The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 2 — Outbreak of War: Cruise of HMS Achilles
Outbreak of War: Cruise of HMS Achilles
THE Achilles had returned to Auckland on 18 August 1939 from a cruise in the South Sea Islands and spent the following week in company with the Leander in exercises in the Hauraki Gulf. In the meantime the situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, and on 24 August the Prime Minister's Office informed the New Zealand Naval Board that the Government had decided to adopt the ‘Alert Stage’ as prescribed in the War Book, in which was tabulated what every Department of State had to do in the event of war and how and when to do it. Each department had its own chapter arranged on an identical plan in sections, each of which dealt with a successive phase of the preparation for an emergency and for war.
On 23 August a signal was made to HMS Wellington recalling her to Auckland from her cruise in the South Sea Islands, and orders were issued to the Leander and Achilles and the sloops to complete to full war storage. Two days later instructions were received from the Admiralty that the Leith and Wellington were to proceed from Auckland to Singapore with the utmost despatch.
The last days of August were a period of intense activity in the naval dockyard at Devonport. The exercises of the Leander and Achilles had been planned to last a fortnight, but they were cut short on 25 August when the ships returned to Auckland. The Leander entered Calliope Dock that evening for bottom cleaning and painting and the Achilles was docked on the following day. The Leith sailed for Townsville and Singapore in the forenoon of 28 August. At five o'clock that evening the cruisers were reported as ready for service, the war complement of the Achilles having been completed with active-service ratings from the Leander and Philomel. Both cruisers were placed at twelve hours' notice for sea.
Meanwhile, many other steps were being taken, in accordance with the plan laid down in the War Book, to bring the naval forces of the Dominion to a state of immediate readiness. The Government was kept fully informed on the measures that were being taken in the armed forces of Great Britain to meet the rapidly worsening situation. For example, general messages outlined the ‘preparations being pushed forward to counter immediately submarine and mining attack in the event of the present critical situation leading to war’. It was suggested that the New Zealand Government might ‘consider page 16 the desirability of any possible similar steps for the protection of their own harbours’. Messages were also exchanged between the governments of New Zealand and Australia outlining the naval preparations in their respective spheres.
An Admiralty message of 25 August informed the New Zealand Naval Board that the ‘defensive arming of merchant ships already stiffened is to be proceeded with now’. The Naval Secretary informed the Minister of Defence that, in accordance with Cabinet approval given on 21 June 1939, the Rangatira and Matua of the Union Steam Ship Company had been stiffened to take defensive armament and the Awatea was being similarly prepared at Sydney. The Maunganui had been stiffened in 1914–18. Preliminary arrangements were being made to mount guns in those ships. The gun crews would be drawn from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and would be available by the time the ships were ready.1
At 6.30 in the morning of 29 August the Governor-General received a telegram from the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs stating that ‘in view of the critical situation vis-a-vis Germany and for reasons which will be fully appreciated, including the protection of trade’, the Admiralty had requested that ships of the naval forces be held in immediate readiness and, where applicable, should move towards their war stations in accordance with the dispositions previously laid down: one New Zealand cruiser to join the West Indies Force. The message added that similar measures had been taken in respect of ships of the Royal Navy.
Prompt action on this message was taken by Navy Office. The Achilles received her sailing orders for the West Indies at nine o'clock that morning, and five hours later she put to sea on her way to Balboa.
1 During September 1939 the Rangatira and Matua and three overseas ships were fitted at the Devonport Dockyard with one 4-inch gun for defensive purposes. A 4-inch gun was also shipped to Sydney and mounted in the Awatea.
Accordingly, a detachment of two officers and thirty men embarked in the Leander, which sailed from Auckland at five o'clock in the afternoon of 30 August and proceeded at 24 knots on the 3000-mile passage to Fanning Island. In a message to the Governor-General of New Zealand, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs said that ‘His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom much appreciate the action taken and, in particular, the speed with which it was executed’.
The Wellington arrived at Auckland from her interrupted cruise to the South Sea Islands early on 30 August. This vessel was docked for cleaning and painting and, after completing full war storage, sailed for Townsville and Singapore on Sunday, 3 September. Thus, within the week, the two cruisers and two escort vessels on the New Zealand Station had been brought to a state of complete and instant readiness for action and despatched on their several missions – proof of the efficiency and foresight of the naval administration and dockyard arrangements.
