Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Harris narrative of the capture of S.S. Matunga and experiences as a prisoner of war, ca. 1918 / Keith Harris
MLMSS 1295

[Transcriber’s notes:
Diary written by Keith Harris (born on 7th May 1902) and commencing on 27 July 1917 when he left Sydney on the S.S. Matunga as a Deck Hand. He was 15 years old The Matunga was captured by the German ship the "Wolf" near Rabaul. The crew and passengers of the Matunga were taken on board and eventually landed at Kiel, Germany, some six months later, and interned at a POW camp at Gustrow, Germany. Keith Harris remained there until he was repatriated to England in December 1918. He sent a cable stating "London Well – Love Xmas Greetings" to Mrs Harris, Northcliffe Street, Milsons Point, Sydney. The diary concludes when he arrived in London on 20th December 1918.]

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I left Sydney on the 27th July 1917, in the S.S. Matunga, bound for Newcastle, Brisbane, Rabaul and Islands. She was a ship of 1800 registered tonnage.

We arrived at Newcastle on the 28th July at 6.30 a.m. and took 900 tons of coal for Rabaul. We sailed at 10 p.m. the same night for Brisbane.

We had good weather and arrived at Brisbane on the 30th July, at about 5.30 p.m. and sailed at 11 p.m. that night for Rabaul.

Nothing of importance happened until the 6th August and twelve hours steaming from Rabaul. It was a fine warm morning on the 6th at about 6 a.m. when we sighted the mast tops of a strange ship on our port quarter steering the same direction as us. She came well in sight on the horizon and then slowed up, then she altered her course and steered across our bows. Then she turned about and headed straight for us. She came to within a distance of about 300 yards, turned broadside, and fired a shot across our bow, at the same time hoisting the German ensign and ordered us to stop. This we did, and the Captain gave orders to lower the life boats. We provisioned the boats and swung them out ready to lower, but the Germans sent orders over to us and told us to haul them in again. We then saw a motor launch leaving the Raider and making for us. Then we also saw a seaplane directly above us.

The motor boat came alongside us and a Prize Crew came on board. The first words the German Officer said were "Good morning, you are late". So we were. We were about half a day late. We afterwards discovered that the Huns knew our every movement from the time we left Sydney.

Well all hands were mustered and ordered to hand over all arms, and then informed us that we were Prisoners of War, and we were to take orders from them. Our Captain, Ships Officer and Soldiers were taken off to the German Raider "Wolf" but we were left on board to work the ship.

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We were left aboard the "Matunga" until the 14th August, when we arrived at a harbour in Dutch New Guinea, which we afterwards named, "Matunga Harbour".

On arriving at this harbour we were given an hours notice to pack our belongings and get on board the "Wolf". We were examined and sent below in the ‘tween decks with the crews of 9 other ships, men of all nationalities, 210 men all told, and I can tell you we were packed together down there. We slept in hammocks three tiers high. Nothing exciting happened until the 16th August. But first I must give you an idea what it was like in the ‘tween deck of a German Raider.

The only entrance was a ladder three feet wide, the deck holding, as I have said, 120 prisoners of mixed nationalities, the crews of ships:- S.S. Turritella, English, captured on the 27th February 1917; S.S. Jumna, English, 1st March; S.S. Wordsworth, English, 11th March; Barque Dee, Mauritius, 30th March, the crew all blacks; S.S. Wairuna, New Zealand, 2nd June; Schooner Windslow, American, 16th June; Barque Beluka, American, 9th July; Schooner Enchore, American, 13th July; and then the poor unlucky S.S. Matunga.

We were told by our fellow prisoners that the "Wolf" had intercepted our wireless from Sydney, saying when we were leaving Sydney and what our cargo consisted of. From Brisbane we sent another wireless, saying we would be at Cape Moreton at Monday midday, 30th July. On the 5th August sent another wireless to Rabaul, to say we would be in late on the 6th.

The first wireless the "Wolf" intercepted, she cruised around waiting for us. The next one she still kept cruising but the third was the one that was to blame for our capture. It seems that the "Wolf" was out of our course, and would have missed us only for our wireless on the 5th by this she carried our bearings. That night she sent her seaplane up to

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have a look around, and they sighted the lights of our ship, and no wonder, for we had a cluster of electric lights on our No. 3 hatch, masthead light and all cabin lights alight. And so the old "Matunga" was captured.

