Outbreak of War: Cruise of HMS ACHILLES
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.
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 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.
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 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.