1928 ~ 1962
A Brief History

The picture shown above left is taken from one of several designs used by Thomas De La Rue & Co. Ltd. on the backs of playing
cards made for the New Zealand Shipping Company

The following is by no means a complete account.  As further information becomes available, the story will be expanded, corrected and updated.  Anyone with any connection to RMS Rangitiki, whether as crew, passenger or just plain friend, is invited to write to me by email at brit1941@yahoo.com

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Throughout its history, the New Zealand Shipping Company had adopted a policy of naming ships with the names of earlier Company vessels sold from fleet or lost at sea, never adding the suffix 2 or II.  Such a ship was the mv Rangitiki.  When the Company was founded in 1873 it owned four iron-hulled sailing vessel.  At something under 1,200 tons the Rangitiki (below), originally named Scimitar by her previous owner, was the largest.  The NZSCo. entered the world of steam ships in 1879, and in 1929 its first diesel-engined motor vessel, our Rangitiki was launched.


Planned in 1925, mv Rangitiki was the first of the three famous ‘Rangi-Boats’ ordered by the New Zealand Shipping  Company (NZSCo) on 16 August 1927 from the John Brown & Co., Ltd. shipyard at Clydebank, Scotland. She was launched on 29 August 1928, but was found to be somewhat unstable in ballast conditions. Prior to her maiden voyage, therefore, some topsides modifications were made including the removal of two sets of samson posts and derricks.

The Rangitiki was delivered to NZSCo on 31 January 1929, and commenced her maiden voyage on 15 February to New Zealand from Southampton to Wellington, via Curacao and the Panama Canal, arriving some five weeks later, thus becoming the first motor ship on a direct route from England to New Zealand.  By the end of May 1929, Voyage 1 was over, and the ship was back in England, whereupon further structural modifications were made to overcome the problem of instability. These modifications included the removal of most of the bridge structure including the associated deck, the shortening of the two funnels, and the installation of additional permanent ballast. Whilst still under construction, the two sister ships, mv Rangitata and mv Rangitane were subjected to the same design changes and alterations and later took to the water in the modified mode. The three 'Rangi-Boats' were immediately identifiable from all other NZSCo ships by their two funnel design, the only ships wearing the Shipping Company's colours to have this feature.  In fact, the fore funnel was a dummy housing the radio room, with a roof hidden from passengers' eyes where certain crew members are said to have been able to sunbathe au naturel!

The differences between the ‘Tiki’s Voyage 1 appearance and that of Voyage 2 can be clearly seen in the 1929 photograph above and the 1930 image below.  The first, one of a series made by a photographer who for the present is unknown, shows the original tall funnels, and the original bridge arrangement, and from the second, one can easily spot the differences.

As NZSCo had a contract with the British postal authorities to carry the mail between Great Britain and New Zealand, the three ‘Rangi’ sisters were among those that were designated ‘RMS’ (Royal Mail Ship). All three became quite famous during their lifetime, and all three were heavily engaged in the carrying of emigrants from the Old World to Britain’s Dominion, New Zealand, and the shipment back to Britain of meat and dairy produce in their refrigerated holds. Alas, the Rangitane was lost during the second world war, sunk by the German raider Orion some 300 miles to the east of New Zealand on 27 November 1940, and that story may be read at the excellent website, The Rangitane Story.

During the war years both the Rangitiki and the Rangitata served as convoy ships on the transatlantic  and South Atlantic routes.  In 1940 the 'Tiki ferried hundreds of children of the evacuation from Britain to Australia.  This was when the noted American newspaper columnist, Ernie Pyle, who later in the war sailed in her to Africa as a war correspondent, first encountered her in Balboa, Panama.  He and his wife were on a two week cruise aboard the (neutral) American liner, Washington, from San Francisco to New York, and in his column he wrote, "How close to pathos we were, as we so gaily slid past the grim and serious Rangitiki."  Both 'Tiki and 'Tata later served as troop ships, each carrying up to 2600 British and American soldiers at a time all over the world.  The Rangitiki went to Melbourne, Sydney, Bombay, Shanghai and Taipei, Egypt and Aden, and was onc onvoy duty to Algeria just two weeks after the Allies invaded Africa.  Sometime after war's end she was inJapan. 

In November 1940, the Rangitiki found herself attracting some unwanted attention from the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.  As she was the largest ship in Convoy HX84 with her very distinctive two-funnel profile, she was a prime (if not the primary) target for the enemy warship. One account includes the paragraph, "The shell was followed by another. Soon the silhouette of a warship emerged, and the firing grew more intense. Immediately the order to scatter was given, and, as the ships obeyed, the raider began to concentrate on the Rangitiki, the largest vessel in the convoy."  But for the gallant action by the sole naval escort, the Armed Merchant Cruiser, HMS Jervis Bay, commanded by Captain Fogarty Fegen, RN, the ‘Tiki’s career may have come to an end in the North Atlantic that evening.  As it is, she was one of the thirty-two ships in the convoy to make safely to port.

Captain Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) posthumously, and the Third Officer that day, Mr. N. Wood, was awarded the DSO. We have included a separate page devoted to this event, and the reader is encouraged to read the several accounts linked from that page.

Little more than a month later, on 24 December 1940 the Rangitiki was sailing with Convoy WS5 on the shipping route to Sierra Leone about 700 miles west of Cape Finnesterre.  The convoy was sighted by the German heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper which shadowed the allied ships through the night.  The German cruiser closed in the early morning of Christmas day 1940, only to discover that the convoy of troop transports was accompanied 

by a large number of armed escorts.  During the ensuing battle, the Hipper sank one merchant ship, and damaged another and the British CA Berwick, but was forced to disengage because of the heavy British escort and engine problems, having also suffered some damage.