Now to get on this exciting time we had on the 16th August at "Matunga Harbour". It was about midnight, and everything was quiet in the ‘tween decks, when the sentry below fired his revolver and rushed on deck (at the time of this happening the weather was very hot, so the Germans had taken pity on us and taken the hatch covers off and placed a mosquito net across). Immediately we heard machine guns spitting away and saw the star shells and search lights all over the place. We all wondered what was the matter. This din continued for fully half an hour and then died down to silence once more. Then all the prisoners were mustered but none were missing. So the Germans came to the conclusion that they had been wasting good ammunition on crocodiles.

On the 22nd August, I saw the real strength of the "Wolf". 7 six inch guns, four torpedo tubes, machine guns, 3 pounders, 2 searchlights, and a seaplane and a crew of 300 men. One gun on the poop was arranged to look like a ships derrick with two sampsons posts. The gun position was on the hatch on the poop and about a third of a derrick from the sampson posts, touched the gun breech, and a steel cap was over the muzzle. When she went into action the cap was taken off and the part of a derrick swung aside and so the gun is cleared for action.

On the 23rd August, the "Wolf" had torpedo practice, and it was then that I saw a torpedo fired from each of her four tubes and were picked up by the "Wolf’s" motor boat.

On the 26thg August the "Matunga" was taken out and two bombs were placed on board and some minutes later bang went the first bomb. This gave her a list to starboard, then the second bomb exploded. This righted her a

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little. Then she slowly started to settle down, her stern deck was just awash and then the old "Matunga" gave her last dive. She dipped her stern and up went her bow in the air. She stood almost upright and then took her dive to the bottom, and so ended the career of the old "Matunga".

Nothing exciting happened until about 10 p.m. on the 5th September. We were steaming along easily when bang went the ships sides. We waited expecting to hear shots fired but nothing further happened. That same night the "Wolf" laid her last mines off Singapore, 111 in all. When the last mine went over the Germans gave three cheers.

The next day we were told that on the previous night we had passed a cruiser and the Commander of the "Wolf" said that only that he had mines on board, he would have launched a torpedo into the cruiser. I am jolly glad he didn’t because I knew what would have happened to us.

At about 4 p.m. on the 6th September, we steamed past Batavia and through the straits into the Indian Ocean. We could see the township and several steamers and sailing ships laying in the harbour. We were so near and yet so far from freedom. After the mines were finished, the Huns were rather busy, lifting mine rails from the deck and the next hatch to us, and cleaning the ‘tween decks ready for more prisoners. Meanwhile the seaplane was also under deck. Work carried on as usual, the ‘tween deck was all ready for painting and we were thinking who would be the next to occupy that ‘tween deck. When on the 26th September the seaplane was taken on deck and placed together in a hurry and up she went. She stayed away until 12 noon and all was excitement amongst the Huns. At 2 p.m. we sighted smoke on the horizon, and the prisoners were ordered under deck. All the hatch covers except two were put on. Through the opening in the two we could see to the top of the main mast.

The "Wolf" was steaming full speed, and at 3 p.m. we heard the ships sides drop with a bang and watched the German Ensign hoisted to the mast

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head. Then bang went the gun aft. We all said "Another poor beggar gone". Then another bang!! Hullo whats this. Then a broadside, which smashed every electric globe in the ‘tween decks and lifted several hatch covers on top of each other with the vibration. Then bang!! Again, another broadside which sent a shower of rubbish and a great flash down amongst us. This put the wind up us. We rushed into two rooms partitioned off for our ships officers and laid flat on the deck, waiting (as we thought) for the end. For we thought we had struck something better than ourselves. A third broadside sent another flash down to us. At this a boot fell on one of the lads. He thought he was wounded and said "Oh, I am hit". He was hit, but he was glad when he found he had only been hit with a boot.

While the firing was going on there were 20 sentries and an officer on each side of the ladder, armed with mauses pistols, a bayonet and hand grenades, in case we tried to escape, so we stood a fine chance.

The firing continued until 4 p.m. and then silence. The Huns told us the other ship was sinking and all the people were in the boats or in the water. At 5.30 p.m. we were allowed to go on deck to our stores, I being one of the orderlies. I saw the ship with 5 holes in her stern above the water line. She had a gun mounted on the poop. We went below and told the rest of the men who mostly shaking from the shock. I know, I was. I never wish to go through another hour like it again.

