When former HMS engineer Stanley Dring died this week, he left previously unpublished photographs depicting a historic moment in naval history. Gavin Engelbrecht reports.

IT WAS one of the most famous moments in naval history. Harried and wounded by Allied battleships, the Graf Spee appeared to be trapped after the Battle of the River Plate.

Duped into thinking there was no escape, the ship's commander, Hans Langdorff, shot himself after ordering the scuttling of his vessel.

The image above, taken by the official photographer of HMS Ajax, graphically depicts its final moments.

It is part of a remarkable archive kept for all these years by one of the crew of the British battleship - and who died this week.

Stanley Alexander Dring, 86, of Delves Lane, Consett, was the last surviving member of the engine room crew who had stoked the flames of HMS Ajax.

He had been caring for the ship's album, which includes some rare pictures that must have been taken from the German crew.

Last night, his son, Graham, paid tribute to his father and the role he played in the Second World War.

He said: "Every year, when they show the film Battle of River Plate, I see the part where the captain calls out "full speed ahead" on his tannoy and I think of my father, who is on the other side.

"He may not have seen the battle itself, but he played a vital role keeping engines going at full speed in the chase.

"It was tough going in the engine rooms. If the ship had gone down he wouldn't have stood a chance."

The battle between the Admiral Graf Spee and the Allied Naval task force took place off the South American River Plate from December 13 to 17, 1939.

The Graf Spee had left Germany at the start of the war and succeeded in sinking nine Allied ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

It needed to return to Germany for repairs but, before doing so, Langdorff chose to intercept a convoy that he knew to be in the River Plate area.

However, he had been second-guessed by Commodore Henry Harwood, who was intent on pursuing the Graf Spee.

The Graf Spee saw the Allied ships and headed straight for them. Langdorff thought they were in convoy rather than warships.

They fought for 80 minutes and Langdorff forced the Exeter to retreat before turning on the two smaller ships, the Ajax and Achilles.

Harwood disengaged and it looked as if Langdorff had won the advantage but, rather than finishing off the battle, he retreated to Montevideo, Uruguay.

Langdorff had been given three days in harbour and he supposed that the British were prepared again for battle.

He had been duped by false signals and by the assertion of his gunnery officer that a British cruiser was in the vicinity. He had the order to scuttle his ship if he could not fight his way to freedom. The rest is history.

Stoker First Class Dring was feted as a hero in his home town of Lincoln, where the newspaper noted proudly he was the only local person who had been in the battle.

He went on to become a chief petty officer, piloting liberty boats from Ajax - and, at one stage, he helped rescue Allied forces from Greek shores, while under bombardment from German dive bombers.

He was awarded the Africa Star, Atlantic Star and South East Asia Medal.

The next chapter in his life came during a brief visit to South Shields. While staying in a boarding house he first met his wife, Marjorie, who was on holiday with her family.

He left his sailing days to settle in Consett, using his engineering skills at the Consett Steelworks.

Mr Dring said: "My father always remained a naval man. He worked to routines and wanted things done straight away. At the same time, he was a very sensitive man."

He was delighted to discover that when a new town was created in Ontario, Canada, it was named Ajax and the streets named after crew members - including a Dring Street.

His son said: "He came to the region through the mouth of the River Tyne. We would like to take him back and scatter his ashes there so he can return to the sea he loved."

The funeral service will be held in the Consett Methodist Church, at 1.30pm on Tuesday, followed by cremation.