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In deference to our New Zealand brothers I thought it would be fair to do an item about them rather than make this series of contributions an exclusively Australian affair and recognise the NZ part of the ANZAC legend.

The River Plate (Rio de la Plata) separates Argentina and Uruguay.

In 1939 it was the scene of one of the most dramatic naval battles of the war and has been the subject of a movie of the same name.

After WW1, the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28th June, 1919, required Germany to surrender her fleet and imposed limits on the size and number of naval vessels that Germany was allowed to retain, construct and maintain. Among others she was allowed to retain six pre-dreadnaught battleships and six light cruisers. The dreadnaught battleships were an old and outdated design having been state of the art in the1880’s onwards.

The limits imposed on new ship construction were that they were not to exceed 10,000 long tons. German ingenuity and engineering excellence devised a new breed of heavy cruiser, known generally as a Pocket Battleship, which complied with the new rules but retained the attributes of a real battleship. The full load displacement did, however, exceed the permitted limit.

In1932 Germany laid down the keel of the first of these ships. It was completed in1936 and named The Admiral Graf Spee.

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Before WW2 broke out she was deployed to the South Atlantic Ocean and positioned herself astride the merchant shipping lanes in preparation for the war. She was accompanied by a supply ship called the Altmark. The Altmark kept the Graf Spee at sea with fuel and supplies returning to Germany with captured ships’ crew as prisoners for internment. Graf Spee operated under prize rules. This rule meant that before sinking a vessel the attacker had to demand that she stop, transfer the crew safely and then sink the ship. Between September and December 1939 she sank 9 British merchant vessels and was a formidable threat to Britain’s supply routes in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The British were determined to do something about it.

On 5th October, 1939 Britain and France assembled a force of four aircraft carriers, three battleships and sixteen cruisers to hunt down the Graf Spee. Part of this force, known as Force G consisted of the British heavy cruisers Cumberland and Exeter, the British light cruiser Ajax and the New Zealand light cruiser Achilles. This force was to patrol the area off the River Plate.

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New Zealand light cruiser Achilles

On the morning of 13th December, 1939 the Graf Spee encountered Exeter. Ajax & Achilles.Graf Spee with 11 inch guns firing from three triple gunned turrets, two fore and one aft, eight 5.9 inch guns in single barrel turrets, and four torpedo tubes engaged the British squadron..Exeter was an 8 inch gunned cruiser mounted in three two gun turrets, four single mounted 4 inch guns and two torpedo tubes. Ajaxwas a 6 inch gun cruiser mounted in four two gun turrets, four 4 inch guns and eight torpedo tubes. Achilles, was an eight 6 inch gun light cruiser mounted in twin turrets and eight torpedo tubes. The fire power was clearly in favour of the Germans.

a5a679d6 b8b8 11e6 bff8 d89d6715223c Initially the skipper, Capt. Langsdorf, thought these ships were a convoy escort but soon realised that they were a task force. He was under orders not to engage enemy ships in battle but on this occasion decided to attack the squadron. Capt.Harwood, commander of the British squadron and skipper of Exeter, decided to split his force into two so as to divide the enemy gunfire. Graf Spee concentrated her fire on Exeter and inflicted heavy damage which put her out of the fight. Langsdorf thought the two light cruisers were making a torpedo attack and retried under a smoke screen after making a hit on Ajax and putting her rear turret out of action. During the actions Graf Spee had been hit 70 times, suffered 36 crew killed and 60 wounded. She retired to the River Plate estuary.The British squadron remained outside to thwart any attempted break out.

The damage to Graf Spee was light but critical. Her oil purification and desalination plants had been destroyed. Capt. Langsdorf decided to put into Montevideo Harbour to effect repairs, tend to the wounded and bury their dead. Montevideo is in Uruguay, a neutral country. The Hague Convention permitted Uruguay to accommodate the ship for repairs without impinging on its neutral status. The rest of the British and French fleet that had been assembled to track down Graf Spee was 2,500miles away at this time and British intelligence filled the airwaves with messages stating that a large fleet was waiting just outside the estuary to intimidate the Germans.

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Repairs were estimated to take two weeks. The Hague Convention allowed only 72 hours for respite in a neutral port before a ship could be interned. Langsdorf could not comply with this timetable. Uruguay and Britain were on friendly terms and the government was prepared to allow British officers and crew to board the ship.

On 17th December, 1939, after consulting with his superiors in Germany, Langsdorf started preparing the ship to be scuttled. All important equipment was destroyed, all but 40 of the crew were sent ashore and interned and on 18th December Langsdorf and the forty remaining crew sailed the ship to the outer roadstead, set the demolition charges and transferred to an Argentine tug boat for interment in Argentina. At 9.00pm that night the charges exploded and the ship sunk in a mass of fire which lasted for two days easily visible from the shore.


The scuttling of the Graf Spee

On 20th December, in a hotel room in Buenos Airies, Capt. Langsdorf committed suicide by shooting himself. Exeter, Ajax and Achilles returned to England for repairs and continued the war. In 1942 Exeter was sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of the Java Sea, Ajax survived the war, Achilles also survived the war and after it ended she was returned to the Royal Navy then on-sold to the Indian Navy.

At the time of the Battle of the River Plate there was no New Zealand Navy. New Zealand ships were part of the Royal Navy New Zealand Division and were designated HMS. The Royal New Zealand Navy was created on 1st October 1941 and thereafter its ships were designated HMNZS. Consequently one will find references to Achilles as HMS and HMNZS. Both are correct and the difference is in the timing.

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Achilles coming home to New Zealand in 1940. 

Achilles had been transferred to the New Zealand Navy on loan in 1936. She was the first ship of her class to be fitted with a seaplane and radar controlled gunnery. Radar controlled firing systems had been invented in New Zealand. After the River Plate encounter she played a prominent part in all theatres of the Pacific war working with the US Navy at Guadalcanal before she was sent back to the British Pacific fleet in May 1945 for final operations to end the Pacific war.

Along with their 2nd Division under Gen. Freyberg taking the lead role in the 8th Army defeat of the Afrika Corps and the formation of the Long Range Desert Group, the service of Achilles is just another demonstration of how our little sister dominion across the ditch has a habit of punching above its weight.

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crew of the Achilles



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