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Battle Of The River Plate - Dec 1939




BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE - On Wednesday, 13 December 1939, a British squadron of three light cruisers, commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood, “HMS Exeter,” “HMS Ajax” and the New Zealand Cruiser “HMS Achilles,” were on patrol near the mouth of the River Plate.


Soon after dawn a German vessel was sighted, it proved to be the German pocket battleship “Admiral Graf Spee” which had been preying on Allied shipping in those waters, she immediately opened fire on “HMS Exeter,” and after one or two ineffectual salvos she scored a direct hit. She concentrated another turret on the “Ajax” and “Achilles,” but so skillfully were they maneuvered that they managed to keep out of harm’s way. Before long “Exeter” was reduced to one gun and forced to withdraw from the action. The British flotilla had engaged the Graf Spee in two divisions, to offset the German ship’s greater firing power. the Ajax and Achilles, were landing shells on the Graf Spee but her armoured protection shrugged them off. ‘We might just as well bombard her with bloody snowballs’, said Harwood.


Although the German ship’s armament was half as much again as the combined broadsides of the three British cruisers, “Ajax” and “Achilles,” using incredibly Above: Graf Spee scuttled in Montivideo Harbour daring tactics, harried their more powerful opponent with such effect that she was forced to seek refuge in Montevideo Harbour in a damaged condition. Above: Graf Spee, damaged after the engagement, enters neutral Montivideo Harbour.






Graf Spee entered Montevideo (left); and in this way, the formidable vessel sealed her fate.


Uruguay was formally neutral so Langsdorff could not stay long in port; nor could he get the repairs he needed in Montevideo. By international law a belligerent warship in time of war may not stay in a neutral port for more than a specified time, and the whole world waited expectantly for the “Graf Spee” to come out of Montevideo Harbour and join in the battle again.


He knew Harwood’s vessels had followed him, and were hovering outside the port. But then he made two catastrophic assumptions. He decided Harwood’s ships were confident of taking him; in fact, the British crews believed it was they who would die in any encounter. And the buzz of radio traffic convinced Langsdorff that reinforcements had reached the British.


Outside, the British ships lay in wait, anxious to finish the job they had so well begun. But it was not to be. On the evening of 17th December, the “Graf Spee” steamed out of the harbour, but not, as was expected, to seaward, where the British ships lay in wait, but towards the west.


Shortly after 8 p.m. two explosions shook the air and a flash of flame leapt skyward. The ship was blotted from view by a dense cloud of black smoke as she crumpled up, a mass of twisted steel.

She had been scuttled by her commander on express orders from Hitler. Such was the inglorious end of one of the proudest ships of the German Navy.

For his brilliant conduct of the battle Commodore Harwood (in circle left above) received the K.C.B. and was promoted to rear-admiral.

In utter despair, Langdorff disembarked his crew and, at sunset, scuttled his ship.

Captain Langdorff (in circle right above), the “Graf Spee’s” commander, could not endure the shame, the next day, he wrapped himself in his ship’s battle ensign and blew his brains out. he died just two days after he had scuttled his ship. (Left)

The title picture above shows the blazing wreckage of the pocket battleship a short time after the charges had been fired


by Captain W. E. Johns and R. A. Kelly


Clear lower deck had been sounded as usual by the Marine bugler, and we fell in on the quarterdeck facing the ships officers. Commander Graham waited for the master-at-arms to report, then brought the ships company to attention and turned smartly on his heel to face the Captain.


Ships company correct, sir.


For a moment after giving his salute of acknowledgment Captain Bell was silent, looking meaningfully along the rows of his assembled crew. Hooky Bell how appropriate a nickname as he perched there on the grating in front of us with that eagle nose and the penetrating gaze.


I have received orders that we are to rejoin Commodore Harwood aboard HMS Ajax off the mouth of the River Plate, along with the New Zealand cruiser Achilles.



Above: HMS Exeter


We stood, faces nipped by the cold wind driving from the Antarctic; from bearded three-badgers to smooth-faced sprogs there was the one thought just what was in store for us? So far our patrols had been fruitless; but this could be our first encounter with the reality of war. It was something for which we were now really prepared. Every morning before dawn the bugler would sound the Awake. Men would roll from their hammocks, groping for cigarettes and matches for a quick burn as they lashed up and stowed their hammocks. Within a few minutes the bugle would sound Action Stations always a slightly unnerving call until we heard the single 'G' note  blown at the end to indicate practice only.


