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The BaTTle of The river PlaTe NZHistory
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hen the cruiser The 82 minute engagement between the. HMS Achilles Graf Spee and its three smaller British. opened fire on opponents Achilles Ajax and Exeter,the German was inconclusive All four were damaged. pocket with the British ships suffering 72, battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the fatalities two of them New Zealanders. South Atlantic at 6 21 a m on 13 to the Graf Spee s 36 But the German. December 1939 it became the first warship s subsequent withdrawal to the. New Zealand unit to strike a blow at neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo. the enemy in the Second World War and its dramatic scuttling by its own. With the New Zealand ensign flying crew on 17 December turned the Battle. proudly from her mainmast as battle of the River Plate into a major British. loomed a signalman had run aft with victory and a welcome morale boost. By Ian McGibbon, the ensign shouting Make way for the for the Allied cause Achilles role in the. History Group, Digger flag Achilles also became the battle was a special source of pride for. Ministry for Culture and Heritage, first New Zealand warship to take part New Zealanders who welcomed the.
in a naval battle ship s crew home at huge parades in. Auckland and Wellington in early 1940, Cover Edward S Annison The Achilles opening the attack. on the Graf Spee 1939 oil Ref AAAC 898 NCWA 384, National Collection of War Art Archives New Zealand. Frank Norton HMS Achilles in the Battle of the River Plate. 1940 gouache Ref AAAC 898 NCWA Q223, National Collection of War Art Archives New Zealand. Photography Source,S D Waters Achilles at the River Plate. War History Branch Wellington 1948, New Zealand s naval forces and personnel Senior officers including Britain depended for Britain s survival as a.
In December 1939 the New Zealand naval Achilles captain Edward later Rear Admiral market and source of military support was. forces were a quarter of a century old Sir Edward Parry were seconded British vital to New Zealand The Royal Navy. They had come into being with the arrival officers In 1939 the New Zealand Division and the many strategically located bases. of the decrepit training cruiser HMS comprised 82 officers and 1257 ratings of it controlled gave Britain the means of. Philomel at Wellington in July 1914 Almost whom eight officers and 716 ratings were protecting its vital sea lanes Although the. immediately however the outbreak of the New Zealanders supporting them was a approaches to the British Isles obviously. First World War interrupted New Zealand s 670 strong New Zealand Volunteer Naval needed the most protection given the. naval development plans Philomel was Reserve New Zealand sent its personnel to proximity of powerful potential enemies. returned to Admiralty control and headed off Britain for training relied on British logistic trade protection was a worldwide effort. to the Middle East For the next three years support and looked to the Royal Navy coordinated by the Admiralty in London. it was used in a gunboat role mainly in the for traditions advice and example New Zealand s role was to assist this effort by. Persian Gulf occasionally carrying out shore A small element of the wider British fleet making available the resources it could spare. bombardments and landing shore parties this force would be placed under the to bolster the collective effort. In 1917 no longer fit for service it returned operational control of the Admiralty on. to New Zealand and was de commissioned the outbreak of war in accordance with The Royal Navy and. becoming a depot ship at Devonport New Zealand s defence strategy The threat to New Zealand. Physical protection posed a greater problem,the many strategically. Following the war New Zealand resumed its The biggest threat in the interwar period located bases it. naval programme forming a New Zealand Naval strategy seemed to be posed by the Empire s former controlled gave Britain. Division of the Royal Navy in 1921 and Between the world wars New Zealand s ally Japan With the scuttling of the German. defence was conceived as part of an imperial fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919 the Japanese. the means of protecting,taking control of the cruiser HMS Chatham. Three years later a more modern cruiser system based on the power of the Royal Navy Navy had emerged as the world s third largest its vital sea lanes. HMS Dunedin arrived to replace Chatham This system provided New Zealand s physical only the United States and British fleets were. Dunedin was joined by its sister ship HMS security from invasion or attack and also larger Despite a visit by the US battlefleet in. Diomede in 1926 Leander class light cruisers protected the trade routes upon which its 1925 much larger than any naval visit ever. replaced these D class cruisers in the mid economy depended These routes were made by the Royal Navy New Zealand did. 1930s Achilles joined the New Zealand comparatively restricted in scope because of not count on US support in the event of war. The long sea route to Britain essentially across Division in 1936 and HMS Leander in the the narrow basis of New Zealand s economy with Japan Isolationism was strong there. the Pacific to the Panama Canal and thence following year which was almost exclusively devoted to and Japan was expected to avoid attacking. producing meat wool and other primary US interests if it went to war with the. across the Atlantic was all important As their formal title indicated the products for the British market The long sea British Empire. New Zealand naval forces developed within