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.

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  1. Christine Commons says:

    My uncle was on the Achilles during Battle of the Plate. I’m not sure what his official function was, but he was originally a Royal Marine Bandsman and came over to be part of the RN. He passed away many years ago whilst Superintendent of The Fiji Police. He has quite a history and I have tried to find it, but no such luck. Maybe many of our older members would have known him. His name was Robert Duncan nicknamed “Bandy”. If anyone has any info I would be very pleased to receive it.

    • Charles Conroy says:

      Hi Xssy, My father AB CHARLES CONROY(SNR) NZD O/7232 was also on Achilles during that battle he was a member of the crew of A Turret . He didnt say a lot about his exploits during the war but in his last couple of years he did mentioned that the pocket battleships has big shells coming in at achilles ( 11 inch) . I had one of his trop shirts he gave me when I joined the Andrew had it all my time I was in and long after I left . He also used to tie my cap talles for me .
      May he rest in peace.

  2. Brian Moyse says:

    My mother’s cousin Bill was in the degausing branch onboard Achilles during the River Plate battle. When living in Auckland he gave me a tiddly collar that he had on the ship (since lost).

  3. Albie Cross says:

    In 1945 (in Form 2) I won an essay competition sponsored by the ASB . I went to Whitcombe &Tombs and bought a copy of “The Battle of the River Plate.” After I had I signed the dotted line, I was able to put faces to the names mentioned, the first being Master-at Arms Fred Connew (m.i.d) at Tamaki. ooooooHH boy……………….

  4. Neill Dorset says:

    Dad’s cousin Max was a seaman on the Achilles at the River Plate battle and was awarded a medal. (I think it was the D.S.M.) He never spoke much about the battle but he told once that the CO (Cdr Joe Quinn) of Tamaki, where I was under training at the time, had been the PTI on board at the same time. Max became the President of the Achilles Assoc for a time before his death. His first wife and sons are still alive and living in Devonport.
    Regards Neill

  5. Jim D says:

    Trivia for the movie buffs: (Courtesy of Wikipaedia)
    The Battle of the River Plate had its genesis in an invitation to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to attend a film festival in Argentina in 1954. They decided they couldn’t afford to take the time from their schedules unless it was a working vacation, and used the trip to research the defeat of the Admiral Graf Spee. They came across the “hook” for their story when one of the surviving British naval officers gave Pressburger a copy of Captain Patrick Dove’s book I Was A Prisoner on the Graf Spee, which became the basis of the human story of the film.[7] Powell’s work on this film was influenced by Noël Coward’s film In Which We Serve (1942)[citation needed].

    Filming started on 13 December 1955, the sixteenth anniversary of the battle. The HMS Ajax and River Plate Association reportedly sent a message to the producers: “Hope your shooting will be as successful as ours.” Location shooting for the arrival and departure of the Graf Spee took place at the port of Montevideo, using thousands of locals as extras.[7] However, the scenes showing Graf Spee sailing from Montevideo were shot in the Grand Harbour at Valletta in Malta, and the launch taking McCall out to HMS Ajax was filmed in Gozo harbour on Malta’s northern island.

    Two songs written by composer Brian Easdale were used in the film, “Dolores’ Song” and “Rio de la Plata”. Both were acted by April Olrich as “Dolores”, with singing voice dubbed by Muriel Smith.

    The film was filmed using VistaVision, a wide screen orthographic process using a horizontal film feed.

    Ships used
    Admiral Graf Spee played by heavy cruiser USS Salem
    The supply ship Altmark played by the fleet oiler Olna.
    HMS Ajax flagship, played by HMS Sheffield
    HMS Exeter played by HMS Jamaica
    HMNZS Achilles played by herself (at the time in service with the Indian Navy as INS Delhi)
    HMS Cumberland played by herself when she joins the British squadron after the battle, (and by HMS Jamaica in the final scenes off Montevideo).
    HMS Birmingham was used for the firing of some of the guns, and to depict the explosions on the foredeck of Exeter, as well as the scene on the deck of Graf Spee showing the flag-draped coffins of dead German sailors laid out for burial.
    HMS Battleaxe was used as a camera ship.
    USS William R. Rush was used as a film ship by director Michael Powell.
    Most of the action of the battle and prior to it takes place on real ships at sea. The producers had the advantage of having elements of the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy available for their use, and USS Salem to play the part of Admiral Graf Spee, although she had a different number of main turrets. (This was in line with an Admiralty policy of co-operation with film-makers, which saw the corvettes HMS Coreopsis and HMS Portchester Castle reactivated in 1952 for the film version of The Cruel Sea; the cruisers HMS Cleopatra and Glasgow and the minelayer HMS Manxman used in the 1953 film Sailor of the King, and the destroyer HMS Teazer and frigates Amethyst and Magpie used in the 1955 film Yangtse Incident). The producers did make use of a 23-foot model of Salem (with details only on the side being shot) in a six-foot-deep tank at Pinewood Studios for scenes depicting hits during the battle, and also for the blowing-up of Admiral Graf Spee, which was assembled from multiple takes from different angles.

