“Able Seaman Archibald Cooper Hirst Shaw was killed at the Battle of the River Plate and buried at sea. His commemorative scroll highlights the human cost of the battle.”
The Battle of the River Plate is remembered as a triumph for the Allied cause during the Second World War and was a great victory for New Zealand’s small Naval Division.
Writing from the perspective of a custodian of the Navy Museum, the Battle of the River Plate is not just a victory, it is an important part of a naval ANZAC tradition that began with the First World War.
Able Seaman Archibald Cooper Hirst Shaw was killed at the Battle of the River Plate and buried at sea. His commemorative scroll highlights the human cost of the battle. The cost was felt on both sides, and today we remember all those who fought for a cause they believed in. In all the battle cost 108 sailors their lives, four of whom were onboard HMS Achilles.
The majority of those who lost their lives during the battle served in HMS Exeter, the flagship for Admiral Harwood. Having spent much of his professional life studying how best to take on Germany’s new Panzerschiffe (pocket battleship), Harwood knew the task of taking on a Panzerschiffe – even a lone one – would be a formidable one. He divided his force into two squadrons. Ajax and Achilles moved north then west, while Exeter took the Graf Spee head on. This divided the firepower of the Graf Spee. In doing so, Harwood placed himself and Exeter in position to take most of the Graf Spee’s shot, costing the ship’s company 61 lives. His decision allowed Ajax and Achilles, who were at greater risk of being sunk, to rattle the Graf Spee with fire. Captain Langsdorf was eventually convinced to retreat.
Reflecting on this, there are two clearly identifiable lessons. The first is that war will always have a human cost; something society, service personal, and those trusted with power cannot forget. The second is that those who fought during the Battle of the River Plate did so knowing this.
Thus, while we celebrate the battle’s 75th anniversary we must also remember and reflect upon why those young men fought, honouring their legacy and celebrating the peace they fought to ensure.
A Guide at the Navy Museum, Brett Collis has an excellent knowledge of the Museum and the history of the Battle of the River Plate. His choice in artefact was influenced by his interaction and conversations with family members and members of the public.
Having studied military history and international relations, Brett is dedicated to the preservation of New Zealand’s military history for future generations, allowing them to know the service of generations before in the defence of the lives they enjoy today.