route to Britain essentially across the Pacific. a Royal Navy framework The cruisers were to the Panama Canal and thence across the But was the Royal Navy strong enough to. loaned to New Zealand which merely paid Atlantic was all important assert its power in the Pacific The admirals in. their running costs a major advantage for London insisted that it was they developed. a cash strapped government New Zealand Both countries had an interest in keeping a strategy centred on a major naval base at. also depended upon British expertise open this sea route and the others on which Singapore In the event of trouble with Japan. the British battlefleet would concentrate Navy s America and West Indies Squadron The Battle of the Atlantic. which guarded an area through which Of all the battles waged during the Second. New Zealand trade passed The other would World War arguably the most important was Admiral Graf Spee. remain in the South Pacific to guard shipping the Battle of the Atlantic the struggle to keep Initially Germany s interwar Although nominally 10 000. from enemy raiders open the sea routes to the British Isles naval development had been tons Admiral Graf Spee probably. The outcome of this battle was vital to the constrained by the 1919 Treaty displaced 14 000 tons the. As the international situation darkened in survival of Britain and later to the eventual of Versailles which imposed Germans having cheated on the. the last week of August 1939 the likelihood liberation of Europe by providing a staging strict limits on the size and Versailles limits It was much. of these plans being implemented suddenly point for the intervention of American power number of warships that it could larger than the British heavy. became very real Both New Zealand This battle fought by naval and air forces commission Restricted to a cruisers about 8000 tons and. cruisers were hurriedly readied for sea and the civilian seafarers of the Merchant tonnage limit of 10 000 tons the outgunned them too Whereas a. Ships bottoms were cleaned supplies were Navy began on the first day of the war and Germans responded by creating British heavy cruiser had 8 inch. loaded and crews were brought up to their continued to the last a class of armoured cruisers guns Graf Spee boasted six 11. war complements In HMS Achilles case this Panzerschiffe Although cruisers inch guns in two triple turrets. amounted to 31 officers and 536 ratings At the outset the battle also involved denying by tonnage they carried heavier capable of throwing 294 kilogram. of whom five officers and 316 ratings were the Atlantic and other sea routes to Germany guns than existing cruisers As a shells 27 000 metres As secondary. New Zealanders An immediate task for the Royal Navy was result the British dubbed them armament it had eight 5 9 inch. to track down and destroy the estimated 237 pocket battleships Three were guns and eight 21 inch torpedo. Early on 29 August with Germany preparing German merchant ships at sea or in foreign launched between 1931 and tubes and it carried two seaplanes. to invade Poland the Admiralty requested ports As well as cutting off German trade 1934 Deutschland Admiral It was capable of 28 knots at full. that the ships move to their war stations this action would prevent these vessels being Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee power of its diesel engines. Seven hours later Achilles put to sea bound armed and used to prey on Allied trade. for Balboa in Panama s Canal Zone, there threatening the flank of any Japanese Soon afterwards HMS Leander was For six weeks Achilles played its part in this. drive towards the South Pacific Accepting dispatched to Fanning Island with a 32 man worldwide effort moving along the coasts of. these assurances New Zealand contributed detachment to guard the cable station there Chile Peru Ecuador and Colombia in order. a million pounds towards the construction and prevent a raid such as the German East to deter German ship movements The only. of this base But international developments Asiatic Squadron had mounted at the outset Allied warship on this coast all the South. during the 1930s raised doubts about the of the First World War American countries were neutral it was. strength of the fleet that could be sent to ready to intercept any German merchant ship. Singapore in an emergency Achilles was well away from New Zealand heading for refuge in a neutral port or any. when shortly after midnight on 3 September of the 17 ships already holed up at various. Captain Parry received a signal from London places that might dare to put to sea. The outbreak of war Commence hostilities against Germany. New Zealand s naval strategy ensured a The previous day he had been ordered In time the Battle of the Atlantic became. worldwide perspective in 1939 War plans to change course to the Chilean port of mainly a fight against German U boats. developed by the Admiralty called for one Valparaiso Achilles arrived there on12 seeking to strangle British sea lines of. of New Zealand s cruisers to join the Royal September 1939 communication But at the outset there. was also a significant danger from enemy merchant vessel Clement The British ship. surface vessels armed merchant raiders and managed to broadcast a distress signal. the German Navy s warships In 1939 that providing the first indication that a German. navy was not strong enough to challenge raider was operating in the area although it. British command of the seas as it had in the was initially thought to be Admiral Scheer. First World War but it contained a number,of powerful warships especially suited for. commerce raiding Achilles joins the hunt, The aim was to disrupt enemy As a result Achilles was ordered to quit its.
