The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 5 — The Destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee
The Destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee
ONCE the Admiral Graf Spee had anchored in Montevideo roads the main preoccupation of Commodore Harwood was how long she intended to remain there. It was of prime importance that the Ajax and Achilles should keep to seaward of the enemy ship if she came out and at the same time avoid being caught by her against the dawn light. For this reason Harwood withdrew his ships from the River Plate channels to seaward for the remainder of the night and closed in towards Montevideo once the risk of being silhouetted against the dawn had passed.
For the time being the two small cruisers alone stood between the enemy and the open sea. Both were short of fuel after their hard and prolonged steaming the day before. The Ajax had expended more than 820 rounds and the Achilles 1240 rounds of their 6-inch ammunition. They could not hope to fight another successful action unless they were concentrated, and the geographical factors favoured the enemy rather than them. From the River Plate estuary, which is 120 miles wide between Lobos Island to the north-east and Cape San Antonio to the south-west, there emerge three widely separated deep-water channels. The northernmost runs between the English Bank lightship and Cumberland Shoal; the second, whose centre is nearly 30 miles further south, is between English Bank and Rouen Bank; the third is nearly 30 miles wide between the latter bank and Cape San Antonio.
Throughout Thursday, 14 December, the Ajax and Achilles kept constant watch over as wide an area of the River Plate estuary as possible. Commodore Harwood requested the British Minister at Montevideo to use every possible means of delaying the sailing of the Admiral Graf Spee in order to gain time for reinforcements to reach him. He suggested that the Minister should sail British merchant ships and invoke the twenty-four-hour rule to prevent the enemy's leaving harbour. The Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, Captain H. W. U. McCall, RN, and the British naval intelligence officer kept him ‘most adequately supplied’ with the latest news of the Admiral Graf Spee. Harwood also learned that the Ark Royal, Renown, Neptune, Dorsetshire, Shropshire, and three destroyers were all on their way to the River Plate, but none could reach him for at least five days.page 62
The arrival of the Cumberland at ten o'clock that night restored to its narrow balance a doubtful situation. She had made the passage of 1000 miles from the Falkland Islands in thirty-four hours. Now it was possible for all three deep-water channels to be patrolled. The Cumberland covered the sector between Rouen Bank and English Bank, with the Achilles to the north of her and the Ajax to the south. In a policy signal beginning ‘my object destruction’, Commodore Harwood ordered that should the Admiral Graf Spee come out she was to be shadowed, and the three cruisers were to concentrate sufficiently far to seaward to enable a concerted attack to be carried out. He also repeated to the Cumberland his signal of 12 December, substituting her name for the Exeter in the original. The Ajax took in 200 tons of fuel-oil from the tanker Olynthus in San Borombon Bay on 15 December in weather so bad that the securing hawsers parted.
It was reported to Commodore Harwood that the Admiral Graf Spee had landed a funeral party that morning to bury her thirty-six dead and, later, that she had been granted an extension of her stay up to seventy-two hours in order to make her seaworthy. The reports made it appear that she had been damaged far more extensively than had been thought likely and had been hit from sixty to seventy times during the action. The British merchant ship Ashworth was sailed from Montevideo at seven o'clock that evening and Harwood was informed that the Admiral Graf Spee had accepted the edict that she would not be allowed to sail for twenty-four hours after that time. Nevertheless, he could not be sure that she would not break out at any time that suited her.
In accordance with the Commodore's plan the Ajax, Achilles, and Cumberland assembled 15 miles east of Cape San Antonio at 12.30 a.m. on 16 December. The squadron closed the River Plate towards dawn and the Ajax flew off her aircraft for a reconnaissance of Montevideo harbour, with instructions not to fly over territorial waters. The aircraft returned at 8.30 a.m. and reported that it had been impossible to see anything owing to bad visibility. The aircraft had been fired at in the vicinity of the whistle buoy, which seemed to indicate that the Admiral Graf Spee was taking advantage of the morning mist to put to sea. The cruisers at once went to action stations, but shortly afterwards it was reported that the enemy was still in harbour. When the Commodore suggested that an inquiry into the firing on the aircraft might be a way of delaying her sailing, the British Minister at Montevideo replied that it was definitely not the Admiral Graf Spee that had fired, but possibly an Argentine guard gunboat.
