Poetry from war-torn seas

Friday, August 22, 2014
Ticket to the Rangitane Ball [16044g],  part of the reserve collection of  the Maritime Museum.

During the early hours of 26 November 1940, RMS RANGITANE was travelling from Auckland to London when she was attacked and sunk by German raiders. Of the 300 people on board, 13 were killed during the attack. 

As part of National Poetry Day, we’d like to share a poem about the RANGITANE disaster from the Museum’s reserve collection. This poem was written by one of the female survivors and our copy is part of the personal collection of Mr William Edward Collison. Mr Collison was a steward on RANGITANE at the time.

Through the grey quiet of a November dawn,
The Rangitane sails, upon her homeward way,
When, suddenly, a shadow deep appears
And takes its shape in the uprising day.

A foreign ship! – The bridge springs in to life,
The Captain wakens from his well-earned sleep 

A second ship has now appeared in view,
Is it an enemy upon the ocean deep?


As soon as born, our fears turn certainties.
The wireless message which we try to send
Wakens the guns upon the savage foe

And, with shrill cries, the shells wild voices blend.

The cruel shells, piercing the ship’s stout frame,
Have daunted not the men’s determined mind
To send that message – though it should cost their life –

To save all men and the ships who sail behind.

The ship manoeuvres to protect her guns,
Relentlessly the shells still pierce her side,
Below, the passengers, with quiet calm,
In darkness, amidst roaring tumult glide.


At last, from fire, blast and flood and smoke,
Respite is gained.  There falls a sudden hush.
The guns are silent.  Strangest sounds are heard; -

Men’s voices calling; water’s sudden rush;

The gurgling breathing of a dying girl
The joke upon the lips of one who lies,
Grievously wounded, even unto death,

And yet has light and laughter in her eyes.

At last the order “Take to the boats” rings out,
Obediently, with perfect calm, each one
Goes to his place.  The boats swing out and down.
The ship now floats, afire, her duty done.

In her, our friends and loved ones find a grave
For England’s love and England’s life they died.
We left them there – and prayed the mighty sea
Would welcome them, - their earthly bodies hide.

We love them still – but cannot hold regret;
They would have chosen to make that sacrifice
If they had known that their death could save
Others, freely they would have given their life.

For some it was death, others were prisoners taken,
Each, in his way, has served his country’s ends, -
Again will do so, as long as England needs
Ships and the sea.  On these her life depends.

Postcard of RMS RANGITANE [2636c], part of the reserve  collection of the Maritime Museum.  RANGITANE was a  passenger liner owned by the New Zealand Shipping Company.
A typewritten copy of the original poem, written  by a female survivor of the tragedy [16044e ],  part of the reserve collection of the  Maritime Museum