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The lads in navy blue

The Battle of the River Plate, New Zealand's most famous naval battle, which ended with the scuttling of German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, started 80 years ago yesterday. The battle resulted in the death of 72 Allied crewmen, including two New Zealanders, and 36 German sailors. The Herald's Wynsley Wrigley looks at four local men who were on HMS Achilles and how they were lauded on their arrival back in Gisborne . . .

A New Zealander shouted ‘‘make way for the Digger flag,'' while he ran aft on HMS Achilles with the ensign as the firing began in the Battle of the River Plate 80 years ago yesterday.

Gisborne's four ‘‘navy diggers'' on the cruiser, Bert Millier, Doug Gregory, Duncan McColl and Joe Quinn and their crew mates, were honoured during a wreath-laying ceremony held at Achilles Point in St Helliers, Auckland, yesterday.

The commemoration was attended by one of the two surviving crew members of HMS Achilles, Mr Bob Batt, three Royal New Zealand Navy commodores, sea cadets from TS Achilles and officers from the Officers Training School at the Devonport Naval Base.

Ex-Gisborne man Graham Millier and wife Jan were at Achilles Point to honour his father Bert and the other crew members.

It's the fourth or fifth time the Milliers have been to an Achilles service including on one occasion with Bert.

'I once went to a dawn service,'' said Graham Millier.

But as he aged, he increasingly realised the relevance and importance of having a father who fought for his country.

'I feel as I get older, it means a lot more to us. It's about keeping the tradition alive.''

Peter Gregory told the Herald he was surprised, but proud when he recently learned his uncle Doug Gregory had served on Achilles at the Battle of the River Plate. But he was too young to remember his uncle.

Doug Gregory was dead just one year and six days after Achilles engaged Admiral Graf Spee.

On December 19, 1941, his new ship HMS Neptune sailed into an unchartered deep water minefield off Libya.

Neptune was repeatedly struck by mines and other ships were warned to keep away, rather than to pick up survivors .

Only one man survived from the crew of 750 men, which included 150 New Zealanders, in the country's worse naval disaster.

Dorothy Taylor contacted the Herald from the Gold Coast to say Duncan McColl was her uncle.

He died in Auckland on June 1, 2002, aged 83, she said.

No descendant of Joe Quinn contacted the Herald, but he had a distinguished naval career long after World War 2 including commanding Gisborne's home ship between 1967 and 1972, HMNZS Blackpool.

There were other men on Achilles with Gisborne connections.

Signaller Fred Pond lived in Gisborne between 1954 and 1984 and worked as a school teacher until he and wife Bet moved to Australia. His daughter Eileen Pond lives in Gisborne

First Lieutenant Eric Chapman, a Welshman on Achilles, married a New Zealander and they settled in Christchurch.He often visited Gisborne where one of his daughters, Jenny Williams lives.

In early 1940 Gisborne eagerly awaited the return of their heroes on Achilles. More than 100,000 Aucklanders had welcomed Achilles which numbered 321 New Zealanders among a crew of 567.

Four Gisborne men served on HMS Achilles

Gisborne was to prove no less enthusiastic.The Gisborne Herald had named the four Gisborne men with no apparent need for war time secrecy. The Herald of February 29 said a public welcome would be held tomorrow for the 'digger sailors' in Peel Street.

An indoor location had been offered as the venue, but Peel Street was chosen to 'enable as many people as possible to welcome the sailors'.

Peel Street was considered the ideal location as ‘‘the point at which successive contingents of Gisborne and East Coast men have been farewelled on their departure for camp'.

Only Joe Quinn and Duncan McColl arrived home on March 1, 1940, and it was left to Mr Quinn to address an adoring crowd who greeted them with ‘‘prolonged applause and cheering'.

'I have never made a speech before and I don't want to now,'' he said.

'But I would like to say how wonderful we feel our welcome has been. We always look forward to coming home, and the day when we first saw Rangitoto looming up, the row we made would have shown how much we think of New Zealand. We have had a marvellous time since landing, and coming down from Auckland, people could not do enough for us, and Gisborne's welcome is best of all.