That day the Admiralty informed Commodore Harwood that he was free to engage the Admiral Graf Spee anywhere outside the page 63 three-mile limit. He decided to move his patrol into the area north and east of English Bank, as he considered that an engagement in the very restricted water just outside the three-mile limit off Montevideo was impracticable owing to lack of sea room and the ‘possibility of “overs” landing in Uruguayan territory and causing international complications.’
It was reported during the day that the Admiral Graf Spee was still making good action damage with assistance from the shore and that she had taken in provisions. It was thought unlikely that she would sail that night, but Harwood was firm on taking no chances. Again with the prefatory ‘my object destruction’, he signalled to his ships an appreciation of the situation and the tactical dispositions to be made in the event of the Admiral Graf Spee sailing and being engaged. The British merchant ship Dunster Grange sailed from Montevideo at five o'clock in the afternoon and a further period of twenty-four hours' delay before the Admiral Graf Spee could sail was claimed. It was reported, however, that she had made rapid progress with her repairs and might leave harbour at any time.
Late that afternoon Commodore Harwood received the Admiralty's signal informing him of the honours bestowed by the King upon him (KCB) and the captains of the Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles (CB), and of his promotion to Rear-Admiral to date 13 December. ‘This was a most stimulating tonic to us all,’ he wrote in his despatch, ‘and I took steps to pass it on to H.M. ships under my command, emphasising the share of all concerned in the honours their senior officers had received.’
Describing the patrol off Montevideo, Captain Parry, wrote:
The next four days and nights, though uneventful, were full of anxiety. Fortunately, the American broadcast service kept our enemy in a blaze of publicity; but naturally we had to remain ready for immediate action for it was always possible that he might slink out unmolested. This entailed keeping all hands at their stations all night and very little sleep could be got by those of us who might be faced with a quick decision. The first twenty-four hours was perhaps the most critical, for it was not until the evening of 14 December that we were reinforced by the Cumberland and her welcome eight 8-inch guns. During this trying time the splendid spirit of the ship's company was most inspiring. If anyone's spirits had been inclined to droop they could not have failed to be revived by the strains of Maori music and songs, or the shouts of merriment which came from the various quarters. On the last evening the captain decided that the degree of readiness might be slightly relaxed to allow a proportion of the ship's company to sleep in their hammocks; but a few minutes later he received a unanimous request from all quarters that they would prefer to remain all night ready at their stations. Such a gesture is unforgettable.
The British cruisers spent Saturday night, 16 December, patrolling on a north and south line east of English Bank lightbuoy. The Achilles, whose oil was running low, refuelled next morning from page 64 the Olynthus off Rouen Bank, the Ajax and Cumberland acting as lookouts at visibility distance while the operation was in progress. The squadron afterwards cruised south-east of English Bank ready to take up the same patrol as on the previous night.
From the moment she sought shelter in harbour the Admiral Graf Spee became the subject of a world-wide flood of radio and press publicity which completely overwhelmed the spate of Nazi propaganda and falsities that made shift to gloss over the ignominy of her defeat and flight. Behind the scenes a considerable political and diplomatic struggle was proceeding. After the landing of her wounded and the release of the masters and fifty-four members of the crews of British ships sunk by her, discussions began over the restoration of the Admiral Graf Spee's seagoing efficiency. A German shipping surveyor from Buenos Aires and the ship's senior engineer officer assessed the period required for repairs as not less than fourteen days in view of the limited local repair facilities. The German Ambassador addressed a note to the Uruguayan Foreign Minister requesting permission for this length of stay.
During the afternoon of 15 December the German Ambassador was informed that the Admiral Graf Spee would be permitted a stay of seventy-two hours and that any extension was not acceptable. The Uruguayan technical commission had declared seventy-two hours adequate to make the ship seaworthy. The Foreign Minister agreed to recommend to his government that the period should be timed to commence from the return ashore of the technical commission. This would, in fact, allow the ship nearly ninety-six hours in harbour from the time of her arrival.
On receipt of this decision, Captain Langsdorff signalled to the German Naval High Command as follows:
(1) Renown and Ark Royal, as well as cruisers and destroyers off Montevideo.1 Close blockade at night. No prospect of breaking out into the open sea and getting through to Germany. (2) Intend to proceed to the limit of neutral waters. If I can fight my way through to Buenos Aires with ammunition still remaining I shall endeavour to do so. (3) As a break through might result in the destruction of Spee without the possibility of causing damage to the enemy, request instructions whether to scuttle the ship (in spite of the inadequate depth of water in the Plate estuary) or submit to internment.
