“Once seated the gentlemen ordered a couple of beers and began to spin “dits” about the battle. Then out the corner of his eye, Stoker Evans noticed some German sailors doing the same thing at another table.”
I first met Mr. Albert Henry Evans at a Mess Dinner commemorating the Battle of the River Plate in 2008. I was lucky enough to sit next to Mr. Evans, who was then amongst a handful of the remaining veterans from the HMS Achilles crew.
Mr. Evans was a Royal Navy Stoker, the equivalent of a Marine Technician today, who volunteered to join the New Zealand Division. He joined the crew of Achilles on 25 August 1939.
My wife and I continued to visit Mr. Evans on a regular basis over the subsequent years. Over cups of tea he would tell us stories of his time in the Navy. The detail with which he could remember events that occurred over 70 years ago always used to astonish me.
On the day of the battle, Stoker Evans spent hours running about the ship, repairing pipe work and machinery that had suffered from the enduring onslaught from the Germans. Upon entering the neutral port of Montevideo, some of the crew were allowed shore leave.
Stoker Evans and a few shipmates decided to head ashore and have a drink at a local open air restaurant. I remember the way he described the restaurant, saying it was the biggest restaurant that he had ever seen. There were over 300 tables and seating for many more. Once seated the gentlemen ordered a couple of beers and began to spin “dits” about the battle. Then out the corner of his eye, Stoker Evans noticed some German sailors doing the same thing at another table. He said it was easy to notice them because both groups were in uniform.
There was a little animosity at first, but not before long the German sailors approached the Kiwi and British sailors and introduced themselves. Through broken English and the use of hand signals, the two groups became one and spent the next few hours drinking beers together and enjoying the time off in the sun.
It came time to say goodbye and the two groups began arguing over who was going to pay for the drinks. The Germans insisted they would; the New Zealanders insisted they would. This tussle went on for a bit only to be cut short by the waiter, who informed them that the bill had already been paid.
The locals in the restaurant had been amazed to see how two groups, who had just been fighting, could put their differences aside and sit down with each other. A hat was passed around to collect money to pay for the table’s drinks. There was even money left over.
This led to another debate over who was going to keep the change, both sides saying the other should have it. Eventually one of the German men gave in and said he would take it. He promised that he would spend the money on something important.
The sailors bid each other farewell and returned to their respective ships. The rest of the story is history. The Graf Spee was scuttled and the ships HMS Exter, Ajax and Achilles continued on in the war.
After retirement Mr. Evans was invited back to Montevideo to witness the German Eagle being raised from the roadstead where it had laid since 20 December 1939.
During this visit, an elderly man approached him and shook his hand.
“You don’t remember me do you?” he asked. “I met you many years ago and I promised you and your friends I would do something special with that money.”
He then introduced his granddaughter and explained that after the war he returned to Germany and opened an engineering firm. The firm now employed many staff, including his own family members.
Mr. Evans sadly passed in 2013. His ashes are scattered at Achilles Point in Auckland and also in his home town in England.
Before he passed, Mr. Evans gifted me this eagle which he carved himself.
Albert Evans, a gentleman, a sailor, a friend, God bless your soul.
Lieutenant Commander Karl Vetter
Karl Vetter joined the Royal New Zealand Navy in 2004, specialising in Weapon Engineering. In his ten years of service, he has been Corridor Control Officer in the Demilitarised Zone of South Korea; he was Technical Requirements Manager on the ANZAC Self Defence Upgrade project; and in 2011 he was seconded to International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan to oversee the relocation of Afghanistan nationals and their families back to New Zealand after the New Zealand forces withdrew from the area.
In November 2013 Karl was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and took up the position of Technical Personnel Officer. In this role, he acts as the career manager for all of the Navy’s Weapons and Marine Technical Ratings.
Karl is married to his wife Zandra, and lives in the Auckland area.