Practice or not, we jumped to it with a clattering of iron ladders and a fierce, purposeful scramble to designated stations in the director, on the bridge, in the gun turrets, and deeper in the engine and boiler rooms. Gangways and spaces were cleared to enable fire and repairs parties to move freely.


Twice a day we moved to those action stations. As the ordnance artificer of Y turret I would move to my after gun position and swing automatically into a routine which by this time I could do in my sleep.


Now as we stood on Exeters upper deck, our hair blown by the wind, some of us thought of Monte our home port and wistfully dreamed we were off to the bars and friendly cabarets. But that would not happen either it would be another of those abortive trips followed by a return to the Falklands with all their bleakness and biting winds


At 0700 on Tuesday, 12 December, HMS Exeter joined HMS Ajax and Achilles about 250 miles eastward of the River Plate. At noon that day, Commodore Harwood made the following signal:


My policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship. Attack at once by day or night. By day act as two units, 1st Division Ajax and Achilles) and Exeter diverged to permit flank marking. First Division will concentrate gunfire. By night ships will normally remain in company in open order. Be prepared for the signal ZMM, which is to have the same meaning as MM (MM. Commanders of divisions are to turn their divisions to course . . . starting with the rear division.)


On the Tuesday night we carried out exercises mainly for flank marking that is, the two divisions attacking from different directions so that each could observe the others fall of shot. We passed imaginary signals to each other and gained some useful practice on the gunnery fire-control equipment. Then just before 0500 we went to dawn action stations.


It was going to be a beautiful day. The weather had turned warmer as we steamed north, and now the breeze barely ruffled the surface of the sea. As we stood down from our stations I looked ahead at the shapes of Ajax and Achilles. We were steaming in line ahead, without the sign of a ship or a wisp of smoke to mar the clean line of the horizon. Then I went below to my mess, to lie down on the lockers not to sleep, but to think.


At about 0510 a flag signal broke at Ajax's yard, and our chief yeoman, Tom Remmick, dashed to Captain Bell, who was in his sea cabin on the bridge. There was little need to read the signal, as there was now an obvious blob of smoke on the horizon, and soon after Exeter broke formation and steamed in the direction of that smoke.


At 0615 the ship making smoke was identified as a pocket battleship, probably Admiral Scheer. The units divided in accordance with the Commodores plan, Exeter to the NW, the other two cruisers to the NE.


Suddenly the bugle sounded Action stations, and we all listened as usual for the familiar G note, but it did not come. We knew that Exeter was going into action for the first time


There were some who were still sceptical just another merchant ship; but everyone rushed to action stations collecting gear, opening lockers, donning flash suits. Taut faces revealed the first signs of fear and apprehension. Down below in gangways and spaces the chippies, cooks, and stewards, who formed the fire and repair parties, gripped more tightly than usual their saws, hoses, and axes, and seriousfaced they waited.


A pocket battleship, said one who always knew what was going on. Admiral Scheer, said another. In the welter of speculation the beauty of the day was forgotten, and we were all conscious of the increasing throb of the engines as Exeter began to pile on the knots. Two minutes later we were in battle.




Above: Graf Spee in better days, 1939 - Inset: Langdorff with crew in Montivideo



Even as I ran aft to my turret, my heart pounding, shells were falling into the sea around the ship, and the range was closing rapidly as the two ships sped towards each other. It was a frightening prospect being in the path of 12,000 tons of armour-plated battleship with superior firepower, but it was still odd that she should have chosen to come in and fight when she could have dictated the entire battle at long range.


The gap narrowed. Water and metal sprayed the ship from near misses even before the enemy had come fully over the horizon, and I began to hear the first screams of pain as men were struck down by the hot flying metal. For all of us teenage sprogs and professional sailors alike war had become the ghastly reality that it always is.


Are we in range yet? Captain Bell repeatedly asked. Then the fire bells rang followed by the single note, and Exeter gave a tremendous heave as her two forward eightinch gun turrets fired their first rounds in anger.


