Home' Auckland City Harbour News : April 12th 2013 Contents Lament to the
Grand Old Lady (Achilles)
by Jim Turnbull
For it was in those first
early, dark days of the war
When naught but bad
news were being brought
to the fore
With Ajax and Exeter
and their most
We set the whole
Empire agog with some
much better news
The pride of the German
fleet, the mighty Graf Spee
Had finally been brought
to heel and taken refuge in
There at last to
succumb to the intrigue
Which in Drake's
tradition proved we British
were still made of stern
moment of glory
No fear: Former Achilles crewman Jim Turnbull in 2005. Photo: JOHN NICHOLSON
Going down: The Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled.
Victory parade: Crowds in Auckland line the streets for the HMNZS Achilles
welcome home parade in February 1940. Photo: ALEXANDER TURNBULL COLLECTION
Glory days: HMNZS Achilles took a leading role in the Battle of the River Plate.
The Battle Of The River Plate was the Allies' first major naval victory of the
Second World War. On its 60th anniversary in 1999, reporter Hank Schouten
talked to one of the men who brought Germany's mightiest warship to its knees.
December 13, 1939, was a glorious
moment in our naval history and
Jim Turnbull remembers it as
though it was yesterday.
He was 17 at the time, a bright
young man with the lowly rank of
able seaman boy first class on board
the cruiser HMNZS Achilles as it
took on the German battleship Graf
Spee -- a legendary battle in which
brains beat brawn.
The Achilles was in the company
of two other cruisers, the Ajax and
Exeter. They were hardly light-
weights. The Achilles was more
than twice the size of today's mod-
ern frigates, carried a crew of 550
and was capable of steaming at an
impressive 35 knots.
But up against the pride of Hit-
ler's fleet, the cruisers were like fox
terriers taking on a rottweiler.
Their six-inch (152mm) shells could
barely dent her armour while the
Graf Spee's mighty 11-inch
(279mm) guns had far more range
Achilles had eight guns, each cap-
able of firing 45kg shells 23 kilome-
tres. In comparison the Graf Spee's
guns could throw quarter-tonne
The Graf Spee was under orders
to sink allied merchant shipping
and avoid enemy warships.
In the first two months of the war
she destroyed nine ships in the
Atlantic and Indian oceans. Allied
hunter squadrons were scattered
over the oceans to destroy this men-
ace to the war effort.
Rear Admiral Henry Hunch''
Harwood commanded the eighth
hunting squadron -- the Achilles,
Ajax, Exeter and Cumberland
patrolling 500km off the River Plate
on South America's Atlantic Coast.
From previous sightings he knew
the Graf Spee might be heading his
way and exercised his ships in
anticipation. Turnbull says they
repeatedly drilled in company with
each other, practising a two-
pronged attack that would give
them a fighting chance.
December 13 started like any
other day, Turnbull says. Every-
body was sent to action stations at
5am before first light in case enemy
ships came into sight at dawn.
Forty minutes later the all-clear
sounded and those not required on
duty were stood down. Turnbull
went back to his hammock to nap.
Then at 6.14am the alarm soun-
ded again. The Graf Spee had been
sighted heading towards them
15km to the northwest.
Turnbull raced to his post in the
transmission station, deep below
the bridge. Sent aft to get an offic-
er's torch, Turnbull took a moment
to poke his head out of one of the
rear deck hatches to see what he
could, and caught sight of the Exe-
ter peeling off from its station in
She was racing off to attack the
battleship from one side while the
Achilles and Ajax steamed off to get
around the other side.
Harwood's plan was to split his
attack so he could harry the Graf
Spee from both sides, keep within
range and divide her fire. Forced to
concentrate on one side Captain
Hans Lansdorf on the Graf Spee
directed his fire on the Exeter.
Within 20 minutes Exeter was
badly damaged and forced to with-
draw. However, the attack was con-
tinued by the Achilles and Ajax, fir-
ing hard and fast.
Deep inside the Achilles,
Turnbull could hear the battle rag-
ing. Although he was in the thick of
it -- the transmission room crew
were frantically doing their gunnery
calculations on a table-sized mech-
anical calculator -- there was no
chance to think of anything but con-
centrate on his job.
Turnbull says he wasn't afraid.
I was only 17 and everybody was
so busy. Everybody has a job to do.
You're just flat tack. There's no
We must have pumped out 100
tonnes of shells and we were
credited with 30 to 40 hits, but none
of them did any damage.''
Unfortunately the same couldn't
be said for the Achilles. One shell
blew away the director tower and
killed four crew. The captain was
Setting off smokescreens to give
themselves cover, the Achilles and
Ajax fired repeated salvoes at the
Graf Spee until ultimately the Ajax
took out the control tower.
Capt Lansdorf, fearing larger
Allied ships might be just over the
horizon, turned for the neutral
Uruguayan port of Montevideo.
After 82 minutes of battle the
Achilles and Ajax laid off and fol-
lowed the Graf Spee into the coast
while the badly damaged Exeter
made for the Falkland Islands.
In port the Graf Spee became the
focus of intense diplomatic activity.
The Uruguayan Government in-
sisted the German ship leave again
by December 17, insufficient time
for repairs to be made.
Turner says that while they
waited at the mouth of the River
Plate an elaborate game of bluff was
played out. Signal traffic was
generated to give the Germans the
impression that a British battleship
was just off the coast.
Just before the deadline for leav-
ing port expired the Graf Spee
moved out. Twelve kilometres out
her engines were stopped and Capt
Lansdorf and a skeleton crew trans-
ferred to barges before she was scut-
Turner says a huge cheer went up
when they heard the news.
The Achilles sailed past a few
hours later. The Graf Spee was an
amazing sight, Turner says. It was
still burning but only half sub-
merged in the shallow water.
It was a great cause for cele-
bration both in Britain and New
Zealand when the ships returned
because this was the first major
Allied victory of World War II.
An estimated 100,000-strong
crowd turned out in Auckland for
the Achilles crew's parade up Queen
St to the Town Hall. This was fol-
lowed by a parade through Welling-
Turner, now a retired Lower Hutt
builder, still remembers the public
Were we popular with the girls --
hell, yes. It was nice.''
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