    In an early scene, it is claimed that the Graf Spee is being disguised by the ship’s carpenters – using features such as a false funnel – as an American cruiser, a trick typical of commerce raiders.The US Navy would not allow any Nazi insignia to be displayed on the Salem so the wartime German flag being hoisted and flown was filmed on a British ship. This is also the explanation as to why the crew of the Graf Spee are seen wearing US Navy pattern helmets rather than German “Coal Scuttles” – whilst the film-makers wanted to achieve an accurate impression and use German helmets they were refused permission. This aspect is sometimes described as a “goof” on the part of the film-makers, but was in fact a circumstance beyond their control.

    It was remarkable that two of the original ships, HMS Achilles and Cumberland were available for filming fifteen years after the events depicted. Cumberland was a disarmed trials ship without her 8″ gun turrets at this time and was refitted with lattice masts, but she is very recognisable as the last of the three-funnelled heavy cruisers to remain in service. (In the final scenes, Jamaica represented Cumberland as one of the British trio waiting off Montevideo).

    HMNZS Achilles had been sold to the newly formed Indian Navy in 1948, becoming the INS Delhi. The flagship HMS Ajax was actually her sister-ship, and would have looked identical to Achilles, while the original HMS Exeter was a two-funnelled half-sister of the Cumberland. HMS Sheffield and HMS Jamaica, which played Ajax and Exeter, had higher superstructures and more guns, which were mounted in triple turrets. Though different from the ships they represented, both these light cruisers saw active service against much more powerful German surface raiders.

    • Thomas Heath says:

      That movie has a special place in the affections of those with links to the men who served in that action. The one gripe I do have against it is that they portray the Kiwis as playing second fiddle to the Brits in everything ie losing a fictitious boat race to deliver their captain to the Ajax for a “council of war” at sea and (most strikingly for me since my father was part of Achilles’ gun crews) making out that Achilles was the last of the cruisers to get its act together and open fire on the Graff Spee. As we all know, Achilles opened fire at 6:21am and Ajax followed a full two minutes later. But, that’s not how the movie portrays it.

      Apart from that, I’m grateful to the movie for preserving colour footage of the cruiser my father served on as well as preserving something of the sights of Montevideo of the time. It is a part of my DVD collection.

      • Thomas Heath says:

        P.S was in Queen St. for the 75th anniversary parade. A great day and a great tribute. Well done the RNZN!

  6. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  7. Chook says:

    Here’s something interesting, click on Gerald’s name above and it takes you to a list of battles/wars…..must be Geralds website??

  8. Tracey Abbott says:


    Trying to trace information about my great uncle who was on the Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate. His name was John Welham (Royal Navy) but we knew him as Uncle Jack.

    • Thomas Heath says:

      Hi Tracey,

      a bit late but your great uncle Jack was at the River Plate aboard Achilles as Chief Stoker. His official number was C/K 58996 which should make it easier to track down his service records (assuming you have not already done so in the meantime). Good luck and good on you for carrying his memory forward to future generations of your family.

      • Thomas Heath says:

        BTW its worth noting that John Welham was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the Battle of the River Plate.

      • Tracey Abbott says:

        Hi Thomas,

        Thanks for the information, my Mum will be pleased. We are still trying to get access to his records.



  9. Wayne says:

    I spent this past Anzac Day in Montevideo, Uruguay and visited the site where 3 sailors who died during the Battle of the River Plate rest. Two of the three are sparklers. The third was unknown. There is a walking tour in Montevideo taking you to parts of the city relevant to the battle and where relics off the Graf Spee can be seen.

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