The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 3 — The Search for the Admiral Graf Spee…
The Search for the Admiral Graf Spee
THE broad lines of British naval policy for the protection of seaborne trade in the event of war with Germany and Italy had been laid down in an Admiralty memorandum of January 1939, which also included the dispositions of the British and French naval forces for 1 August 1939. Anticipating attacks by enemy raiders in the Atlantic, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, the memorandum set out the ‘traditional and well-proved methods’ of protecting trade. These consisted in the dispersal of shipping by evasive routeing, the stationing of naval patrols in areas where cruisers could concentrate in pairs against a superior enemy, and the formation of adequately escorted convoys. Detachments from the main fleet could also be used if required. ‘By such means,’ said the memorandum, ‘we have in the past succeeded in protecting shipping on essential routes, and it is intended to rely on these methods again, adapting them to the problem under review’.
On the outbreak of war, when sufficient forces for escorting ocean convoys would not be available, it was intended to rely on evasive routeing of merchant ships and the patrolling of focal areas. The Admiralty memorandum, however, added that shipping could be escorted if necessary for the first part of the homeward passage. Armed merchant cruisers, when they became available, could escort the convoys the whole way home. If it were absolutely necessary, warships could accompany convoys throughout their passage, though this inevitably would result in a serious slowing down of trade. Though the introduction of general convoy would rest with the Admiralty, commanders-in-chief on foreign stations could institute local convoys. On the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 this policy was put into effect; but the costly result of the drastic cutting down of British naval strength during the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties soon became evident.
Immediately before the outbreak of war, the designation of Commander-in-Chief Africa Station was changed to Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic, and the Admiral transferred his flag from Simonstown to Freetown, Sierra Leone, and assumed general naval control over British movements in the whole of the South Atlantic Ocean. At the same time the South Atlantic Division of the America and West Indies Squadron, comprising the cruisers Exeter and Ajax, page 29 was transferred to the new South Atlantic Station. The Exeter was completing a refit at Devonport when, on 22 August 1939, she was ordered to return to South American waters. Captain F. S. Bell, RN, assumed command of the ship two days later, but she continued to fly the broad pendant of Commodore Harwood1 as Commodore, South America Division. The Ajax, commanded by Captain C. H. L. Woodhouse, RN, was already on patrol off the coast of Brazil where on 3 September, less than three hours after the British declaration of war, she intercepted and sank the German steamer Olinda, 4576 tons, homeward-bound from Montevideo with a general cargo. Next day she sank the German steamer Carl Fritzen, 6954 tons. The nearest British territory was more than 1000 miles away and in neither case could the Ajax spare a prize crew. The destroyers Hotspur and Havock sailed from Freetown on 5 September and the 8-inch cruiser Cumberland followed three days later to reinforce the South America Division.
The special care and duty of Commodore Harwood was to protect merchant shipping in the important River Plate and Rio de Janeiro areas. As a precaution against the possible conversion of German merchant ships in South American ports into armed raiders, he ordered the Cumberland to organise and run outward convoys in the Rio de Janeiro area, with the Havock as anti-submarine escort. The convoys were to sail at daybreak and be protected till dusk, when the ships were to be dispersed so that they would be far apart by dawn the following day. At the same time Harwood ordered the Hotspur to join him in the River Plate area so that similar convoys could be started from Montevideo. If a German ‘pocket battleship’ arrived off the coast, the Cumberland was to abandon the convoy scheme and join the Exeter and Ajax. The first local convoy outward from Montevideo on 22 September included the motor-vessel Sussex, homeward-bound with a valuable refrigerated cargo from New Zealand.
1 Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, KCB; born 19 Jan 1888; entered RN, 1900; Captain, Dec 1934, Rear-Admiral, 13 Dec 1939; Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, 1940–42; C-in-C Mediterranean, 1942; C-in-C Levant, 1943; retired (ill-health) 1945.
August 1939 was a month of great activity in the German Navy. The war plans of the High Command for commerce raiding in the Atlantic were being put into operation. Between 19 and 23 August eighteen U-boats left for their allotted stations; on the 21st the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, with a complement of 1134 officers and men commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, sailed from Wilhelmshaven; on the 24th the pocket battleship Deutschland put to sea, her tanker supply ship having sailed two days earlier. She was to remain east of Greenland until war began, when she was to make the North Atlantic her operational area. The tanker Altmark, carrying three months' supplies for the Admiral Graf Spee, had sailed from Germany as early as 2 August and, having loaded 9400 tons of fuel-oil at Port Arthur, Texas, left there on 19 August for the Atlantic.
