My late father always reckoned that “Queen Elizabeth” made a secret visit to Auckland. He was adamant about this. By chance, when researching wartime shipping events in Auckland, I came across the truth.
Our family was privileged to spend summer holidays on Rangitoto Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. My father, a member of the St John Ambulance Brigade, would volunteer to staff the island’s first aid post at Rangitoto Wharf and the small premises could just accommodate our family. We would spend several weeks there with plenty of opportunity for adventure for kids … walks to the “interior”, to the summit, Islington and McKenzie Bays. Then there was fishing, swimming and beach-combing along the rock shoreline.
For father it was a return to the place of his wartime duties in the Army, coastal surveillance on both Rangitoto and adjacent Motutapu Islands. So he knew the place quite well.
It was during our stay that several times he mentioned that while on duty on Motutapu he had an ideal vantage point to see an enormous passenger liner. He always said it was Royal Mail Steamer “Queen Elizabeth”, at the time the biggest ship afloat.
As a schoolboy I had often seen the majestic Cunard ship pictured in the likes of “Boy’s Own” paper, encyclopaedias and newspapers: her voyages and celebrity passengers frequently reported.
I did not believe that the iconic liner had been in Auckland even though father was absolutely certain his claim was correct, mentioning it several times. “It’s so big I don’t think it could get into the harbour”, I would say, “she draws more water that the harbour can accommodate even at highest tides and she’d find it a pretty sharp turn around North Head”. But, then, what would I know, based only on information, now a bit hazy, soaked up from books!
RMS Queen Elizabeth
Of 83,000 tons, she was launched in 1938 at John Brown’s yard on the Clydebank in Scotland for the Cunard White Star Line. She was the biggest ship afloat – claim she held for the next 56 years. The liner was designed for the trans-Atlantic trade with her maiden voyage scheduled for April 24th 1940 but World War Two intervened and she was to become a troopship. Under a ruse designed to fool the enemy, on March 3rd 1940 the ship proceeded to sea rather than to Southampton, as had been put around with false trails laid. The subterfuge worked: Queen Elizabeth, repainted in battleship-grey proceeded to New York at full speed while, late afternoon, enemy planes were seen over the Solent at the time the liner would have been berthing.
After fitting-out in New York the ship, now requisitioned for troopship duties, sailed for Singapore’s dry dock in November 1940 for further adaptation for her wartime duties. She had defensive armament added. In February 1941 she began taking troops from Sydney to the Middle East which became a regular “service”. The Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 along with America’s entry into the war and the threat of enemy presence in the South Pacific, notably German and Japanese submarines, meant the ship was laid up in Sydney for some months. Then, in February 1942, it was decided to secretly reposition her to Canada for a survey, her hull to be cleaned of tropical growth and further work to increase the number of berths to some 8,000.
Queen Elizabeth in Auckland
The ship left Sydney on 6th February 1942 and arrived in the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland, New Zealand the following day. She remained anchored off Tiritiri Matangi Island for 2 days, mainly for refuelling.
After which she proceeded to Esquimalt, Vancouver Island, Canada where she arrived 23rd Feb and went into dry dock. The additional bunks were built in, along with associated expanded galleys and services: more armament was fitted. From Canada, the modified Queen Elizabeth went to San Francisco, from where she sailed with 8,000 troops for the 7,700-mile voyage to Sydney… the battle of the Pacific was well underway!
So my father was quite right. The enormous ship he saw in the Gulf was, indeed, the Queen Elizabeth. She had visited in absolute secrecy. Despite her size, her well-known profile and the fact that she must have been seen by thousands of people who lived overlooking the Gulf, nothing percolated in public about her clandestine visit. One might have expected a convoy escorting the big liner but father didn’t mention a clutch of accompanying warships. Several naval histories probably provide the answers, saying authorities often didn’t bother with escorts, banking on Queen Elizabeth’s high speed (average 26 knots) that could out-run most vessels, U boats included.
The fact that the ship stayed outside Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour might have been because, as I had surmised, insufficient depth of water even at high tide. It’s recorded that when it came time to move the brand new ship from John Brown’s shipyard, there were just two high tides each year which provided enough depth. This was known by the Germans – all the more reason for the subterfuge, as explained, about her departure.
Two other reasons the Queen Elizabeth may have “stayed off”: there had been the scare of mines laid by the enemy in the shipping lanes on the approaches to the port which may have been a risk, and then fewer people would have seen her out in the Gulf than had she entered harbour with its seaside suburbs, perhaps helping preserve secrecy.
The giant liner visited without a word of her presence in newspapers, periodicals, magazines nor on any radio programmes.
How Secrecy Was Maintained
Secrecy during wartime was invoked under the Public Safety Conservation Act, 1932, which was designed to “make provision for the protection of the community in cases of emergency. Critics at the time, and since, maintain the measure was used to threaten and take action against political activists and canvassers for social change.