Ship is now engaging Scheer, (It was still thought at this stage that the enemy vessel was the Admiral Scheer) said the detached voice over the loudspeakers. Again the shrapnel cascaded onto the exposed and unprotected high-angle gun and torpedo positions. The range had come down quickly, and our three eight-inch turrets were loading and firing with speed and precision a great tribute to our period of training. The first two salvoes were short, but by the third our eight-inch shells were straddling Graf Spee.


My turret came into action just after 0622 about five minutes after what was now known to be the Graf Spee had opened fire on us just as a shell burst close amidships, on starboard side, killing the torpedo-tube crew on deck. Hot metal sliced through to the Chief Stokers bathroom, killing members of a decontamination party, while metal peppered the catapult area and cut down my mate Bunker Hill only yards away from the little caboose where he kept his conjuring gear.


Then the forecastle was hit and the paint shop set alight. Smoke obscured the bridge as the fire parties fought the flames abreast of the two forward gun turrets. The reverberation of the gunfire all but burst their eardrums as they clung to their swirling hoses. Through the smoke a man would totter, sway, and fall, then in a moment clear of smoke a figure would rush in and drag the inert body back into the billowing whiteness. Suddenly a blinding flash, a terrible rending sound, and the forecastle lay revealed, a mass of twisted metal and burning timbers. Not a living soul among the debris.


Our first major disaster came with an eleveninch direct hit on B turret, the one manned by the Royal Marines and the turret which I had left only weeks before. The explosion blasted the two gun barrels apart, where they remained as a V sign of mute defiance. The big rugger playing Marine corporal miraculously scrambled clear of the wrecked turret, unaware that another Marine, both legs badly damaged, was clinging around his neck.


B turret had been in action for only ten minutes prior to that hit; now, as though to crush the Churchillian gesture, another eleven-inch shell tore through the rear of the turret, spraying the superstructure and the bridge with hot metal, wreaking severe damage on the wheelhouse beneath. Most of the bridge staff were killed, and seven telegraphists in the W/T office were scythed down. What tangled steelwork had remained upright after the first explosion was now flattened, mangled corpses littering the deck of that once immaculate turret. The boot-necks I had worked and joked with had been blasted out of existence.


Deeper down in the ship, in the transmitting station, grimfaced marine bandsmen anxiously watched the gunnery brain panel. Only four lights winked back at them from the indicator board where normally six lights glowed as guns were brought to the ready. Occasionally the Royals would break into a hoarse cheer as Exeter fired another four-gun broadside, rearing up as the shells sped from her barrels.



exeter2.jpgL:eft: Exeter Sailors surveying shrapnel damage after their enounter with Graf Spee


The ship shuddered as shells tore into the hull, sometimes with such force that they screwed through the thin armour-plating and out of the other side of the ship before bursting.


On the bridge the navigator lay slumped across his compass. The main gyro was out of action and the lower wheelhouse wrecked. Below, Petty Officer Green, the Chief Quartermaster, struggled furiously with the jammed steering-gear. With blood gushing from his leg, he called up to the bridge, What the hells going on up there?


A frightened voice quavered in reply, What shall I do? Everybody is dead up here.


Answering the order to get below, a young boy seaman fell into the P0s arms, and, helping one another, they somehow got below decks and stumbled through the mess-decks for the after steering position.


They never made it.


Captain Bell, wounded in the head, had moved aft near the emergency steering position, where in that after compartment the Sailmaker and an engine room artificer clung grimly to the huge iron­spoked steering-wheel, turning it now to port now to starboard, but never away from the enemy. Using a boats compass snatched from a damaged sea-boat, Captain Bell continued to con his ship in action, passing his orders along a chain of seamen, stokers, and Marines to the two men struggling with the great wheel.


Down below, in the gyro-compass room, the young electrical artificer checked his delicate instruments. He felt the ship hit time and time again forward of his compartment, until a terrifying ripping sound ended in an explosion in the compartment above him. His little cubby-hole began to get hot, the air thickened, until he found it increasingly difficult to breathe.





Climbing to the armoured hatch, he sprang the small manhole open and was immediately struck by flames and smoke from above. Quickly he closed the manhole and ran to the phone. He dialled Damage Control HQ, asked for his Chief, and reported, There is a fire in the compartment above the gyro-compass room; it is too fierce for me to do anything about it. The compass room is full of smoke, and I am finding it hard to breathe. Can you send a fire party?