The Admiral Graf Spee was to cruise in an area north-west of the Cape Verde Islands until hostilities commenced; afterwards she was to operate on the South Atlantic trade routes. Her orders were to disrupt and damage enemy merchant shipping by all possible means. Engagements with enemy naval forces, ‘even if inferior, were only to be undertaken if this furthered the main purpose of the operation’. By frequent changes of operational areas, dislocation and injury would be caused to enemy mercantile traffic, and the appearance of the raider in distant areas would further serve the purpose of increasing the insecurity of shipping and the uncertainty of enemy naval forces.
Captain Langsdorff carried out his orders with comprehending caution. He carefully timed the passage of the Admiral Graf Spee off the Norwegian coast and between Iceland and the Faeroes, crossed the main North Atlantic shipping routes by night, and on 1 September arrived undetected in the waiting area where he met and fuelled from the Altmark. On 5 September instructions were received from the German Naval staff that, ‘by order of the Fuehrer’, no action was to be taken against passenger ships, even in convoy, and that the pocket battleships were to move well away from their operational areas and maintain wireless silence. Thereupon, Langsdorff decided to move into the South Atlantic. On 8 September the Admiral Graf Spee and the Altmark crossed the Equator at a point midway between West Africa and South America and two days later arrived in the triangular area between Ascension and St. Helena and Trinidada Island, where they cruised and exercised for sixteen days.
It was not until 26 September that Langsdorff received orders to commence raiding operations and the Admiral Graf Spee moved off to the north-westward towards the Brazilian coast. Four days later page 31 she intercepted and sank the British steamer Clement, 5051 tons, about 75 miles south-east of Pernambuco, though not before the ship had got off a distress signal. The crew took to the boats and were left to make their way to land, but the master and the chief engineer were taken prisoner. On this occasion, as on several others, the Admiral Graf Spee displayed a name plate of the Admiral Scheer, which accounted for the reports crediting the sinking to that ship. That evening the two prisoners were put on board a Greek steamer which was allowed to proceed on the understanding that her wireless would not be used within 600 miles of her position at that time. The Admiral Graf Spee then headed away to the eastward.
A report that the Clement had been sunk reached the Admiralty the following afternoon and certain preliminary movements of cruisers were ordered immediately. The Achilles was instructed to leave the Pacific and join Commodore Harwood's South America Division. A comprehensive plan to meet the situation was disclosed to the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic in an Admiralty message of 5 October. In addition to the raider reported off Brazil, others must be expected, including armed merchant ship raiders. Enemy activities might be extended soon to the North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
The Admiralty pointed out that it was essential to maintain the flow of trade and such losses as were inevitable must be accepted. A full convoy system in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans would result in unacceptable delay, even if full escorts could be provided. Eight hunting groups ‘each of sufficient strength to destroy any German armoured ship of the Deutschland class or armoured cruiser of the Hipper class’ were being formed immediately. The Admiralty stressed that when searching for raiders it was ‘essential that wireless silence should be maintained except when it was known that the presence of the hunting group had been disclosed.’1
Hunting groups were warned to be ‘cautious of being lured away from areas where trade is thick, because the raiders must come to these areas to do serious damage’. It was also to be remembered that raiders were vitally dependent on their mobility, being so far from repair facilities. Hence a weaker force, if not able to effect immediate destruction, might by resolute attack cripple an opponent sufficiently to ensure certain subsequent location and destruction by other forces. Furthermore, the location and destruction of enemy supply ships was an important factor in rounding up raiders, which would more probably meet their supply ships on the high seas than attempt to use out-of-the-way anchorages.
1 The strict observance of wireless silence by HMS Cumberland, which on 5 October was informed by the British steamer Martand that a raider had attacked a ship in a given position, left the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic and the Admiralty without news of the raider for three weeks.
Far-reaching and prescient as the hunting group plan was, the Admiralty went further. The battleships Resolution and Revenge, the battle-cruiser Repulse, the aircraft-carrier Furious and three cruisers were detailed to escort North Atlantic convoys. The battleship Malaya and the aircraft-carrier Glorious were ordered from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean as an additional hunting force in the Gulf of Aden area.
Thus the appearance of a single enemy raider in the South Atlantic had set in motion numerous naval forces directly involving thirty-one powerful ships. These included, from British resources, three battleships, two battle-cruisers, five aircraft-carriers and fourteen cruisers, as well as a flotilla of destroyers and a submarine. The French contribution consisted of two battle-cruisers, an aircraft-carrier, and five cruisers. These elaborate measures recall the similar widespread dispositions which led to the destruction of Admiral Graf Spee's Pacific Squadron in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914.