The German Ambassador, in a telegram to the German Foreign Office, endorsed Langsdorff's appreciation and pointed out that a stay of fourteen days would not alter the situation and would merely assist the concentration of enemy forces. He regarded internment of the Admiral Graf Spee as the ‘worst possible solution in any circum- page 65 stances.’ It would be preferable, in view of her shortage of ammunition, to blow her up in the shallow waters of the Plate and have her crew interned. The German Foreign Office replied ordering the Ambassador and Captain Langsdorff to seek to prolong the ship's stay and also sent the following telegram:
According to English press reports the Ark Royal is in the Plate area. As you know, we believe that the Ark Royal has already been sunk. By order of the Fuehrer you are to attempt to take photographs of the supposed Ark Royal. Signal results and forward the photographs.
The Germans in Montevideo noted that this order was impossible to fulfil since the ship had merely been allegedly sighted on the horizon and no aircraft could be got for reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Admiral Raeder was conferring with Hitler, who was opposed to internment ‘since there was a possibility that the Graf Spee might score a success against the British ships in a break-through’. The Fuehrer approved the instructions the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy sent to Captain Langsdorff, who was to ‘attempt by all methods to extend the time limit for your stay in neutral waters in order to retain freedom of action as long as possible’. Langsdorff's proposal to proceed to neutral limits and, if possible, fight through to Buenos Aires was approved. He was also told that the Admiral Graf Spee was not to be interned in Uruguay and that if the ship was scuttled he was to ‘ensure effective destruction.’
Late in the afternoon of 16 December Captain Langsdorff discussed his plans with his senior officers, while the German Ambassador was having an interview with the Uruguayan Foreign Minister, which at times was very heated. The Ambassador finally requested an audience with the President, but the Foreign Minister insisted that this could not be granted unless the Ambassador acknowledged the seventy-two hours' time limit. The Uruguayan government adhered to its decision that the Admiral Graf Spee must put to sea by 6.45 p.m. on 17 December or be interned. The Ambassador reported the result of his interview to Captain Langsdorff, who thereupon wrote protesting against the time limit imposed and intimating his decision to scuttle his ship.
This was defeat, naked and brutal, and to it was added the sting of a sense of disgrace. All through the midsummer day of 17 December preparations for the self-destruction of the German ship went forward. By mid-afternoon the most important secret equipment and documents had been destroyed. Most of her crew were transferred to the German merchant ship Tacoma, Captain Langsdorff with four officers and thirty-eight ratings remaining on board to take the ship out and scuttle her. The Tacoma was to follow her, and the page 66 whole crew were to be transhipped to Argentine tugs which were to take them to Buenos Aires for internment.
Out at sea the three British cruisers steamed to and fro south-east of English Bank. ‘We all expected that she would break out at any moment,’ wrote Rear-Admiral Harwood in his despatch. ‘. … At this stage the most cheerful optimism pervaded all ships in spite of the fact that this was the fifth night of waiting for the enemy.’ The instant that word was received that the German ship was weighing anchor, the squadron assumed the first degree of readiness for action, increased speed to 25 knots, and steamed towards the whistle buoy at the entrance to the five-mile dredged channel leading into Montevideo. The Ajax flew off her aircraft to observe and report the enemy's movements.
At 6.17 p.m. the Admiral Graf Spee hoisted a large ensign on her foremast, as well as one at the main, and left the harbour before the eyes of wondering crowds. She steered to the south-westward and stopped about eight miles from the entrance, the Tacoma, which had followed, anchoring about two miles north-east of her. By 7.40 p.m. the fuses of the scuttling charges had been set and Langsdorff and his demolition party left in the ship's boats for the Tacoma, while two tugs and a lighter from Buenos Aires neared the latter vessel.
The first explosion occurred exactly at sunset. All the crew of the Admiral Graf Spee paraded on the deck of the Tacoma, making the Nazi salute. A fierce jet of flame leaped up from the doomed ship, followed by a dense cloud of smoke and the loud rumble of an explosion. Then a gigantic ball of flame burst aft as a second great explosion took place. There ensued a long succession of explosions accompanied by leaping flames and a great pillar of brown smoke rising against the red evening sky. Fires continued to burn in the ship for six days. Her destruction in the shallow waters of the Plate estuary was watched by tens of thousands of awed spectators crowded on the roofs of Montevideo and along the seafront, while radio broadcasts and press cables flashed their graphic stories round the world.
