The Royal New Zealand Navy
CHAPTER 4 — The Battle of the River Plate
The Battle of the River Plate
AT 5.20 in the morning of 13 December the British cruisers were in a position about 240 miles due east from Cape Santa Maria on the coast of Uruguay and some 340 miles from Montevideo. While daylight was breaking, the ships carried out the normal routine of dawn action stations and again exercised the tactics to be employed against an enemy raider. The ship's companies fell out from action stations at 5.40 a.m. and reverted to their usual degree of readiness. The squadron then reformed in single line ahead, in the order Ajax, Achilles, Exeter, zigzagging on a mean course of north-east by east at 14 knots. The sun rose at 5.56 a.m. in a cloudless 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 sighted by the other cruisers and action stations was sounded off in all three ships. When the alarm rattlers sounded in the Achilles, a signalman with a flag under his arm ran aft shouting: ‘Make way for the Digger flag!’, and proceeded to hoist a 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 were hurrying to their action stations, the British ships began to act in accordance with the Commodore's plan. The Ajax and Achilles turned together to north-north-west to close the range and 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. The enemy's problem was the more difficult because of the wide dispersion of the two targets. According to the German account of the action, the Ajax and Achilles, when first sighted, were taken to be destroyers and Captain Langsdorff assumed that the force was escorting a convoy. He decided to ‘attack immediately in order to close to effective fighting range page 46 before the enemy could work up to full 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, about 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 Admiral Graf Spee replying with her 5.9-inch guns. The 8-inch salvoes of the Exeter appeared to worry the enemy almost from the beginning. After shifting targets rapidly once or twice, the German ship concentrated all six 11-inch guns on the Exeter. At 6.23 a.m. one shell 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.
One minute later, after she had fired eight salvoes, the Exeter received a direct hit from an 11-inch shell on the front of ‘B’ turret. The shell burst on impact and put the turret and its two 8-inch guns out of action. Splinters swept the bridge, killing or wounding all who were there, with the exception of Captain Bell and two officers; the wheelhouse communications were wrecked. The Exeter was no longer under control from the bridge and Captain Bell at once decided to fight his ship from the after conning position. The lower conning position had taken over when communication with the wheelhouse failed. Even so, the ship had started to swing and there was a probability that the two guns of the after turret would be masked and unable to bear on the target. The torpedo officer, Lieutenant-Commander C. J. Smith, RN, who had been knocked down and momentarily stunned, noticed this and got an order through to the lower conning position which brought the ship back to her westerly course.
When Captain Bell arrived aft he found that all communications had been cut. The steering was therefore changed over to the after steering position, orders to which were conveyed by 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. Both aircraft were extensively damaged and one was spraying petrol over the after conning position. Owing to the serious risk of fire, both aircraft were manhandled over the ship's side. During this time the Exeter received two more hits forward from 11-inch shells page 47 and suffered damage from the splinters of others which burst short.
All this 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 Admiral Graf Spee. Clearly, the concentrated fire of their sixteen 6-inch guns was worrying her, for at 6.30 a.m. she again split her main armament and shifted the fire of one 11-inch turret on to them, thus giving some relief to the Exeter. The Ajax was straddled three times and she and the Achilles turned away slightly to throw out the enemy's fire. The Admiral 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 German ship made a sudden large alteration of course to port and steered to the north-westward. This drastic turn was made under cover of a smoke screen and was probably dictated by the hot and effective concentrated fire of the Ajax and Achilles and the flanking fire of the Exeter, as well as by her torpedoes. The two 6-inch gun cruisers immediately hauled round to close the range and regain bearing. The Ajax catapulted her aircraft away at 6.37 a.m., under severe blast from her four after guns, and it took up a spotting position.
About a minute later the Exeter, while making a large alteration of course to starboard to bring her port torpedo-tubes to bear, was hit by two 11-inch shells. One struck the foremost turret, putting it and its two 8-inch guns completely out of action. The other burst inside the ship amidships, doing very extensive damage and starting a fierce fire between decks. The observer in the Ajax's aircraft reported that the Exeter completely disappeared in smoke and flame and it was feared that she had gone. However, she emerged and re-entered the action.