After fuelling from the tanker Olwen in the River Plate area on 2 October, Commodore Harwood in the Exeter joined the Ajax off the south coast of Brazil. When he received an order from the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic to concentrate his division in the Rio de Janeiro area, he instructed the destroyers Hotspur and Havock to join him not later than the morning of 4 October. It was at this stage that the Admiralty informed Harwood that the Achilles was to reinforce his division. On 3 October the Commander-in-Chief directed that, failing any news of further raider activities in the immediate future, the Ajax and Achilles and the two destroyers were to protect shipping in the Rio de Janeiro and River Plate areas. The Exeter and Cumberland were to carry out their initial sweep as a hunting group as far north as their fuel supplies would allow.
The Cumberland, after sweeping for German ships in the Ascension Island area, had arrived at Freetown on 2 October and, having fuelled, left next day to join Commodore Harwood off Rio de Janeiro. On 5 October the British steamer Martand made contact with the Cumberland and informed her that a German raider had attacked an unknown ship – which was in fact the steamer Newton Beech – 900 miles away on the Cape-Freetown route. At the time the Cumberland was about 700 miles to the southward of Freetown and Captain Fallowfield assumed that the report would be intercepted and passed to the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic by ships on the Cape-Freetown route, even if it were not intercepted by a shore station. He also considered wireless silence imperative and decided not to break it. According to the Commander-in-Chief the value of the report, which, if acted upon, might in his opinion have led to the early interception of the Admiral Graf Spee and her supply page 33 ship, was apparently not appreciated by the Cumberland. The Admiralty, too, was strongly of the opinion that the report should have been passed on by the Cumberland to the Commander-in-Chief, who heard nothing of it till sixteen days later.1
On 9 October the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic informed the Admiralty and Commodore Harwood of his intention to coordinate the movements of three hunting groups – Force ‘G’ (Cumberland and Exeter), Force ‘H’ (Sussex and Shropshire), and Force ‘K’ (Ark Royal and Renown). As this would entail long periods of wireless silence in Force ‘G’, he proposed that Harwood should transfer to the Ajax, leaving Captain W. H. G. Fallowfield of the Cumberland as Senior Officer of Force ‘G’. These proposals were approved by the Admiralty.
The Ark Royal (flag of Vice-Admiral L. V. Wells), in company with the Renown, arrived at Freetown on 12 October. They were followed by the destroyers Hardy, Hostile, and Hasty from the Mediterranean. Next day the cruisers Sussex and Shropshire (Force ‘H’) arrived at Simonstown from the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, and on 14 October the aircraft-carrier Hermes arrived at Dakar from Plymouth to work with a French hunting group.
When the Cumberland, from Freetown, joined Commodore Harwood's division at daybreak on 9 October, the Exeter, being short of fuel, was unable to carry out the sweep to the northward ordered by the Commander-in-Chief on 3 October. He therefore steamed south and fuelled his ships in San Borombon Bay at the southern entrance to the River Plate estuary. On 16 October Harwood was informed that the German steamer Bahia Laura, 8560 tons, had sailed from Montevideo the previous day. When the signal reached him she was far out to sea and, as the whole area was enveloped in dense fog, her interception was not considered possible. The destroyers Hotspur and Havock were patrolling off Rio Grande do Sul with intent to intercept two German merchant ships if they left that port when, on 20 October, the Admiralty ordered their transfer to the West Indies.
Having steamed up from the Falkland Islands at economical speed, the Achilles sighted and closed the Exeter in the southern approach to the River Plate at 7.30 a.m. on 26 October. On completing a twenty-four hours' patrol in the River Plate focal area, the Achilles joined the Cumberland off Lobos Island in the evening of 27 October, under orders to cover the Rio de Janeiro-Santos area with her as Force ‘G’. That morning Commodore Harwood transferred his broad pendant to the Ajax and the Exeter sailed for Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, to carry out some minor repairs.page 34
After sinking the Clement on 30 September, the Admiral Graf Spee made a wide sweep of more than 1800 miles across the Atlantic to the Cape route. On 5 October, about 480 miles east-south-east of Ascension Island, she captured the British steamer Newton Beech, 4651 tons, homeward-bound with a cargo of maize. This vessel made the SOS distress signal instead of the RRRR (raider) report, and it was taken in by the Martand. Two days later the Admiral Graf Spee captured the steamer Ashlea, 4222 tons, whose crew was transferred to the Newton Beech. After a small part of her cargo of sugar had been removed, the Ashlea was sunk. On the following day all the prisoners were taken on board the raider and the Newton Beech was sunk. In the afternoon of 10 October the raider captured the steamer Huntsman, 8196 tons, bound for Liverpool with a general cargo from India and East Africa, and put a prize crew on board. The Graf Spee then proceeded to the south-westward and joined the Altmark, from which she refuelled on 14 October. Two days later they met the Huntsman, which was sunk about 650 miles south-west of St. Helena. All the British seamen were sent on board the Altmark, which then parted company again for ten days. In the absence of distress messages from the sunken ships, suspicion was not aroused till they became overdue at Freetown.
