Dominance of our sporting culture threatens to send current ensign the way of legendary Kiwi WWII warship.

There is a growing belief that we're going to end up with a national flag that reflects our prowess on the rugby field rather than continuing with the existing emblem, no matter how well-steeped in historic heritage it is.

It's a vexing business wanting to change our identity symbol, doubtless propelled by a growing desire to shake off our last visual links to Mother Britain, ridding ourselves of the cornerstone Union Jack.

Part of the dilemma is measuring the illustrious significance of today's flag and the blood spilled under it in a number of conflicts. Ditching an icon that many proudly served and died under, simply for a new design, particularly if we end up with something that looks like an All Black jersey, seems almost fatuous.

For example, how many New Zealanders today would be able to name the first occasion our national ensign was raised in battle in World War II?


This momentous event even puzzled German sailors who had to hurriedly check their identity codebooks at the time, curious as to which one of the British Empire's numerous appendages appeared to be part of a cruiser squadron sighted off the South American coast in the early days of the conflict.

The occasion has gone down in the history books as the Battle of the River Plate, when our national flag was raised to the masthead of the Leander-class light cruiser HMS Achilles, manned by a New Zealand division, to face the red, white and black swastika flying from the bridge of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee on December 13, 1939.

The British force, consisting of three cruisers more lightly armed, were clearly no match to the superior firepower of the German raider and the British squadron prudently split in different directions, HMS Exeter separating from HMS Ajax and her sister cruiser Achilles, who continued the operation in close company.

The initial battle quickly established the Graf Spee's superior gunfire, with the Exeter badly damaged from a series of direct hits, but in turn scoring a direct vital hit below the raider's decks, destroying her raw fuel processing system, leaving the German diesel-powered warship with just 16 hours of fuel, insufficient to allow her to return to Germany.

Meanwhile, both the Ajax and the Achilles kept closing with the Graf Spee, damaging both the warship's anti-aircraft guns and knocking out a secondary gun turret, before hastily retreating again under cover of smokescreens, as they in turn were pounded by the enemy's heavier and more accurate firepower.

The battle has been described as like watching a small pack of Jack Russell terriers tormenting an outraged bull.

The event eventually turned into a somewhat one-sided pursuit, with the Achilles shadowing the German cruiser from a safe distance as it finally entered the River Plate, with the German commander, Captain Langsdorff, deciding to drop anchor in neutral Uruguay to hopefully carry out repairs and replenish his fuel position.

Over the next few days, he was deceived into believing that a superior British force had arrived at the River Plate's entrance and the German captain made an ill-fated decision to scuttle the Graf Spee while still at anchor and save further loss of life, much to the fury of Adolf Hitler in Berlin.


Thus ended the first sea battle of World War II, where a New Zealand division (precursor of the Royal New Zealand Navy) played a significant role in the first conflict by a British Commonwealth force.

HMNZS Achilles, as she was later named, served in both the Atlantic and Pacific war zones. One of two curiosities not generally known was that the ship carried a radio-controlled unmanned aircraft known as a DH.82 Queen Bee, a forerunner of today's drone aircraft. In fact, the term "drone" originates from the name "Queen Bee". The second interesting footnote was the development of a bit of "Kiwi manufacturing know-how" from 75 years ago.

HMNZS Achilles was the first cruiser in the British fleet to have gunfire-control radar, with the installation of the New Zealand-made SS1 fire-control radar in June 1940.

After World War II service, the Achilles was sold to the Indian Navy in 1948 and recommissioned as INS Delhi. She was finally scrapped in 1978.

Before scrapping, the cruiser was offered for sale. This writer tried hard to persuade various authorities to bring the former HMNZS Achilles back to New Zealand as a tourist attraction (having been born in Portsmouth under the shadow of Nelson's ship Victory). I believed there was a significant opportunity to own a piece of maritime history of considerable long-term value to the nation. Unfortunately, my pleas fell on deaf ears with both the government and civic leaders of the day and the best we could do was end up with a single gun turret, gifted to New Zealand and now installed at the Devonport naval base.

I wonder how long it will be before our existing national flag - with its distinguished history - also becomes another piece of historic bric-a-brac, only to be viewed in museums?