On 1 September the Prime Minister's Department informed the Naval Board that the proclamation of emergency, in terms of the Public Safety Conservation Act 1932, had been signed by the Governor-General. In the early hours of next morning the ‘Warning Telegram’ was received from London announcing that the ‘Precautionary Stage’ had been adopted against Germany and Italy. This meant that relations with these countries had become so strained that the Government had found it necessary to take precautions against a possible surprise attack and to initiate preparations for war. The State Departments concerned could now take the action prearranged in the War Book.
Officers for naval control-service duties at Navy Office, Wellington, and at Auckland had already been appointed, as well as the naval officer in charge at Lyttelton and district intelligence officers at that port and at Port Chalmers. Consequent on the adoption of the ‘Precautionary Stage’ in New Zealand on 2 September, the examination services were put into operation forthwith at the defended ports of Wellington, Auckland, and Lyttelton. Arrangements were made for publication in the press of the Public Traffic Regulations, which were also issued as Notices to Mariners. The Army Department vessel Janie Seddon was made the examination steamer at Wellington – a duty she performed almost continuously for nearly six years. The Hauiti and John Anderson were requisitioned for service as examination vessels at Auckland and Lyttelton respectively. Staffs were mobilised for the examination services, port war signal stations, and wireless stations at Auckland, Wellington, page 18 and Lyttelton, as well as for Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve headquarters at Wellington and to complete the complement of HMS Philomel at Auckland.
Arrangements were also completed for the immediate establishment of approximately sixty coastwatching stations in New Zealand. Armed guards were placed at vital points at the naval base and armament depot at Auckland, as well as on magazines and oil installations at that and other ports. Cabinet approved that Shipping Control Emergency Regulations be made, and a general postal and telegraphic censorship was established.
Authority to mobilise the naval forces of New Zealand as well as the reservists of the Royal Navy in the Dominion was given by Cabinet in the early hours of 3 September 1939. At the same time authority was granted to institute coastwatching in New Zealand. Navy Office took immediate steps, by the issue of Naval Mobilisation Emergency Regulations, to call up officers and ratings of the New Zealand divisions of the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
The Admiralty signal to all His Majesty's Ships to ‘Commence hostilities against Germany’ was made at eleven o'clock on the morning of 3 September. On that day the Prime Minister's Department informed the New Zealand Naval Board that ‘war has broken out against Germany’ as from 9.30 p.m. (New Zealand time).
The first consideration of the Admiralty was the security of communications and shipping at sea. Shipping tonnage was a cardinal factor in the war. On the outbreak of hostilities, instructions were sent to British merchant vessels in all parts of the world to darken ship by night. They were also warned to avoid focal areas and prominent landfalls as far as possible and to make large divergences from the ocean tracks normally followed. A further warning was issued by the Admiralty that it was vital for the safety of individual vessels that wireless silence should be strictly maintained, except in the case of an emergency. On 3 September Cabinet approved that Shipping Control Emergency Regulations be made, enabling control over merchant shipping to be exercised in New Zealand.
At the outbreak of hostilities the New Zealand Naval Forces included one minesweeping vessel, the Wakakura, which normally was employed as a training ship for the New Zealand division of the RNVR. When the war started three Auckland fishing trawlers – James Cosgrove, Thomas Currell, and Humphrey – the first of six proposed minesweeping craft, were requisitioned and fitted out. Each was armed with a 4-inch gun and depth-charges and fitted with wireless telephone and telegraph equipment and minesweeping gear, the work being carried out in the naval dockyard at Devonport. The page 19 James Cosgrove was commissioned for service on 10 October 1939 and the Thomas Currell and Humphrey six days later.
The Achilles had received her sailing orders at nine o'clock in the morning of 29 August. She was instructed to ‘proceed at the best available speed to Balboa’, where she was expected to arrive on 17 September. In the meantime she was to come under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief America and West Indies. During the morning the ship completed her war complement as far as possible. A draft of ratings from the Philomel and two junior naval reserve officers from the Leander joined the Achilles, which slipped from her berth at the Devonport Naval Dockyard at 1.30 p.m. and went to sea. The ship's company then numbered 567, of whom 26 officers and 220 ratings were from the Royal Navy and 5 officers and 316 ratings were New Zealanders.