The reply came, Wait.


The young artificer waited, with the fire burning fiercely above, his compartment getting hotter and hotter. For almost an hour he held on, watching the electricity supplies fail and his master gyro compass click erratically to a stop. Then he phoned again to report failure of the gyro compass, but this time the line was dead. In the darkness, scared and alone, with what appeared to be a blazing inferno above him, there was nothing he could do but wait.


In the compartment above, a fire party battled against the flames and eventually brought them under control. When they lifted the hatch the young artificer came out of it like a bat out of hell, continuing at high speed up through the various compartments to the upper deck.


In another part of the ship there was the strange sound of a piano. The padre, George Groves, had stopped to play before he moved on with his bottle of Scotch with a wee drop for all and sundry. (In peace time when we did a shoot he always played the piano. He did not like the noise.)


Within the first fifteen minutes Exeter had been hit by at least five eleveninch shells, and her superstructure had been penetrated by thousands of fragments of shrapnel from near misses. At 0632 her starboard torpedoes were fired in local control at Graf Spee. Soon afterwards two more eleveninch shells screamed into her, the first putting A turret out of action, the second striking the most decisive blow yet. This second shell penetrated the light plating amidships, cutting through several bulkheads and exploding in the Chief Petty Officers flat.


At that moment Petty Officer Green, with the young boy seaman, was passing through the flat on his way aft. They and others in the area received the full impact, and virtually everyone was killed or maimed. Terribly burnt, Jimmie Green was to be unconscious for seventeen days, later to be remembered by Captain Bell as the man who was burnt the colour of a baked potato but who refused to die.


The GPO and ERA2 messes (CPO, Chief Petty Officers. ERA, Engine Room Artificers)  were now a huge, blackened tomb, a space large enough to take at least a dozen London double-decker buses. Wire jumping-ladders now hung where two hours before strong iron gangways had stood. Kit lockers had been rolled by the explosion into battered drums of steel.


All the control positions, whether gunnery or torpedo, forward or aft, port or starboard, had been wiped out. Captain Bell, steel splinters in both eyes, stood soaked in petrol cascading from the punctured petrol tank of the Walrus aircraft above him, by his side Commander Robert Graham, and around him on all sides twisted ironwork and shrapnel-. riddled bodies. It is said that at this stage Captain Bell turned to his Commander and said laconically, Well, if things get any worse we shall have to ram her. Two minutes later Commander Graham slumped to the deck with shrapnel in both his legs.


Inside my turret, after firing only two or three rounds, we would find the ships head slew away, and our target would be lost to us. To regain we would have to swing around on the other beam before we could bear again on the enemy. We did not know at that time that this was because two valiant characters were hanging with great concentra­tion to the massive after wheel in a courageous effort to prevent the ship being hit.


B turret had gone early in the action. Now A turret had been hit and its crew scattered in all directions.Exeters forward guns were silent, and all that was left intact were the engines, racing at almost top speed, and the two guns in my turret.


How ironic that, with all the battering and the slaughter above and below decks, the engines kept running, driving us towards our adversary. My pal Roy Ruse said afterwards, To us in the engine room it was just another high-speed run, except for a listing to port or starboard when the ship altered course, a violent shudder when the shells struck home. High speed requires extra vigilance to bearing temperatures and auxiliary engines, so we were kept very busy. Normally we should not have known what was taking place on deck, but Commander (E) Sims took an occasional trip above and came back with a not-so-good report. Then we began to take a list to starboard as the compartments on that side became flooded.


Aboard Graf Spee Commander Rasenack, the gunnery officer, was asking permission from Captain Langsdorff to bring all guns to bear to finish us off. It was as well that we remained in blissful ignorance of this, and also to our advantage that the Captain of Graf Spee, badly concussed by gun blast, had apparently not fully recovered from the effects, or sufficiently to be able to give this order.


Now aware of the desperate situation we were in, I wiped the sweat and some of the grime from my face, closed my dirty eyes against the cordite fumes, and muttered, My God, these bloody guns have got to keep going now!


Inside Y turret conditions were getting bad. Both guns were being fired as soon as they were loaded, the confined space beginning to fill with cordite fumes, while the breeches, through lack of cooling water, became fiercely hot.


