“The White Ensign had stayed in private hands since 1940 and as an important part of our heritage I felt it needed to remain safe in New Zealand. That way it could be accessible to family descendants of River Plate veterans and interested New Zealanders.”
We’re going to chase her ‘til her engines fall to bits,
That’s when they’ll have prayers upon their lips
And if I ever go to war again remember this of me,
I’m one of the boys that helped to sink the Spee.
lines from the song The Graf Spee,
to the tune, “I’m going to lock my heart and throw away the key”
Dad volunteered for the Navy when he was 15, in May 1934. It was at the peak of the depression and he joined the Navy because it provided him a good steady income. He was a hard worker; sometimes he traded his rum tots for chocolate. He was in HMS Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate. Our uncle, Arnold “Jock” Stacey, was also in Achilles during the battle.
In the years after the war, Dad would take us over to the River Plate church service on the naval base every year. There was a naval training boat called The Green Parrot, which they would use to transport all the families from the Admiralty steps to Devonport. We would feel terribly important arriving at the base with all those men in their white uniforms lined up to greet us.
When they were making the movie, The Battle of the River Plate, we got a telegram in what seemed like the middle of the night, asking Dad whether they could use our surname in the movie. They did in the end, “Stacey.” Our family is very proud of that.
My second cousin Gordon Stacey was just 9 years old when the Achilles arrived in Auckland in January 1940 following the Battle of the River Plate. He was lucky enough to be taken on board by my father. He remembers the pepper pot of holes all over the gangway and the shattered pipe railing, which left a lasting impression on a young boy’s mind.
It was Gordon who brought to my attention that a White Ensign signed by the Achilles crew who had taken part in The Battle of the River Plate was listed on Trademe. He had been alerted to the auction by his son.
The White Ensign had stayed in private hands since 1940 and as an important part of our heritage I felt it needed to remain safe in New Zealand. That way it could be accessible to family descendants of River Plate veterans and interested New Zealanders. My concern was that it might be purchased by a dealer or collector and be stored away. It might even have been sold off shore. I contacted the Navy Museum.
However several days later the flag was suddenly withdrawn from Trademe. The seller had decided to sell at Webb’s Auction House.
The auction was on Thursday 13 June 2013 and I could not resist being present to observe. The opening price offer happened to be the reserve price. Just one postal bid was made. It was on the market to the floor…no bids from the audience…once…twice…three times…then the hammer came down. Sold! But who had submitted the postal bid?
The following morning my suspicions were confirmed. The postal bid had been from the Navy Museum.
Jennifer Steven is the daughter of Harold Stacey. She resides in Auckland, as do her two sons. Her daughter and new grandson reside in the U.S.A.
This British White Ensign was signed by some of the HMS Achilles crew, upon their return to New Zealand. See Harold Stacey’s signature in the bottom left corner.