The Achilles was far out in the Pacific when, at 11.30 p.m. on 2 September, in accordance with orders from the Commander-in-Chief America and West Indies, course was altered for Valparaiso, Chile, and speed increased to 17 knots. She was instructed to consult the British Naval Attaché at Valparaiso and, ‘in the event of hostilities, to take such immediate action as was considered necessary’.
The Admiralty signal ‘Commence hostilities against Germany’ was received in the Achilles at 0.53 a.m. (ship's time) on 3 September. From that time action stations were exercised at dawn and dark and the ship was darkened at night. From 9 September onward, as the Achilles approached the more frequented waters of the South American coast, the ship's company was kept at cruising stations by night and, during conditions of low visibility, by day. No ships were sighted on the passage across the Pacific.
The Achilles arrived in Valparaiso roads at 12.25 p.m. on 12 September. She saluted the country with twenty-one guns and the flag of Rear-Admiral C. K. Garcia in the battleship Almirante Latorre1 with thirteen guns. Both salutes were returned. During the afternoon Captain Parry called on Vice-Admiral J. Allard, Director of Naval Services, who returned the call in person – a most unusual honour for a ship commanded by a captain – and was saluted with seventeen guns on leaving the ship.
South America, showing ports visited by the Achilles
During her brief stay at Valparaiso the Achilles took in fresh provisions and 1365 tons of fuel-oil. Parry heard later from the Naval Attaché that the Chilean authorities were impressed by the Achilles' strict observance of their neutrality laws in sailing within twenty-four hours after a long sea passage and a busy day in harbour. Admiral Allard said that, although his country's neutrality laws allowed a belligerent warship to load only sufficient fuel to reach the nearest port of a neighbouring state, he realised that it might be necessary to proceed at full speed and he allowed the Achilles to be refuelled accordingly. As there was a shortage of oil fuel in Chile at that time, this was a particularly friendly action.
During the next six weeks the Achilles patrolled the rugged coasts of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. She called at many ports and anchorages bearing Spanish names that were well known to British navigators of past centuries. The advent of the Achilles, the sole Allied warship in those waters, sufficed to hold German trade at a standstill and virtually to immobilise seventeen German merchant ships totalling 84,000 tons along a coastline of some 5000 miles from the Panama Canal to Cape Horn. Thus was exemplified the truth of the old saying that nine-tenths of naval warfare is made up of the continuous drudgery and monotony of patrols and the search for enemy ships which are not there but would be if the patrols were not.
1 The Juan Fernandez Islands lie about 360 miles west of Valparaiso. In the early months of the war of 1914–18, the cruisers of Admiral Graf Spee's Pacific Squadron flagrantly violated the neutrality of Chile by using the islands as a coaling and supply base. The cruiser Dresden, which escaped the Battle of the Falkland Islands, was sunk at anchor there by HMS Glasgow on 14 March 1915. Based on the doctrine of ‘hot chase’, a British apology for this breach of neutrality was accepted by the Chilean Government.
On 16 September the Achilles intercepted a wireless message from the Norddeutcher Lloyd steamer Lahn, 8498 tons, informing the radio station at Talcahuano that she was about to enter harbour. At the time the Achilles was about 70 miles to the northward and a radio direction-finding bearing confirmed the Lahn's position at the entrance to Talcahuano and thus well within Chilean territorial waters. The Lahn, which was regularly employed in the Australian trade, had been last heard of at Sydney, whence she was to have sailed on 5 September for Germany. Shortly after midnight of 25–26 August, however, she left her anchorage in Sydney harbour and, without a Customs clearance or a pilot, went to sea. The ship was fully bunkered, but was short of fresh provisions which had been ordered for delivery on 26 August. After clearing Sydney heads, the Lahn had steamed across the Pacific to the Chilean coast.
At that time it was officially computed that 237 German merchant ships totalling 1,204,000 tons were either in or on their way to neutral ports or endeavouring to get back to Germany. By the end of December 1939, at least twenty ships totalling 134,250 tons had been scuttled by their crews after interception by British or French cruisers, fifteen others totalling 74,800 tons had been captured, and forty-eight totalling 381,000 tons had arrived in Germany.
