Rear Admiral Richard Everley Washbourn, C.B., D.S.O., O.B.E. – CNS June 1963 – September 1965 Royal New Zealand Navy – Chief of Naval Staff & First Naval Member Richard Everley Washbourn was born at Nelson on 14 February 1910. He was educated at Nelson College and entered the RN by special entry from New Zealand in 1927. After spending eight years aboard HMS Erebus, HMS London, and HMS Diomede, he spent 1936–37 specialising in gunnery. In 1938 he was posted to HMS Excellent and in 1939 to HMS Achilles. For his part in the engagement at the River Plate Rear Admiral Washbourn won the D.S.O. After three years’ service on Achilles he transferred to HMS Anson. The final two years of the war he spent at the Admiralty Gunnery Establishment. In 1950 he became Executive Officer on HMNZS Bellona for two years, Commander Superintendent of HMNZ Dockyard, Devonport, and Deputy Director of Naval Ordnance, 1951–52. After a year in command of HMS Manxman he was appointed Chief Staff Officer to Flag Officer (Flotillas) in the Mediterranean, 1954–55. He next spent two years as Director of Naval Ordnance and a year in command of HMS Tiger before taking up the position of Director-General of Weapons for the Admiralty (1960–62). In 1963 he was appointed Chief of Naval Staff, New Zealand. He died in 1988.
The following is an excerpt from a letter from Lieutenant Richard Washbourn to a friend in England shortly after the Battle of the River Plate on December 13, 1939. “My Dear Bill, The Hun was under the usual delusion of the decadence of the Royal Navy and came on at us for the first 10 minutes, which was just what we wanted to get into good effective fighting range within our cannon. Thereafter, when we showed no sign of conforming to his expectations and bolting from his undoubtedly superior force, he turned around and bolted himself, and never again showed any inclination for a fight. We engaged him hotly, having the superior speed, for nearly an hour and a half. Poor old Exeter, having the bigger guns and therefore being the more dangerous foe, received the benefit of his attention mostly for the first three-quarters of an hour, and she was unlucky. It was gratifying to hear that she was still afloat at the end. I didn’t for a moment expect to see her alive.
There was something of a thrill of excitement. I think that is only natural. She [Graf Spee] looked very fierce and most menacing through my optical instruments. I have a very clear picture of her fixed in my memory. Her hull is just above the horizon, waterline still down – a great grey shape twisting and turning and making smoke and surrounded by the white columns of water thrown up by our broadsides. Her great 11-inch guns belching forth a brilliant red flash followed by a thick opaque black cloud of smoke. It is all very interesting and impersonal. There is no hatred of the other fellow at all. It is a game of great skill, for high stakes, and one in which courage and resolution play a big part. About 20 minutes after fire had been opened we were straddled by the 11-inch and the short shells burst on the surface of the water and peppered this ship pretty thoroughly from truck to waterline.
There were a few casualties … on the upper deck, the AA [anti-aircraft] guns crew … and the bridge was penetrated by a splinter or two. One made a couple of holes in the captain’s legs and then went on and shattered the knee of the Chief Yeoman of Signals. Up in my little box, we were unlucky. We had more than our share. There was a hellish din, and I remember crouching down and nursing a head streaming with blood. An undamaged officer … passed me up a bandage which permitted me to make running repairs. I wasn’t as dead as I had first surmised. A couple of light scalp wounds, and a small hole in the left shoulder. I didn’t notice this latter until sometime later when it dawned upon me that the growing stiffness in that part of my anatomy might be worth looking into. Looking round me, I found the right side of the control tower was a shambles. It resembled a slaughterhouse on a particularly busy day … Five of my crew were out, three for keeps. Two who were actually in physical contact with me were very dead. Two within a couple of feet of me were shockingly wounded. Six splinters in all had come inside. We are packed so closely in that compartment that we have to go inside in the right order or it is impossible to find one’s own position … It is comforting to realise there is no suffering whatsoever. The dead were dead before they knew anything had happened. The suddenness is merciful and so is the shock.
One youngster, just turned 18, found that the dead and very mutilated body of his predecessor was in the way and there wasn’t room to shift him, so he sat on top of this unpleasantness and operated … for the remaining hour of the action without batting an eyelid.” Later, a wounded Graf Spee disengaged from the battle. Washbourn wrote:
“She was utterly defeated, morally, and, probably materially too. It didn’t look like that at the time and we were full of conjecture as to why she was bolting from us and what her plan was. We went in to polish her off but were disappointed. She blew herself up . We cleared lower deck and everyone came up and clambered upon every point of vantage to see the last of the old enemy. There was then the most amazing spontaneous expression of feeling, and relief, I ever hope to hear.”
The CO of HMS Achilles was Capt Edward Parry who became CNS (NZ) in 1941. An extensive collection of letters, diaries, documents, scrapbooks and photographs which belonged to Rear Admiral Washbourn is held by the Navy Museum.