“Suddenly cheers rang out. Every merchant ship in port sounded their horns, trains whistled and thousands of cars lining the wharf tooted. The lads were home!”
This is the special pass allowing complimentary travel in Auckland to the men of HMS Achilles, issued in recognition of ‘Duty Nobly Done’ following the Battle of the River Plate. The pass allows travel on all trams, omnibuses and ferries on any route at any time during a period a seven days after arrival of the ship at Auckland.
On 23 February 1940, Achilles returned home to a hero’s welcome. Te Pane o Horoiwi (the Head of Horoiwi), the headland situated just past St. Heliers and at the mouth of the Tamaki River estuary in Auckland, was renamed Achilles Point to commemorate the victory over the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.
A flag mast was raised on the Point and Nelson’s famous signal from the Battle of Trafalgar was flown on the day, “England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty.”
The view from the point looks north up the main channel of the Waitamata Harbour and would have been an ideal view point to witness the homecoming. (If you go there today the real surprise is when you look down from the viewing platform and see a rock formation that looks like the bow of a ship protruding from the cliff base!)
Tugs, launches and other boats met Achilles as she sailed into harbour. Troops gathered at North Head and Narrowneck Beach to greet her. At 0630 she sailed past a silent Devonport Naval Base. Suddenly cheers rang out. Every merchant ship in port sounded their horns, trains whistled and thousands of cars lining the wharf tooted. The lads were home! Achilles berthed at the central wharf and the ship’s company was met by family and friends.
A day of celebrations ensued. A parade, grand reception and luncheon was provided for the ship’s crew. Over 100,000 people congregated in downtown Auckland to welcome the ship home and see the parade. Children were given a holiday from school and many employers gave their workers the day off. Queen Street was closed to traffic and shop owners strung bunting and flew flags in shop windows.
The crew were granted leave for several days. Theatres gave the Achilles men in uniform, accompanied by one partner, free admission to all movies for a week. Each crew member received a blue cover pass by Metropolitan Transport Operators offering free travel on trams, omnibuses and ferries.
So what does this mean to me?
Achilles’ role was a special source of pride to New Zealand. Our men came through the test of combat with flying colours. The crew was credited with excellent gunnery during the battle with over 200 broadsides from manually loaded guns over an 82 minute engagement.
Achilles’ contribution to the victory was also a boost for the New Zealand naval forces. It justified the commitment, effort and resources New Zealand had put into the interwar years. The action foreshadowed the full part New Zealand would play over the next six years during the Second World War. We provided thousands of men to serve on seconment to the Royal Navy. They were deployed throughout the fleet and New Zealanders were found in every theatre of war in which the Navy operated. The Royal New Zealand Navy was instigated on 1 October 1941.
To me this is the battle that the Royal New Zealand Navy is founded on. This was our birth and demonstration that we could indeed stand on our own and be counted as a viable, reliable and worthy opponent.
Commodore John Campbell, MNZM
Commodore Campbell has held numerous sea postings and has had the privilege of commanding three ships: HMNZS Hawea; HMNZS Tui; and HMNZS Endeavour.
Commodore Campbell has served on operations in Cambodia (1992), Bougainville (1996), Arabian Gulf (1996), and East Timor (1999 – 2000).
On promotion to Captain in 2005 he served as the Defence Attaché in Tokyo, Chief of Staff at Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand, and as Director Capability Working Groups, at HQNZDF Capability Branch.
Commodore Campbell was promoted to his current rank in 2013 and assumed the role of Maritime Component Commander.
Captain Campbell was awarded a Chief of Naval Staff’s Commendation in 1994 for the conduct of his duties in Cambodia and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in June 1997.