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Goff to pay tribute to NZ war dead in Uruguay

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Media Statement

27 February 2004

Goff to pay tribute to NZ war dead in Uruguay

Foreign Minister Phil Goff will lay a wreath in Montevideo, Uruguay, tomorrow (approx 9.30am Saturday NZT), commemorating the role of New Zealand sailors in one of the Second World War’s best-known naval engagements.

HMS Achilles (as she was then known), a light cruiser, played a central role in the Battle of the River Plate, which led to the scuttling of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in the river's estuary in December 1939.

“Despite being heavily outgunned, the Achilles, along with the HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax, took on the German raider and drove it into the neutral harbour of Montevideo, where it was later scuttled by its captain,” Mr Goff said.

“The Graf Spee built up a fearsome reputation by sinking many Allied merchant vessels in the opening months of the war, and its loss was an early blow to the German war effort. A New Zealand ship with a large number of New Zealand sailors played a crucial part and I want to pay my respects to those who did not return.”

Four sailors from the Achilles were killed in the battle, two of them New Zealanders whose bodies were never identified. Mr Goff will lay his wreath at a British war cemetery in Montevideo where the remains of three sailors, one of them very probably a New Zealander, are buried beneath a single headstone.

The next day (early Sunday afternoon NZT) Mr Goff will view the point off Punta del Este where the battle took place, and work is now beginning on a bid to salvage the Graf Spee.

Mr Goff is in Uruguay as part of a South America visit promoting New Zealand's political, trade and economic interests in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.


Battle of the River Plate - Background

The Admiral Graf Spee was one of the powerful “pocket battleships” built by Germany in the 1930s. It quickly became a symbol of German naval might early in the war, patrolling the South Atlantic and sinking as many as nine Allied merchant ships.

On December 13, 1939, a British naval force comprising the light cruisers HMNZS Achilles and HMS Ajax, and the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, tracked down the Graf Spee and engaged it off the estuary of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata), which separates Uruguay from Argentina.

The German ship had bigger guns with longer range, but the British force was faster and more manoeuvrable. Despite taking heavy fire, the Achilles, Ajax and Exeter crippled the Graf Spee with several direct hits and drove it into the neutral port of Montevideo.

International convention allowed 72 hours' sanctuary in a neutral port but the Graf Spee's commander was unable to make the necessary repairs within that time and was forced to put out to sea again.

Despite the damage, the Graf Spee may well have been able to fight its way out into the open sea and escape, as the Allied ships, particularly the Exeter, had been badly damaged and they had only limited support (HMS Cumberland – another cruiser) in the immediate area.

However British propaganda persuaded the Graf Spee’s captain, Hans Langsdorff, that an overwhelming British force was assembling off the coast of Uruguay. On December 17, apparently against the direct orders of German Navy high command, he scuttled the Graf Spee in the estuary of the River Plate. Langsdorff committed suicide in Buenos Aires a few days after being taken prisoner.

The New Zealand cruiser Achilles, which was crewed by British and New Zealand sailors, returned to Auckland in February 1940. It was refitted and then operated as an escort for Pacific troop convoys before taking part in the Guadalcanal campaign, then joining the British Pacific fleet for the final actions against Japan.

Work started this month to raise the Graf Spee, which is sitting in about 7.5m of water in the River Plate Estuary.


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