The Admiral Graf Spee moved off to the south-eastward and on 20 October received a message from Germany that two supply ships were on their way to meet her. They were the motor-ship Dresden, which had left Coquimbo, Chile, on 19 October, and an oil-tanker from Tampico, Mexico. The raider, however, was never near the rendezvous arranged for the Dresden. The tanker was intercepted by HMS Caradoc soon after leaving Tampico and was scuttled to avoid capture. In the afternoon of 22 October, about midway between St. Helena and the west coast of Africa, the Admiral Graf Spee captured and sank the British steamer Trevanion, 5299 tons, which was homeward-bound from Port Pirie, South Australia, with a cargo of zinc concentrates.
During the next six days the raider steered to the south-west away from the trade routes and on 28 October met the Altmark in the vicinity of Tristan da Cunha, roughly midway between the Cape of Good Hope and the east coast of South America. After fuelling from the tanker, to which she transhipped the crew of the Trevanion, the Graf Spee shaped course for the Indian Ocean. She passed 400 miles south of Cape Agulhas on 3 November and then worked well to the north-east across the Cape shipping routes.
Nothing was sighted during the next ten days and on 13 November the Admiral Graf Spee headed towards the Mozambique Channel. Late on the 14th the small Dutch steamer Holland, 893 page 35 tons, was sighted, but as boarding was impossible in the prevailing high seas she was not molested. Next day the Graf Spee sighted another small vessel in the northern approach to Delagoa Bay. This ship, the British tanker Africa Shell, 706 tons, on passage from Quelimane to Lourenço Marques, was sunk, the crew being allowed to get away in the boats though the master was taken prisoner. Next day, when about 350 miles south-west of Madagascar, the Admiral Graf Spee stopped the Dutch motor-ship Mapia, 9389 tons, but released her. The raider rounded Cape Agulhas at a distance of 300 miles during the night of 20 November and headed out into mid-Atlantic. Six days later she met and refuelled from the Altmark about 600 miles south-west of St. Helena.
The Graf Spee now had more than 2800 tons of fuel in her tanks, enough at a normal rate of consumption to keep her at sea until the end of February 1940. A further 3600 tons was still available in the Altmark. Captain Langsdorff decided that, on completion of minor machinery repairs, he would again operate on the Cape shipping route in the area where he had sunk the Trevanion on 22 October. He parted company with the Altmark on 29 November and proceeded to the eastward.
No news of the South Atlantic raider had reached the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief for a fortnight when Force ‘H’ (Sussex and Shropshire) sailed from Simonstown on 14 October to hunt along the Cape-Freetown route as far north as the latitude of St. Helena. On the same day Force ‘K’ (Ark Royal and Renown), with the cruiser Neptune and the destroyers Hardy, Hero, and Hereward in company, left Freetown to search westward towards St. Paul Rocks. Three weeks' silence was broken on 22 October when the Union-Castle liner Llanstephan Castle reported that she had intercepted a signal from an unknown steamer stating that she was being shelled in a position ‘16 deg. South, 4 deg. 3 min. East at 1400 G.M.T.’1
There was no immediate confirmation of the report, but the Commander-in-Chief decided on another and complete sweep of the Cape-Freetown route. Force ‘H’ left Capetown on 27 October and Force ‘K’ sailed from Freetown next day to sweep northward and southward respectively to the latitude of St. Helena. But by that time the raider was far away to the westward in the vicinity of Tristan da Cunha. On 5 November the German steamer Uhenfels, 7603 tons, from Lourenço Marques, was sighted by an aircraft from the Ark Royal and captured by the destroyer Hereward. Both hunting groups returned to their respective bases on 7 November.
Four days earlier the Admiralty had informed the Commander-in-Chief that ‘all German capital ships and cruisers were believed to be in their home waters’. It appeared from this that the pocket battleship raider, which was still thought to be the Admiral Scheer, had returned to Germany and that the enemy ship reported in the message of the Llanstephan Castle on 22 October was no more than an armed merchant cruiser. On 4 November the Admiralty issued orders that Force ‘G’ (Cumberland and Exeter) and Force ‘H’ (Sussex and Shropshire) should exchange areas, an arrangement that would provide Commodore Harwood with the hunting group of long-steaming endurance he so greatly desired.
