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15 October 2014
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LOSS OF THE SS ROTORUA - 11 Dec 1940

by rogermgreen

Contributed by 
rogermgreen
People in story: 
Ernest William (Bill) Green
Location of story: 
North Atlantic
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A5883465
Contributed on: 
24 September 2005

Bill Green (ringed) and rescued crew clamber aboard HMS Varanga (MS commandeered trawler) 13 Dec 1940.

(SS ROTORUA - New Zealand Shipping Company - 10,980 tons)

Earlier in the year, the SS Rotorua had originally departed for Australia but had been subject to repeated torpedo attacks on the outward voyage, which although surviving, had required her to put into Panama for repair . She then continued to Auckland, New Zealand to discharge her passengers before being put into dry dock to be made watertight at Port Chalmers. She subsequently made her way back through the Panama Canal and returned via the port of Lyttleton, Halifax as part of convoy HX-92 with the convoy Commodore on board.
In his written personal account to record the event, my uncle, Bill Green, now 96 yrs old and then the 2nd Purser on board, describes both the attack on the outbound voyage and, as they made for their return destination of Avonmouth, the fateful attack by U- boat 96.

"We sailed outward bound for Australia with child refugees from Liverpool and were attacked by a German wolf pack. We lost 15 ships or more with repeated attacks for 2 weeks.
A torpedo struck us amidships, the alarm sounded to man the lifeboats and get all the children off first. However, the ship kept afloat and we managed to get to the Panama Canal Zone.
Divers went down below the water-line and found 75ft of the stabiliser had been sheared off the starboard side of the hull. She was then temporarily repaired.
Homeward bound with a cargo of food and meat, SS Rotorua was hit by her second torpedo on 11th December 1940 at 1o' clock in the afternoon. The torpedo struck us amidships flooding the engine room, and we sank in 15 minutes with many lives lost.
I went to look for my friend, and when I got back all the lifeboats on the port side had sailed off. On the starboard side they were all storm-wrecked except one. We lowered this one and filled it with crew. The suction from the sinking ship was very hard to get away from and our hands were sore with rowing.
We eventually rowed away, the ship went down stern first and she stood up like a tall skyscraper and sank slowly into the deep sea.
The German submarine appeared on the surface in mid-Atlantic with the intention of machine- gunning us and taking prisoners. A ship from the convoy hung back and fired 6 shells; 3 along the side of the submarine and 3 very close onto the bow. … the danger to us and the rest of the lifeboats…
To escape we then raised the jib and sailed away - we had 500 miles to complete if we ever reached the mainland. The weather was cold in the Atlantic in December. I don't think we would have survived 2 days.
However, after a day we were sighted by a Sunderland flying boat from the RAF reconnaissance patrol. We managed to send a flare up into the sky and after 2 or 3 she sighted us. She dipped her wings and photographed us and signalled that a trawler would eventually pick us up. The Sunderland then vanished into the distant sky.
The cold weather was getting the better of us and I felt frozen to death. You do not survive long in the Atlantic in the winter with no warm clothes on.
However a trawler sighted us and picked us up. I was suffering from hypothermia and cold. After a few days more we landed at Stornoway, Scotland. A week or more had passed before we got home to Liverpool. "

The sinking of the ship took the lives of 16 crew and 5 RN service personnel, and included the convoy Commodore, Rear Admiral Fitzgerald, and the Master of the vessel, Capt E.R.H.Kemp.
102 crew members survived, as did a Chinese prisoner and all of the 27 passengers.

SS Rotorua lies at a position 58.5N / 11.08W; approximately 110 miles west of St.Kilda.

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