating in New Zealand waters, but were quite vague due to the limited information Captain Meadows was able to provide. Sufficient directions were given to the captains of merchant ships that, if obeyed, would keep ships clear of the known danger areas.

Despite these warnings and specific instructions to keep to the northward of Three Kings Islands and outside the 100 fathom line, Captain Kell of the cargo and passenger ship SS Wimmera was not convinced. Around 5.15 am on 26 June 1918, Wimmera struck two mines in the minefield off North Cape and sank. Captain Kell and 24 others lost their lives.

To remove the threat of the Wolf’s mines, the government chartered two fishing trawlers – Nora Niven and Simplon – as well as the whaling ship Hananui II for minesweeping duties. The sweeping of the minefields around Farewell Spit and Three Kings Islands started in February 1918 and continued until May 1919.

Five of Wolf’s mines washed ashore in New Zealand in 1918 and 1919, one of which killed four people at Waikouria Creek, north of Raglan, in April 1919.

After a voyage of 100,000 kilometres Wolf successfully arrived back at Kiel on 24 February 1918 having accounted for 140,000 tons of Allied merchant ships. For the majority of her voyage her presence was never suspected.

A group portrait of SMS Wolf's coal stokers. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial, collection ID P05338.081.

Date added: 22 June 2017 | Last updated: 27 June 2017