John Andrews, HMS Gambia Association and The HMS Achilles


"When the cruiser HMS Achilles opened fire on the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic, at 6.21 a.m. on 13 December 1939, it became the first New Zealand unit to strike a blow at the enemy in the Second World War. With the New Zealand ensign flying proudly from its mainmast – as battle loomed, a signalman had run aft with the ensign shouting ‘Make way for the Digger flag!’ – Achilles also became the first New Zealand warship to take part in a naval battle."[1]


For many years now I have had a hobby, or rather - passion for photographing graves and family memorials of servicemen, women from WW1, WW2 and other skirmishes.  I then write up quick biographies with what I can find on the internet.  I add these photographs to my flickr account and where I can, I forward these photographs on to relevant organisations interested in, or researching their former members.  The HMS Gambia Association [UK] was one organisation I contacted in the course of my searching.  Unfortunately the website appears to have since closed down.

After a few years of contact with Ernest (Bill) Hartland, web master of the website, he emailed me in 2012 to say that their Secretary Mr John Andrews would be making a trip to New Zealand and did I want to meet up with John?  I most certainly did!  The HMS Gambia Association consider HMS Achilles a  'cousin' ship and both Achilles and Gambia served within the Royal New Zealand Navy during the course of their maritime lifetimes. 

john andrews

John Andrews, Secretary of the HMS Gambia Association beside the HMS Achilles bell

at Auckland War Memorial Museum 2012






Achilles at the River Plate
We started the war as the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy with the two modern six-inch gun cruisers of the Leander class, HMS Achilles and Leander.

Achilles began patrolling the South Atlantic in search of German transport ships and surface raiders. In company with the cruisers HMS Exeter and Ajax, Achilles fought the first naval action of the war against the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, on 13 December 1939.

During the 'Battle of the River Plate', Exeter was badly damaged and forced to withdraw. Ajax and Achilles were also hit and withdrew out of range but continued to shadow the German battleship. British casualties numbered 72 killed and 47 wounded, including four killed and nine wounded on Achilles.

The crippled Admiral Graf Spee sailed into Montevideo in neutral Uruguay. On 17 December 1939 Captain Hans Langsdorf sank his ship outside the harbour and committed suicide. The sinking was hailed as a major victory, and Achilles and her crew returned to New Zealand to a hero's welcome on 23 February 1940. [Label of bell]




John's story:

                "I served on Gambia from Nov '58 until Dec '60 as a very young Leading Stoker.


We commissioned in the November and visited ports all round Europe and the Meditereanean  before passing through the Suez canal as the Flag of the East Indies Station. We visited Aden, Mogadishu, Monbassa, Dar e Salam the Seychelles, Karachi Columbo and  Trincomalee in what was then Ceylon. Whilst there, the island of Mauritius was damaged by a cyclone and we gave relief.  While in Mauritius we cleared the airfields, fixed the reservoir for fresh water and the ship's medical staff did wonders.

We sailed from there to Gan where we took the Sultan round all the Maldive Islands to celebrate their independence. Our reward for this was a trip to Singapore and Hong Kong and Singapore again. We then sailed for Durban, Port Elizabeth and Capetown. From there to Sierra Leone and Gambia. We sailed up to the then capital Bathurst and celebrated with the locals. It was the ships only visit to the colony she was named after. Then to Gibraltar, Vigo and home in July 1960 when I got married!!!!

We did a few trips round Europe and our final visit was to Liverpool and we had a big meet up with the people of Huddersfield who had raised 40k sterling towards building the ship[4]. We then paid off in Portsmouth in December and I served on in her to put her in reserve in March '61.   The info I have is she was always a happy ship in her 8 commissions and she was always "top of the shop" in every thing she did.

My cousin was Petty Officer Dove  who was the petty officer gunner of the B turret in Exeter at the battle of the River Plate [December 13, 1939][2].   It is reported that a shell from Graf Spee hit the base of B turret (of the Exeter) and the concussion killed all in the turret and the barbette.  A rider to his death ( which is recorded on the war memorial on Plymouth Hoe and St Georges Chapel in Chatham) is that his only sibling a brother also a Petty Officer Gunner was lost when Prince of Wales[3] was sunk off Malaya at the time of the fall of Singapore [Battle of the Denmark Strait May 24, 1941 ]."



john andrews                            john andrews

John with the ensign flown from the Achilles at the Battle of the River Plate


To make John's visit really special [he had come a long way - he lives in Wales], I had retrieved from storage for him to view, the Ensign that had flown on the HMS Achilles at the Battle of the River Plate and some other artifacts.   John was very emotional standing in front of this, especially as he had lost a cousin on the same day and in the same battle that the flag had flown in.

These are the wonderful aspects of my work within the museum - acquainting and watching people connect with our artifacts - the tangible links that keep the past alive.

A rewarding experience all round.





Battle of the River Plate: An eyewitness account

VIDEO: 1940 HMS Achilles returns home to New Zealand

75TH ANNIVERSARY OF BATTLE OF RIVER PLATE 13 December 2014 on board HMNZS Te Kaha, Queens Wharf, Auckland

AUCKLAND STOPS FOR ACHILLES: New Zealand Herald 9 December 2014



I have, since this first meeting, caught up with John once again at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and he has given us some items for our reference collection relating to HMS Achilles.  I am taking an extended holiday in the UK, May to June 2015 after visiting Turkey for the centenary Dawn Service at Gallipoli  then Chunuk Bair on Anzac Day and intend to catch up with John in his home town of Aberystwyth during this visit.  John is also involved with the Royal British Legion.








Gilbert Henry DOVE

HMS Exeter Roll of Honour






Harold Leslie DOVE

HMS Prince of Wales Roll of Honour









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