The Exeter had suffered severely. Both forward turrets were now disabled and only the two after guns were still in action in local control from the after searchlight platform. She was burning fiercely amidships and several compartments were flooded. What little internal communication was possible was being done by messengers. All the gyro-compass repeaters in the after conning position had been destroyed and Captain Bell had to use a boat's compass to con his ship. Nevertheless, the Exeter was kept resolutely in action. Her port torpedoes were fired as soon as the tubes were bearing on the enemy. A minute or two later she altered course towards the enemy and then hauled round to the westward. This brought her on a course nearly parallel to that of the Graf Spee, which she engaged with her two remaining 8-inch guns. The Exeter now had a list of seven degrees to starboard and was down by the head. She was still page 48 being engaged by the Admiral Graf Spee, but the latter's fire at that time appeared to be falling a considerable distance over the Exeter.
The Ajax and Achilles had now worked up to full power and were steaming at 31 knots, firing fast as they went. At 6.40 a.m. an 11-inch shell fell short of the Achilles in line with her navigating 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 Chief Yeoman of Signals L. C. Martinson was seriously wounded and Captain Parry hit in the legs and knocked down. When he came to he noticed that the guns were not trained on the enemy. He ordered cease fire and hailed the gunnery officer up the voicepipe. The latter replied rather shakily that he was regaining control and very quickly the director tower got the guns on the enemy and fire was reopened.
1 Captain R. E. Washbourn, DSO, OBE, RN; born Nelson, 14 Feb 1910; entered RN, 1928; lieutenant HMS Diomede, 1933–36; HMNZS Achilles, 1939–42; Commander, 1944; HMNZS Bellona, 1946–48; Commander Superintendent, Devonport dockyard, 1948–50.
2 After Control Position.
3 Director Control Tower.
About twenty more broadsides had been fired after the control tower was hit when wireless communication with the Ajax failed and the Achilles reverted to single ship firing for the remainder of the engagement. For some twenty minutes the fire of both cruisers was ineffective owing to difficulties in spotting the fall of shot. The Admiral Graf Spee, however, failed to take any advantage of this and continued her retirement to the westward at high speed. After 6.40 a.m. the action became virtually a chase. The Ajax and Achilles hauled round to the north and then to the west to close the range, accepting the fact that this entailed a temporary inability to bring their after guns to bear on the enemy. They were by now doing 31 knots and still increasing speed. The 6-inch gun cruisers were fine on the starboard quarter of the Admiral Graf Spee and the Exeter slightly before her port beam, still fighting gamely with her two after guns.
At 6.56 a.m. the Ajax and Achilles altered course to starboard to bring all their guns to bear. The increased volume of fire appeared to have an immediate effect on the Admiral Graf Spee, which made frequent alterations of course and from seven o'clock onwards made great use of smoke. Her range from the Ajax and Achilles at 7.10 a.m. was still 16,000 yards. Commodore Harwood then decided to close in as quickly as possible. Accordingly, course was altered to the westward and the Ajax and Achilles steamed at their utmost speed.
At 7.16 a.m. the Admiral Graf Spee made a large alteration of course to port under cover of smoke and headed straight for the Exeter as though she intended to finish off that much-damaged ship. The Ajax and Achilles responded with a turn towards the enemy, under ineffective fire from his secondary armament. Their rapid shooting scored a number of hits and started a fire amidships in the Admiral Graf Spee, which turned back to the north-west until all her 11-inch guns were bearing on the two cruisers, on whom she opened fire. The range at that time was 11,000 yards and the Ajax was page 50 immediately straddled three times. The enemy's secondary armament was firing raggedly and appeared to be going consistently over between the two cruisers.
