(WWII) New Zealand and the Battle of the River Plate

Read about why New Zealanders were involved in the Battle of the River Plate and the significance this battle had on the life of New Zealanders. 


  1. Why were New Zealanders involved in the Battle of the River Plate?

 At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy came under the operational control of the Royal Navy via the Admiralty in London. This effectively meant that the ships and New Zealanders serving in them were part of the Royal Navy for the duration of the war.

The fact that the cruiser HMS Achilles was sent to the South Atlantic Squadron is a matter of chance. She was available to send while her sister-ship HMS Leander was deployed on another operation. To carry out the duties assigned to the Squadron, cruisers of the type that Achilles was were required to patrol off the South American coast.

  1. What were the consequences of the Battle of the River Plate significant to the lives of New Zealanders?

The significance of this engagement was that it was the first major surface battle of the Second World War and was a clear victory for the Allied navies. It had tremendous propaganda value to Britain and showed the weakness of the German surface fleet and the faulty tactics that the German commander followed on the day of battle. New Zealand warships would never again participate in a major surface action during the war.

For New Zealand as a nation at war, it was one of the most significant events in our naval history. For the second time, the New Zealand flag was carried into battle by a warship. Over 60% of the ratings and officers who were aboard the ship at the battle were New Zealanders. When Achilles returned to New Zealand in February 1940 the ship’s company were treated like heroes.

The consequences of the battle were not to affect New Zealand. The German naval threat to New Zealand was only from raiders who could tie up warships in searches after sinking merchant ships. However they were far from home ports and did not restrict shipping moving to and from New Zealand.  With the formation of the 2NZEF and the operations in North Africa and the part of New Zealanders in the air campaign in Europe the battle tended to move into the background.

With the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour, New Zealand now saw a closer threat to our safety. One that in early 1942 was seen as very real. From a naval perspective, the outbreak of war in the Pacific meant that our naval forces served in the Pacific theatre until 1945.