Proceeding north during the next five days the Achilles visited numerous ports and anchorages on the coasts of Chile and Peru, including Coquimbo, Huasco, Antofagasta, and Iquique. A number of neutral ships were sighted at sea or in harbour and one German ship was found at Coquimbo. For the most part the coast was rugged, barren, and uninteresting.
The Achilles anchored at Callao, chief port of Peru, early in the morning of 21 September and saluted the country with twenty-one guns. Less than an hour after her arrival the cruiser intercepted a wireless message from the German ship Leipzig, 5898 tons, reporting her approach to the harbour. Captain Parry at once ordered the Achilles to get under way. The German ship was then seen to be well within territorial waters and it was evident that she could not be captured; she anchored off the entrance to the harbour a few minutes later. Although the departure of the Leipzig from Guayaquil in Ecuador, some 650 miles to the northward, on 19 September had been reported to Callao the same day, the Achilles did not receive this intelligence till after the ship had arrived. ‘This episode was therefore most disappointing,’ remarked Parry. The arrival of the Leipzig brought the number of German ships sheltering at Callao up to five.page 23
The British Minister to Peru was uneasy about the situation in those waters. The Pacific Steam Navigation Company's liner Orduna, 15,500 tons, carrying a valuable cargo and important passengers, was expected to leave Balboa on 25 September, to arrive at Puerto Payta on the 27th and at Callao a day later, on her way to Valparaiso. The renewed activity of the German ships which had been trying to obtain fuel, combined with the sudden arrival of the Leipzig, their suspected supply ship, might indicate a project to seize the Orduna. Parry accordingly made a signal to the Commander-in-Chief America and West Indies suggesting that the continued presence of the Achilles in the Peruvian area was desirable and was instructed to remain on the west coast until further orders. After consultation with the British Naval Attaché, who had flown up from Santiago (Chile), Parry decided that protection of the Orduna was the most important consideration at the moment.
The Achilles sailed from Callao in the afternoon of 21 September and patrolled during the night in search of a ship which had been reported as passing Puerto Payta but which was not sighted. At daybreak course was shaped to the northward at 20 knots in order to arrive before dark off Puerto Chicama, where the British Minister wanted the cruiser to be seen as the town was largely a German colony.
At daybreak on 23 September the Achilles entered Puerto Payta, where she found the German motor-vessel Friesland, 6310 tons, at anchor. She appeared to be fully loaded but no sign of any armament could be seen. Barely two hours after leaving Puerto Payta the Achilles arrived at Talara, where she went alongside to take in 900 tons of fuel-oil. Talara, which has a deep-water harbour, derives its importance from considerable exports of oil and motor-spirit. The wells are at Negritos, a few miles to the south, and the crude oil is carried by pipelines to Talara, where it is refined. Later in the war when supplies from normal sources were cut off, New Zealand drew a considerable tonnage of fuel-oil and motor-spirit from Talara. The Achilles was accorded an enthusiastic welcome by the British community. As few of the ship's company had been ashore since leaving New Zealand, the cruiser spent a night in harbour and shore leave was given freely. A visit to the oilfields, sports, a cinema show, and a dance filled in the brief stay and the generous hospitality was greatly appreciated.
After leaving Talara the Achilles proceeded north across the approaches to the Gulf of Guayaquil. In the forenoon of 25 September she entered Bahia Santa Elena and anchored off La Libertad, the oil port of Ecuador, where she remained for twenty-four hours but got no oil.page 24
As he was still uncertain of the exact movements of the Orduna, Captain Parry decided that on his way north there was only sufficient time to visit Buenaventura, the principal Pacific port of Colombia. The Achilles anchored in the morning of 28 September off Punta Soldado, eight miles below Buenaventura, and sailed about four hours later to meet the Orduna. Actually that ship did not leave Balboa till the afternoon of 29 September, and the Achilles had twice to break wireless silence before a rendezvous about 40 miles west of Cape Corrientes could be arranged for ten o'clock next morning. After contacting the Orduna the cruiser turned to the northward. As soon as the liner was out of sight, the Achilles shaped course to keep within 25 miles of her during the passage south. Both ships arrived at Callao on the morning of 4 October.
