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Battle of the River Plate - 75th anniversary

On 13 December 1939, the crew of HMS ACHILLES engaged the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE, off the coast of Uruguay, on the River Plate. The ship, loaned to New Zealand by the Royal Navy and crewed on the whole by New Zealand sailors set a precedent - the first New Zealand warship to take part in a naval battle, the first New Zealand unit to strike a blow at the enemy in the Second World War, and the first morale-boosting Allied victory. 

HMS Achilles welcome home parade in Auckland in 1940. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Defence Force.

The Royal New Zealand Navy is bringing the surviving veterans together for the 75th Anniversary and for one final parade in Auckland on Saturday 13 December.

Here is a link to a video of the HMS ACHILLES original Auckland homecoming parade in February 1940 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQGZRlABIq0.

Street Parade Commemorating the Homecoming of HMS ACHILLES

Time: Saturday 13 December,  11:00am

Location: Queen Street, from Auckland Town Hall to Britomart.

Veterans will lead a parade down Queen Street in four vintage cars.  Following them will be the NZ Navy Band and 582 Sailors of the Royal New Zealand Navy.  Behind them will be 100 Sea Cadets, the Navy Pipes and Drums Band, and the families of veterans who are no longer with us.   

The parade re-creates the HMS ACHILLES homecoming parade in 1940.

The parade will salute the Governor-General at Britomart.   

Ceremony on HMNZS TE KAHA

Time: Saturday 13 December,  11:45am

Location: HMNZS TE KAHA, Queens Wharf, Auckland

The Governor-General, Lt Gen the Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae will preside over a ceremony to personally thank our veterans for their service to New Zealand.  

History of the Battle and Parade 

As the guns of HMS ACHILLES opened fire on 13 December 1939, little did her ship’s company know, they were the first Kiwi unit to engage the enemy in World War Two.

It became a literal baptism of fire.

Their target? A pocket battle ship named after the First World War Admiral, Maximilian Graf von Spee, KMS ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE. The battle shipwas one of the ‘Deutschland’ class of three armoured ships (panzerschiff) designed to protect Germany’s Baltic trade.

By 1934 it had been decided that the German Navy would follow a traditional sea power policy and a strong battle fleet was to be created.  In 1938 war with Britain was imminent and Hitler ordered a speeding-up of the construction programme.

At midday Sunday 3 September 1939 when war was declared, GRAF SPEE, under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff, was in the mid Atlantic Ocean cruising in calm seas.

Meanwhile HMS ACHILLES, one of New Zealand’s two cruisers, had sailed from Auckland on 29 August to join the Royal Navy’s America and West Indies Squadron in the Caribbean. On 2 September HMS ACHILLESwas ordered instead, to patrol the west coast of South America. The ship arrived at Valparaiso on 12 September and having fuelled and embarked fresh provisions, sailed the next day for what would be a six week patrol off the coasts of Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

HMS ACHILLES ship’s company had been going to Action Stations every morning before it sighted the GRAF SPEE.  The heavily armed pocket battle ship was in the South Atlantic with the intention of attacking merchant ships should war erupt.  GRAF SPEE Commanding Officer Captain Hans Langsdorff’s orders were to cruise further north, then move to the South Atlantic to hunt merchant shipping.

Meanwhile, with news of the pocket battleship’s several commercial raids, HMS ACHILLES  had been ordered to join forces with the heavy cruiser HMS EXETER, and HMS ACHILLES’ sister ship HMS AJAX

The New Zealanders saw the German raider’s smoke at 6.14am and moved into Action Stations immediately.  There were 321 New Zealanders on board and they heard a loud “Make way for the Digger Ensign” and the NZ Blue Ensign, or battle flag, was raised.

Faced with a much more heavily armed German ship the three Allied vessels faced the prospect of annihilation on the morning of 13 December 1939. ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE had longer ranged guns and was capable of sinking all three British ships before they could strike back. But the enemy made a tactical mistake. Instead of standing off to take advantage of his tactical range, Captain Langsdorff, who was thought to have mistaken the light cruisers for destroyers, closed with the enemy. 

Commodore Harry Harwood, RN, commanded the squadron made up of HM Ships EXETERACHILLES  and AJAX. He had an aggressive tactical plan which he immediately put into effect. “My policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battle ship – attack at once by day or night,” he advised his cruiser commanders. He intended to divide his force so that the enemy warship would have to split its heavy armament or leave one group unengaged. HMS EXETER headed towards one flank, and HM Ships ACHILLES and AJAX to the other.

At 6.20 HMS EXETER, opened fire on the GRAF SPEE. At first the GRAF SPEE responded by splitting their armament, but then concentrated the fire of all six 11-inch guns on EXETER. Within six minutes several shells had hit HMS EXETER causing heavy damage and loss of life. Despite having one turret knocked out HMS EXETER remained in action, and took more hits. At 6.32 it fired torpedoes at the enemy ship, but they missed. In all, 61 members of EXETER’S crew were killed and 23 were  wounded during the action.

