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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Graf Spee Retires Westward

The Graf Spee Retires Westward

FOR SEVERAL technical reasons, the fire of the Ajax and Achilles became ineffective for more than twenty minutes from about 6.46 a.m. The Graf Spee, however, failed to take any advantage of this, but continued her retirement to the westward at high speed, making frequent alterations of course under cover of smoke-screens. Still fighting gamely with her two after guns, the Exeter hauled round to the westward at 6.50 a.m. She had a list to starboard and several compartments flooded as the result of an 11-inch hit under her forecastle. The Graf Spee’s range from the First Division (Ajax and Achilles) was 16,000 yards at 7.10 a.m. when Commodore Harwood decided to close in as rapidly as possible. Course was altered to the westward and the Ajax and Achilles steamed at their utmost speed. Then the Graf Spee turned sharply to port behind smoke and headed as if to finish off the Exeter. But, four minutes later, she altered course back to the north-west until all her 11-inch guns were bearing on the First Division. The range was now down to 11,000 yards. The Ajax was quickly straddled three times, but was not hit. The enemy’s 5.9-inch gunfire was ragged and quite ineffective. At this time the shooting of the Ajax and Achilles appeared to be very good and a fire was seen in the Graf Spee.

The Ajax received her first direct hit at 7.25 a.m. when an 11-inch delay-action shell struck her after superstructure at an angle of ten degrees to the horizontal. It penetrated 42 feet, passing through several cabins and the trunk of ‘X’ turret, in which the machinery was wrecked, and burst in the commodore’s sleeping cabin, doing considerable damage. A piece of the base of the shell struck ‘Y’ barbette* and jammed the turret. Thus, this hit put both the after turrets and their four guns out of action. It also killed four and wounded six of the crew of ‘X’ turret. The Ajax retaliated by firing a broadside of four torpedoes at a range of 9000 yards. They broke surface after entering the water and the Admiral Graf Spee avoided them by turning away for three minutes. According page 27 to the German account of the action, she attempted to fire a spread salvo of torpedoes at this time, but only one was actually discharged because at the moment the ship was swinging hard to port. The Ajax avoided this torpedo by a sharp turn towards the enemy, thus shortening the range still more, while the Achilles crossed her wake.

The Admiral Graf Spee now turned away to the west, making much smoke, and zigzagging. At this time the Ajax had only three guns in action, but the Achilles was making good shooting with her eight, the range being down to 8000 yards. Though the pilot and the observer of the Ajax’s aircraft reported that hit after hit was being made, few were observed from either ship. There was disappointingly little apparent damage to the Graf Spee, whose fire was still very accurate, and Commodore Harwood remarked to Captain Woodhouse: ‘We might as well be bombarding her with snowballs’. The enemy was concentrating his fire on the First Division and the Ajax was straddled by about twelve salvoes, but neither she nor the Achilles was hit. The Exeter had been dropping gradually astern, having had to reduce speed owing to damage forward. Finally, power to her after turret failed, due to flooding, and about 7.40 a.m. she steered to the south-east at slow speed ‘starting to repair damage and make herself seaworthy’. Later, she was ordered to proceed to the Falkland Islands, where she arrived three days later.

Just before the Exeter turned away, it was reported to the commodore that the Ajax had only 20 per cent of her ammunition left and only three guns in action. He therefore decided to break off the day action and close in again after dark. Accordingly, at 7.40 a.m., the Ajax and Achilles altered course away to the eastward under cover of smoke. As the ships were turning, a shell from the Graf Spee cut the Ajax’s main topmast clean in two, destroyed all her aerials, and caused a number of casualties. It subsequently transpired that the reported shortage of ammunition in the Ajax referred only to ‘A’ turret, which had been firing continuously for eighty-one minutes and had expended some 300 rounds. The Graf Spee made no attempt to follow the British cruisers, but steadied on a westerly course, heading at 23 knots direct for the River Plate. Six minutes later, the Ajax and Achilles turned and proceeded to shadow the enemy, the former to port and the latter to starboard, at a distance of about fifteen miles. Almost exactly twenty-five years before— on 8 December 1914—Admiral Graf Spee’s four cruisers, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, and Leipzig, had fought to the last against a greatly superior British force, 1100 miles to the south of the area from which the powerful ship bearing the name of the German admiral was now retreating at speed from two small cruisers, one of which had only half her guns in action.

Black and white picture of a ship

HMS Exeter

page 28

Yet, according to the German account of the action, the Admiral Graf Spee had sustained only two 8-inch and eighteen 6-inch hits. One officer and thirty-five ratings had been killed and sixty wounded. ‘The fighting value of the ship had not been destroyed,’ the report ran. The main armament was ‘fully effective’, but there remained only 306 rounds of 11-inch ammunition, representing 40 per cent of the original supply. ‘The survey of damage showed that all galleys were out of action, with the exception of the admiral’s galley. The possibility of repairing them with the ship’s own resources was doubtful. Penetration of water into the flour store made the continued supply of bread questionable, while hits in the fore part of the ship rendered her unseaworthy for the North Atlantic winter. One shell had penetrated the armour belt and the armoured deck had been torn open in one place. There was also damage in the after part of the ship…. The ship’s resources were considered inadequate for making her seaworthy …’ and ‘there seemed no prospect of shaking off the shadowers.’ Captain Langsdorf therefore decided to make for Montevideo. He signalled his intentions to Berlin and received from Admiral Raeder the reply: ‘Your intentions understood’.

* The circular steel structure, below the gun-house, enclosing the lower part of the turret.