12 Dec 2009

70th anniversary of Battle of River Plate

9:26 pm on 12 December 2009

Ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate are being held around New Zealand this weekend.

The battle, off the coast of South America, marked New Zealand's first active engagement in the Second World War.

On 13 December 1939, HMS Achilles, crewed mostly by New Zealanders, took on the much larger German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee.

The Achilles was part of a squadron with two other Royal Navy ships which forced the German raider to flee to a neutral port in Uruguay, where the captain scuttled his ship.

About 60 people gathered at the National War Memorial in Wellington on Saturday morning to commemorate the battle.

Six war veterans, representatives from the Royal New Zealand Navy, Governor-General Anand Satyanand and diplomats including the German ambassador attended the service.

The chief of the navy, Rear Admiral Tony Parr, says the commemoration is crucial for all New Zealanders.

"The Battle of the River Plate was really one of the founding events in history for the Royal New Zealand Navy ... and was one of the first naval victories of the Second World War. It was really a touchstone for us."

Veteran Graham Bennett told Radio New Zealand he was humbled by the event. "One would never have thought the navy or the Government would have turned up and done this for us - it was much appreciated."

German ambassador Thomas Meister says the ceremony is important and serves as a reminder that war should never happen again.

Other ceremonies will be held in Auckland on Sunday and in Dunedin, where the commemorations will be combined with a service for the sinking of HMS Neptune off Libya in December 1941, in which 150 New Zealanders died.

Representatives from New Zealand, Britain and Germany will also attend commemorations in Uruguay.