While GRAF SPEE concentrated on EXETER, HM Ships ACHILLES and AJAX closed in.

At 6.21am HMS ACHILLES began firing, and two minutes later, HMS AJAX also opened fire. Eye witnesses on board say in the 80 minutes of action from 6.20 to 7.40 HMS ACHILLES fired 220 broadsides. By then, according to HMS ACHILLES veteran, the late Vince McGlone, HMS ACHILLES’ six inch guns were so hot and had expanded so much they were too tight to fit into the gun cradle.

The two ships scored numerous hits, and almost 20 minutes later the Germans again split their main armament. One 11 inch gun turret fired on the light cruisers. AJAX was struck, and HMS ACHILLES too. At 6.40 a near miss sent shell splinters tearing through the director control tower, killing four ratings—two of them New Zealanders— and seriously wounding three more. HMS ACHILLES Commanding Officer Captain Steve Parry and five other received minor wounds.

GRAF SPEE broke off from the battle and retired to the west. EXETER was out of the fight, and the German ship could concentrate on the two cruisers. HMS ACHILLES continued to score hits. At 7.40am the light cruisers turned away under smoke.

HMS ACHILLES was fortunate that she did not take a direct hit, with all casualties and damage being due to fragments from shells which burst short

Langsdorff decided to head to the neutral port of Montevideo to repair his ship. He was pessimistic about breaking through the enemy ring he perceived he was faced with, and the GRAF SPEE was scuttled by its own crew just days later.

Although the battle was inconclusive all four ships were damaged, with the GRAF SPEE losing 36 sailors, and the British ships a total of 72 fatalities (two of them New Zealanders).  The GRAF SPEE’S withdrawal and its subsequent scuttling made the battle a major British victory and a welcome morale boost for the Allies.

New Zealanders were especially proud of their ship, and they welcomed the ship’s company home with cheering, parades and civic receptions in early 1940.

The Parade

On the 23 February 1940 HMS ACHILLES returned to Auckland to a heroes’ welcome. The newly named Achilles Point flew the New Zealand Ensign and signalling flags spelt out Nelson’s famous Trafalgar Signal. The town hall resurrected the lights from the King’s coronation and the Auckland Electric Power Board augmented this with a display which included a 30 foot (10 metre) model of the HMS ACHILLES.

The parade route was alive with colour and there was a carnival atmosphere in the air. The route was decorated with bunting and Queen Street shop owners had decorated their shop frontages. Queen Street had been cleared of all traffic by police and traffic officers. Senior cadets from High Schools and Territorials lined the sides of the route. Much to the school children’s delight, Auckland and suburban schools had been granted a day off. School children from country districts were not to miss out and could get to the parade on special trains which had been put on for the day. Many offices, shops and factories granted their staff a few hours holiday to attend the parade. Auckland was alive with anticipation.

Of course as Auckland is the City of Sails, boaties met the HMS ACHILLES long before she got into harbour. Tugs, launches and private boats met and escorted her in. At Narrow Neck Beach and North Head 600 troops greeted her. At 6.30am she passed a silent Devonport Naval Base when suddenly cheers rang out, every merchant ship in port sounded their sirens, trains whistled, and thousands of cars lining the wharf tooted. The lads were home! HMS ACHILLES berthed at the central wharf and the ship’s company met with their family and friends. Captain Parry then received calls from the Governor General, Viscount Galway, and Government and local authority representatives.

Aucklanders began to line the street for the parade from 9.30am onwards. Every place with a view was occupied and at ground level people stood ten deep. On the side streets which had a slight elevation people jostled for a better position. About 1000 ex-servicemen and women began the parade, followed by the Royal Marines Band, then the Navy and the second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Captain Parry and his wife were next, riding in an official car as Parry’s leg wound still troubled him. When the HMS ACHILLES ship’s company appeared flags and handkerchiefs were waved and confetti and streamers were thrown. Throughout the parade the crowd clapped and cheered. The HMS ACHILLES sailors certainly knew they were the heroes of the day.

On reaching the Town Hall the ship’s company was surrounded by yet more members of the public. Speeches from Auckland’s mayor Sir Ernest Davis and the deputy Prime Minister Peter Fraser were enthusiastically received by the crowd and when Captain Parry prepared to speak he had to wait while the crowd serenaded him with “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. The National Anthem was sung and the crew moved into the Town Hall for a civic function. Their families lunched next door in the Concert Chamber.

The lunch was not a stuffy affair as the orchestra played new and old war tunes throughout accompanied by singing from the sailors. But in a more solemn moment Captain Parry received a gift from Mr Tai Marshall on behalf of local Maori – a beautiful Kiwi korowai (cloak). In addition the Mayor presented a laurel wreath on behalf of the people of Auckland and this was later hung on the fore bridge of HMS ACHILLES.

The crew were granted shore leave for several days. Later when she travelled to Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin the crew were also received as national heroes.


Updated on 23rd July 2015