Battle of the River Plate

13 December 1939

HMS Achilles painting (Archives New Zealand, AAAC 898 NCWA Q223)

When the cruiser HMS Achilles opened fire on the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic, 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.

The 82-minute engagement between the Graf Spee and its three smaller British opponents – AchillesAjax and Exeter – was inconclusive. All four were damaged, with the British ships suffering 72 fatalities (among them two New Zealanders) to the Graf Spee’s 36. But the German warship’s subsequent withdrawal to the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo, and its dramatic scuttling by its own crew on 17 December, turned the Battle of the River Plate into a major British victory – and a welcome morale boost for the Allied cause.

Achilles’ role in the battle was a special source of pride for New Zealanders, who welcomed the crew home at huge parades in Auckland and Wellington in early 1940 (see 23 February).

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