The Ajax received her first direct hit at 7.25 a.m. when an 11-inch delay-action shell struck her after superstructure. It penetrated 42 feet, passing through several cabins and then the trunk of ‘X’ turret, wrecking the machinery below the gunhouse and finally exploding in the Commodore's sleeping quarters, doing considerable damage. A part of the base of the shell struck ‘Y’ barbette1 close to the training rack 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 torpedoes at a range of 9000 yards. All four broke surface after entering the water and probably were seen by the enemy, who avoided them by turning well away to port for three minutes and then resumed her north-westerly course.
According to the German account of the action the Admiral Graf Spee attempted to fire a spread salvo of torpedoes a few minutes before this, but only one was actually discharged because at the moment the ship was swinging hard to port. At 7.28 a.m. the Ajax and Achilles hauled round to port to close the range still more, and three minutes later the former's aircraft reported: ‘Torpedoes approaching. They will pass ahead of you.’ Commodore Harwood was taking no chances and altered course to south, engaging the enemy on the starboard side, with the range closing rapidly. So as to blank the fire of the Achilles for as short a time as possible, the Commodore ordered her by signal to pass across the stern of the Ajax.
The Exeter had had to reduce speed owing to damage forward, but continued to fire her two after 8-inch guns in local control until about 7.30 a.m., when power to the turret failed owing to flooding. She could then no longer keep up with the action and about 7.40 a.m. she turned away to the south-east at slow speed, starting to repair damage and make herself seaworthy. She had taken heavy punishment but, in spite of severe casualties and the almost complete destruction of internal communications, had been kept in action as long as a gun could be fired, while damage control parties laboured to minimise the effects of shellfire and flooding.
1 The circular steel structure, below the gunhouse, enclosing the lower part of the turret
About this time the Commodore received a report that the Ajax had only one-fifth of her ammunition remaining and only three guns in action, as one of the hoists had failed in ‘B’ turret and ‘X’ and ‘Y’ turrets were disabled. In the circumstances, the prospect of completing a decisive daylight action was not good. Harwood therefore decided to break off the engagement and to try to close in again after dark. Accordingly, at 7.40 a.m. the Ajax and Achilles turned away to the eastward under cover of smoke. While the ships were swinging, a shell from one of the enemy's last salvoes cut the main topmast of the Ajax clean in two, destroyed the wireless aerials, and caused a number of casualties. Jury aerials were soon rigged. It subsequently transpired that the reported shortage of ammunition in the Ajax referred only to ‘A’ turret, which had been firing continuously and had expended some 300 rounds out of a total of 823 rounds fired from all turrets.
The action had lasted exactly 82 minutes. In that brief period the Achilles had fired more than 200 broadsides. All four turrets reported that after firing from sixty to eighty rounds the guns started failing to run out immediately after their recoil, due to heating up, and had to be pushed out by the rammers. ‘The guns’ crews,' said one turret officer, ‘worked like galley slaves, loving it all, with no time to think of anything but the job. The whole of the turret from top to bottom thought the action lasted about twenty minutes. The rammer numbers were very tired towards the end, but did not appear to notice that till it was all over. … Men lost all count of time. They spoke later of “about ten minutes after opening fire” when actually more than forty minutes had elapsed.’
