HMS Exeter gunnery at the battle of River Plate

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    Aldo Antonicelli

    In Eric Grove’s book The Price of Disobedience: the battle of the River Plate reconsidered (Stroud 2000), I read that the Exeter’s Gunnery Officer ordered “a zigzag grouping of his guns” after her third salvo.
    May any member explain exactly what it means? Am I correct to suppose that this method had the ship’s guns firing ladders up and down aimed at slightly different angles of elevation or training?

    P.S. B

    Dudley Pope in his book The Battle of the River Plate (London 1956, revised edition 1987) whilst describing the early moments of the engagement on board the Ajax has:
    “the range was corrected and a zig-zag group – the guns being so elevated that the salvoes would fall in a zig-zag pattern – fired”.
    I have a dim memory that the concept of a zig-zag group evolved in the years before WW2 and consisted of two salvoes fired to bracket the target and a third fired at a range intermediate between those. However, I cannot remember the spacing (and I cannot quote an authority).

    Aldo Antonicelli

    Peter, you are entirely right. I located a reference to zig-zag grouping in Norman Friedman’s controversial book Naval Firepower, battleship guns and gunnery in the Dreadnought era, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2007 [if not yet published in UK, available via Amazon].
    At page 136 it has: “… a new three salvo zigzag group was developed (in 1936) to hit rapidly manouvering targets. The first two salvoes (A and B) were fired at bracketing ranges, the third in between… the first two salvoes (at a 400 yard interval) helped “fix” the target…”

    J. B

    I regretted having to be critical of Norman Friedman’s book in my MM review but must now add that his description of zigzags is rather confusing. Also, he cites Progress in Naval Gunnery 1943 (PNG 1943), for pre-war developments. Yet there is nothing about these developments in the document cited, and the only mention of zigzags (as far as I can see) relate only to refinements required by the use of radar.
    There is a clear description of the ‘zig-zag group’ in PNG 1939 (ADM 239/137) p.139.
    ‘A series of two or three (normally three except for Capital Ships’ Main Armament) salvos spread for range with the first salvo 200 yards below, the second 200 yards above, and the third at the deduced hitting range.
    ‘When using double-salvo zigzag groups for Capital Ships’ Main Armament, the spread should normally be 100 yards below and and above the deduced hitting range. For other ships, it should be invariably be 200 yards, whether two or three salvos are fired.’
    In the action with Bismark, Rodney fired six double-salvo zigzags, all but one being just as described. (HMS Rodney, ’16-inch Narrative’ in ADM 1/11817 and ’16 in. Analysis of Action with Bismarck 27-5-41′ in ADM 1/11818).
    I do not know for certain, but I suspect the name ‘zigzag’ comes from the plot of gunrange. The salvos did not fall in a zigzag pattern since just the range, not the deflection, was spread.

    [Editor’s note: the ADM references here are Admiralty documents in the National Archives at Kew.]

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