It had been planned that Force ‘H’ should make a sweep round the Cape of Good Hope towards Durban, arriving there on 16 November. This would have taken the Sussex and Shropshire within 160 miles of the Admiral Graf Spee when she sank the Africa Shell off Lourenço Marques on the 15th. But on 5 November, in accordance with Admiralty instructions, the Commander-in-Chief ordered Force ‘H’ to sail on the 11th and effect, to the westward of St. Helena on the 17th, the exchange of areas with Force ‘G’.
On 8 November the Admiralty cancelled the suppositions in its signal of the 3rd regarding German capital ships and cruisers and informed the Commander-in-Chief that the Admiral Scheer was believed to be in the Indian Ocean. Force ‘H’, however, left the Cape as arranged on 11 November. Bad weather and fuelling difficulties in the River Plate area delayed Force ‘G’, which did not sail till the 13th. When the Admiralty learned on 17 November that the Africa Shell had been sunk by a pocket battleship off Lourenço Marques on the 15th it immediately ordered Force ‘H’ to return to the Cape and Force ‘G’ back to South America. It also ordered the despatch of Force ‘K’ towards the Cape with instructions to carry on, if need be, to Diego Suarez, in Madagascar.
That morning the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic was informed that the German merchant ships Adolf Woermann, 8577 tons, and Windhuk, 16,660 tons, had left Lobito, Portuguese West Africa. He at once ordered Force ‘H’, which was then west of St. Helena, to spend three days searching for them. On 18 November Force ‘K’, with the Neptune and three destroyers in company, sailed from Freetown to sweep west of St. Helena on its way to the Cape. Force ‘H’ saw nothing of the German liners and returned to Capetown on the 23rd.
Early on 21 November, however, the Shaw Savill and Albion motor-ship Waimarama, 12,843 tons, commanded by Captain J. Averne, reported having sighted the Adolf Woermann about 250 miles north of St. Helena and boldly took the risk of shadowing her. Force ‘K’, which was then 150 miles north-east of Ascension Island, page 37 altered course to close. The Neptune went ahead at high speed and shortly after eight o'clock next morning intercepted the Adolf Woermann. Despite strenuous efforts to save her, the German ship was scuttled and the Neptune returned to Freetown three days later with 162 prisoners.
The search for the German ship had taken Force ‘K’ nearly 200 miles to the eastward and, to save fuel, it proceeded towards the Cape by the route east of St. Helena. The Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic subsequently expressed the view that this might have been the reason for its missing the Altmark, which was awaiting the return of the Graf Spee in the unfrequented area west of the Cape shipping routes through which Force ‘K’ would otherwise have passed.
On 27 November the Admiralty ordered Force ‘H’ and Force ‘K’ to form a patrol south of the Cape of Good Hope on the meridian of 20 degrees East. The two forces met there early on 1 December. The plan was found unsuitable in practice on account of the weather. This permitted flying from the Ark Royal only once in five or six days, so that the patrol could not be carried far enough to the south to intercept a raider bent on evasion. In any case, the Admiral Graf Spee had passed that way at least a week before the patrol commenced.
Far away on the other side of the South Atlantic Commodore Harwood's cruisers carried on their monotonous round of patrols, safeguarding the passage of Allied merchantmen. The Achilles remained in company with the Cumberland in the Rio de Janeiro-Santos area till the night of 5 November, when the latter proceeded to the River Plate in preparation for the proposed changeover of Forces ‘G’ and ‘H’.
A welcome break in the monotony came on the morning of 10 November when the Achilles arrived at Rio de Janeiro, saluting the flag of Brazil with twenty-one guns as she moved to the anchorage. Leave was granted freely, and about 500 of the ship's company landed during her brief stay, many of them being hospitably entertained by members of the British community. ‘We paid a very pleasant visit of forty-eight hours to Rio de Janeiro, one of the most beautiful cities in the world,’ reported Captain Parry. ‘Here we did our Christmas shopping; we danced and lost money in the casinos and we played golf in ideal surroundings….’
The Achilles went to sea again on the morning of 12 November and resumed her patrol of the shipping routes. In the evening of the 13th she met the French liner Massilia, 15,363 tons, bound from Buenos Aires to Europe with French reservists, and escorted her to the limit of Brazilian territorial waters off Rio de Janeiro, which she entered early in the morning of 16 November. It was arranged to page 38 meet the Massilia at sea that evening, but, owing to dense fog, the Achilles failed to find her then or on the following morning.
