Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Greyhound of The Tasman: Awatea

Awatea, Sydney Harbour, 1936
"The Queen of the Tasman Sea" - the Union Steam Ship Company's Awatea, the fastest and most luxurious ocean liner in the Southern Hemisphere.
She was the way to cross the Tasman Sea in the late 1930s. This beautiful liner's life was very brief, but is remembered as an elegant experience…
Built in Barrow-in-Furness UK, and launched by the wife of the NZ Governor-General, Lady Elaine Bledisloe, she arrived "down under" in mid-1936 for a new express service between Australia-NZ.
1930s elegance
She accommodated 566 passengers (377 in 1st.Class, 151 in Tourist Class and 38 in 3rd.Class) to a high standard. Her speed and comfort made her a popular and well-known ship. In the summer of 1937 she made 11 Tasman crossings in 41 days and that same year she cut the times for the Akld.-Sydney and Sydney-Wgtn. passages to less than 56hrs. Her best day was 576 miles, averaging 23.35kts.
Awatea was also known as "The Greyhound of the Tasman" and in Oct.1937 set a record between Akld-Sydney of 55hrs 28min, average speed 22.89kts. To mark this, she was presented with a large stainless steel greyhound that was mounted on the foremast of the ship.
Her captain A.H.Davey was a remarkable seaman and made Awatea well-known through the maritime world, not only due to her excellent speed, but also for his skill. He could manoeuvre her to her berth without the aid of any tugs in all ports, and with amazing accuracy! This was achieved long before side-thrusters…just great seamanship.
At the outbreak of WWII, Awatea was fitted with a 4in.gun aft, and continued plying the Tasman until July 1940, after which she made several trips to Canada and also transported troops and refugees.
While in Vancouver in Sept.1941, Awatea was officially requisitioned for the war effort and ordered to UK for conversion to a troopship. Before departure she was repainted in the traditional wartime grey. But just six hours out of Vancouver, she was rammed by the US tanker Lombardi. This caused three long gashes on her portside, one of which had quite a large hole, thankfully all above the waterline. Awatea returned to Vancouver for repairs and the War Ministry completed her troopship conversion there instead.
The next year (22 Aug.1942), Awatea was in another accident – this time fatal. Troop Convoy AT-20 was in thick fog when one of her escorts, the destroyer USS Buck, crossed too closely in front of Awatea and was almost sliced in two. The destroyer USS Ingraham came to help, but it too crossed in front of another ship! The navy fleet fuel ship, USS Chemung rammed her...Ingraham exploded and capsized: 250 men were lost, with only 11 survivors. Seven died aboard USS Buck. Both Awatea and Chemung were damaged, with fire breaking out on Chemung, however her crew fought the fire all night and were able to control it. The next morning Chemung towed the helpless Buck back to Halifax in the company of two escorts. Awatea, damaged and with over 5,000 troops aboard, also had to turn back...but she was left completely alone, thus a "sitting duck" for any prowling German U-boat. In due course the Royal Canadian Navy arrived to escort her into port. Doesn't say much for the US Navy!
In Nov.1942, Awatea was one of the troopships in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. With insufficient air cover to protect them, Awatea was to become one of Operation Torch's casualties...
On the night of Nov.11 just off Bougie, Algeria, enemy aircraft attacked and dropped two bombs near Awatea. The attack was driven off by concentrated fire from the ships, but soon afterwards four JU-88 bombers came in at low level. Awatea's gunners downed one, another badly damaged by other ships. Awatea headed for the open sea when a wave of aircraft attacked (one report mentions as many as 30). With all her armament firing, the ship proceeded about a mile when she was hit by bombs which set the fore end of the ship ablaze. The captain tried to head to shore, but two torpedoes on the port side damaged the engine room. All guns continued firing until the attack ended: by then she was listing 40 degrees and could not reach shallow water, burning from bridge to bows, and so was abandoned. Remarkably, everyone was saved (except for the ship's cat, apparently killed by a bomb blast). Awatea sank overnight.
some of the rescued kiwi crew
Later, Captain G.B.Morgan was awarded the DSO and several of the crew were decorated as well. Her loss was not announced to the NZ public until April the following year.
As they say, the devil's in the detail. And in Awatea's case, I spotted a curious hiccup. Along with the bombing damage, Ships Nostalgia mentions "…she was torpedoed and sunk by U-407"…
Or was she? credits the U-407 with sinking Viceroy Of India (another big liner/troopship), on the same day off Oran, Algeria. Could U-407 have sunk both ships? Impossible: Oran is over 600km from Bougie, where Awatea sank. So was it an Italian sub? Barbara Tomblin's book "With utmost spirit: Allied naval operations in the Mediterranean, 1942-1945" names the Argo...this is repeated by NZ History On-line: "11 November: Awatea is attacked and disabled by German bombers off Bougie...later sunk by Italian submarine Argo". But an eye witness on the NZ Navy site mentions aerial torpedoes dropped by the JU-88 bombers that were assailing her: "The Awatea was already in a sinking condition when a couple of aerial torpedoes slammed into her port side and exploded just aft of the engine room."
I guess in the end this is nothing more than a minor crease on a page of maritime history...a page about the most elegant liner to have cruised the Tasman, the Awatea, which went down fighting.

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