In view of numerous reports and rumours regarding the possible movements of German ships, the Achilles sailed from Callao on 5 October about the same time as the Orduna in order to give the impression that the latter was being escorted south. The cruiser remained on patrol in the vicinity of Callao until daybreak on 6 October, when she laid course for Valparaiso.
On 27 September the Achilles had received a signal informing her that the fleet oil-tanker Orangeleaf, 5980 tons, had been placed under her orders, and on 2 October instructions were received from the Admiralty that, after fuelling from her tanker, she was to proceed south about to the South Atlantic. The Achilles was to show herself at Chilean ports as considered desirable and refuel at the Falkland Islands. The passage was to be made with moderate despatch and on arrival the cruiser was to come under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief Africa.
The Achilles arrived in Valparaiso Bay on the morning of 10 October and berthed in the inner harbour. Various urgent engine-room defects were at once taken in hand and repairs were completed by the afternoon of 12 October. The opportunity was taken to give as much shore leave as possible to the ship's company, to take in fresh provisions, and to paint ship. The Chilean naval authorities had given permission for the granting of leave but the Captain of the Port was obviously nervous of possible trouble with the crews of German ships. ‘It was therefore most gratifying when he told us at the end of our stay, that he had heard nothing but praise of the behaviour of our libertymen,’ reported Captain Parry. There were no official entertainments during the ship's stay in port but officers and men received much private hospitality, both from the British community in Valparaiso and the Chilean Navy. The British Naval Attaché reported that the naval authorities were showing greater activity in asserting the neutrality of Chile. This was confirmed by the absence of all the destroyers from Valparaiso and the arrival of page 25 one destroyer in company with the Orduna which she had escorted from Iquique.
The Achilles sailed from Valparaiso in the forenoon of 13 October and met the Orangeleaf next morning. They then proceeded into Tongoy Bay, south of Coquimbo, where the Achilles took in 1300 tons of fuel-oil and forty tons of stores, the work being delayed by a heavy swell. Both ships sailed on the morning of 15 October and parted company when clear of the land.
After steaming to the southward for two days, the Achilles entered the Gulf of Coronados at daybreak on 17 October, passed through the narrow channel separating the island of Chiloe from the mainland and steamed up a land-locked gulf for about 25 miles to Puerto Montt, a provincial capital and terminus of the longitudinal railway of Chile which runs northward for 2862 miles. Official calls were exchanged during a brief stay of two hours at Puerto Montt, a large proportion of whose population was German. The Achilles then proceeded south through the Gulf of Ancud and the Gulf of Corcovado. Night was falling when the ship passed out to the open sea between the southern end of Chiloe Island and the northern fringe of the Chonos Archipelago, which comprises a large number of closely packed, rugged islands extending in an unbroken chain for 200 miles to the southward.
The Achilles ran into a strong north-west gale and high seas during the night and experienced an extremely rough and uncomfortable passage. Visibility was poor, and it was with difficulty that a landfall was made about midday on 18 October off Cape Tres Montes, on the western side of the Gulf of Penas. Once inside, conditions improved and the Achilles steamed up the Gulf of San Esteban into St. Quintin Bay, which was found to be deserted. The ship's company was much impressed by the grandeur of the scenery, which included a fine view of the Oliqui glacier. St. Quintin Bay was used by Admiral Graf Spee as a coaling base for the five ships of his ill-fated Pacific Squadron which spent five days there in November 1914 before proceeding round Cape Horn to the Falkland Islands.