The photograph above shows the Rangitiki in her wartime grey, her stern mounted gun clearly visible.  I believe that close scrutiny may reveal anti-aircraft guns as well.  Ernie Pyle was later to write, having been delivered to the "...big British transport Rangitiki at Newport Haven, Wales..." how the ship put to sea after loading troops for two days, tested her guns, then moved aimlessly for a couple of days whilst the convoy formed, heavily escorted by warships of the Royal Navy.  Two weeks later he disembarked in Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria shortly after the invasion of Africa had started.

During the immediate post-war years she ferried immigrants from Malta to Australia, war brides to the United States and servicemen from all over to their homes.   

Originally fitted with two Sulzer
S90 five cylinder, single acting two-stroke diesel engines, the largest of their type, each cylinder with a bore of 900mm, built under licence by John Brown, she was re-engined with replacement Doxford
vertically opposed two-stroke marine engines, together developing 12,920 bhp, in a ten-month period over the change of year 1947/48, when the entire ship was refurbished at a cost of ₤1,500.000.00 for resumption of peacetime service as a cargo liner for the New Zealand trade once more.  The photograph above shows the ship in the shipbuilder's yard with the hind funnel removed whilst the new Doxfords were being installed. 

In 1948, the two sisters were returned to the New Zealand fleet, and carried out their tasks efficiently until 1962. The 'Tiki left Southampton for her first voyage to New Zealand after being returned to commercial service on 26 September 1948 arriving in Wellington five weeks later on 27 October  having survived a week-long storm of hurricane-like proportions.  A passenger from that trip reports that the ship was "pitching in the front, the water flowing across the decks with all the canvas and wood deckchairs either being washed away or blown away by the wind."  By today's standards, these were not large vessels, and a shore-bound person such as this writer can only imagine the conditions brought about by such storms.  One also has to wonder how the crew went about their daily tasks at such times, keeping the ship going, and catering to the needs of several hundred passengers.  The same passenger also reports that before the trip ended, there was a complete reversal of weather conditions and, "...after the week of hurricane weather we apparently came into the tropics and hit a heat-wave, and all the birds were falling on the deck. The passengers took it upon themselves to look after them, but were made to let them go two days before hitting port."  I have been told that, on the same voyage, a flying fish about a foot in length managed to enter a cabin via the open porthole landing in a hand-wash basin.

In 1957, the next to last British Governor-General, Lord Cobham, made the trip to New Zealand aboard the Rangitiki, the last, Sir Bernard Fergusson, making the trip in the new Rangitane in 1962. By early 1959, the 'Tiki had made seventy-nine voyages, and she made another eight before she was sold from fleet and broken up.

The Rangitiki almost suffered the ignominy of having to call to be refloated after running aground for a brief period on the Goodwin Sands within a few hours of leaving Tilbury in 1958. I was unaware of this event until I acquired a
postcard with a hand written notation on the back.  A request for information to Trinity House received the response that there was no record of such an event or subsequent survey.  However, a reference to this incident is made in the book Crossed Flags, and I have subsequently received confirmation of its happening from a storeman aboard at the time.

The 'Tiki made Auckland (below) its first Port of call on thirty-two recorded occasions ~ it may have been one or two more as there are a couple of apparent gaps in the Auckland Harbour Daily Log Cards, and seventy-eight recorded visits to the city in all.  Like all Company ships, she made passage along the New Zealand coast visiting Wellington (the other major first port of call), Napier, Port Chalmers and Tokomaru Bay.  I am told that she also carried out "ferry duty" across the Tasman Sea.  I believe I have located the relevant Wellington Harbour records, and will report the findings at a later date. 
(2 January 2006 ~ A copy of the Wellington Harbour records are now in hand, information gleaned therefrom to be posted in a short while)

The Rangitata’s last voyage was slightly ahead of the Rangitiki’s, and the the ships made rendezvous in mid-Pacific as the ‘Tata was making her final homeward run, and the ‘Tiki making her final outward trip. Witnesses from both ships attest to the much cheering and waving and the sounding of the ships’ horns as the two sisters passed by fairly close to each other, and those same witnesses also attest to the poignancy of the moment – a grand era was coming to an end, and this special meeting was perhaps the definitive moment. On Voyage No. 87, the Rangitiki set sail from Wellington, New Zealand for the last time in May 1962, arriving at London's Royal Albert Docks on 13 July. She was then sold from fleet, and on 26 July 1962 the old girl arrived in Santander, Spain after a short two-day trip having been brought over from England by a skeleton crew. She was later broken up for scrap in Valencia. One of those present on this final trip relates how, on that sad summer’s day, each member of the reduced crew turned to face the ship for the last time at the bottom of the gangplank and saluted a great vessel. By all accounts, there was not a dry eye to be seen.

Perhaps fittingly, the first of the three famous Rangi-Sisters was the last to go.

For those new to this ship, the Rangitiki’s statistics are presented here:

Length:    531 ft-0in (168.70m)  
Beam:       70 ft-2in (21.35m)
Draft:        33 ft-8in (10.36m)
GRT*:       16,755 tons
Engines 1929 - Two BROWN-SULZER S90 five cylinder, single acting two-stroke
           diesel engines, each developing 5,000 bhp
1948 - Two DOXFORD vertically opposed two-stroke diesel marine
           engines, together developing 12,920 bhp
Speed:        1929 - 15 knots
1948 - 16 knots
Passengers: 1929 - 598 100 (1st Class/98 2nd Class/400 3rd Class)
  1933 - 595
  1948 - 405 (122 1st Class/283 Tourist Class)
Refrigerated Space: 418,700 cu. ft.
*Gross Rated Tonnage