In August 1936 the Union Steam Ship Co. took delivery of its new trans-Tasman liner, Awatea, which in September began a new express service. She was built to the company's design by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness and was a handsome vessel with a high standard of accommodation. With a length of 527 ft, a beam of 74 ft, and a gross tonnage of 13,482, she carried 540 passengers and 342 crew and could better 23 knots. Her speed, comfort, and ability to keep going with the minimum of time in port, together with the publicity sense of her master, Captain A. H. Davey, made her a popular and well-known ship. In the summer of 1937 she made 11 Tasman crossings in 41 days and in the same year she brought the times for the Auckland-Sydney and Sydney-Wellington passages to less than 56 hours. Her best day's run was 576 miles, an average speed of 23.35 knots.
At the outbreak of war she was undergoing her annual survey and was fitted with a 4 in. gun aft. She continued to cross the Tasman until July 1940 after which she made several trips to Vancouver and, in addition, was used for transporting troops and refugees. In September 1941 she was requisitioned by the British Government for use as a troop transport and did three voyages. Then she was fitted out to take part in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. She carried the 6th Commando group to off Algiers where she dropped them early on 8 November 1942. Eventually the Awatea anchored off Bougie, but as she was leaving German bombers attacked her and despite good anti-aircraft fire she was hit several times and sank during the night. The master, Captain G. B. Morgan, was awarded the D.S.O. and several of the crew were decorated for the ship's part in the operation.
During her six years of life the Awatea steamed 576,132 miles, slightly more than half in peacetime, including 225 Tasman crossings. In its day the Awatea provided the acme of maritime speed and comfort.
by James Oakley Wilson, D.S.C., M.COM., A.L.A., Chief Librarian, General Assembly Library, Wellington.