When the Admiralty cancelled the exchange of areas on 17 November, Harwood sent Force ‘G’ (Cumberland and Exeter) to patrol the Rio de Janeiro area and ordered the Achilles south to refuel. The New Zealand cruiser was off Rouen Bank, in the southern approach to the River Plate, early in the morning of 22 November when she obtained a wireless direction-finding bearing on the German steamer Lahn, which was last reported at Talcahuano, Chile, on 16 September.1 Course was at once shaped at 20 knots to close Cape San Antonio with the object of intercepting the fugitive ship. About half an hour later the Ajax was sighted and the two cruisers spent the day searching for the Lahn and the motor-ship Tacoma, also from Talcahuano. The search was unsuccessful, and both German ships arrived at Montevideo during the afternoon.
The Achilles remained in company with the Ajax until late that night and then proceeded into San Borombon Bay, where she took in 900 tons of oil and three weeks' supply of victualling stores. She sailed the following night under orders to move up to Pernambuco and show herself off Cabadello and Bahia, as a number of German ships were reported ready to sail to Cabadello to load cotton for Germany. This was the beginning of another long, independent patrol which took the New Zealand cruiser more than 2000 miles to the northward.
The Ajax left the River Plate on 25 November and, after her aircraft had reconnoitred Bahia Blanca, where the German steamer Ussukumu, 7834 tons, was lying loaded and ready for sea, proceeded to the Falkland Islands, arriving on the 27th. By this time both the Cumberland and the Exeter were in need of repairs after long periods at sea and Commodore Harwood ordered the Exeter to proceed to the Falklands forthwith. She arrived at Port Stanley on 29 November and her defects were taken in hand.
After leaving the Rio Grande do Sul area, the Achilles shaped course to the north-eastward for the next four days to a position approximately 200 miles west-south-west of Trinidada Island, which lies about 600 miles from the coast of Brazil. Thence she steamed almost due north, stopping from time to time to examine passing ships. A landfall was made at 8.45 a.m. on 2 December, and about an hour later the New Zealand cruiser arrived off Cabadello, a port in the southern entrance to the Parahyba River, where a German merchant ship identified as the Sao Paolo, 4977 tons, was seen. The Achilles steamed up the coast, arriving off Natal1 during the afternoon. Brazilian aircraft flew over the ship about midday. The cruiser reached the northern limit of her patrol off Cape San Roque, the north-eastern extremity of the Brazilian coast, at 6.15 p.m. when she turned south.
Next morning the Achilles arrived off Pernambuco and inspected the harbour from seaward, sighting eight vessels in port, including two German ships. The cruiser then proceeded on a south-westerly course for Bahia, but at 6.45 a.m. on 4 December she received orders from Commodore Harwood to return to Montevideo by 6 a.m. on the 8th to refuel. Course was shaped accordingly and speed increased to 19 knots. The elusive German raider had been located on the eastern side of the South Atlantic where she had sunk the Doric Star on 2 December. The timely concentration of the cruisers of the South America Division was now in progress.
The Achilles arrived at Montevideo early in the morning of 8 December and berthed alongside the mole. The German merchant ships Lahn and Tacoma were at anchor in the roadstead. For the third time since the cruiser's departure from New Zealand, shore leave was granted to as many of the ship's company as could be spared from duty. About 500 men landed and were most hospitably entertained by members of the British community in Montevideo. Permission for a stay of forty-eight hours in harbour had been given by the Uruguayan authorities, but this had to be curtailed to enable the New Zealand cruiser to keep her rendezvous with the Ajax.
For weeks the naval net had been spread far and wide to intercept the German raider. Constantly patrolling and sweeping on both sides of the South Atlantic were more than twenty British and French warships. They included two aircraft-carriers, and all the cruisers had an aircraft apiece. But even the increased range of observation thus afforded the searching forces represented but tiny circles in the immensity of 10,000,000 square miles of ocean. From the Cape of Good Hope to the Falkland Islands is 4000-odd miles, to the River Plate 3700 miles, and to Rio de Janeiro 3270 miles. The shortest distance across the South Atlantic is 1630 miles from Freetown to Pernambuco and from that line southward to the Cape is 3100 miles.
It is in the immensity of the vast, open common of the sea, devoid of natural features and obstructions such as restrict the movements of armies, that naval operations differ from land warfare. The age-old problem of the naval commander is how to intercept an opponent intent on evasion at sea. The evasive routeing of merchant shipping is one of the traditional, well-proved methods for the protection of seaborne trade effectively employed by the Admiralty. Evasive tactics apply equally well in the case of enemy raiders. Provided that they can obtain fuel and other supplies and avoid focal areas, it is possible for them to operate for long periods. Both sides of the picture are seen in the case of the Admiral Graf Spee, which was cruising for nearly four months during which she accounted for only nine ships.