Passing north of English Bank, the British cruisers were nearing Montevideo when at 8.45 p.m. the aircraft signalled: ‘Graf Spee has blown herself up.’ It was almost dark when the Ajax stopped to make an excellent recovery of her aircraft which had alighted on the water, and as the Achilles swept past her the ships' companies cheered each other. All three cruisers then switched on their navigation lights and steamed past the whistle buoy about four miles off the flaming wreck. ‘It was now dark,’ wrote Rear-Admiral Harwood, ‘and she was ablaze from end to end, flames reaching almost as high as the top of her control tower – a magnificent and most cheering sight.’page 67
It was an ignominious end for a great ship which bore the name of the German admiral who twenty-five years before had fought his ships to the last against great odds and perished with both his sons in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Speaking at the launching of the Admiral Graf Spee at Wilhelmshaven on 30 June 1934, Admiral Raeder had recalled that, off Coronel on 1 November 1914, a German admiral – he whose name she took – ‘for the first time in German history went into battle far from the German fatherland against an enemy of equal rank.’ The Admiral Graf Spee had been chosen to represent the German Navy at the Coronation naval review at Spithead on 20 May 1937 and had carried Hitler triumphantly to Memel.
The first official German announcement of the end of the ship was in the following terms: ‘The time necessary to make the Graf Spee seaworthy was refused by the Government of Uruguay. In the circumstances Captain Langsdorff decided to destroy his ship by blowing her up.’ At three o'clock in the morning of 18 December, according to Raeder's diary, the second sentence was altered to read: ‘Under the circumstances the Fuehrer ordered Captain Langsdorff to destroy his ship by blowing her up. This order was put into effect outside the territorial waters of Uruguay.’
Captain Langsdorff and his ship's company numbering 1039 officers and ratings arrived at Buenos Aires in the tugs in the afternoon of 18 December, after Uruguayan officials had tried unsuccessfully to get them back to Montevideo. The Tacoma was compelled by a Uruguayan warship to return to harbour. On the following day the Argentine Government decided to intern the crew of the Admiral Graf Spee, despite the German claim that they were shipwrecked seamen.
That night, after the German Ambassador had informed him of this decision, Langsdorff committed suicide by shooting himself in his room in a Buenos Aires hotel, the melodrama of this act being heightened by the fact that he lay on a German naval ensign. In a letter to the Ambassador, written shortly before he died, he recounted the reasons for his decision to scuttle the Admiral Graf Spee. ‘I am convinced,’ he wrote, ‘that under the circumstances, no other course was open to me, once I had taken my ship into the trap of Montevideo. For with the ammunition remaining, any attempt to fight my way back to open and deep water was bound to fail. … It was clear to me that this decision might be consciously or unwittingly misconstrued by persons ignorant of my motives, as being attributable entirely or partly to personal considerations. Therefore I decided from the beginning to accept the consequences involved in this decision. For a captain with a sense of honour, it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship. … page 68 After to-day's decision of the Argentine Government, I can do no more for my ship's company. Neither shall I any longer be able to take an active part in the present struggle of my country. It only remains to prove by my death that the men of the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honour of the flag. I alone bear the responsibility for scuttling the Graf Spee. I am happy to pay with my life for any reflection on the honour of the flag. I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Fuehrer. …’
The burial of Captain Langsdorff's body with full military honours took place in the German cemetery in Buenos Aires. The burnt-out wreck of the Graf Spee was sold some weeks later to a Senor Julio Vega of Montevideo, who employed divers and workmen to salvage fittings and other material as ‘scrap iron’.
However we regard his typically German sense of ‘honour’, it is impossible not to feel a good deal of sympathy for the unhappy man who wrote thus from the ‘jaws of measureless tribulation’. The British shipmasters who had been his prisoners spoke well of Captain Langsdorff; and in his official report Captain McCall, British Naval Attaché at Buenos Aires, paid him the tribute that he was ‘obviously a man of very high character and he was proud of the fact that he had not been the cause of a single death as the result of any of his various captures’ of merchant vessels.