1 Killed in action off Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 5 January 1943.
‘Everything went like clockwork, drill was correctly carried out, orders and reports passed and so on, just as if it was a practice shoot and nothing at all unusual was happening, except that everything seemed to be done at an amazing speed. The loading was absolutely superb. Marine Russell told me that we averaged seven seconds a round right to the end of the action. When we found we had expended 287 rounds, everyone in the turret was amazed: in fact I re-checked to make sure. The men all thought we'd fired about 40 or 50 broadsides and that was my impression too. There was a spirit of grim determination, concentration and cheerfulness during the whole job. Every man seemed bent on keeping this turret going at full speed. For instance, one number who was normally the butt of the turret's crew, all of whom were somewhat inclined to have a tug at his leg, had that expression that one sees on the face of an athlete going all out. He seemed determined that he wouldn't let his crew down and he really worked like a man possessed. Marine Harrison, having observed the enemy's possibly first fall of shot somewhere in our wake, was heard to say: “Blimey, he's after our heel,” which I thought was rather clever. …’
Not more than one man in ten in the ship's company saw anything of the action. The majority were segregated in groups, and in some cases singly, in gun turrets, in engine- and boiler-rooms and many other compartments below decks where no daylight entered. From the director control tower above the bridge were passed the ranges and much other data from which the calculating machines in the transmitting station, situated in the bowels of the ship and operated by a highly skilled staff, solved the problem of how a ship steaming at up to 31 knots was able to fire accurately, several times a minute, 8 cwt of shells at another ship moving at 24 knots up to nine miles away. The officer in charge of the transmitting station reported that the spirit of his crew was excellent and all were as bright and cheerful as in a practice run. The detonations of the enemy's 11-inch shells were heard distinctly, sounding like the explosions of depth-charges. ‘Nutty (chocolate) was a great help. We missed the free cigarettes, but we did hear that the canteen door had been blown off.’ Another officer remarked that ‘why the entire T.S.'s crew are not ill with bilious attacks, I cannot imagine, as everything edible was grist to the mill regardless of sequence.’ The officer of the after control position reported regarding his crew, Marine Cave and Boy Beauchamp, that ‘they were perfect, the boy going out at one time into the blast of “X” turret to remove some canvas that was fouling vision.’page 53
A major part in this naval drama was played by the men shut in below decks in the engine- and boiler-rooms of the British cruisers. They had a good idea of what was going on, but they saw nothing of the action. The report of the senior engineer of the Achilles gives some sidelights on the action as it was fought in the engine-rooms of the cruisers. ‘The behaviour of all personnel,’ he wrote, ‘could not have been better in any way, including general bearing, endurance and efficiency.’ The remarks of the officer-in-charge of the boiler-rooms are that he was ‘most impressed by the behaviour of the stokers tending the boilers. Many of them were youngsters who never before had been below during full power steaming. … As each salvo was fired, the blast caused the flames in the boilers to leap out about a foot from the fronts of the furnaces; yet the stokers never paused in their job of keeping the combustion tubes clean, or moved back from the boilers.’
The main engines of the Achilles, it was recorded, ‘were manoeuvred with far greater rapidity than would have been attempted under any conditions but those of emergency. All demands on the machinery were met more than adequately, all material standing up to the strain in such a manner that nothing but confidence was felt during the action. … The behaviour of both men and machinery left nothing to be desired. When all the machinery of the Achilles had worked up to full power, readings gave a total of almost exactly 82,000 horse-power, with the four propellers turning at an average of 283 revolutions a minute.’ This tribute to the soundness of design and the excellence of British shipyard workmanship is underlined by the statement of Captain Woodhouse of the Ajax that steam had been shut off the main engines of his ship for only five days since 26 August 1939.
The position in the Exeter was complicated by the extensive damage in the fore part of the ship by enemy gunfire during the first half hour of the action. An 11-inch shell which exploded in the chief petty officers' flat immediately adjacent caused a complete blackout in one boiler-room. Shell splinters came down the air-fan intakes and the starboard air-lock door was jammed. Many important electric power leads were cut, causing a failure of communications, and orders had to be passed to the boiler-room by messengers.
Although the British cruisers had a considerable advantage in speed, the Admiral Graf Spee showed that she was a handy ship to manoeuvre. ‘The rapidity with which the Graf Spee altered course was most striking,’ wrote Captain Parry. ‘She appeared to turn as quickly as a ship one-half her size and she made the fullest use of her mobility. She appeared to be under helm for the greater part of the page 54 time. On several occasions, when her situation was becoming unhealthy, she turned 180 degrees away, using smoke to cover her turn.’