At the beginning of December 1939 no report of the raider had been received since the sinking of the Africa Shell in the Indian Ocean on 15 November. On 2 December Force ‘K’ (Ark Royal and Renown) and Force ‘H’ (Sussex and Shropshire), after refuelling, were returning to their patrol line south of Cape Agulhas when a reconnaissance aircraft of the South African Air Force reported a ship south of the Cape of Good Hope. She was intercepted by the Sussex but her crew set her on fire. She proved to be the German liner Watussi, 9600 tons, and was sunk by gunfire from the Renown, her crew being picked up and taken to Simonstown by the Sussex.
It was on that day that the Admiral Graf Spee intercepted the Blue Star liner Doric Star, 10,086 tons, homeward-bound from New Zealand, via Sydney and Capetown, with a full cargo of frozen meat, dairy produce, and wool. The crew was taken off, as well as quantities of meat and dairy produce, after which the Doric Star was sunk by bombs and a torpedo. The destruction of this ship and her valuable cargo was a considerable success for the raider, but it was shortly to prove her undoing.
The Doric Star had transmitted a raider distress signal giving her position at the time of attack and this quickly reached the Com- page 41 mander-in-Chief South Atlantic.1 Knowing that the message had been passed, Captain Langsdorff lost no time in moving away to the westward. Early next morning the Admiral Graf Spee intercepted the Shaw Savill and Albion Company's steamer Tairoa, 7983 tons, homeward-bound from Australia with a full cargo of frozen meat, wool, and lead. Captain Langsdorff intended to capture her for use as a tender, but finding that her rudder had been damaged by his gunfire, he sank her with a torpedo after taking off the crew. He then proceeded to the westward with the intention of operating on the South American trade routes.
When he received the Doric Star's distress signal in the afternoon of the 2nd, the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic at once decided to abandon the patrol south of the Cape and ordered Force ‘H’, after refuelling, to proceed north at 20 knots to cover the trade routes between the Cape and St. Helena. His proposal to the Admiralty that Force ‘K’ should sweep direct from the Cape to a position 600 miles south-west from St. Helena and thence to Free-town was accepted. At the request of Vice-Admiral Wells in the Ark Royal, this was changed to a point about 500 miles further south to place Force ‘K’ in a more central position for moving to Freetown, to the Falkland Islands, or to Rio de Janeiro. On the morning of 3 December a report reached the Commander-in-Chief that the ‘pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer’ had been in the approximate position where the Tairoa was sunk, which clearly indicated that the raider was moving westward.
Force ‘H’ left Simonstown that afternoon and Force ‘K’ sailed from Capetown next morning to search for the elusive enemy. When the Sussex and Shropshire reached the area in which the Doric Star had been sunk, the raider was more than 1000 miles away to the westward. The Ark Royal and Renown crossed the line of the raider's track four days too late to intercept her. Once again the evasive tactics of the Admiral Graf Spee had saved her from the hunters.
1 The Port Line motor-vessel Port Chalmers, commanded by Captain W. G. Higgs, OBE, which was in the vicinity but out of sight, relayed the Doric Star's message, repeating it until it was acknowledged, after which she took drastic evasive action at full speed.
The submarine Severn left Freetown on 11 December at 15 knots for the Falkland Islands under orders to protect the whaling operations at South Georgia and intercept enemy raiders or supply ships. The cruiser Dorsetshire, which had come down from Colombo, sailed from Simonstown on 13 December for the Falkland Islands under orders to relieve the Exeter, which was to refit at the South African base.
When the Doric Star reported that she was being attacked by a pocket battleship in the afternoon of 2 December, her position was more than 3000 miles from the South American coast. A similar report was broadcast early the following morning by an unknown ship – it was in fact the Tairoa – 170 miles south-west of that position. From this information Commodore Harwood correctly anticipated that the raider, knowing that she had been reported, would leave that area and probably cross the South Atlantic. He estimated that at a cruising speed of 15 knots the raider could reach the Rio de Janeiro focal area by the morning of 12 December, the River Plate focal area by the evening of 12 December or early on 13 December, and the Falkland Islands area on 14 December. ‘I decided,’ he wrote, ‘that the Plate, with its large number of ships and its very valuable grain and meat trade, was the vital area to be defended. I therefore arranged to concentrate there my available forces in advance of the time at which it was anticipated the raider might start operations in that area.’
