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U-boat comes calling

Marking the 75th anniversary of the time when a German submarine, U-862, entered Gisborne's harbour

Mike Shone, brother of author the late Gerald Shone, has helped in the production of a special edition of his brother’s book, U-boat in New Zealand Waters, first printed in 2016. The new printing is to mark the 75th anniversary of the time U-862 entered Gisborne’s harbour on January 15, 1945. Wynsley Wrigley reports.

The German submarine U-862 crept into Gisborne Harbour around midnight, reliant on stealth, skill, audacity and an unsuspecting populace.

U-Boat Commander Heinrich Timm, tired of waiting out in Poverty Bay for targets to sink, was correct to rely on a complacent Gisborne public.

Most of Gisborne's defences — such as they were — had been removed by 1945, with Japanese forces pushed back too far to pose a threat of invasion.

World War 2 was entering its sixth year and U-862 had sailed into New Zealand waters after sinking two ships off Australia.

The two most high-profile military components of Gisborne's defences, the five-inch calibre single gun at the summit of Kaiti Hill, and the RNZAF airbase at Darton Field, now Gisborne Airport, were no longer operational.

U-862 remained unsighted by civilians and military personnel during the day as it lay in wait 3.2 kilometres from the harbour near Tuamotu Island.

Crew members took turns to look through the periscope.

Gisborne swimmers, like their counterparts around the country late in the war, had called for their beaches to be made available again and 6.25 tons of barbed wire was removed from Gisborne beaches by late 1944.

January 14, 1945 was a cold day, however, and Gisborne's city beaches would not have been busy as the crew of U-862 watched.

Dr Gunther Reiffenstuhl, first watch officer on U-862, reported seeing people walking along city streets and a man lighting a fire on the beach.

At night, houses were lit up, street lighting operated and cars drove with their headlights on.

“A bright glow from this non-darkened town of 12,000 people is visible on the horizon.

“The people here are all so wonderfully unsuspecting.”

U-Boat's two-week-long presence off NZ never detected

The U-Boat's two-week-long presence off New Zealand was never detected and U-862 never sank a ship in New Zealand waters.

The five-inch gun on Kaiti Hill had been dismantled only weeks before, in December 1944.

Its location was decided after survey work conducted by the Public Works Department in 1942, when fears of a Japanese invasion were at their height.

According to a recent archaeological assessment of Titirangi/Kaiti Hill, both a gun emplacement and observation post were established on the summit, and were connected by buried prefabricated tunnels.

The emplacement was ready by September with the gun being mounted on the 13th, according to Gerald Shone.

Ammunition did not arrive until January 1943 and the adjoining camp for the soldiers (in the grass area, down the stairs to the west of today's carpark) was completed in February.

The gun was originally manned 24 hours a day by members of the 77th Heavy Battery who slept at Te Poho o Rawiri Marae until the eight-man accommodation block was built.

Darton Field had been closed in October 1944 with most RNZAF combat aircraft being sent into the Pacific.

The airfield was commissioned the year before as an RNZAF base when No.8 General Reconnaissance Squadron of Vincent Vildebeests was stationed there.

The squadron's main purpose was anti-submarine patrols and general reconnaissance of the eastern sea approaches to New Zealand.

In September 1943, it was re-formed as No.30 Dive Bomber Squadron using Grumman Avengers.

A second Bomber Squadron (No.31) of Grumman Avengers also trained at Darton Field.

No.2 Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron, using twin-engined Lockheed Ventura bombers, was based at Darton Field between June and October 1944.

Fast forward to January 15, 1945 and at 9pm, Commander Timms ordered his submarine to surface and begin the journey into Gisborne's harbour on a night of total darkness.

He relied on his ship's electric motors which, unlike the diesel engines, were virtually silent and left a less discernable wake.

Commander Timms kept U-862 “trimmed” with the deck awash and only the conning tower riding out of the water.

There was more potential danger from New Zealand military forces in the harbour. In 1942 machine gun posts in sandbagged emplacements had been set up at the Harbour Board's administration building in Reads Quay on the harbour's western bank, and near the Cook Monument on the Kaiti beach foreshore on the eastern side of the harbour.

Gerald Shone believed it was unlikely they were still manned when U-862 came into the harbour.

“Gisborne had virtually de-militarised itself by the end of 1944.”

As early as October 1943, the Under Secretary to Treasury had advised that removal or demolition of air-raid shelters could begin nationwide, and on December 1, 1943, the War Cabinet approved lump sum compensation to businesses claiming loss of income from shelter construction on their premises.

Gerald Shone quotes fellow researcher Peter Cooke as saying there had been 37 defensive “section posts” in and around Gisborne, mainly sand-bagged emplacements equipped with machine guns. These included three “weapons pits” and 10 concrete pillboxes, some of which are still visible today — most notably the one near the Gisborne i-Site visitor information centre in Grey Street.

Gerald Shone said these were probably all unmanned when U-862 came into Poverty Bay.

One of five men in the conning tower as U-862 came into the harbour noted a large hill on the right (Kaiti Hill) was “as dark as the night”.

“A good protection.”

Couples could be seen dancing.

“The people in this harbour have no idea of a war and its sorrow.”

Commander Timms saw no target worth sinking.

Out in Poverty Bay he had made the same decision concerning Gisborne's dredge named AC.

Any sinking would give away the presence of the U-Boat.

U-862 reversed out of the harbour and sailed on to Hawke's Bay.

MAN-OF-WAR: U-Boat U-862 sank seven merchant or liberty ships and shot down one RAF Catalina during World War 2 but did not fire a torpedo or shell in Poverty Bay. Its 55-man crew survived the war sailing to Japanese occupied territory after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Picture courtesy of Mike Shone
UNSUSPECTING: Swimmers at Waikanae Beach in 1937. Eight years later the crew of U-862 remained undetected as they watched people in the town and on the beaches. Picture courtesy of Mike Shone
READY TO FIRE: Gunners train with the five-inch gun based on Kaiti Hill during World War 2. The gun was only operational in 1943 and 1944, and was dismantled weeks before U-862 entered Poverty Bay unsighted. Picture courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum

  1. Rosanne Robertson, Wellington says:

    Hello – I have been helping write a short biography of Lloyd Cross, a WWII veteran who took the surrender (one of two) at Trieste in May 1945 from the head of a German garrison at San Giusto castle. I have not so far managed to find his name. The German had been on UBoats in World War I and II and I wondered if the book might have also touched on this subject. A long shot! But thanks if you can help.