HMS Exeter at the Battle of the River Plate

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    To mark next year’s 70th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate we are organising a dinner at HMS Drake. The evening will serve both as a mark of respect to those who fought at the battle and also as a tribute to the modern Royal Navy. At the dinner the sponsors will be presenting the Navy with an oil painting entitled “Her Finest Hour” depicting Exeter engaging the Graf Spee.

    The artist, Robin Brooks, is renowned for his accuracy in his maritime paintings and wants to accurately capture the moment Exeter breaks out of line and opens fire at about 0620.
    At that time she was flying the signal “Enemy in Sight bearing 322”. According to Dudley Pope’s excellent book on the battle the flags flying would have been N322, N being a blue triangle with a yellow tongue. But there is an alternative view she was flying E322, E being a blue and white square flag.
    The E signal flag today hangs in Exeter Cathedral, alongside a battle ensign, and there is a plaque underneath saying it is a signal flag used at the battle.
    Does anyone know whether the signal flag for “Enemy” was E or N? Dudley Pope’s account is accurate in most other ways so I find it difficult to believe he got this wrong, but then again E for Enemy makes sense! I have had a look at the log and it makes no reference to the signal. Is there likely to be a signals log book in archive somewhere?
    Henry Rising


    To check the signals Exeter was showing on the morning of 13 December 1939, contact the Admiralty Librarian at the Naval Historical Branch, Portsmouth, who could consult the relevant Action Report (the C.1045) on your behalf; this should list all signals during the engagement.
    During the 2nd World War, the ‘E’ signal flag was two blue horizontal stripes separated by a white stripe, all of equal thickness; the ‘N’ flag was a yellow triangle with a thick horizontal band in blue across the middle (source: Naval Alphabetical and Numeral Flags, Admiralty 1943), but it is worth checking this detail as detached squadrons sometime used different codes.
    John Hamilton’s painting of the Ajax and Achilles engaging the Graf Spee shows Harwood’s flagship flying the two signals ‘9’ and ‘T’ below his pendant.
    Although Dudley Pope’s entertaining books on the Royal Navy are usually quite well researched, a better source for accurate technical information of this sort is Captain Geoffrey Bennett’s excellent The Battle of the River Plate (London 1972).
    It is not quite right to say that Exeter “broke out of the line” – Harwood formed his three ships into two divisions on sighting the enemy, with Exeter intended to be the spotting flank marker to south-westwards of the action as the protagonists closed; Captain Bell steamed the Exeter westwards towards Graf Spee and opened fire simultaneously with the enemy at 0614.

    Justin Reay

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