Saturday 13 December 2014 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate. This battle was the first naval battle of the Second World War and the only episode of the war to take place in South America. The RNZN will commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate on Saturday 13 December 2014 by participating in a ceremonial march down Queen Street, Auckland City.
The following is the routine for the parade from Aotea Square to Queens Wharf.
Sat 13 Dec
1000 – All personnel muster Aotea Square.
O/A – Parade Staff brief/check platoons.
1050 – Prepare to step off.
1100 – Parade steps off led by Veterans in Vintage Cars. Route: down Queen St closed to traffic-Eyes right to Governor General on route.
1140 – All platoons halted on Queens Wharf next to HMNZS Te Kaha to witness presentation of DSM medals to veterans by Governor General who will present on-board flight deck HMNZS Te Kaha .
1200 – Personnel embark Coaches on Queens Wharf return to DNB.
O/C ‘ – Carry on’
Later on Saturday evening there is a free open air showing of the movie Battle of the River Plate at Silo Park, commencing at 2030. A combined Church service will be held Sunday 14 Dec, at 1000, at St Christopher’s Chapel, Devonport Naval Base. For further information contact Lt Cdr Roger Saynor, 09 445 5530/ Mob: 021 241 1717.
On 13 December 2014, the Royal New Zealand Navy will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate. The Battle was the first major allied victory of the war and involved the New Zealand warship HMS Achillies. But it’s also an interesting story in that the Captain of the German ship Graf Spee defied orders, scuttling his damaged ship and saving the lives of his crew. The Navy will be honouring the surviving veterans with a parade in Auckland on 13 December.
When we consider the Battle of the River Plate some 75 years ago, the story is often focused on the actions of the German Pocket Battleship GRAF SPEE and her captain Hans Langsdorff. The scuttling of the ship, and therefore the saving of many lives, is rightfully seen as an honourable action. But I would like to focus on the actions of HMS ACHILLES and her crew and what this means to the Royal new Zealand Navy (RNZN) today. Out of a total complement of 567, ACHILLES had 321 New Zealanders onboard.
When ACHILLES opened fire on the GRAFF SPEE on 13 December 1939, it became the first New Zealand unit to strike a blow at the enemy in the Second World War. With the New Zealand ensign flying proudly from its mainmast ACHILLES also became the first New Zealand warship to take part in a naval battle. Since then the New Zealand ensign has flown from many RNZN ships.
The battle itself was very short, only about 82 minutes with fairly inconclusive results. The subsequent scuttling of the GRAF SPEE turned this battle into a major British victory, and provided a huge morale boost to the allied forces. For New Zealanders at the time, ACHILLES’ role in the battle was a special source of pride. The men onboard had come through their first test of combat with colours flying. Like all battles the outcome was never certain. The three allied ships were outgunned by the GRAF SPEE and alternative decisions by those in command on both sides, could have seen quite a different result. ACHILLES’ contribution to the victory was a real boost for the New Zealand Naval forces. It seemed to justify the effort that had been put into them for the previous 25 years. This battle foreshadowed the full part New Zealand would play in the naval war over the next six years.
Today, in the Royal New Zealand Navy of 2014, this battle is a large part of our history, as is ACHILLES. The legacy that has been passed on to us by the brave men of ACHILLES is one we treasure. They did not shirk from the challenges they faced against a better armed opponent. They worked with their shipmates to achieve a glorious victory. That is why we honour the veterans of this battle every year and is also why the Director Tower and Y Turret are at the main gate of HMNZS PHILOMEL. When our new recruits join half of them are assigned to ACHILLES division and they learn of the history of this ship and of course this battle. Our Navy today is a far cry from the naval forces of 1939. We have about a fifth of the numbers that were in the RNZN in 1941. Women serve in all roles now and we have developed our own unique identity. But the values that were on display in the Battle of the River plate are the same values we cherish today. The notion of shipmates fighting alongside each other for the common good is something we continue to value. This battle was important for the allied effort in World War Two. It is still important for our Navy today. The actions of the men involved we can remember, study and relate to. They were sailors; they were prepared to go into harm’s way, much like the sailors of 2014. Their legacy will not be forgotten and indeed, it remains a vital part of our Navy today.