In order to bring this about, Commodore Harwood in the early afternoon of 3 December made a signal to his ships amending their previous dispositions. The Cumberland was to carry out a self-refit at the Falkland Islands as previously arranged, but was to keep at short notice on two engines. The Achilles was to arrive at Montevideo to refuel at 6 a.m. on 8 December. The Exeter was to leave Port Stanley for the River Plate area on the morning of 9 December, covering the steamer Lafonia returning to Buenos Aires the British volunteers who had served in the Falkland Islands defence forces. The Ajax and Achilles were to meet in the afternoon of 10 December in a position approximately 300 miles east of Cape Santa Maria, and the Exeter was to pass through a position 150 miles east of Cape Medanos light in the morning of 12 December (thus covering the northern and southern approaches to the River Plate). The oiler page 43 Olynthus was instructed to remain at her sea rendezvous until the situation cleared, instead of proceeding to the Falkland Islands. All this was contained in a signal of 125 words, after the transmission of which strict wireless silence was kept.
In the early hours of 5 December the British Naval Attaché at Buenos Aires reported that the German merchant ship Ussukumu had left Bahia Blanca the previous evening. Commodore Harwood at once ordered the Cumberland, on passage to Port Stanley, to search the southern arcs of the possible course of the Ussukumu. The Ajax turned south at 22 knots after closing the coast and sighted the smoke of the Ussukumu in the evening, but the Germans scuttled their ship which, in spite of the efforts of the Ajax to save her, sank during the night. The Cumberland arrived early next morning and embarked the German crew. The Ajax went into San Borombon Bay and refuelled from the Olynthus. Thinking that the enemy might attempt some coup on 8 December, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Falkland Islands, Harwood ordered the Cumberland to join the Exeter on the 7th and then to patrol off the islands for two days before entering Port Stanley to refit.
The Achilles sailed from Montevideo at 4 p.m. on 9 December and at ten o'clock next morning she joined the Ajax in a position approximately 230 miles east from English Bank in the approach to the River Plate. They met the Exeter at six o'clock in the morning of 12 December about 150 miles east of Medanos light. The three ships then steamed north-east to a position approximately 300 miles east from Rio Grande do Sul. Harwood chose this position from his shipping plot ‘as being at that time the most congested part of the diverted shipping routes, i.e., the point where [it was] estimated that a raider could do most damage to British shipping’.
Harwood informed his captains by two brief signals of the tactics he intended to use in the event of meeting the German raider. ‘My policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship – attack at once by day or night. By day act as two units, First 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. …’ During the day and after dark the cruisers were exercised in these tactics. It was a full-dress rehearsal of the drama that was staged next morning.
On 6 December the Admiral Graf Spee met the Altmark for what proved to be the last time, most of the raider's prisoners being transferred to the latter and fuel taken in. The tanker parted company next morning and the Graf Spee carried on to the westward. That evening she intercepted and sank the British steamer Streonshalh, 3895 tons, homeward-bound from Montevideo with a cargo of page 44 wheat. This was the raider's last success. In all, she had sunk nine British ships without the loss of a single life. Course was then shaped towards the River Plate.
The Admiral Graf Spee was classed officially as an armoured ship (panzerschiffe) of 10,000 tons displacement, the maximum tonnage permitted to Germany by the naval terms of the Treaty of Versailles; but her actual load displacement on her overall length of 609 feet and breadth of 69 ft 6 in was considerably greater, probably about 14,000 tons. She carried a main armament of six 11-inch guns mounted in two triple turrets, one forward and one aft, and a secondary armament of eight 5·9-inch guns, four on each beam. The 11-inch guns had a maximum range of 30,000 yards (15 sea miles) and fired a projectile of 670 pounds. The ship also had eight 21-inch torpedo-tubes in quadruple mountings and carried two aircraft. She was propelled by twin screws driven by eight diesel-oil engines, each of 6750 horsepower at 450 r.p.m. Four engines were geared to each propeller shaft, the gearing reducing the speed of the screws to 250 r.p.m. The full power of the eight engines was 54,000 horsepower for a speed of 26 knots.
HMS Exeter, a light cruiser of 8390 tons displacement, was armed with six 8-inch guns in three turrets, two forward and one aft, each gun firing a projectile of 256 pounds. The Ajax and Achilles, 7030 tons displacement, each mounted eight 6-inch guns in four turrets, two forward and two aft, each firing a projectile of 112 pounds. The secondary guns of the German ship were the equal in weight of the main armament of either the Ajax or the Achilles. She could fire a total weight of 4830 pounds against 3328 pounds from the three British cruisers, though the rate of her 11-inch guns was slower. The British ships had an advantage in speed of about five knots. But against the material superiority of the Admiral Graf Spee was to be set a vitally important moral factor. British naval doctrine, established by long tradition, laid down that ‘war at sea cannot be waged successfully without risking the loss of ships. Should the object to be achieved justify a reasonable loss of ships, the fact that such losses may occur should be no deterrent to the carrying out of the operation’.