Of the part played in the River Plate drama by the British cruisers, Rear-Admiral Harwood wrote in his despatch to the Admiralty: ‘I have the greatest pleasure in informing you of the very high standard of efficiency and courage that was displayed by all officers and men throughout the five days of the operation. … Within my own knowledge and from the reports of the commanding officers, there are many stories of bravery and devotion to duty, and of the utmost efficiency which shows that His Majesty's ships have been forcefully trained and made thoroughly ready to deal with the many and various exigencies of battle. … The main impression left on my mind is of the adequacy of our peace training. Little that had not been practised occurred, particularly among the repair parties. …’
In a message to the New Zealand Naval Board, as well as in his despatch to the Admiralty, the Rear-Admiral said he was ‘deeply conscious of the honour and pleasure of taking one of His Majesty's ships of the New Zealand Squadron into action. The Achilles was handled perfectly by her captain and fought magnificently by her captain, officers and ship's company.’ In his despatch he said he fully concurred with the remark of Captain Parry that ‘New Zealand has every reason to be proud of her seamen during their baptism of fire.’
During the time the cruisers of the South America Division were page 69 patrolling the River Plate estuary strong British naval forces were moving to their support, but after the destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee most of them were recalled for other duties. On Monday, 18 December, the Cumberland was left on patrol while the Ajax and Achilles went to San Borombon Bay, where they fuelled in turn from the tanker Olynthus. Rear-Admiral Harwood boarded the Achilles that evening and addressed the ship's company, praising them for their part in the recent action. Later, both ships got under way and shaped course for the Falkland Islands, where they arrived on 21 December.
The following morning the Achilles discharged her three seriously wounded ratings to the King Edward Memorial Hospital, to which a number of casualties from the Exeter and Ajax were also admitted for treatment. The Ajax and Achilles sent a number of men on board the Exeter to assist in the repair work. After fuelling from a tanker, the Ajax and Achilles sailed that evening.
Both cruisers returned to Port Stanley in the afternoon of 24 December and were joined about four hours later by the Cumberland and the Dorsetshire. The former had come down from the River Plate area and the latter arrived from Simonstown, whence she had sailed on 13 December. Christmas Day was observed by all five cruisers with traditional Navy custom. A strong south-west gale with violent hail and rain squalls was experienced from midnight of 26 December till the morning of the 29th, the Achilles riding with both anchors down and steam for slow speed. Despite the bad weather, the New Zealand cruiser managed to refuel from a tanker and to take in ammunition and stores from lighters. The three wounded ratings from the shore hospital were embarked on 29 December. The Ajax and Achilles sailed from Port Stanley in the early hours of 30 December for the River Plate.
At four o'clock in the morning of 3 January 1940 the Achilles parted company with the Ajax, which proceeded into Montevideo. The former embarked a pilot from the light vessel and steamed up the River Plate to Buenos Aires. A large crowd on the wharf gave the ship an ovation. The British Ambassador, Sir Esmond Ovey, paid the Achilles the great compliment of welcoming her personally and insisted on being the first person to board the ship on arrival. The Argentine authorities had agreed to waive all official calls, but the Minister of Marine and the Chief of the Naval Staff sent their ADCs to meet the Achilles.
In a report to the New Zealand Naval Board Captain Parry said that approximately thirty seriously wounded ratings from the Exeter and Ajax and three from the Achilles were landed at Port Stanley. The only hospital accommodation in the colony was a small cottage hospital of approximately twenty beds, of which five were reserved page 70 for maternity cases. The staff consisted of two doctors, a matron, and two trained nurses. This sufficed for the normal requirements of the colony, whose population was about 3000.
Captain Parry said that magnificent efforts were made to meet an unprecedented situation, and all difficulties were overcome so successfully that the patients could not have received better treatment and attention. They had complete confidence in the senior medical officer, Dr Kinnaird, and were full of admiration for the matron, Miss Gowans, and her staff of nurses and voluntary aids. The Governor of the Falkland Islands, Sir H. Henniker Heaton, KCMG, visited the hospital regularly.
No public recognition of their good work had been given to these people owing to the necessity of keeping secret the use made by the Royal Navy of the Falkland Islands, but Captain Parry suggested that a letter from the New Zealand naval authorities would be greatly appreciated. The Naval Secretary, therefore, on 5 March 1940 sent a letter to the Governor of the Falkland Islands, conveying the Naval Board's great appreciation of the efforts of the hospital staff.
