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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Battle Begins

The Battle Begins

AT 5.20 ON THE MORNING of 13 December, the British squadron was in a position about 240 miles due east from Cape Santa Maria on the coast of Uruguay, and some 350 miles from Montevideo. While daylight was breaking, the ships again practised the tactics to be employed against the enemy raider. The ships’ companies fell out from action stations at 5.40 a.m. and reverted to their usual degree of readiness. The squadron then re-formed in single line ahead, in the order Ajax, Achilles, Exeter, steaming north-east by east at 14 knots. The sun rose at 5.56 a.m.
Black and white sketch of ship

HMS Achilles

page 8 in a clear sky, giving extreme visibility. There was a fresh breeze from the south-east, with a low swell and a slight sea from the same quarter. At 6.14 a.m. smoke was sighted on the north-west horizon and the Exeter was ordered to investigate. Two minutes later, she reported: ‘I think it is a pocket battleship’. Almost simultaneously, the enemy was identified by the other cruisers. When the alarm rattlers sounded in the Achilles, a signalman with a flag under his arm rushed aft shouting: ‘Make way for the Digger flag!’, and proceeded to hoist the New Zealand ensign to the mainmast head to the accompaniment of loud cheers from the 4-inch gun crews. For the first time, a New Zealand cruiser was about to engage the enemy. While their crews hurried to their action stations, the British ships began to act in accordance with the plan which had already been exercised. The Ajax and Achilles turned together to north-north-west to close the range, while the Exeter made a large alteration of course to the westward. These movements were made in order that the enemy would be engaged simultaneously from widely different bearings and compelled either to ‘split’ his main armament to engage both divisions or to concentrate his fire on one and leave the other unengaged by his 11-inch guns. According to the German account of the action, the Ajax and Achilles, when first sighted, were taken to be destroyers and Captain Langsdorf assumed that the force was engaged in protecting a convoy. He decided to attack at once ‘in order to close to effective fighting range before the enemy could work up to maximum speed, since it appeared to be out of the question that three shadowers could be shaken off’. At 6.18 a.m., only four minutes after her smoke was first seen, the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire at 19,800 yards, one 11-inch turret at the Exeter and the other at the Ajax, the first salvo of three shells falling about 300 yards short of the former ship.

The British cruisers were rapidly working up to full power and were steaming at more than 25 knots when the Exeter opened fire at 6.20 a.m., with her four forward guns, at 18,700 yards. Her two after guns fired as soon as they would bear, two and a half minutes later. The Achilles opened fire at 6.21 a.m. and the Ajax two minutes later. Both ships immediately developed a high rate of accurate fire. The 8-inch salvoes of the Exeter appeared to worry the Graf Spee almost from the start and, after shifting targets rapidly once or twice, she concentrated all six 11-inch guns on the Exeter. At 6.23 a.m. one shell of her third salvo burst short of the Exeter amidships. It killed the crew of the starboard torpedo-tubes, damaged the communications, and riddled the funnels and searchlights with splinters. A minute later, after the Exeter had fired eight salvoes, she received a direct hit from an 11-inch shell on the front of ‘B’ turret, which was put out of action. Splinters swept the bridge, killing or wounding all who were there, with the exception of Captain Bell and two officers, and wrecking the communications. Captain Bell decided to fight his ship from the after conning position. He had hardly left the bridge before the ship’s head began to swing to starboard. The torpedo officer, Lieutenant-Commander C. J. Smith, who had been knocked down and momentarily stunned, noticed this as he went aft, and he got an order through to the lower conning position which brought the ship back to her course. When Captain Bell arrived aft, he found that all communications with the steering compartment had been cut, and he was obliged to pass his orders through a chain of messengers. For the next hour, the Exeter was conned in this difficult manner, the captain and his staff being fully exposed to the blast from the after pair of 8-inch guns and the heavy fire of the enemy. The ship had received two more direct hits forward and further damage from splinters from short bursts.