We could see some of the crew on the deck near our hatch. They were all Japanese. They were put in the next ‘tween deck to us. We removed several bolts from the steel bulk head and got full particulars from them.

That night when we went to draw out tea, we saw about eight bodies laying on No. 3 hatch covered by a Japanese flag.

That night at 7.30 p.m. the dead were buried as many as five bodies were lowered in one canvas. The German Commander and his officers

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attended in full dress uniform. That is the only case which they deserve credit.

This finished we steamed for the "Maldave Islands". The other ship with a prize crew on board following.

Below we were straightening things up from the afternoons happenings. We arrived at the "Maldave Islands" at midday on the 27th September and there the ship came alongside. I shall never forget the sight I saw then, my first grim realities of war. She was a Japanese Mail Boat named, "Hitachi Maru", one of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha line. Part of her stern was blown away, and there was blood and pieces of men all over the place. Where three Japs had been blown to pieces, the blood had been running into the scuppers. The decks were all torn with schrapnel, and there was a large hole blown in the deck on the starboard side, by a bomb from the seaplane. She also had half her funnel blown away by another bomb.

The reason of all the trouble was that the "Hitachi Maru" had a 4.7 gun on her poop, and when the "Wolf" fired the first shot, a gun crew was sent to man the gun, but they were killed or wounded by a shot from the "Wolf". Then another crew was sent up. But the same fate befel them. She then tried to use her wireless but another well directed shot put an end to this and killed the wireless operator. Then started a panic amongst passengers and crew. They manned the boats, but only half reached the water safely. The other half capsized before reaching the water. The total casualties on the Japs side were 15 killed and 35 wounded.

The Germans decided to keep the "Hitachi". So they began patching her up. She was finished on the 6th October, and the women and their husbands the men over sixty, and the boys under seventeed, were put on board her, and she was sent away with orders to meet the "Wolf" at a certain place on a certain date. Meanwhile we were given our boat stations in case we met anything. Had we have done so the Jap was to be blown up and every-

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body take to the boats. We only had one alarm and that was when we met the "Wolf" about a week later. She only came to see how things were and they told us she was going to look for coal. So away she went, we all hoping never to see her again. Hoping we would meet something and so be recaptured. But no such luck for us. Things went along smoothly. The boys (six in all. Eric and myself and four niggers all sharing the one room), doing odd jobs, deck work, coaling the galley, peeling potatoes and teasing the cooks. I had several narrow escapes from a lively time with the Jap cooks. One was: I was sent to the galley (kitchen) with a dirty dish from the second class saloon, and the cook told me to wash it, but I said no. And away I went with the cook after me with a long broom. He chased me all over the after part of the ship until he got tired and then gave it up. I was jolly lucky he didn’t get me.

Another one was: Eric and I had to carry water from forward to the galley. One day we were doing this, and for each bucket full we put in the cooks took one out. We said nothing for about twenty minutes and then we started to kick about it. But the Japs only laughed, so we refused to carry anymore for them that day. A Jap came over and hit me and then picked up a knife, but I was away when I saw this and I kept low until I thought he had cooled down and so had another escape.

We met the "Wolf" again about a week later. She reported having failed to find any ships. Although she had scouted all over the seas. So the only thing to do was to take the coal the "Hitachi" had and sink her, so we steamed to the "Seychelles Islands" and then we were once more taken on board the "Wolf", the 7th November. The next day the 8th, the "Hitachi Maru" was taken out with the German Ensign floating over her stern. Three bombs were placed on board her. The first explosion made her list. The second righted her, and the third, we could not see what it did, but shortly afterwards she sunk a few feet and then stopped. It was

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twenty eight minutes from the time of the first explosion, till she took her last dive. It was a beautiful sight to see a fine big ship like her going down. She dived her nose under, and stood almost upright with her stern well in the air showing her twin screws, and then dived out of sight. Another good ship gone to Davy Jones’ Locker. Then away we went again.