Captain Parry also reported that, as soon as the first news of the River Plate action was received, the British Community Council in Buenos Aires provided at their own expense complete hospital equipment for 100 men and despatched it immediately to the Falkland Islands. A radiologist and fourteen trained nurses, all of whom gave up their own work at short notice, went with the equipment in the steamer Lafonia. Although this assistance did not arrive in time to help the Falkland Islanders during the first week, it relieved the situation enormously. The modern X-ray apparatus was particularly valuable.
During the visit of the Achilles to Buenos Aires from 3 to 5 January 1940, the hospitality received and the amount of presents given to the ship were incredible, said Captain Parry. The reception of the ship had been arranged by the British Community Council and the Australia and New Zealand Association of Buenos Aires. In addition, the following sums of money were presented to the Rear-Admiral, South America Division, as a contribution to the families of men killed or seriously wounded in action off the River Plate: British Community Council, Buenos Aires, £1000; British Community, Rosario Consular District, £93; British Patriotic Funds, Valparaiso and Santiago (Chile), £300. This money was divided among the three ships in proportion to the numbers of men. On 5 March 1940 the New Zealand Naval Board sent a letter to the British Ambassador, Buenos Aires, expressing its great appreciation of and thanks for the generosity and good work of the British communities concerned.page 71
Though their attitude was generally friendly, the Argentinians took little part in the reception to the Achilles, probably in order to appear strictly neutral. Leave in Buenos Aires was given only to organised parties from the Achilles, who were the guests of the British Community Council and the Australia and New Zealand Association. German seamen from the Admiral Graf Spee were still in uniform in Buenos Aires at that time and appeared to have no restrictions on their movements. Such contacts as they made with the ship's company of the Achilles were of a friendly nature, drinks and cap ribbons being exchanged. Captain Parry was also informed that two German seamen who were on the pier at sunset saluted as the flag of the Achilles was hauled down.
HMS Ajax had a rousing reception in Montevideo. It was remarked that the most striking thing was the spontaneity of the welcome, which could hardly have been greater had Montevideo been a British community. The Anglo-Uruguayan Trade Association made a presentation of plate to Rear-Admiral Harwood for ‘his services in keeping the sea clear for Uruguayan trade.’
The Achilles left Buenos Aires on 5 January and rejoined the flagship that afternoon. The Dorsetshire and Shropshire were in company with the Ajax, the Shropshire having recently arrived from the Cape of Good Hope. Rear-Admiral Harwood then transferred his flag to the Achilles and the division proceeded to sea in single line ahead. That night the Ajax left on passage to England. After eight days on patrol, the Achilles arrived at the Falkland Islands on 14 January. It was at that time that Rear-Admiral Harwood proposed to the Admiralty that the Achilles, when relieved by HMS Hawkins, should proceed to New Zealand to refit at Auckland instead of Malta as had been previously intended.
After refuelling and taking in stores, the Achilles sailed from Port Stanley in the early hours of 16 January and patrolled as far north as the Rio de Janeiro area. In the afternoon of 26 January she arrived at Montevideo, where unstinted hospitality was accorded the ship's company during her stay of twenty-four hours. The German merchant ships Tacoma and Lahn were still lying in the harbour. The Achilles refuelled from the Admiralty tanker Olwen off Rouen Bank on 28 January and was at anchor there when the Hawkins arrived next morning. Rear-Admiral Harwood's flag was then struck in the Achilles and rehoisted in the Hawkins. The ship's company cheered him as he left the Achilles and farewelled him by singing ‘For He's a Jolly Good Fellow’ and the Maori goodbye song.
‘During the short time his flag was flying at our masthead, he endeared himself to us all,’ recorded Captain Parry. ‘It was, therefore, very gratifying that, when he left us, he signalled:
My best wishes to you all. I have enjoyed flying my flag in your very happy ship.page 72
Besides the debt we all owe him for his unforgettable example and leadership in the Battle of the River Plate, we are also more than grateful to him for forwarding a proposal that we should refit at Auckland instead of an Imperial dockyard.’
