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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Shadowing the Enemy

Shadowing the Enemy

THE IRREGULAR ARC on which the Ajax and Achilles had steamed and fought had brought them by eight o’clock to a position barely twenty miles north-west of that from which they had first sighted the enemy. Shortly after nine o’clock the Ajax recovered her aircraft, which had been up for two hours 35 minutes. At 9.45 a.m. the commodore ordered the Cumberland, which had been refitting at the Falkland Islands, to proceed to the River Plate at full speed. She sailed from Port Stanley at noon and made the passage of 1000 miles in thirty-four hours. Meanwhile, the Admiralty had taken steps to meet the situation by ordering the Ark Royal, Renown, and other ships patrolling distant areas to proceed at once to the South American coast.

The Achilles, over-estimating the enemy’s speed, had closed to 23,000 yards when, at 10.5 a.m., the Graf Spee altered course and fired two three-gun salvoes of 11-inch shell from her forward turret. The first fell very short, but the second dropped close alongside the Achilles, who possibly would have been hit had she not already started to turn away at full speed under smoke. She resumed shadowing at longer range. About an hour later, the Admiral Graf Spee made a clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to throw off her pursuers. Sighting the British steamer Shakespeare, she stopped her by firing a shot across her bows. According to the German account, it was intended to torpedo the ship as soon as the crew had taken to the boats, and a signal was made to the Ajax: ‘Please rescue boats of British steamer’. As, however, the crew made no attempt to leave the ship, Captain Langsdorf refrained from sinking her in view of the possible effect upon the treatment of his own ship in Montevideo. When the Ajax neared the Shakespeare, the latter reported that she was all well and needed no assistance.

The afternoon passed quietly until the Achilles sighted a strange vessel and made the signal: ‘Enemy in sight, 297 deg.’

‘What is it?’ asked Commodore Harwood.

‘Suspect 8-inch cruiser. Am confirming,’ replied the Achilles who, at a minute to four o’clock, signalled: ‘False alarm’. She had identified the stranger as the British motor-vessel Delane, whose streamlined bridge and funnel gave her, at long range, a close resemblance to a German cruiser of page 31 the Blucher class. Thereafter, the shadowing of the Graf Spee continued without incident until 7.15 p.m., when she altered course and fired two 11-inch salvoes at the Ajax, who immediately turned away under smoke. These were the first shells fired by the enemy for more than nine hours.

At about eight o’clock, being then south of Lobos Island and about fifty miles east of English Bank, the Ajax altered course to south-west to intercept the Admiral Graf Spee should she attempt to escape round that shallow bank which extends for sixteen miles across the northern side of the Plate estuary. The whole duty of shadowing the enemy now devolved upon the New Zealand cruiser which passed inside Lobos, close to the Uruguayan coast, and increased speed to creep up on the Graf Spee before dusk. The sun set at 8.48 p.m., leaving the enemy clearly silhouetted against the western sky. At five minutes to nine o’clock, the Graf Spee altered course under smoke and fired three salvoes, the third falling close astern of the Achilles, who replied with five salvoes which appeared to straddle the enemy. This brief engagement was watched from Punta del Este, the seaside resort of Montevideo, by thousands of Uruguayans, who had a ‘grand-stand’ view and mistook it for the main action. Between 9.30 and 9.45 p.m., the Graf Spee fired three more salvoes, all of which fell short. These Parthian shots were probably intended to keep the shadowing cruiser at a distance. They did not deter the Achilles who by ten o’clock had closed in to 10,000 yards. The enemy’s intention to enter Montevideo being clear, Commodore Harwood called off the pursuit an hour later. The Admiral Graf Spee anchored in Montevideo harbour soon after midnight.

For the whole of the next day, the two small cruisers stood alone between the enemy and the open sea. The Ark Royal, Renown, Shropshire, Dorsetshire, Neptune, and three destroyers were all making for the River Plate, but none could arrive for at least five days. The arrival of the Cumberland during the night of 14 December restored to its narrow balance a doubtful situation. Now it was possible to patrol all three deep-water channels.

On 15 December the Ajax and Achilles refuelled from an Admiralty tanker. That afternoon, the burial of the German ship’s dead took place in a cemetery outside Montevideo. The masters and fifty-four members of the crews of British ships sunk by the raider had been released by Captain Langsdorf.

The casualties in the British cruisers during the action were as follows:—

Officers Ratings
killed wounded killed wounded
Exeter 5 3 56 20
Ajax 1 7 14
Achilles 2 4 7
—— —— —— —— ——
total 5 6 67 41
—— —— —— —— ——

In accordance with the custom of the Royal Navy, the cruisers buried their dead in their hammocks at sea.

From the moment she sought shelter in harbour, the Admiral Graf Spee became the focal point of a world-wide flood of radio and press publicity which completely overwhelmed the spate of Nazi propaganda and falsities that made shift to gloss over the ignominy of her defeat and flight. page 32 Behind the scenes a considerable political and diplomatic struggle was taking place. The German Ambassador had requested permission for the Graf Spee to remain in Montevideo for fourteen days. On 15 December, he was informed that the ship would be allowed a stay of seventy-two hours in which to make her seaworthy. Captain Langsdorf then informed Berlin that there was ‘no prospect of breaking out into the open sea’, and that ‘if I can fight my way through to Buenos Aires … I shall endeavour to do so’; at the same time he requested instructions ‘whether to scuttle the ship or submit to internment’. His proposal was approved, but he was told that his ship was ‘not to be interned in Uruguay’ and ‘if the ship is scuttled, ensure effective destruction’. Captain Langsdorf addressed a lengthy letter to the German Ambassador protesting against the time limit already fixed and intimating his decision to scuttle his ship.

During the afternoon of Sunday, 17 December, the Admiral Graf Spee transferred most of her crew to the German merchant ship Tacoma, Captain Langsdorf with three officers and thirty-eight men remaining on board to take her out. At 6.20 p.m. she left the harbour and proceeded slowly westward, followed by the Tacoma and watched by thousands on shore. The waiting British cruisers steamed in from sea. The Ajax flew off her aircraft which sighted the Admiral Graf Spee in shallow water, six miles south-west of Montevideo. At 8.54 p.m. the aircraft signalled: ‘Graf Spee has blown herself up’. The British squadron carried on to within four miles of the wreck, the ships’ companies in the Ajax and Achilles cheering each other till they were hoarse. ‘It was now dark and she was ablaze from end to end, flames reaching almost as high as the top of her control tower, a magnificent and most cheering sight.’ That night, Captain Langsdorf shot himself. A few weeks later, the rusting wreck of the Admiral Graf Spee was purchased by a scrap-metal merchant.

In a message to the New Zealand Naval Board, Rear-Admiral Sir Henry Harwood (he had been promoted as from 13 December) said he was ‘deeply conscious of the honour and pleasure of taking one of H.M. ships of the New Zealand Squadron into action. Achilles was handled perfectly by her captain and fought magnificently by her captain, officers, and ship’s company.’ He visited the Achilles on 18 December and addressed her company to that effect. After the departure of HMS Ajax for England on 5 January 1940, Rear-Admiral Harwood flew his flag in the New Zealand cruiser for three weeks. The Achilles visited Buenos Aires and Montevideo before sailing on 2 February from Port Stanley for Auckland, where she was accorded a tumultuous welcome on her arrival on 23 February. During her memorable cruise, the Achilles had steamed 52,333 miles in 168 days at sea and had spent only ten days in harbour.