"I wasn't as dead as I had first surmised."
Those were the words of HMS Achilles gunnery officer, Lieutenant Richard Washbourn, in a previously unpublished letter to a friend in England after he and his crewmates tasted the power of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the famed Battle of the River Plate on December 13, 1939.
Washbourn - who later became the Chief of Navy for New Zealand in 1963 and passed away in 1988 - gives a fly-on-the-wall view of the first naval battle of World War II and the first blow struck by a New Zealand ship at the enemy. The 75th anniversary of the battle is being marked by a parade down Queen St on Saturday, including the last four Kiwi survivors.
To understand the significance of the battle, it is important to know that the Graf Spee embodied all that was aggressive and powerful in the German war machine. A huge warship with advanced technology and armour plated defences, it boasted 11-inch guns that could send deadly artillery shells 19 kilometres. It was operating against British merchant shipping in the south Atlantic and had already sunk nine ships.
Recognising the threat, the British-formed task force involved 22 ships in all, divided into small hunting groups. The two light cruisers HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax (with six-inch guns) worked with the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter. The Achilles was manned by over 500 crewmen, more than 300 of them New Zealanders. They were feted in a giant parade when the ship returned home.
Force G, as the three ships were known, intercepted the Graf Spee on the morning of December 13. The problem was that the three warships were outgunned. The Spee liked to fight at distance - where its 11-inch shells could destroy the enemy but where the 6-inch and 8-inch shells of the British either fell short or bounced off the German armour.
The Achilles lost four sailors, with nine wounded. On the Ajax, seven died and five were wounded, while the Exeter suffered 61 deaths with 23 wounded. The Graf Spee lost 36 sailors and 60 were wounded.
The Graf Spee's captain, Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff scuttled the ship to avoid further loss of life and having his ship taken. Regarded as an honourable man, he later committed suicide.
This article is a content partnership with the Royal New Zealand Navy.
A letter from Lieutenant Richard Washbourn
"My Dear Bill,
The Hun was under the usual delusion of the decadence of the Royal Navy and came on at us for the first 10 minutes, which was just what we wanted to get into good effective fighting range within our cannon. Thereafter, when we showed no sign of conforming to his expectations and bolting from his undoubtedly superior force, he turned around and bolted himself, and never again showed any inclination for a fight.
We engaged him hotly, having the superior speed, for nearly an hour and a half. Poor old Exeter, having the bigger guns and therefore being the more dangerous foe, received the benefit of his attention mostly for the first three-quarters of an hour, and she was unlucky. It was gratifying to hear that she was still afloat at the end. I didn't for a moment expect to see her alive.
There was something of a thrill of excitement. I think that is only natural. She [Graf Spee] looked very fierce and most menacing through my optical instruments. I have a very clear picture of her fixed in my memory.
Her hull is just above the horizon, waterline still down - a great grey shape twisting and turning and making smoke and surrounded by the white columns of water thrown up by our broadsides. Her great 11-inch guns belching forth a brilliant red flash followed by a thick opaque black cloud of smoke.
It is all very interesting and impersonal. There is no hatred of the other fellow at all. It is a game of great skill, for high stakes, and one in which courage and resolution play a big part.
About 20 minutes after fire had been opened we were straddled by the 11-inch and the short shells burst on the surface of the water and peppered this ship pretty thoroughly from truck to waterline. There were a few casualties ... on the upper deck, the AA [anti-aircraft] guns crew ... and the bridge was penetrated by a splinter or two.
One made a couple of holes in the captain's legs and then went on and shattered the knee of the Chief Yeoman of Signals. Up in my little box, we were unlucky. We had more than our share. There was a hellish din, and I remember crouching down and nursing a head streaming with blood. An undamaged officer ... passed me up a bandage which permitted me to make running repairs. I wasn't as dead as I had first surmised.
A couple of light scalp wounds, and a small hole in the left shoulder. I didn't notice this latter until some time later when it dawned upon me that the growing stiffness in that part of my anatomy might be worth looking into.
Looking round me, I found the right side of the control tower was a shambles. It resembled a slaughterhouse on a particularly busy day ... Five of my crew were out, three for keeps. Two who were actually in physical contact with me were very dead. Two within a couple of feet of me were shockingly wounded.
Six splinters in all had come inside. We are packed so closely in that compartment that we have to go inside in the right order or it is impossible to find one's own position ... It is comforting to realise there is no suffering whatsoever. The dead were dead before they knew anything had happened. The suddenness is merciful and so is the shock.
One youngster, just turned 18, found that the dead and very mutilated body of his predecessor was in the way and there wasn't room to shift him, so he sat on top of this unpleasantness and operated ... for the remaining hour of the action without batting an eyelid."
Later, a wounded Graf Spee disengaged from the battle. Washbourn wrote:
"She was utterly defeated, morally, and, probably materially too. It didn't look like that at the time and we were full of conjecture as to why she was bolting from us and what her plan was.
We went in to polish her off but were disappointed. She blew herself up . We cleared lower deck and everyone came up and clambered upon every point of vantage to see the last of the old enemy. There was then the most amazing spontaneous expression of feeling, and relief, I ever hope to hear."