But war-clouds on the horizon constituted an “emergency” in early September 1939 when the Government introduced Regulations under the Act. The Censorship and Publicity Emergency Regulations advised that an emergency had been proclaimed and it was illegal to convey, communicate, mail, telegraph or publish anything likely to be prejudicial to the wartime operations. It was illegal to publish “…in writing or orally or by radiotelegraphy or radio-telephony or otherwise; and in relation to cinematograph-film includes the mechanical or electrical reproduction of any sound in connection with the projection of the film”.
And in the Regulations wartime operations were spelled out as any matter connected with the military, specifically “… the number, description, armament, equipment, disposition, movements, or condition of any of His Majesty’s forces, vessels, aircraft, any operation of any of His Majesty’s forces, vessels, or aircraft, the number, description, armament, equipment, dispositions, movements or condition of any British vessel of the Mercantile Marine , any cargo laden or about to be laden in any ship or commercial aircraft which is about to leave New Zealand or which is in the course of a voyage from New Zealand, or any statement as to the use or intended use in the service of His Majesty of any ship which is about to leave New Zealand or which is in the course of a voyage from New Zealand”.
And just in case the law draftsmen had missed anything in those clauses there was the inevitable catch-all: “Any other matter whatsoever, information as to which would or might be directly or indirectly useful to any State with which His Majesty is at war”.
And the penalty? “…any offence against any such regulation shall be liable on summary conviction before a Magistrate to imprisonment for a term of three months or a fine of one hundred pounds, or both such imprisonment and fine, together with the forfeiture of any goods or money in respect of which the offence has been committed.
The Regulations had two stings in their tail. The usual scope of judicial rules about the admissibility of evidence was widened “… in any prosecution for any such offence the Court may admit such evidence as it thinks fit, whether such evidence would be admissible in other proceedings or not”. And secondly it could be read into the Regulations that they went so far as to outlaw reference to the fact that material had been forbidden from publication under the Act or by order of the Censor.
The Regulations were revoked within days of war’s end on 6th September 1945.
This explains how the visit of Queen Elizabeth remained secret.
My father left it until his visits to Rangitoto in the late 1950s to recall, and mention, the event! And we hardly believed him! As a matter of fact the ship’s visit had been mentioned in an article in The Auckland Star immediately after the end of the war. On 15th September 1945 a reporter drew together the names of many big, well-known or unusual ships that had called during the war years.
Queen Elizabeth’s visit was mentioned along with the biggest ship ever to berth at Auckland wharves, the Ile de France (43,450 tons) in November 1942. Allies’ Warships are listed, including liberty ships, submarines, minesweepers and American ships with hulls made of concrete in order to conserve steel. A U.S. Forces’ convoy led into port late on the afternoon of June 12, 1942 by the 10,000-ton cruiser U.S.S. San Francisco, the transports Uruguay, Santa Clara, President Munro, Tasker H. Bliss and James Parker made a great sight with their decks lined with United States units. Within a week the U.S.T. President Coolidge (25,957 tons) arrived on her initial voyage to New Zealand with United States troops, and she became one of the best-known vessels to visit in war-time. She was later sunk after striking a mine off Espiritu Santos, Vanuatu.
Queen Elizabeth continued troopship duties until the end of the war: she had carried more than 750,000 troops, and sailed some 500,000 miles (800,000 km). She was refitted, enabling her to at last fulfil her real role, luxury trans-Atlantic ocean liner with her sibling RMS Queen Mary. The two dominated the run until the late 1950s when air travel was surpassing the attractions of sea voyages.
Uneconomic, the ship was converted for the tropical Nassau – New York service, but this was unsuccessful, as was the plan for the ship to become a floating hotel in the Florida everglades. Queen Elizabeth was purchased by Asian interests and after a voyage bedevilled by breakdowns and delays, she arrived in Hong Kong intended to be used as Seawise University, a floating institution. But in January 1972 while anchored mid-harbour for renovations, there was a series of suspicious fires on board: the ship was well-involved and the fire-fighting tugs drenched the vessel.
Excessive water was used and the ship capsized and sank. The wreck was declared a danger to shipping and it was some years before all the debris could be recovered.
An ignominious end to a great ship that had impressed my father which had been one of the best-known, admired liners afloat and, in time of war, served the Allied effort so well… and dodged enemy action notwithstanding it must have been regarded as “a prize”.
See also on my website the story of another secret war-time visitor to Auckland: SS TROCAS AND THE BRAVE FIREMAN – A STORY WRAPPED IN WARTIME SECRECY
Papers Past National Museum of New Zealand
Maritime websites and postings
Statutes of New Zealand