page 9
Black and white photograph of navy ship

HMS ACHILLES was faster than the Graf Spee but had much lighter guns and armour

Black and white photograph of navy ship

ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE mounted six 11-inch guns in two triple turrets

page 10
Black and white photograph of navy ship

The Achilles in the Strait of Magellan on Her Way to the Falkland Islands

page 11


Black and white photographs of navy ship in sea

Photographs taken shortly before action was broken off. right: The splash of an 11-inch shell bursting near the Achilles. CENTRE: The Ajax passing between the Achilles and the Graf Spee while turning to avoid a torpedo. The smoke in the left background is from the German ship. BELOW: Shells fall to the left of the Graf Spee

page 12
Black and white photograph of navy officers

Captain W. E. Parry dresses his leg wounds. Behind him is the navigating officer, Lieutenant G. G. Cowburn

Black and white photograph of the top portion of the navy ship

Damage to the bridge structure is indicated by the black patches on the plating. The topmost patch of the right-hand group was made by the splinter that wounded Captain Parry

page 13


Black and white photograph of artillery on ship

The after 6-inch guns of the Achilles showing the paint blistered by the heat of rapid firing

Black and white photograph of a mast

For the first time in action at sea, the New Zealand ensign flies from the mainmast of the Achilles

page 14
Black and white photograph of artillery on ship

THE FORWARD GUNS OF THE ACHILLES, with their crews taking a spell after the action

page 15


Black and white photograph of a navy officer

Lieutenant R. E. Washbourn, on top of the director control tower, breakfasts from a sandwich. He took most of the photographs which illustrate this issue

Black and white photograph of a man looking through a window

Some of the damage to the plating of the director control tower

Black and white photograph of a navy officer

Surgeon-Lieutenant C. A. Pittar during a break in the action

Black and white photograph of the main section of a ship

The director control tower of the Achilles in which four ratings were killed and two wounded

page 16
Black and white photograph of the main section of a ship

The director control tower showing splinter holes above the signal platform

Black and white photograph of navy officers on a ship

‘A’ turret’s crew, and their mascot, relax during the shadowing

Black and white map of crossfire between ships page 17
Black and white photograph of a navy officer

Damaged woodwork on the starboard upper deck

Black and white map of torpedo course page 18
Black and white photograph of a ship

The Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbour. A shell-hole is seen below the forward guns

Black and white photograph of a navy officer

Captain Hans Langsdorf ashore in Montevideo

page 19
Black and white photograph of a main room of a ship

right: The control tower of the Graf Spee. The word Coronel above the Admiral’s bridge commemorates the action fought off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914; although greater honour accrued to Admiral Graf Spee and his ships in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, this action was not included in the ship’s battle honours

page 20
Black and white photograph of the side deck

The Ajax (left), minus her topmast, and the Achilles steam towards Montevideo at full speed

page 21
Black and white photograph of a side view of a ship

The Graf Spee in Montevideo, showing her burnt-out aircraft and splinter-holed side plating

Black and white photograph of ship on fire

Ablaze, the Graf Spee is scuttled by her Captain

page 22


Black and white photograph of smoke rising from a part of a ship

‘A magnificent and most cheering sight’

Black and white photograph of navy officers


page 23
Black and white photograph of a view from a ship


Black and white photograph of a ship


Black and white photograph of a ship’s mast above water

The Rusting Wreck of the Graf Spee

page 24
Black and white photograph of a ship in harbour

HMS Ramillies Flies Her Congratu in Wellington on the Eve of the Departure of the First Echelon for the Middle East