sea movements by creating watchdog role along South America s west coast. Into the South Atlantic and proceed to the South Atlantic After a. doubt and uncertainty With war looming in August 1939 Germany steady passage and refuelling at the Falkland. like Britain took preparatory steps at sea Islands Achilles reached the southern approaches. These included deploying the pocket of the River Plate on 26 October It joined. battleships Deutschland and Admiral Graf Commodore Henry later Admiral Sir Henry. Spee so they could attack seaborne commerce Harwood s South America Division which. should war erupt Commanded by Captain had been transferred from the America and. Hans Langsdorff Graf Spee sailed from West Indies Station The New Zealand ship. Wilhelmshaven on 24 August five days joined the division s heavy cruisers HMS. before HMS Achilles left New Zealand Exeter and Cumberland and the light cruiser. A support ship the tanker Altmark left Ajax in patrolling the Rio de Janeiro River. Germany on 2 September Plate area The monotony was broken by. a visit to Rio de Janeiro from 10 to 12, Langsdorff s orders were to cruise near the November and then a long patrol north as. Cape Verde Islands till war began then far as the northern boundary of Brazil which. move into the South Atlantic to operate as was reached on 2 December. a commerce raider The aim was to disrupt South America Division. enemy sea movements by creating doubt In December 1939 the South America Division included the heavy. and uncertainty Since repair or replenishment The next moves cruisers HMS Exeter and Cumberland each displacing 8400 tons. would be difficult after a major engagement Meanwhile Langsdorff had headed around and armed with six 8 inch guns capable of firing 116 kilogram. he was to avoid contact with enemy the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian shells 17 000 metres It also included the light cruiser Ajax in which. naval vessels Ocean where he intercepted and destroyed Harwood from 28 October flew his pennant as commodore of the. several more Allied merchant ships division Like Achilles it displaced about 7000 tons and mounted. After exercising near the Cape Verde Islands He moved back into the South Atlantic eight 6 inch guns that fired 51 kg shells The cruisers were capable of. Graf Spee was finally given the green light on 20 November On 2 December in the 32 knots. by Berlin to begin raiding operations on eastern South Atlantic the Graf Spee sank. 26 September Four days later the warship the Blue Star Line s Doric Star bound from. claimed its first victim sinking the British New Zealand to the United Kingdom with a. valuable cargo of frozen meat and wool The battle guns on Exeter Within six minutes several. The raider distress signal that the Doric Star Faced with a much more heavily armed shells had hit Exeter causing heavy damage. managed to send alerted the Admiralty and loss of life Despite having one turret. German ship Commodore Harwood s, British naval authorities pondered the raider s knocked out Exeter remained in action and. division faced the prospect of annihilation, next move It would clearly not stick around took more hits At 6 32 it fired torpedoes. on the morning of 13 December 1939, the area but where would it go next at the enemy ship but they missed In all. With its longer ranged guns Admiral Graf, An important clue was received on 7 December 61 members of Exeter s crew were killed or.
