Commander (Retired) Cliff Heywood, Dr Hans Dietrich, and River Plate veteran, Eddie Telford from the Achilles in 1999.
Commander (Retired) Cliff Heywood, Dr Hans Dietrich, and River Plate veteran, Eddie Telford from the Achilles in 1999.
He was the German officer who found the captain of the Admiral Graf Spee dead; he survived a shell which landed in a bed during the Battle Of The River Plate and two other sinkings - one of them the famed German battleship Bismarck - and came to New Zealand as a member of the German embassy in the 1960s. As part of the 75th anniversary of this famous battle involving the NZ warship Achilles, he tells his story in an excerpt from a 1999 White Ensign interview.
Hans Dietrich had a unique perspective on the Battle of the River Plate and the end of the feared Graf Spee - he was on board the German warship and later came to live in New Zealand.
Dr Dietrich (as the PhD graduate later became) was a newly promoted lieutenant on the morning of December 13, 1939, when the Graf Spee ran into the Royal Navy's Force 'G', HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, off the mouth of the River Plate that divides Uruguay and Argentina.
New Zealand's involvement with the Graf Spee became more tightly entwined when, on December 2, the Blue Star liner Doric Star, homeward bound from New Zealand with a full cargo of meat, wool and dairy produce, succeeded in transmitting her position 3000 miles off the coast when she was attacked and sunk by the Graf Spee.
The German pocket battleship left the area at high speed but Commodore Henry Harwood, Commander of Force 'G,' correctly anticipated its likely destination. His ships were there to meet her; the Battle of the River Plate began early the next morning.
The Graf Spee was bigger and had longer range guns; she could have picked off the Allied ships at distance. But her commander, Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, made a mistake and closed with them, bringing the bigger ship within range.
Dietrich said: "It was very shortly before 6 o'clock in the morning that the alarm bells rang, the shrill is a terrible noise indeed and so you wake up at once and that was the beginning...



"...gradually it was clear that there were three ships of the Allies. At the beginning we did not have a feeling for the shells exploding in the ships because we could reach much longer. ...As they came closer to us I could feel shells exploding, amazing - especially the Achilles coming so close in battle.
"They were shooting at a speed that was fantastic. Later I was told we had found a shell in the bed of a Petty Officer not having exploded. The sailors from B Turret in Achilles later said they had shot so fast...they took a practice shell and that is what ended in the bed."
The Graf Spee was wounded and sought shelter in neutral Uruguay but, with international pressure mounting, Langsdorff decided to take the ship beyond the three-mile limit off Montevideo Harbour and scuttle her.
Captain Langsdorff transferred most of the crew off before joining them ; they were promptly interned under a gentle regime in an immigration camp in Buenos Aires.
Langsdorff's suicide shocked everyone and he was discovered by Dietrich: "The morning that he killed himself we had gone for breakfast. ...I knocked at his door but nothing happened. I knocked again, nothing happened and a third time nothing happened. I opened the door and found him in full uniform lying on the floor on the flag of Graf Spee close to the window where he had been seated writing a letter to the ambassador and another to his wife. He had shot himself in the right temple..."

If that was the end of the Graf Spee's war, it wasn't the end of Dietrich's. He escaped from the internment camp and, with the aid of the German community in Argentina, walked over the Andes into Chile and returned to Germany.
He became the First Artillery Officer on Bismarck - which was then sunk by the British in another famous battle in the North Atlantic. He again escaped and reported back to the Navy on his return to Germany. After a year patrolling the fjords in southern Norway he was promoted to captain of a Schnellboote, an e-Boat (a fast attack boat) and joined the 5th e-Boat Flotilla in France where he was in action until the allied landings in Normandy in 1944.
He was captured by the British when his e-Boat was sunk by a mine in the English Channel and taken to a camp north of London. They couldn't feed all the prisoners there and so they were sent to the US before returning to Germany in late 1946. He was the only sibling in his family to survive the War.
Hans Dietrich later studied at the University of Heidelberg, graduating with a PhD in law, then joining the West German Foreign service. He volunteered to come to New Zealand when a small embassy opened here in 1953.
He eventually became secretary of the New Zealand River Plate Veterans Association. At a Rotary Club address in Wellington in the 1990s he told a New Zealand River Plate veteran: "Now we two are here together again and getting along with each other as if nothing had happened. The reason for this is, I think, that the River Plate was fought by all who took part in it as a fair and square fight. This is without doubt a very great thing."
To view a video of the Achilles returning home click here
The Navy Museum, located at 64 King Edward Parade in Devonport, Auckland will be holding a Remembering River Plate exhibition from 9 December.

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