Regarding the enemy's tactics, Captain Parry said the ‘outstanding and most satisfactory feature seemed to be a complete absence of the offensive spirit.’ He certainly made skilful use of smoke to conceal himself from the 6-inch cruisers when their fire became effective, while continuing his main engagement with the Exeter. But in the end he retired from the Ajax and Achilles behind a smoke screen without attempting to finish off the Exeter, although he appeared from his subsequent reported statements to have known that she was out of action. ‘The only possible explanation seems to be that he had been severely handled himself. In confirmation, it was noticed that his after turret was not firing for a long time towards the end of the action and that his 5·9-inch gunfire became increasingly ragged and ineffective.’
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 said. The main armament was ‘fully effective’, but there remained only 306 rounds of 11-inch ammunition, representing about 40 per cent of the original supply. The secondary armament was effective with the exception of one gun on the port side and the ammunition hoists of the forward 5·9-inch guns. In consequence, only the four ammunition hoists aft were available for use and the forward guns would have to be supplied from aft. More than 50 per cent of the ammunition supply for the secondary armament remained. The engines were available for maximum speed with the exception of defects of long standing in the auxiliary engines.
‘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 also 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 Langsdorff therefore decided to steer for Montevideo. He signalled his account of the action and his intentions to Berlin. Before the ship had entered Montevideo harbour he had already received from Admiral Raeder the reply: ‘Your intentions understood.’page 55
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 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.
When the Ajax and Achilles turned away, the Admiral Graf Spee made no attempt to follow them, but steadied on a course almost due west and proceeded at 23 knots direct for the River Plate. Six minutes later the British cruisers hauled round and began to shadow the enemy, the Ajax to port and the Achilles to starboard, at a distance of about 15 miles. In the prevailing conditions of extreme visibility, the conspicuous control tower and bridge of the Admiral Graf Spee, as well as her continuous funnel smoke, made it an easy matter to shadow her at long range.
The irregular arc on which the Ajax and Achilles had steamed and fought had brought them by eight o'clock to a position barely 20 miles north-west from that in which they had first sighted the enemy. As the Ajax's wireless aerials were still down, the Achilles was ordered to broadcast the position, course, and speed of the Admiral Graf Spee to all British merchant ships in the River Plate area. Similar messages were subsequently broadcast hourly by the Ajax until the end of the chase.
By 8.14 a.m. the Exeter was out of sight to the south-eastward and Commodore Harwood ordered his aircraft to tell her to close. At 9.10 a.m. the aircraft reported: ‘Exeter is badly damaged, but is joining you as best she can.’ Two minutes later the Ajax recovered her aircraft, which had been in the air for two hours and 35 minutes. Captain Bell of the Exeter did his best to rejoin but, having only an inaccurate boat compass to steer by, was unable to make contact. He then decided to steer towards the nearest land, some 200 miles to the westward, and speed was reduced while bulkheads were being shored and the ship's list corrected.
Harwood's objective was the destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee in close action after nightfall and he had to be prepared to meet the situation that would arise if the enemy succeeded in eluding him. The extent to which the German ship had been damaged was not known, but it was evident that her speed was unaffected and her main armament appeared to be fully effective. It seemed evident that the Ajax and Achilles, which had expended approximately 50 per cent of their ammunition, could not, unaided, compass the destruction of the enemy in action.
Accordingly, at 9.45 a.m. Harwood ordered the Cumberland, which had been refitting at the Falkland Islands more than 1000 page 56 miles away, to proceed at full speed to the River Plate area. The signal was some time in transmission, for when the Cumberland sailed from Port Stanley at noon it was on the initiative of her commanding officer, Captain Fallowfield, who, up to that hour, had intercepted only very jumbled messages. When the Commodore's signal reached him, he at once increased to full speed.
Meanwhile, the Admiralty had taken prompt steps to close the widespread net that had been set to trap the Admiral Graf Spee. Immediately it was known that Commodore Harwood's division had intercepted the enemy, orders were given for the Ark Royal, Renown, and other ships which had been patrolling some 3000 miles away to proceed at once to the South American coast. Measures were also taken to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel and stores would be available at various strategic points.