Spee had the means of sinking all three, when a distress message was picked up from mortally wounded during the action. British ships before they could strike back,the ninth and last of Graf Spee s victims the. But Captain Langsdorff made a major, Shaw Savill and Albion steamer Tairoa While Graf Spee concentrated on Exeter. tactical blunder Instead of standing off to, As this was west of the Doric Star s position Ajax and Achilles closed in Achilles opened. take advantage of his guns longer range he, it appeared the German ship was heading for fire at 6 21 a m and Ajax two minutes later.
closed with the enemy perhaps mistaking, the east coast of South America Their 16 smaller guns scored numerous. the light cruisers for destroyers,hits though the damage was limited by the. Harwood was conscious of three focal points small weight of the shells Even so the fire. Despite the dangers Harwood did not, for British trade the Falklands Islands discomfited the Germans and at 6 30. hesitate Imbued with the Royal Navy s, Rio de Janeiro and the River Plate where they again split their main armament. traditional aggressive spirit he immediately, a raider might expect rich pickings One 11 inch gun turret fired on the light.
put into effect his tactical plan My policy, He concluded that the River Plate was cruisers Ajax was straddled by shells. with three cruisers in company versus,the most likely target and decided to three times. one pocket battleship attack at once by,concentrate his force there Achilles having. day or night he had advised his cruiser, returned from its patrol along the Brazilian Achilles did not escape unscathed At 6 40 a. commanders He intended to divide his, coast had already arrived in Montevideo near miss sent shell splinters tearing through.
force so that the enemy warship still An important clue was. on 8 December Ordered to sea the next the director control tower killing four. thought to be Admiral Scheer would have,day it joined Ajax on the 10th Although. to split its heavy armament or leave one, ratings two of them New Zealanders and received on 7 December. Cumberland refitting in the Falklands was seriously wounding three more Captain. group unengaged HMS Exeter now headed when a distress message. unavailable Exeter arrived to join the light Parry and five others were slightly wounded. towards one flank its two consorts towards was picked up from the. cruisers at 6 30 a m on 12 December,ninth and last of Graf. When smoke was spotted on the horizon at,The enemy breaks off Spee s victims the Shaw. 6 14 a m next morning and the ship was, quickly identified as a pocket battleship Into action Graf Spee now retired to the west at full Savill and Albion steamer.
Harwood s guess was vindicated But as Graf Spee opened fire at 6 18 a m at a range speed With Exeter out of the fight the Tairoa. alarm rattlers alerted the crews he had no of just under 20 000 metres Exeter closing German ship could concentrate on Ajax. time for self satisfied reflection Within fast replied two minutes later At first the and Achilles The latter carrying out what. minutes his division was in action Germans responded to Harwood s tactic was later described as beautiful shooting. by splitting their armament but then continued to score hits But the weight of the. concentrated the fire of all six 11 inch German shells presented a major threat. Gunnery officer Lieutenant, At 7 40 a m the light cruisers turned away R E Washbourn describes. under smoke In the 82 minute action the blow suffered by. Achilles sweating gun crews had fired more Achilles. than 200 broadsides at the German ship, A more aggressive German commander might I was only conscious of a hellish noise and a thump on the Milburn had been killed outright I discovered at the same. have persisted with the action or at least head which half stunned me I ordered automatically A C P time that Sergeant Trimble had uncomplainingly and most. finished off Exeter But Langsdorff decided After Control Position take over Six heavy splinters had courageously remained at his post throughout the hour. to break off and head for a neutral port to entered the D C T Director Control Tower The right hand of action that followed the hits on the D C T although. effect repairs He set course for the River Plate side of the upper compartment was a shambles Both W T seriously wounded Mr Watts carried out his duties most ably. estuary The battle became a pursuit as the ratings were down with multiple injuries A B Sherley had throughout He calmly tended the wounded until his. British light cruisers shadowed their enemy dropped off his platform bleeding copiously from a gash in rate keeping was again required. There were occasional flurries as Graf Spee his face and wounds in both thighs Sergeant Trimble RM. turned on its pursuers firing salvoes to the spotting observer was also severely wounded A B Boy Dorset behaved with exemplary coolness despite the. keep them back several fell close to the Shaw slumped forward on to his instrument dead with carnage around him He passed information to the guns and. British ships Eventually after traversing 300 multiple wounds in his chest The rate officer Mr Watts repeated their reports clearly for my information He was. miles Graf Spee entered the Uruguayan port quickly passed me a yard or so of bandage enabling me heard at one time most vigorously denying the report of his. of Montevideo It dropped anchor shortly to effect running repairs to my slight scalp wounds which untimely demise that somehow had spread round the ship. after midnight were bleeding fairly freely I then redirected my attention I m not dead It s me on the end of this phone he said. Sixteen year old Seaman Boy Arthur Hunt recalled going into. to the business in hand while Mr Watts clambered round The director layer Petty Officer Meyrick and the trainer. battle aboard Achilles, behind me to do what he could for the wounded Word was Petty Officer Headon are also to be commended for keeping. Whistles clanging bells shouted orders and the After the battle passed that the D C T was all right again A B Sherley was up an accurate output for a prolonged action of over 200. clatter of hundreds of booted sailors rushing for their removed by a medical party during the action Considerable broadsides The rangetakers Chief Petty Officer Boniface. By the morning of 14 December 1939 the, difficulty was experienced the right hand door of the D C T and A B Gould maintained a good range plot throughout. stations This was the moment all our months of dreary damaged Admiral Graf Spee was anchored in. being jammed by splinter damage When the medical party the action disregarding the body of a telegraphist who fell. neutral Montevideo Under international law, training had led to The whole ship s company moved arrived to remove the dead I learned for the first time through the door on top of them.
