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 GRAF 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…