High up in his gunnery control tower, above the bridge, his eyes red and inflamed from the constant rubbing of the eyepieces of his director sight, Lieutenant-Commander R. B. Jennings surveyed the blackened, silent remains of his two forward gun turrets. Nothing worked in the director; now there were no answering rings as he squeezed the director firing-pistol, and no lights shone back at him from the gun­ready panel. He climbed down from his eyrie and made his way aft to our turret, where he climbed unconcernedly on top of the turret as we fired another broadside, then focused his binoculars on Graf Spee, shouting spotting orders to us through the open centre position. Shrapnel whined about him, burying itself at times in the deck timbers, or, deflected from the metal surfaces, hummed away below decks killing or wounding men in the repair parties.


Shells still whistled through the ship like a red-hot tornado, and in the after medical station, set up in the wardroom, Surgeon Lieutenant Roger Lancashire, RNVR, had a miraculous escape. As he recalls, I was sitting on my haunches taking the drugs out of a cupboard when there was a loud crash and a blast of air and I felt something whizz across the top of my cap. I was bowled over backwards. Later in the day I found a part of the fuse cap, which had nearly decapitated me, embedded deeply in the fanlight casing.


Inside Y turret the water reservoirs for cooling the guns, and the air to clear the fumes, had all but gone. The crew cursed, sweated, and choked as they cried out to me, For Gods sake, Chief, give us some air and water!


How could I tell men sweating and toiling under such terrible conditions that the supplies which came from outside the turret had long ago been shot away and there was nothing I could do about it.


From somewhere forward there was the crash and shudder of yet another explosion. The lights in the turret dimmed, went out, and both guns fell mute. The sweat on my body ran cold as I realized that with our last two guns unable to move we were now at the mercy of the enemy.


We waited, helpless in the darkened gunhouse, praying hard that it was not the ships dynamos which had been damaged. The young midshipman tried to telephone, but the line was dead. Down below the electrical and engineroom staffs shone their torches on the turbine cases, at times lighting up the racing prop shafts, making their way to the dynamo and circuit boards. There they found that the explosion had shaken off the dynamos, and, working feverishly, they had them back on again and the dynamos running. The lights glimmered and came on in our turret, and we were in action again.


Almost at once we found further trouble. The electrical supplies to the gun pointers were now no longer available, and our last link with any other part of the ship had been severed. Quickly, with the help of the local directorlayer, we changed over to local control. This meant that we had to obtain for ourselves all the gunnery data we needed range, deflection, and whether our shells were falling over or short. I had never thought to be in this position, but I knew these guns well and that they, like humans, had their own special weaknesses. How I prayed, as I stood on my tool-bag in that fume-filled centre position, that nothing further would go wrong.


When we opened the centre-position hatch bright sunlight streamed in. I could clearly see Graf Spee steaming on a course parallel to ours, flying from her foremast the largest flag I had ever seen, with its great swastika.




Then fate hit out again. The right gun developed trouble after loading, a burr preventing the rammer from returning fully back. I shouted for a handspike and started forcing the rammer-head back, bit by bit. This did clear it and allowed us to fire, but now, every time we rammed, the burr got larger and the rammer more difficult to return.


Then we hit Graf Spee slap in the middle of her huge bridge control. as it erupted in a large reddish-yellow flash the young midshipman controlling the firing cried jubilantly, We hit her! We hit her!


Ajax and Achilles closed in as the Graf Spee altered course to westward. Just as she had been all set to finish us off the tables had been sensationally turned. But for HMS Exeter the blood-bath had ended.


Listing heavily to starboard, her forecastle aflame, her bridge a mass of twisted, useless metal, HMS Exeter turned towards the Antarctic ice-fields. In a cloud of smoke and flame she dropped over the southern horizon, to be lost completely to the world. As the Battle of the River Plate moved towards its fantastic climax. Exeter struggled at eighteen knots on the 1200-mile journey to the Falklands, a seemingly impossible task for a ship of whom Ajaxs officer-observer had said, I have never seen such a shambles, anyway, in a ship which survived. Her mainmast was moving perceptibly as she rolled.



Above: Pocket Battleship Graf Spee




A heroes welcome for the crews of Ajax and Exeter in a victory march after retuning home in February 1940