“Down in the magazine it was impossible to tell whether each great shudder and muffled crash was an enemy hit or a snarl of the Achilles guns. Loading and firing, loading and firing. What was it like in the turret? All that mattered was getting the gun loaded and fired.”
I joined the Royal New Zealand Navy in February 1979 as an Ordinary Cook and was placed in Achilles Division during my Basic Common Training.
In my earlier years on sea postings, in addition to my trade specialisation duties as a cook, I spent numerous periods of time when called to ‘Hands to Action Stations’ conducting gunnery serials either down in the Shell Room or Magazine Room loading the hoists and sending the shells and cartridges up to the Gun Bay.
On occasion I got the opportunity to work the bullring in the Gun Bay. This was the closest I ever got to the real thing: practice, practice and more practice.
Sailor first – trade specialisation second.
HMS Achilles sailed out of Devonport on 29 August 1939, heading for Balboa. Her decks were scrubbed to the whiteness of sand; brass glinted as she cut through the winter waters. Four days later, orders changed and Achilles began to patrol the west coast of South America.
On 3 September a signal was received to commence hostilities. All the peacetime preparations went over the side; the crew began painting away all the tidily work that many a seaman boy had laboured over.
On 13 December 1939 HMS Achilles, in company with HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax, went to dawn Action Stations. There was nothing in sight, so they were stood down and went back to their hammocks. Not 15 minutes later…
Whistles! Clanging bells! The alarm rattler sounding! The clatter of boots of hundreds of sailors rushing to their stations! A plume of smoke was on the horizon – the Graf Spee. This was the real deal.
Down in the magazine it was impossible to tell whether each great shudder and muffled crash was an enemy hit or a snarl of the Achilles guns. Loading and firing, loading and firing. What was it like in the turret? All that mattered was getting the gun loaded and fired.
The first broadside fired from X turret on the stern of HMS Achilles was at Latitude 34 S and Longitude 49 N at a course of 275 degrees. The turret was manned by the Royal Marines. At nine rounds per minute during the battle (regulations stated a maximum of five rounds per minute), Achilles alone fired 200 broadsides.
1,240 rounds were fired by Achilles gun crews during the battle with 359 remaining. Each 6 inch shell weighed 100 lb (45 kg) compared to the Graf Spee’s 11 inch shells weighing 670 lb (303 kg).
A number of our sailors were killed. Captain Parry was injured. One of our sailors from the Port 4 inch gun crew that gave his life was Ordinary Seaman Ian William Grant, Service no. 1734, aged 18. He joined the Navy on 15 Jun 1939 and posted to HMS Achilles on 26 August 1939.
This was his first and only sea posting. Ian William Grant was buried at sea on Thursday 14 December 1939.
With extensive damage, the Graf Spee entered Montevideo to undertake repairs. The Uruguayan authorities permitted her stay for 72 hours. She had to leave port at 0800 on 17 December 1939.
Captain Langsdorff was not allowed to have the ship interned. ‘Better a thousand live young men than a thousand dead heroes.’ He decided to scuttle the ship.
The battle ensigns where hauled down and the ship evacuated. The scuttling charges went off and Graf Spee began to settle on the mud of the River Plate.
‘I was a stringy, half-grown 16 year old the day I watched the Graf Spee settle ignobly in the shallow water of the mouth of the River Plate but I felt as big as Samson for I had put her there’…. Arthur Hunt Seaman Boy N.Z.D. 1612
Lest We Forget
Warrant Officer Chef Steven Bourke
WOCH Bourke joined the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1979.
Shore postings have included HMNZS Philomel, Tamaki, the Navy Hospital and Royal New Zealand Naval College. Sea postings have included HMNZS Otago, Waikato, Pukaki, Wellington and Canterbury.
He was promoted to Warrant Officer in September 2001.
After serving as Deputy Supply Officer and Career Manager Support, WOCH Bourke returned to his professional trade in 2006 as the Fleet Catering Advisor and Head of Trade for the Chefs Branch.
In January 2010 WOCH Bourke was deployed to the Afghanistan for six months as a 2I/C in a logistics role.
Twice he has posted to Leadership Development Group as Leadership Warrant Officer, the environment which is responsible for Recruit Training, Sea Safety Training, Command and Advanced courses for Officers and Ratings.
In 2013 WOCH Bourke was selected as the Command Warrant Officer HMNZS Te Kaha.
WOCH Bourke was appointed the 7th Warrant Officer of the Navy on 21 February 2014.
WOCH Bourke is married to Heather. They have a son Taylor and reside in Belmont, Auckland.
He heremana ahau, I am Sailor