Somewhere off the North African port of Béjaïa, deep on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, lie the remains of the greatest ship ever built for the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand. Her wreck has been there since Armistice Day 1942, 75 years this November. Unfortunately for TSS Awatea, troop-carrying while on New Zealand Articles, 11 November 1942 brought no armistice only fiery Armageddon in just the seventh year of her life, 11,300 nautical miles from home.
Fitted out at Glasgow as an LSI, a landing ship infantry, the Awatea sailed on 26 October 1942 from Gourock on the upper Firth of Clyde with approximately 1,300 troops embarked. They comprised elements of the US Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion together with the British Army’s Number 6 Commando, a battalion-sized infantry assault unit whose commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Iain F McAlpine. Beneath her davits, in place of the Awatea’s ‘Birmabright’ 80-seat aluminium lifeboats, sat ten motorised landing barges lashed to the ship’s side outboard of her boat deck. In the Firth of Clyde LSI Awatea took station in Convoy KMF1, outbound for the Mediterranean and Operation Torch – the Allied landings in North Africa. Eventually to comprise 20 deeply-laden transports, KMF1 was led by the headquarters ship HMS Bulolo flying the flag of the operation’s Eastern Naval Task Force Commander, Vice- Admiral Sir Harold M Burrough.
At dusk on Saturday 7 November, LSI Awatea and the six fast troopships belonging to her sector - all of them requisitioned passenger liners - altered course and commenced high-speed steaming for the port city of Algiers. They had stopped engines at their assault position, some distance to seaward of Algiers, by 10.30pm. Because of inexperience with the handling of scramble nets and landing barges, Admiral Burrough reported in his 8 December 1942 despatch that ‘landing craft for Red 1, 2, 3 and 4 Beaches were very late in getting away from Awatea and one group had to be left behind.’ At 4 next morning, 8 November, the Awatea shifted to a new position 12 miles west along the coast. Disembarkation of troops and stores continued there until late that Sunday night.
By 12.45pm next day, Monday 9 November 1942, the Awatea had returned to anchor in the roadstead off Algiers. Late the following morning she weighed and proceeded into Algiers harbour, berthing there at 1.30pm. Throughout that afternoon and the evening of 10 November, LSI Awatea embarked a Royal Air Force servicing commando along with stores including 1,360 four-gallon tins of high-octane aviation spirit. They were all to go ashore as part of a seaborne assault on Jijel, another port city known then as Djidjelli, located east of Algiers on the North African coast. Objective for the landing was seizure of Djidelli aerodrome so that RAF fighters might use it as a forward base.
Escorted by HM escort destroyers Bicester and Wilton, LSI Awatea departed Algiers at 11.10pm, steaming through the night to be at the assault’s release point by 6am on Wednesday 11 November. A heavy swell was running; daylight revealed high surf on the landing beaches and so the assault had to be cancelled. Steaming once more at high speed, the Awatea returned along the coast to ‘a place called Bougie’ where she anchored off the breakwater by 10am in company with three other fast transports and numerous ships of the Royal Navy. Today Bougie has the name Béjaïa. From 11 that morning, Armistice Day 11 November 1942, LSI Awatea commenced discharging all troops and cargo using her landing barges.
The unloading work was interrupted at 1.30pm by enemy aircraft, all antiaircraft guns aboard the transports and escorts going into action to produce a concentrated barrage into skies sunny and clear. LSI Awatea had a defensive armament comprising one 4-inch quick-firer mounted on the roof of her poop deckhouse, a single Bofors 40- mm gun, 10 single Oerlikon 20-mm guns and a mixture of rocket-firing weapons, 12 in number. Two bombs fell into the sea close-by the Awatea then a second attack began at 2pm. This was made by four CANT Z.1007 Alcione three-engined bombers of the Italian Regia Aeronautica. One of the aircraft flew along her starboard side, machine-gunning the upper decks fortuitously without hitting aviation fuel still to be unloaded. Attempting to climb away astern of the ship, a shell from the Awatea’s 4-inch exploded beneath the Italian plane, sending it crashing into a hillside. The ‘all clear’ was sounded at 2.30pm, no ships having been hit. At 4.25pm, as soon as the last troops and fuel tins were gone, and with all her landing barges hoisted back aboard, the Awatea received orders leave Bougie immediately and proceed to Algiers then Gibraltar. She got underway at 4.30pm.
Six minutes later, the senior officer commanding LSI Awatea’s destroyer escort ran up the flag signal ‘air warning’ on his halyards. From the destroyer’s compass platform a signalling lamp flashed urgently in Morse: ‘assume first degree anti-aircraft readiness.’ With all boilers set away, the Awatea’s geared turbines rapidly worked up to 105 rpm on both shafts. Guns’ crews went to ‘action stations, repel aircraft’ greatly heartened by their earlier success. This time, however, the Awatea no longer had the benefit of massed fire from an anchorage filled with heavily armed transports and warships. Nor the intervention of RAF Spitfires whose pilots had shown Battle of Britain zeal in breaking up earlier attacks. And this time, it was the Luftwaffe.
At 4.40pm, suddenly from low cloud, a formation of up to 30 German Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined dive bombers appeared above the Awatea. Dive bombing commenced with the ship straddled by a forest of near-misses then, from 4.53pm, taking direct hits. A stick of bombs fell into Numbers 1 and 2 holds, both of which were empty, and detonated in the ‘tween decks. With nothing to absorb their force, the explosions vented through the ship’s hull low down on the starboard side, tearing away whole strakes of rivetted plating. Blown aloft, part of the steel covers for Number 2 hatch landed on the starboard wing of Awatea’s bridge, completely wrecking it. Another hatch lid, similarly cannoned upwards, demolished the after end of what had once been the Awatea’s first class promenade deck. Widespread fires erupted in the forward part of the ship. Near-misses to port and starboard blew-in the Awatea’s superstructure at its fore end, shattering the accommodation there. An attempt was made to turn back for Bougie, no more than two miles astern, with the hope of beaching her. She began swinging in response to ‘hard-a-port’ but all telegraph, telephone and telemotor communications from the bridge were soon lost.
Heinkel He 111 torpedo bombers followed the Ju 88s. They descended from both sides in a co-ordinated cross-cross attack with LSI Awatea again the sole target. At 5.25pm two thumping explosions were felt, seconds apart, as aerial torpedoes struck the vessel’s port side between Number 2 funnel and the mainmast. The engine room’s aft transverse watertight bulkhead collapsed, releasing an avalanche of flood-water onto the main machinery. Beneath the cataract went all three sets of British Thomson-Houston 450kW geared steam turbogenerators supplying the ship with electricity at 220 volts DC. All lighting and all fresh water supply pumps ‘blacked’ as a result, bringing firefighting efforts to an end. The Awatea, her head to the west, took a 40-to-45-degree list to port.