Many Home boats were lost, especially in 1917/18 when Germany stepped up its submarine warfare against Allied commerce. But one action stood out, an epic battle between the New Zealand Shipping Co freighter Otaki and the German auxiliary cruiser Moewe (‘Seagull’).
On 3 September New Zealand honoured Merchant Navy Day. Here we explore the little-known but vital role played by the merchant marine during the First World War. As in the Second World War, in 1914-18 these civilian seafarers often found themselves in the front lines of the war at sea.
Most of New Zealand's Second World War POWs were captured in the European theatre in the early stages of the war. Only about 100 New Zealand servicemen fell into Japanese hands, mainly airmen or seamen attached to the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force.
For the Merchant Navy the cost of victory was high: between 1939 and 1945 almost 5000 Allied and neutral merchant vessels (over 21 million tons' worth) were sunk, and around 60,000 seafarers were killed – more than half of them while sailing under the red duster (red ensign) of the British Empire and Dominions.
Although it was waged half a world away, few military campaigns were as vital to New Zealand's interests as the Battle of the Atlantic. A German victory, which would have severed this country's links with Britain, was one of the gravest threats New Zealand has ever faced.