The Achilles lost no time in clearing the Gulf of Penas and continued her passage south in heavy weather. The ranges of islands which form the Patagonian Archipelagos extend along the south-west coast of Chile for some 700 miles to Cape Horn. This inhospitable region is mountainous and cut up by deep and tortuous fjords and narrow channels of a complexity unsurpassed elsewhere in the world and as yet imperfectly surveyed and charted. Heavy rains, varied by sleet and snow, prevail throughout the year and furious westerly gales succeed one another with monotonous rapidity.page 26
The weather had moderated when the Achilles made her landfall by sighting the Evanjelistas islets, 19 miles off, in the forenoon of 19 October. Half an hour later Cape Pillar, the northern extremity of Desolation Island, came into view, and at noon the New Zealand cruiser entered the Strait of Magellan. After proceeding for about 120 miles, she anchored for the night in Fortescue Bay, one of the best anchorages in the Strait and known to the early Spanish and other navigators as Bahia de Fuerte Escudo (Bay of Good Shelter). The cruiser got under way at daybreak on 20 October and about two hours later rounded Cape Froward, the headland forming the southern extremity of the Cordilleras of South America and marking the centre of the Strait. Fortunately, the weather was clear and sunny and the ship's company was able to admire the unforgettable scenery of a region where fine days are few. The Achilles anchored at Magallanes (Punta Arenas), where the customary official calls were exchanged during a stay of three hours.
The presence of a single British cruiser on the west coast of South America had exercised a markedly restraining influence on enemy shipping. The only German merchant ships at sea in the South Pacific when the Achilles arrived were fugitives such as the Lahn from Sydney and the Erlangen from New Zealand, which had vanished into the vast spaces of that ocean in the week before the outbreak of war and succeeded in reaching the territorial waters of Chile undetected. Of those already in harbour only the Leipzig had moved, and she barely escaped capture mainly because of the delay in obtaining intelligence and passing signals.
The task of the Achilles in patrolling the western coastline of the continent and keeping watch on German and neutral shipping was the more difficult because she had to be careful not to offend the susceptibilities of four neutral republics. There was no port on the west coast of South America to which she could send any neutral ship for examination and search. On numerous occasions she had had to enter territorial waters to inspect anchorages and ports and such German ships as were found in harbour.
‘On leaving the west coast of South America,’ remarked Captain Parry in his report of proceedings, ‘I do not feel great anxiety regarding the German shipping in this area. Both Chilean and Peruvian navies are anxious to assert their neutrality by every means in their power and I feel that their own feelings are distinctly benevolent to ourselves’. He said that, from Valdivia southwards, Chile was ‘almost a German colony’ and he understood that the majority, even those whose families had been established there for generations, remained German. In view of the nature of the coast, enemy submarines and raiders could easily be supplied by these German-Chileans without the knowledge of the authorities. The page 27 German merchant ships in the various ports had not been thoroughly searched and must therefore still be considered as potential raiders or, more probably, supply ships. None of these ships was interned. Captain Parry therefore felt that, when the situation elsewhere permitted, the presence of a warship on this coast was desirable.
After the Achilles left the west coast a number of the German merchant ships, moving furtively from port to port, contrived to make their way into the Atlantic, where several were intercepted and sunk. In the belief that the coast was clear, one left Valparaiso northbound after receiving news of the River Plate action, but was captured two days later by HMS Despatch, which had been sent south on patrol from the Panama Canal. More than two years later, three of the German ships succeeded in reaching Japan, and two others, the Portland and Dresden, made off into the Atlantic to act as prison ships for German raiders and ultimately arrived at Bordeaux.
Sailing from Magallanes soon after midday on 20 October, the Achilles cleared Cape Virgins at the eastern entrance to the Strait of Magellan at dusk. The ship then encountered the full strength of a northerly gale which continued throughout the whole of the following day. Visibility was very poor, but a landfall was made in the late afternoon when Cape Frehel, on the north coast of East Falkland Island, was sighted at a distance of about three miles. When the Achilles entered Port William it was too dark to see the leading marks for entering Stanley harbour. The gale was at its height and the ship anchored about three-quarters of a mile from Navy Point Light. The anchor dragged immediately and the ship went to sea for the night.
By daybreak next morning the weather had moderated and the Achilles anchored in Port Stanley shortly after six o'clock. Captain Parry called on the Governor of the Falkland Islands, the call being returned by his aide-de-camp. The cruiser took in fresh provisions and 835 tons of fuel-oil during her stay in harbour. Shore leave was given freely and the ship's company was most hospitably entertained by the residents of Port Stanley. The 22nd October being a Sunday, special arrangements were made to open the public houses but local opinion would not tolerate a cinema show. At the invitation of Captain Parry, the Governor made an official visit to the ship during the forenoon of 23 October and was saluted with seventeen guns. The Achilles then unmoored and proceeded for the River Plate at economical speed.