The Achilles had overestimated the speed of the enemy and by 10.5 a.m. had closed to 23,000 yards. The Admiral Graf Spee then turned and fired two three-gun salvoes of 11-inch shell at her. That the enemy altered course sufficiently to bring her forward guns to bear seemed to indicate that the after turret was out of action at the time. The first salvo was very short of its target, but the second fell close alongside the Achilles, which probably would have been hit had she not already started to turn away at full speed. She immediately resumed shadowing at longer range, zigzagging frequently to throw out the enemy's gunnery plot. The enemy ceased fire and continued on his westerly course.
At 11.04 a.m. a merchant ship, apparently stopped since she was blowing off steam, was sighted close to the Admiral Graf Spee, from whom a few minutes later the Ajax and Achilles received a wireless signal: ‘Please rescue lifeboats of English steamer.’ Neither cruiser replied to this message. When they came up with her, the ship was found to be the British steamer Shakespeare, 5029 tons. All her boats were stowed and, in response to a signal from the Ajax, she reported all well and that she did not need any assistance. The Graf Spee's signal was apparently a ruse tried out with the object of delaying and evading the shadowing cruisers.
About this time Commodore Harwood received a message from the Exeter reporting that all her turrets were out of action and that she was flooded forward but could steam at 18 knots. She was ordered to proceed to the Falkland Islands at whatever speed was possible without straining her bulkheads. The Exeter later reported that one gun of her after turret could be fired in local control and that she was making 20 knots. She arrived at Port Stanley at noon on 16 December.
The afternoon passed quietly until 3.43 p.m. when the Achilles sighted a strange vessel and made the signal: ‘Enemy in sight bearing page 57 297 degrees.’ ‘What is it?’ asked Commodore Harwood. ‘Suspect 8-inch cruiser, am confirming,’ replied the Achilles, who at 3.59 p.m. signalled: ‘False alarm.’ She had identified the approaching ship as the British motor-vessel Delane, 6054 tons, of the Lamport and Holt Line. The peculiar appearance of this ship, whose funnel was streamlined into the bridge superstructure, gave her at long range a close resemblance to a German cruiser of the Blucher class.
Thereafter the shadowing of the Admiral Graf Spee continued without incident until 7.15 p.m. when she altered course and fired two 11-inch salvoes at the Ajax as that ship turned away under cover of a smoke screen. The Achilles also turned away on sighting the gun flashes, but quickly resumed her westerly course. These were the first shells fired by the enemy for more than nine hours.
By this time it was clear that the Admiral Graf Spee intended to enter the estuary of the River Plate, towards which she had been steering for more than twelve hours. Across the entrance to the Plate, on its northern side, there extends for some 16 miles a shallow bank known as English Bank. Harwood foresaw a possibility that the German ship might attempt to evade his cruisers and get back to the open sea by doubling round English Bank, and took steps to prevent this happening. He ordered the Achilles to follow the Admiral Graf Spee if she passed west of Lobos Island, while the Ajax was to steam to the southward of English Bank to intercept her if she attempted to come out that way. Thus, as soon as the German ship passed Lobos Island, the whole duty of shadowing her devolved upon the Achilles, by whom the Commodore's instructions were ‘perfectly carried out.’
The Admiral Graf Spee made a considerable alteration of course to the north-westward at 7.42 p.m. and, expecting her to open fire, the Achilles made rapid changes of course. As no firing took place, the latter resumed shadowing and increased speed to creep up on the enemy before dusk. The Achilles passed between Lobos Island and the mainland. About 8 p.m., being then off Lobos Island and 50 miles east of English Bank, the Ajax hauled round to the south-westward.