In the afternoon of 29 January the Achilles steamed into Montevideo roads to embark mails. This enabled the ship's company to take a last look at the wreck of the Admiral Graf Spee. ‘The ship is now a pathetic sight,’ wrote Parry. ‘Her hull is no longer visible. Her upper works are rusting rapidly. Her funnel and mainmast lean heavily to starboard. Her fore-turret guns are just awash, while the after-turret, capsized by the explosion of the magazine underneath, lies on its back.’
Proceeding ‘in execution of previous orders’, the Achilles arrived in Stanley harbour for the last time in the afternoon of 1 February 1940 and sailed twenty-four hours later on her return to New Zealand. The transit of Magellan Strait was made on 4 February. The passage across the Pacific was entirely uneventful, and the Achilles arrived at Auckland on the morning of 23 February, thus ending a memorable and historic cruise.
During the six months since she left Auckland in August 1939, the Achilles had steamed 52,323 miles and spent 168 days at sea and only ten days in harbour. As she had already steamed 21,139 miles from the time she left England for New Zealand in February 1939, the total distance travelled during the twelve months was 73,462 miles.
Since 29 August 1939 leave had been given to the ship's company on nineteen occasions, including several brief periods when the ship was in harbour for only a few hours. Night leave had been granted fifteen times, on seven of which not more than twenty men had found accommodation on shore. Life on board had therefore been very strenuous, for sea time in war means continuous watchkeeping for everybody and the daily ordeal of going to full action stations at dawn. The strain bears particularly on the engine-room staff, who not only keep continuous watch at sea but have to seize every moment in harbour to carry out urgent repairs. That no breakdowns occurred during the cruise was evidence of the soundness of the machinery and the devotion to duty of the men who tended it.
‘One thing at least is certain,’ wrote Captain Parry in summing up his impressions of the cruise. ‘The continued enthusiasm and cheerfulness, both in dull moments and in more exciting ones, of a predominantly New Zealand ship's company has been a revelation, and for four anxious days an inspiration to one who was bred and born in the Old Country. Though many weary and anxious times lie ahead, he feels complete confidence that such men cannot fail to win the final victory.’page 73
The sea instinct and the imagination of the people of New Zealand had been stirred by the Battle of the River Plate. The announcement that the Achilles was returning to the Dominion was therefore received with much gratification. With the active cooperation of the Government, the civic authorities of Auckland made elaborate preparations to give the cruiser and her ship's company a fitting welcome. Arrangements were also made for the near relatives of her men from many parts of the country to be present when she arrived. The Governor-General, Lord Galway, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. P. Fraser (the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage, being seriously ill), and four other Cabinet Ministers travelled to Auckland to take part in the proceedings. Interpreting the national feeling of thanksgiving and pride, the names of twenty-seven municipalities, ranging from the far north to the most southerly part of New Zealand, figured on the banners of welcome that were a prominent feature of the lavish decorations in Queen Street, Auckland.
As the Achilles steamed up Rangitoto Channel in the early morning of 23 February thousands of people watched her from every point of vantage. When she passed the Devonport Naval Base on her way to the city wharf at which she berthed, the Achilles cheered and was cheered by the Leander and the Philomel.
A vast crowd, estimated to number more than 100,000, assembled in Queen Street and its approaches to greet the ship's company, led by Captain Parry, as they marched from the wharf to attend the civic reception and luncheon at the Town Hall. Some 6000 officers and men of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the Merchant Navy took part in the parade, the route being lined by Territorial troops and school cadets. At the civic reception Mr Fraser read a cable message received that morning by the Governor-General from the Secretary of State for the Dominions expressing the British Government's appreciation of the notable part played by the Achilles and her New Zealanders in the River Plate action. The message said it was particularly appropriate that the Achilles should arrive home in New Zealand on the day on which the officers and men of the Ajax and Exeter were being reviewed by the King. The Governor-General, in reply, said the Government and people of New Zealand wished to associate themselves with the welcome to those ships' companies, to whom their comrades in the Achilles sent cordial greetings.
While the Achilles was undergoing a long refit, a party of about 400 officers and ratings travelled by train to Wellington, where they were given an enthusiastic welcome as they marched through the city streets. The rest of the ship's company visited Wellington page 74 four days later. Requests from many part of the Dominion for similar visits could not be granted. The presence in their home towns of men on long leave from the Achilles proved of great value to recruiting for the armed forces.