'On Seaman McColl's behalf and my own, I thank you for what you have done and for the gifts we have received.'

The ceremony ended with more cheers , the national anthem and the singing of The Lads in Navy Blue.

On March 8 the Herald reported on a welcoming function held the night before at the Makaraka and Matawhero District Hall for Mr McColl, Mr Quinn and Bert Millier.

The three men each received a cheque for five pounds and five shillings.

'Repeated rounds of cheers for the naval ratings and the Royal Navy marked the presentation ceremony, and later the gathering enjoyed dancing until the small hours of the morning.'

The following day Mr McColl visited his former Makauri School where he was welcomed by former classmate, a Mr McKiney.

The sailor gave a detailed account of his trip on Achilles and indicated the spot of 'the notable encounter' with Admiral Graf Spee on the school map.

In early March the Herald reported on the marriage of Gisborne woman Beverly Lewis, youngest daughter of Mr and Mr E Lewis of Gisborne, to Englishman and Achilles Leading Steward Lesley Kitney in Devonport. The couple were due in Gisborne later that day. Achilles' Captain Edward Parry, wounded in the battle, attended the wedding.

The Herald reported on March 15 the engagement of Isobel Richardson, 5th daughter of Mr and Mrs HJ Richardson of Rakauroa and Bertram Millier, younger son of Mr and Mrs JH Millier, Bushmere.Isobel and Bert had three children and seven grandchildren and moved to Masterton in the early 1980s.

Bert Millier was born in 1917 and lived with his parents in Bushmere Road. He attended Makaraka School, as did fellow Achilles crew member Joe Quinn.

Mr Millier was a butcher and worked for Ansells at Makaraka and for Fred Collins in town. He signed up for the navy in 1936 for 12 years and served until October 1948.

Graham Millier said his father did not talk in any detail about his war experiences. He did leave his family a photo album of his naval career including images of Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbour and after being scuttled — some are featured with this article. A friend on Achilles was Bill McKenzie, later the owner of the Muriwai pub.

Peter Gregory said his uncle Doug was born in 1918 making him 23 at the time of his death. He joined the navy straight from Whatututu School.

Military publications located by researchers within the Gregory family describe Doug as an outstanding footballer in Neptune's undefeated First XV, which was dominated by New Zealanders. The team included another Gisborne man, D'arcy Heeney, nephew of the legendary boxer Tom. D'arcy Heeney also lost his life on Neptune.

Joe Quinn was born in Taihape, moved to Wairoa and then to Gisborne where he attended Makaraka School. He joined the Navy in 1936 as a Seaman Boy. Thirty-one years later he was the captain of Gisborne's adopted navy ship HMNZS Blackpool, which first visited in that capacity in 1967.

Mr Quinn's wife told the Herald in 1967 that she regularly left her Auckland home to visit her parents, the Hendersons, in their home town of Gisborne. The Quinns had five children aged between 20 and three in 1967.

Under Mr Quinn's command, Blackpool led the international flotilla of naval ships, which visited Gisborne during the Cook Bicentenary in 1969.

Mr Quinn had previously visited Gisborne in 1956, and, as in 1967, visited Makaraka School. Among the pupils that day was Graham Millier, son of Achilles veteran Bert.

'He gave us the day off school,' said Graham.

PRIDE OF THE NAVY: Achilles during World War 2 in a photo belonging to Gisborne crew member Bert Millier.
Battle of the River Plate veteran Bert Millier. Picture supplied
HISTORIC MOMENT: The scuttled Admiral Graf Spee in a photo belonging to Gisborne Achilles crew member Bert Millier.
HEROES' WELCOME: Duncan McColl (left) and Joe Quinn are pictured at their formal welcome in Gisborne in March 1940. Picture courtesy of PhotoNews
Douglas Gregory was killed in action off Libya a year after engaging with Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. Picture supplied