Episodes & Studies Volume 1
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 sailed for their allotted stations; on the 21st, the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorf, sailed from Wilhelmshaven; on the 24th, a second pocket battleship, the Deutschland, put to sea, her tanker supply ship having sailed two days earlier. To wait upon the Admiral Graf Spee, the tanker Altmark, carrying three months’ stores, 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. Until war began, the Admiral Graf Spee was to cruise in an area north-west of the Cape Verde Islands; afterwards, she was to operate on the South Atlantic trade routes.
The broad lines of British naval policy for the protection of sea-borne trade in the event of war with Germany and Italy had been laid down in an Admiralty memorandum of January 1939. Anticipating attacks by raiders, including Germany’s three pocket battleships, the memorandum set out the ‘traditional and well-proved methods’ of trade protection. These consisted in the dispersal or evasive routeing of merchant shipping, the stationing of naval patrols in focal 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 on 3 September 1939, this policy was put into effect; but it was not always possible to provide adequate escort forces for convoys. This was one of the costly results of the drastic whittling down of British naval strength during the past twenty-one years.
During the last week of August active steps were taken to put the two cruisers of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in a state of instant readiness for war. At nine o’clock on the morning of 29 August, Captain W. E. Parry, RN, commanding officer of HMS Achilles, received his sailing orders for the North America and West Indies Station. During the morning, two Reserve officers from the Leander and a draft of young ratings from the training depot joined the ship, which left her berth at Devonport dockyard, Auckland, at 1.30 p.m. At the last minute a boat arrived alongside with an additional medical officer, Surgeon-Lieutenant C. A. Pittar, RNZNVR, who at one hour’s notice had left his private practice to go to sea. The ship’s company then numbered 567, of whom twenty-six officers and 220 ratings were from the Royal Navy and five officers and 316 ratings were New Zealanders.
After clearing the harbour the Achilles proceeded at 14 knots for the Panama Canal; but during the night of 2 September she was ordered by the Commander-in-Chief, America and West Indies, to alter course for Valparaiso, Chile, and she increased her speed to 17 knots. Shortly before 1 a.m. (ship’s time) on 3 September, the Admiralty signal ‘Commence hostilities against Germany’ page 4 was received. From this time on, action stations were exercised daily at dawn and dusk and the ship was blacked out at night. No ship was sighted on the passage across the Pacific and the Achilles arrived at Valparaiso at midday on 12 September.
During the next six weeks, the Achilles patrolled the west coast of South America and visited numerous harbours and anchorages in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, with due observance of the neutrality regulations of those republics. As in August 1914, the outbreak of war had almost completely halted the considerable German trade in those waters. The only German merchant ships at sea, when the Achilles arrived on the coast, were fugitives such as the Lahn from Sydney and the Erlangen from New Zealand, which had vanished into the Pacific in the week before the outbreak of war and evaded the patrolling cruiser by sneaking into neutral harbours. The advent of the Achilles, the only Allied warship in those waters, sufficed to keep German trade at a standstill and virtually to immobilise some seventeen merchant ships totalling 84,000 tons along a coastline of 5000 miles from the Panama Canal to the Strait of Magellan. Thus was exemplified the truth of the old saying that nine-tenths of naval warfare is made up of the continuous drudgery and monotony of patrol duties and the search for enemy vessels which are not there, but which would be if the patrols were not.
But the restraining influence of the Achilles on that coast was about to be removed. On 1 October the Admiralty received word that the British steamer Clement, 5051 tons, had been sunk off the coast of Brazil on 30 September by an enemy raider believed to be the Admiral Scheer. It was, in fact, the Admiral Graf Spee, who had struck her first blow. Prompt and far-reaching measures were taken to hunt her down. The Achilles was in the vicinity of the Gulf of Panama when, on 2 October, she received orders to proceed south-about into the Atlantic to reinforce the South America Division of Commodore Henry Harwood, who was operating under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. From the beginning of the war, the commodore’s special care and duty was to protect merchant shipping in the important River Plate and Rio de Janeiro areas. He had under his command the cruisers Exeter (Captain F. S. Bell, RN), Cumberland (Captain W. H. G. Fallowfield, RN), and Ajax (Captain C. H. L. Woodhouse, RN), and for about six weeks, the destroyers Hotspur and Havock. On 5 October the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, of the formation of eight hunting groups, each of ‘sufficient strength to destroy any German armoured ship of the Deutschland class or armoured cruiser of the Hipper class’.
Thus, the appearance of a single enemy raider in the South Atlantic set in motion a vast naval machine involving twenty-two ships, as well as the despatch of two battleships and three cruisers to Canada for convoy escort duties. In British ships alone, this entailed the withdrawal from Home waters of three capital ships, two aircraft-carriers, and three cruisers, and from the Mediterranean (for duty in the Indian Ocean) of one battleship, one aircraft-carrier, and three cruisers. In addition, the French Navy provided an aircraft-carrier, two battle-cruisers, five cruisers, and several destroyers to operate off the west coast of Africa. These elaborate measures recall the similar widespread dispositions made in 1914 against Admiral Graf Spee’s Pacific Squadron and in the hunting of the cruiser Emden.
After a second visit to Valparaiso, where she spent two days making good engine-room defects, the Achilles carried on to the southward. She entered the Strait of Magellan at midday on 19 October, anchored overnight, and cleared the Atlantic entrance the following evening, arriving page 5 at the Falkland Islands about twenty-four hours later. After refuelling, the Achilles sailed from Port Stanley on 23 October and proceeded to the southern approach to the River Plate, where she joined company with HMS Exeter three days later. On 27 October the Achilles met the Cumberland, under orders to patrol with her in the Rio de Janeiro-Santos area. Commodore Harwood transferred his broad pendant to the Ajax and the Exeter sailed for Port Stanley to carry out urgent repairs. She replaced the Achilles on 11 November.
Nothing had been heard of the enemy raider for three weeks, and on 3 November the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, that all German capital ships and cruisers were believed to be in their home waters. Next day, the Admiralty issued orders that Force ‘G’ (Cumberland and Exeter) and Force ‘H’ (Sussex and Shropshire) should exchange areas, an arrangement that would not only give the former ships an opportunity to rest and refit, but also provide Commodore Harwood with the hunting group of long-steaming endurance he so greatly desired. The two forces had actually sailed to effect the change-over when, on 17 November, the Admiralty learned that the pocket battleship was in the Indian Ocean. The exchange arrangements were immediately cancelled and the ships returned to their respective stations.