Black and white photograph of a parade


page 25

All this had happened during the first ten minutes of the action. In that brief period, however, the Ajax and Achilles were making good shooting and, steaming hard, were closing the range and drawing ahead on the Graf Spee. Clearly, their concentrated fire was worrying her, for at 6.30 a.m. she again shifted the fire of one 11-inch turret to them, thus giving some relief to the Exeter. The Ajax was straddled three times and she and the Achilles turned away slightly to open the range. The Graf Spee was firing alternately at the two ships with her 5.9-inch guns, but without effect, though some salvoes fell close to them. At 6.32 a.m. the Exeter fired her starboard torpedoes, but these went wide when the enemy turned away to the north-west under a smoke-screen. The Ajax and Achilles hauled round, first to the north and then to the west, to close the range and regain bearing. The Ajax catapulted her aircraft away at 6.37 a.m. under severe blast from her after guns. About a minute later, while she was turning to bring her port torpedo-tubes to bear, the Exeter was hit twice by 11-inch shells. One struck the foremost turret, putting it completely out of action. The other burst inside the ship, doing very extensive damage and starting a fierce fire. All the gyro-compass repeaters in the after conning position were destroyed and Captain Bell had to use a boat’s compass to con his ship. What little internal communication was possible was being carried on by messengers. Nevertheless, the Exeter was kept resolutely in action, her two after guns being controlled by the gunnery officer from the exposed searchlight position. Her port torpedoes were fired about 6.43 a.m. and she then hauled round to a course roughly parallel to that of the Graf Spee.

By this time the Ajax and Achilles had worked up to full power and were steaming at 31 knots, firing fast as they went. At 6.40 a.m. a salvo of 11-inch shell fell short of the Achilles in line with her bridge and burst on the water. The flying splinters killed four ratings and seriously wounded two others in the director control tower. The gunnery officer was cut in the scalp and momentarily stunned. On the bridge, the chief yeoman of signals was seriously wounded and Captain Parry hit in the legs. The material damage in the director control tower was miraculously small and no important instrument was affected. After a few minutes, the control tower’s crew, in a ‘most resolute and efficient way’, resumed control from the after control position which had temporarily taken over.

‘I was only conscious of a hellish noise and a thump on the head which half stunned me,’ wrote Lieutenant R. E. Washbourn, RN, gunnery officer of the Achilles, in his report on the action. ‘I ordered automatically: “A.C.P.* take over.” Six heavy splinters had entered the D.C.T.** The right-hand side of the upper compartment was a shambles. Both W/T*** ratings were down with multiple injuries … A.B. Sherley had dropped off his platform, bleeding copiously from a gash in his face and wounds in both thighs. Sergeant Trimble, Royal Marines, the spotting observer, was also severely wounded … A.B. Shaw slumped forward on to his instrument, dead, with multiple wounds in his chest…. The rate officer, Mr. Watts, quickly passed me a yard or so of bandage, enabling me to effect running repairs to my slight scalp wounds which were bleeding fairly freely. I then redirected my attention to the business in hand, while Mr. Watts clambered round behind me to do what he could for the wounded. Word was passed that the D.C.T. was all right again. A.B. Sherley was removed by a medical party during the action. Considerable difficulty was experienced, the right-hand door of the D.C.T. being jammed by splinter damage. When the page 26 medical party arrived to remove the dead, I learned for the first time that both Telegraphist Stennett and Ordinary Telegraphist Milburn had been killed outright. I discovered at the same time that Sergeant Trimble had uncomplainingly and most courageously remained at his post throughout the hour of action that followed the hits on the D.C.T., although seriously wounded. Mr. Watts carried out his duties most ably throughout…. He calmly tended the wounded… until his rate-keeping was again required…. Boy Dorset behaved with exemplary coolness, despite the carnage around him. He passed information to the guns and repeated their reports clearly for my information. He was heard at one time most vigorously denying the report of his untimely demise that somehow had spread round the ship. “I’m not dead. It’s me on the end of this phone,” he said. The director layer, Petty Officer Meyrick, and the trainer, Petty Officer Headon, are also to be commended for keeping up an accurate output for a prolonged action of over 200 broadsides…. The range-takers, Chief Petty Officer Boniface and A.B. Gould, maintained a good range plot throughout the action, disregarding the body of a telegraphist who fell through the door on top of them….’

* After Control Position

** Director Control Tower

*** Wireless Telegraphy