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The Battle of the River Plate: Achilles and Admiral Graf Spee

Article by Roger Barnes

Achilles Badge

December 2014 marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate in which New Zealanders were significantly involved, and in which the enemy ship was the German “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee. December 2014 was also the centenary of the death of the eponymous Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee.

The Second World War battle, named after the Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay, involved HMS Achilles (New Zealanders made up the majority of its crew), HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter — a Royal Navy fleet hunting the Admiral Graf Spee. The battle, on 13 December 1939, left the German ship critically damaged, and it limped into the Uruguayan port of Montevideo, at the mouth of the River Plate. After the captain, Hans Langsdorff, was told that his stay could not be extended beyond four days, he scuttled the ship rather than face the superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure. On 20 December, he committed suicide. The Battle of the River Plate was the first Allied victory of the Second World War, and the Achilles was the first New Zealand warship (which it was, in effect) to take part in a naval battle. The Achilles was under the command of London-born Captain Edward Parry, who later became the first New Zealand Chief of Naval Staff and, eventually, Admiral Sir Edward Parry, KCB. The ship was sold to the Indian Navy in 1948, and scrapped in 1978.

The badge of HMS Achilles depicts, on a red field, the golden head of Achilles, couped at the neck, wearing a helmet, also golden, which is drawn back to reveal his face. Achilles was a hero of ancient Greek mythology, and the central figure of Homer’s Iliad. The design comes from an unofficial badge (circa 1908). It was submitted for the approval of the Admiralty Board by Major Charles Foulkes (who wrote his name anachronistically as “ffoulkes”) on 10 July 1931, and approved 10 days later. Foulkes designed many badges for Royal Navy ships. The pentagonal shape was, at that time, used for light cruisers. The ship’s motto is FORTITER IN RE (Bravely in action).

The Achilles arrived back in Auckland on 23 February 1940 to a heroes’ welcome, and there was a parade of the ship’s crew up Queen Street, with a civic reception at the Town Hall. On 13 December 2014, there was a commemorative parade down the same street, with the only four crew men of the Achilles who are still alive, in the presence of the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae.


Admiral Graf von Spee

The Admiral Graf Spee was launched on 30 June 1934. It was named after Admiral Maximilian Graf [Count] von Spee who was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 1861, but whose ancestors were of the Rhenish nobility, i.e. of the Rhine Valley in Germany. He had a distinguished naval career before the First World War. After the New Zealand invasion of German Samoa (shortly after the war was declared), von Spee sailed to Samoa, but decided that re-taking the islands was not worth the trouble, so sailed towards South America, where his ships were engaged in battle with two British cruisers (which the Germans sank). The German fleet then proceeded to the South Atlantic where they were engaged in battle with a British fleet off the Falkland Islands. Von Spee died, along with his two sons, in that battle on 8 December 1914.

Rietstap’s Armorial Général has an entry for Spee which can be translated as follows: Spee — Westphalia (Counts of the Holy Empire, 9 May 1739.) Arms: quarterly 1 and 4: Argent, a cock crowing and raising one foot Gules, coronet Or, standing on a terrace Vert (Spee); 2 and 3: Or, three lozenges Gules (Troisdorf). Two helmets [Proper?] crowned [Or?]. Crests: first, a cock issuant and contourny Gules, coronet Or, the wings extended and each charged with a square of the arms of the first quarter; mantling of Argent and Gules (Spee); second, an escutcheon of the arms of the second quarter, between a vol [i.e. two wings] Gules; mantling of Or and Gules (Troisdorf). Motto: SPES DURAT AVORUM [The hope of my ancestors endures.]

The illustration of von Spee’s arms in von Volborth’s Heraldry of the World omits the green terrace, and shows escutcheons rather than squares in the von Spee crest. The cock is not crowing, nor is its foot raised. Two other depictions of the shield which I have found omit the terrace, but have the cock’s head and foot raised.

Westphalia and the northern part of the German Rhine are adjoining, if not overlapping, regions in the west of the country, now combined in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The badge of the Admiral Graf Spee consists of a shield of the quartered arms of von Spee and Troisdorf.

Spee Shield

Badge of the Admiral Graf Spee

This article was originally published in The Heraldry Society of New Zealand’s quarterly publication The New Zealand Armorist (No.131). This publication is a benefit of membership to the society. To become a member visit the membership page.


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