13 Dec 2014

March marks Battle of River Plate

2:39 pm on 13 December 2014

Hundreds of people joined a parade in Auckland today to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate in World War II.

The parade re-enacts the march that took place when HMS Achilles returned victorious to Auckland in 1940.

The parade re-enacts the march that took place when HMS Achilles returned victorious to Auckland in 1940. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly

The Battle of River Plate march makes its way down Queen Street.

The Battle of River Plate march makes its way down Queen Street. Photo: Chris Weissenborn

In what was the first naval engagement of the Second World War, three Royal Navy warships, including the New Zealand-crewed HMS Achilles, took on the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of Uruguay.

Read Radio NZ correspondent Andrew McRae's retelling of the Battle of the River Plate

The four surviving New Zealand veterans led the parade in vintage cars along Queen Street in a re-enactment of the heroes' welcome for the Achilles from tens of thousands of people when it returned in February 1940.

Another 317 New Zealanders served on the ship; two of them died in the engagement off the estuary of the River Plate before the German ship withdrew and was scuttled.

Today, more than 580 sailors joined the parade, along with the Royal New Zealand Navy Band, sea cadets and families of veterans who have died.

HMS Achilles was the first New Zealand warship to take part in a naval battle and the first New Zealand unit to strike a blow at the enemy in World War II.

The four veterans boarded HMNZS Te Kaha at Queens Wharf, where they were each awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae.

One of them, 92-year-old John Thomson, who flew from his home in Queensland, said it was an important day for him.

"I supposed mainly because I've lived to see this day, and to see so many people lining Queen Street is absolutely amazing."

Today's ceremony also included a wreath-laying ceremony.

HMS Achilles veterans on board HMNZS Te Kaha, from left: John Thomson, Bob Batt, Howard Heffer and Roy Waide

HMS Achilles veterans on board HMNZS Te Kaha, from left: John Thomson, Bob Batt, Howard Heffer and Roy Waide Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly

The Achilles was loaned to New Zealand and helped destroy the German battleship.

The HMS Achilles and two other Royal Navy ships took on the Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of Uruguay. Photo: Ref: 1 / 2-123722-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Veterans of the Battle of the River Plate were among those gathered for today's parade in Auckland.

Veterans of the Battle of the River Plate were among those gathered for today's parade in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Sharon Brettkelly

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