The sun set at 8.48 p.m., leaving the German ship clearly silhouetted against the western sky, and the Achilles altered course to north-westward to keep the full advantage of the after-glow while she remained under cover of the land. A few minutes later the Admiral Graf Spee altered course under cover of dusk and fired three 11-inch salvoes at a range of 22,000 yards. The first two fell short and the third dropped close astern, all being accurate for line. The Achilles replied with five salvoes of 6-inch shell while turning away at full speed and making smoke. The enemy ceased firing and the Achilles, which was then just clear of Punta Negra, turned west page 58 again at 30 knots to keep touch. This brief engagement was watched from Punta del Este, the seaside resort of Montevideo, by thousands of Uruguayans who had a ‘grandstand’ view and mistook it for the main action. The Uruguayan gunboat, Uruguay, which appeared to be on patrol duty, closed the Ajax about 9.15 p.m., but was soon left astern.
Between 9.30 and 9.45 p.m. the Admiral Graf Spee fired three more 11-inch salvoes, all of which fell short, the second and third considerably so. The Achilles did not return the fire since the flashes of her guns in the twilight would have given away her position. The loom of the land must have made it extremely difficult for the enemy to have seen the Achilles, if at all, and these Parthian shots must have been merely intended to keep the shadowing cruiser at a distance.
They were the last shells fired by the Admiral Graf Spee. Since 7.40 a.m., when she headed for the River Plate, she had fired ten 11-inch salvoes, five of them from one turret only. They did not deter the Achilles which, by ten o'clock, had closed in to 10,000 yards. She could now estimate the enemy's course as taking him north of English Bank and reported accordingly to Commodore Harwood. It was becoming increasingly difficult to see the enemy, owing not only to low clouds northward of the after-glow but also to patches of funnel smoke. Course was altered at 10.13 p.m. to get the Admiral Graf Spee silhouetted against the lights of Montevideo. At 11.17 p.m. the Achilles received a signal from the Commodore to withdraw from shadowing and the Admiral Graf Spee anchored in Montevideo roads shortly after midnight.
Thus ended the day-long pursuit of the pocket battleship which, after putting the Exeter out of action and partly disabling the main armament of the Ajax during the early morning engagement, had avoided further close action and covered some 350 miles in sixteen hours to gain shelter in a neutral harbour, later referred to by her captain as ‘the trap of Montevideo’. Throughout the day and three hours of darkness, the shadowing action of the Ajax and Achilles had been entirely successful and they had foiled every effort of the Graf Spee to elude or drive them off. By their discipline, their fighting energy, their readiness to take risk and punishment, the competence and team-play of their captains, their self-assurance and confidence, the Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles had gained the day in one of the most brilliant cruiser actions in the long annals of the Royal Navy.
From the tactical point of view, one 8-inch and two 6-inch cruisers did not make an ideal force for dealing with a ship such as the Admiral Graf Spee, but the main principles of sea warfare hold good through all ages and the Royal Navy can find precedent or parallel for any situation that may arise. It was Admiral Kempenfelt page 59 who wrote to Admiral Charles Middleton (afterwards Lord Barham), Comptroller of the Navy, in July 1779: ‘Much, I may say almost all, depends upon this fleet; ‘tis an inferior against a superior fleet; therefore the greatest skill and address is requisite to counter the designs of the enemy, to watch and seize the favourable opportunity for action…, to hover near the enemy, keep him at bay, and prevent his attempting to execute anything but at risk and hazard, to command his attention and oblige him to think of nothing but being on his guard against your attack….’1
Such was the manner in which the British cruisers fought the Battle of the River Plate. The result of the action was completely satisfactory in the final outcome, but, as was stressed in an Admiralty survey, ‘only a tactical blunder of the first magnitude by the enemy and the superiority of our personnel prevented the destruction of one of our ships and our being forced to abandon the action.’ The result of that tactical blunder was underlined in Commodore Harwood's despatch. The most salient point of the enemy's tactics, he said, was that the Admiral Graf Spee closed on sighting the British ships and split her main armament, firing one turret at the First Division (Ajax and Achilles) and the other at the Exeter. This initial closing of the range had the effect of bringing all three ships into effective gun range at once and so avoided for them the most difficult problem of gaining range in the face of 11-inch gunfire.
The casualties in the British cruisers during the action were as follows:
1 Rear-Admiral Harwood's despatch to Admiralty, 30 December 1939.