By the Chief of Navy,
Rear Admiral Jack Steer
Achilles was the second of five ships of the Leander-class light cruisers, designed as effective follow-ons to the York-class. Upgraded to Improved Leander-class, she could carry an aircraft and was the first ship to carry a Supermarine Walrus, although both Walruses were lost before the Second World War began. At one time she carried the unusual DH.82 Queen Bee which was a radio-controlled unmanned aircraft, normally used as a drone.
Achilles was originally built for the Royal Navy, and was commissioned as HMS Achilles on 10 October 1933. She served with the Royal Navy’s New Zealand Division from 31 March 1937 up to the creation of the Royal New Zealand Navy, into which she was transferred in September 1941 and renamed HMNZS Achilles. Her crew was approximately 60 per cent from New Zealand. Achilles was the first Royal Navy Cruiser to have fire control radar, with the installation of the New Zealand-made SS1 fire-control radar in June 1940.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Achilles began patrolling the west coast of South America looking for German merchant ships, but by 22 October 1939 she had arrived at the Falkland Islands, where she was assigned to the South American Division under Commodore Henry Harwood and allocated to Force G (Exeter and Cumberland).
In the early morning of 13 December 1939, a force consisting of Achilles, Ajax and Exeter detected smoke on the horizon, which was confirmed at 06:16 to be a pocket battleship, thought to be the Admiral Scheer but which turned out to be the Admiral Graf Spee. A fierce battle ensued, at a range of approximately 20 kilometres (11 nm). Achilles suffered some damage. In the exchange of fire, four crew were killed, her captain, W. E. Parry, was wounded; 36 of Graf Spee’s crew were killed.
The range reduced to about 4 nautical miles (7.4 km) at around 07:15 and Graf Spee broke off the engagement around 07:45 to head for the neutral harbour of Montevideo which she entered at 22:00 that night, having been pursued by Achilles and Ajax all day. Graf Spee was forced by international law to leave within 72 hours. Faced with what he believed to be overwhelming odds, the captain of the Graf Spee, Hans Langsdorff, scuttled his ship rather than risk the lives of his crew.
Following the Atlantic battle, Achilles returned to Auckland, New Zealand on 23 February 1940, where she underwent a refit until June. After German raider activity in the South Pacific during 1940 Achilles escorted the first Trans-Tasman commercial convoy, VK.1, composed of Empire Star, Port Chalmers, Empress of Russia, and Maunganui leaving Sydney 30 December 1940 for Auckland. After Japan entered the war, she escorted troop convoys, and then joined the ANZAC Squadron in the south-west Pacific. Achilles met HMAS Canberra, flagship of Rear-Admiral John G. Crace, and HMAS Perth in December 1941 to form an escort for the Pensacola Convoy. While operating off New Georgia Island with US Navy forces, a bomb damaged her X turret on 5 January 1943. Between April 1943 and May 1944 Achilles was docked in Portsmouth, England for repairs. Her damaged X turret was replaced by four QF 2 pom poms in a quadruple-mount. Sent back to the New Zealand Fleet, Achilles next joined the British Pacific Fleet in May 1945 for final operations in the Pacific War
After the war, Achilles was returned to the Royal Navy at Sheerness in Kent, England on 17 September 1946. She was then sold to the Indian Navy and recommissioned on 5 July 1948 as INS Delhi. She remained in service until decommissioned for scrap in Bombay on 30 June 1978. In 1968 she was present at the granting of independence to Mauritius representing the Indian Government together with the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Tartar under Captain Cameron Rusby. As part of the scrapping her Y turret was removed and presented as a gift to the New Zealand government. It is now on display at the entrance of Devonport Naval Base in Auckland.
Achilles played herself in the film The Battle of the River Plate in 1956.