Two days later, the 10th November, we were awakened at about 6 a.m. by the dropping of the ships sides, but no shot was fired. Later when we were allowed on deck we saw a Spanish ship named "Igotz Mendi". She was carrying 5800 tons of coal, and also live stock. When she came alongside the Spanish Officers shook hands with the Germans and looked over at us prisoners and smiled. The "Wolf" took what coal she wanted and then put a prize crew and the women and husbands aboard and sent her away.

Before I go any further I must not forget to mention that the Carpenter of the "Matunga", a Russian Fin by birth, who had lived in Australia for twenty years, on being asked his nationality by the Germans had declared himself neutral and had worked on the "Hitachi" for the Germans, and lived with the German sailors on the "Wolf".

Well to get on with the story. The "Wolf" and the Igotz Mendi" met at different times and took coal.

Things went on as usual until the 30th November. The order came "All Prisoners under deck" and about an hour later a shot was fired and another ship captured. She was an American three masted Barque, "John H. Kirby". She was carrying 300 motor cars for the Army. She was sunk the same day with half her sails set. She sunk in 3½ minutes. It was a sight worth seeing.

Nothing of importance happened until the 14th December, when we sighted a sailing ship at about 7 p.m., but it was too late to take her that night so we followed her up until morning. At dawn we heard a shot fired.

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Another ship to go to the bottom. She was a French four masted Barque named "Marshal Davout" with wireless and two submarine guns. These the "Wolf" took before sinking her that same day. She sunk in two minutes.

Then the "Wolf" intended to make a run for Germany, but she first had to take coal, so she started to steam for "Trinidad Island". She was a few days run off when she intercepted a wireless message from two English cruisers talking to each other. One reported that "she was at Trinidad Island" and the other reported "she would be there the next day to coal". Of course when the "Wolf" heard this she steamed well away from "Trinidad Islands". She met the "Igotz Mendi" several days later and coaled in mid ocean. This was about the 20th December.

On the 25th December, "Christmas Day" we were still in the same place. We had a fairly good Christmas. The Commander gave us a cigar, 3 cigarettes and a glass of punch to each man.

On New Years day we were near the bottom of Africa.

On 4th January, 1918 we sighted a four masted Barque, and the prisoners were ordered below. It was 2 p.m. before we were allowed on deck again. On our starboard side astern was the smoke of a steamer and on the Port side the masts and sails of a sailing ship. A Hun sailor was standing on the boat deck of the "Wolf" with a pistol in his hand, ready to shoot anybody who tried to make signals to the sailing ship. We then signalled the steamer "Igotz Mendi". At 2.30 p.m. the "Wolf" turned completely about and at 4 p.m. we sighted the sailing ship again, and at 5 p.m. she was a prisoner of war. She was a Norwegian four masted barque named "Stere Brere" meaning "Big Brother".

When her crew came aboard they told us they had reported to the steamer (which was the "Igotz Mendi") having passed a German Raider and warning her. The "Igotz Mendi" rushed full speed to the "Wolf" and reported that was the reason why the "Wolf" went back.

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The "Stere Brere" was sunk that same night at about 11 p.m. The Huns placed 3 lights on board, and when the lights disappeared they knew she was gone.

We crossed the Equator about the 10th January. After crossing the line we were not allowed on deck after 5.0 p.m. and "Oh Lord" wasn’t it hot. Just try to imagine 480 prisoners in two ‘tween decks, hatches closed, and all packed together with hardly enough room to move, and one kettle of warm water between 14 to 20 men.

We couldn’t wear any clothing when we went to bed, and yet we were sopping wet all the time. But thank God this only lasted for three days, and then started the cold weather. On the 27th January we ran into our first bad weather. It started to blow the night before and during the night mess tables and seats were all knocked down by the rolling of the ship.

The next morning the waves were mountains. High. One minute we were on top of a mountain and the next down in the valley. The sea was white with foam. We were shipping seas all over. The poop was awash. All the time we had three accidents amongst us. One chap got in the way of a falling mess table and got a nasty gash in the shin which took thirty stitches to make it look a bit respectable. Another chap had his foot hurt by the same thing. The other hurt his wrist. This weather lasted for three or four days and then all was calm again and I don’t think anybody was sorry to be able to stand upright again and not have to lean to the roll of the ship.

Early in February icicles started to form in the riggings and we had a fall of snow. We had some sport snowballing each other. My first experience with snow, so I made the best of it, but I was doomed to see more snow than I wanted under different circumstances which we will come to later.




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