Telling our stories: the one that got away

In January 1945, a German U-boat 862 entered Gisborne’s port searching for ships to sink in New Zealand waters. The submarine, which had earlier travelled into Poverty Bay on the look out for shipping, surfaced at midnight on 15 January and entered the harbour. It was in a tight space, in shallow water and it was a risky venture.  

Smiling heritage supporters stand beside the blue and white submarine interpretation sign.
Heritage interperetation sign unveiled. Photo: Liam Clayton, Gisborne Herald.expand/collapse

The U-boat had departed from Jakarta, then known as Batavia in Netherland’s East Indies. Its mission took it to Australian waters, where it sank a US Liberty boat offshore from Sydney on Christmas Day 1944. With the Royal Australian Navy and Air Force seeking quick revenge on the submarine, its commander, Heinrich Timm, escaped across the Tasman to New Zealand to avoid detection and to find merchant ships to destroy.  

After travelling down the East Coast of the North Island, U- 862 spent the daylight hours of 15 January lying at periscope depth out from Kaiti Beach, Gisborne, waiting for a ship worth sinking to pass by.  

However, no ship left or entered the harbour that day, so U-862 entered the harbour on the surface at midnight to see if any sizeable ships were berthed there. There were only fishing vessels. The U -boat could not turn around in the harbour, so it backed out, undetected, and made its way off in the night in search of other shipping in New Zealand waters.  

Hailing from Gisborne, the late Gerald Shone authored a book on the harbour’s encounter with the war time enemy titled ‘U-boat in New Zealand waters.’  

A special moment in history was achieved recently at the Gisborne Port when a heritage interpretation sign, acknowledging the exploits of the U-boat crew was unveiled. Present at the unveiling were Michaela Murray, a great niece of U- 862 First Officer, Gunther Reiffenstuhl; his oldest daughter Dr Ingrid Heiter-Reiffenstuhl; Sheridan Gundry, Heritage Tairāwhiti committee member; Tairāwhiti Museum director Eloise Wallace; and Mike and Sue Shone, siblings of the late Gerald Shone. 

The exploits of U-862 remained unknown until Gunther Reiffenstuhl published his war diaries in 1992. Tairāwhiti Museum director Eloise Wallace said the Gisborne public were oblivious to the audacious presence of the U-boat, although it was known that properties along the coastlines during the war years were required to blackout windows at night facing the sea in case of any enemy sea activity. 

Eloise says they have been working diligently with mana whenua, the Gisborne District Council and now the port to progress their vision to tell stories of people and place through heritage interpretation signage. “We are currently working on interpretive signage for Anzac Park, known by Ngāti Oneone as Mangamutu, and our next sign on port land will be about the sinking of the Star of Canada, on 23 June 1912, off Kaiti Beach. The U-boat sign was the momentum for us to get cracking.” 

David Watt