Outbreak of War: Cruise of HMS ACHILLES

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 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.

As in August 1914, the outbreak of war had almost completely halted the considerable German trade in those waters, as it had in most parts of the world. German merchant ships lying in ports on the west coast of South America and capable of being armed were a potential threat to British trade. After consultation with the British Naval Attaché to Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, Captain Parry had decided to visit Talcahuano and Puerto Corral and then proceed north to Callao in Peru, making a call at the Juan Fernandez Islands, about which no reports had been received,1 when he received from the Commander-in-Chief America and West Indies a list of ports where German influence was active and German ships were known to call. Parry decided to visit as many of these ports as possible and omit the call at Juan Fernandez. As the arrival of the Achilles had been reported in the Chilean newspapers, his general policy would be to advertise her presence as much as possible.

"Almirante Latorre, 30,000 tons, ten 14-inch guns; built in England for Chile, 1912–15; served in Royal Navy as HMS Canada, 1915–19; delivered to Chile 1920"

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.

After a stay of barely twenty-four hours the Achilles sailed from Valparaiso on 13 September and steamed south to Talcahuano and Puerto Corral. There were three German merchant ships in harbour at Talcahuano – Frankfurt, 5522 tons, Osorno, 6951 tons, and Tacoma, 8268 tons. They had full crews on board and apparently there was nothing to prevent their sailing at any time when the coast was clear. Returning north on 15 September, the Achilles looked in at the anchorage of Caleta de la Fragata at the northern end of Isla Mocha, where Drake had spent two days in November 1578. No ships were seen there or at Isla Santa Maria. It was a few miles to the westward of Santa Maria that the Battle of Coronel was fought on 1 November 1914, when the cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk by Admiral Graf Spee's cruiser squadron.

"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.

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