a belligerent warship entering a neutral port, with precision and every man knew that this time it had only a limited time to carry out repairs. that both Telegraphist Stennett and Ordinary Telegraphist. was real that the day of the mock battle was over before being forced to put to sea. With reinforcements steaming at full speed off and scuttling charges were blown. for the River Plate the British were anxious The Graf Spee settled on the shallow seabed. to delay Graf Spee s departure as long as a smoking ruin Its crew was landed in. possible They used another rule Buenos Aires Argentina where they were. that prevented an enemy warship from interned Langsdorff committed suicide soon. leaving a neutral port for 24 hours after afterwards. one of the other side s merchant ships,did so Several Allied merchant ships duly. put to sea but it was unclear whether Captain,The battle s significance. The British victory Langsdorff would abide by the rule British. The immediate outcome of the battle gave,naval authorities were relieved when HMS. gave a huge boost to Cumberland arrived to join the vulnerable. the Admiralty much satisfaction A major,threat to Atlantic shipping had been.
Commonwealth morale Ajax and Achilles late on 14 December 1939. Langsdorff was convinced that even stronger removed a powerful German warship was. It was the first bloody destroyed and many Royal Navy ships. forces had arrived off the estuary, nose inflicted on the could now be released to other duties. Germans There was trepidation aboard the waiting But the psychological and moral impact. British cruisers Their adversary was still was even more important than its material. lethal and the outcome of a new engagement outcome The British victory gave a huge. was by no means assured But Langsdorff boost to Commonwealth morale It was the. was pessimistic about his chances of breaking first bloody nose inflicted on the Germans. through the enemy ring he now believed lay Achilles contribution to the victory was also in every theatre of war in which the navy. between him and the sea Motivated by a Achilles role was a special source of pride a boost for the New Zealand naval forces operated At the peak of its strength in July. desire to avoid useless loss of life among his to New Zealanders Their men had come It seemed to justify the effort and resources 1945 the Royal New Zealand Navy as it had. crew he decided to scuttle his ship rather through the test of combat with colours put into them over the previous 25 years become in October 1941 had 10 649 men. than to go down fighting Berlin agreed to flying There was huge excitement when The action foreshadowed the full part and women in its ranks. his plan Achilles returned to New Zealand in February New Zealand would play in the naval war. 1940 the Admiralty having decided that it over the next six years Not just New Zealand. Graf Spee weighed anchor at 6 17 p m on should be repaired at Auckland rather than warships were involved This country also. 17 December Watched by thousands of Malta as originally planned A parade and provided many thousands of men to serve on Further information. spectators on shore it headed slowly towards civic reception was held in Auckland and secondment in the Royal Navy They were Battle of the River Plate URL http www. the sea The ship stopped its crew was taken the crew later also paraded in Wellington deployed throughout the fleet and found NZHistory net nz war battle of river plate. As the international,situation darkened in,the last week of August. 1939 the likelihood,of these plans being,implemented suddenly.


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