Great Sea Fights: The River Plate Part 1 – The Dispatches

December 2020

Graf Spee burning after the battle of the River PLate.

This episode, published on the anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939, launches our Great Sea Fights series. Dr Sam Willis begins with a brief overview of seapower at the start of the Second World War before introducing the battle. An account is then read, first gathered together by the Admiralty from the official dispatches of the Royal Naval squadron in the immediate aftermath of the battle. The Battle of the River Plate was one of the most iconic battles of the Second World War. The immensely powerful and fast German pocket battleship Graf Spee was hunted by a squadron of far smaller British cruisers and found off the River Plate in South America. She never returned home.

Listen to Part 2 – ‘The Dispatches Continued’

Listen to Part 3 – ‘The Analysis’

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. This is the start of a special series of episodes commemorating the Battle of the River Plate of the 13th of December 1939. We’ll begin with a general background to the battle and then move on to the reading of an account first gathered together by the Admiralty from the official dispatches of the Royal Naval Squadron in 1940. So just in the immediate aftermath of the battle. By 1939, sea warfare had radically changed from the type of naval warfare experienced during the First World War. The threat from below the surface was more acute than ever before. U boats could now dive deeper, they handled better underwater, and radio could be used to coordinate submarines into groups or ‘wolf packs’. The days of the lone submarine predator were over. By the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy had also taken a number of aircraft to sea and had even attempted full-scale airborne attacks launched by carriers, and the potency of the threat from above was just waiting to be truly discovered. Between 1914 and 1916 British seaplane carriers attempted 10 raids on German Zeppelin bases, albeit with very little success. Britain, America, Japan, and France all built or acquired carriers in these interwar years, the technology and material for air-sea warfare was largely in place at the start of the Second World War, therefore. It just needed an appropriate strategy to wield it. Surface ships had grown in size and speed, and the most crucial development was that they were now powered by oil, not coal. Warships could now refuel at sea, and that independence from shore bases opened up enormous possibilities. The vastness of the Pacific was now no longer as much of a barrier as it had been, indeed, it was to become the most important theatre of maritime conflict in the coming war. There was some faith from those who had served at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, that the fighting ships big guns were still the main weapon in maritime warfare, and that battleships would turn the course of the war, but they were soon proved to be irrevocably wrong. Just like in the First World War, the Second World War began with the Royal Navy hunting down German commerce raiders in the South Atlantic. Lessons from the first war had been learned by the Kriegsmarine (that’s the name for the German Navy after it had been rebranded by the Nazis): British shipping had to be attacked hard and no time could be lost. In September 1939, the pocket battleship, Graf Spee, commanded by Hans Langsdorff, headed for the River Plate near modern Buenos Aires, on the east coast of South America, an area of the most lucrative maritime trade. The Graf Spee was immensely fast and immensely powerful, armed with six 11-inch guns in two triple gun turrets. She was designed to outgun any cruiser that was foolish enough to try and take her on. She’d already been causing havoc in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic, sinking nine merchant vessels, and so the Royal Navy assembled a number of separate forces to hunt her down. She was caught near the River Plate by Commodore Henry Harwood’s hunting group, which compromised the heavy cruisers HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter and two light cruisers, HMS Ajax, and HMS Achilles. Harwood, a Spanish speaker who had been posted to the South American Squadron between the wars, was given command of that Squadron when war broke out. He knew the waters intimately, and after a series of perceptive and educated guesses largely based on intuition, he found Langsdorff. The Graf Spee was far more powerful and more heavily armoured than any of Harwood’s ships, but the British ships were undoubtedly quicker and more manoeuvrable. The question was, therefore, could the Royal Navy work together, exploit their advantage in speed, to bring this German monster ship to its knees. The following account, originally compiled very soon after the battle in 1940, was taken from the official dispatches sent back to the Admiralty from Commodore Harwood, and the Captains of HMS Ajax, Achilles, and Exeter. All the times given are the ship’s times kept by the squadron, so that’s two hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.

    Official Dispatches:

    Wednesday, December 13, dawned fine and clear with extreme visibility. There was a fairly strong breeze from the southeast, a low swell coming from the same quarter and a slight sea. The British cruisers were steaming east-northeast at 14 knots. They were in a single line ahead, in the order HMS Ajax, HMS Achilles, HMS Exeter. At 6:14 am smoke was sited on the horizon just abaft to the port beam and HMS Exeter was ordered to investigate. Two minutes later, HMS Exeter reported: ‘I think it is a pocket battleship.’ The enemy was in sight; contact had at last been made between British naval forces and the Raider which they had been hunting for more than two months.

    Second phase. At the time of the sighting of the smoke, the Admiral Graf Spee and the British cruisers was steering converging courses. As soon as the smoke was identified as that of the German Raider the ships of the British squadrons began to act in accordance with the tactics practised on the previous day. All ships increase the speed and began to work up to full speed as rapidly as possible. The 8-inch gun cruiser HMS Exeter, the most powerful unit of the British Squadron, made a large alteration of course to the westward, while the two 6-inch gun cruisers, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, forged ahead to the north-eastward, altering course slightly in order to close the range rapidly. These manoeuvres were carried out so that the pocket battleship could be simultaneously engaged from widely different angles. This would force him either to split his main armament in order to engage both units or to leave one of the British units unengaged by his 1- inch guns. At 6:18 am, only four minutes after the first sighting of smoke, the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire with her main armament of six 11-inch guns. She had to split her main armament and one turret fired at HMS Exeter and the other at HMS Ajax and Achilles. The range was very long, but it was being shortened rapidly by all three of the British cruisers. Two minutes later, at 6:20 am, HMS Exeter opened fire with her two forward turrets, four 8-inch guns. The range was then nine and a half sea miles. Her two after guns opened fire as soon as they would bear, two and a half minutes later. This 8-inch gunfire seemed to worry the enemy almost from the beginning. After shifting rapidly once or twice, the Admiral Graf Spee concentrated the fire of all six of her 11-inch guns on HMS Exeter. The Admiral Graf Spee first salvo fell short of HMS Exeter, the second was over and the third straddled the cruiser. Meanwhile, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles had opened fire with their 6-inch guns, HMS Achilles open fire at 6:21 am and HMS Ajax two minutes later. These two 6-inch gun cruisers immediately developed a high rate of fire combined with great accuracy. The dispatch of HMS Achilles states that: ‘fire appear to become rapidly effective’, while the dispatch of HMS Ajax states that ‘effective fire developed immediately’. At 6:23 am, an 11-inch shell burst just short of HMS Exeter, abreast to the middle of the ship. Splinters from this shell killed the torpedo tubes crews, damaged the communications of the ship, and riddled the funnels and searchlights. One minute later, HMS Exeter suffered a direct hit from an 11-inch shell. This shell struck B turret, putting that turret and it’s two 8-inch guns out of action. Splinters from that shell swept the bridge; all the bridge personnel, except the captain and two others, were either killed or wounded. The wheelhouse communications were wrecked.

    Momentarily the ship was out of control; good training, however, came to the rescue as soon as it was realized, in the lower conning position, that communications with the wheelhouse had ceased to function that lower position took over the steering. Even so the ship had begun to swing to starboard, and there was a danger of the after guns becoming unable to bear on the target. This was noticed by the torpedo officer who on his own initiative, succeeded in getting an order through to the lower conning position, which resulted in the ship being brought back to her course. The captain of HMS Exeter was at this time making his way aft. With the bridge out of action, he had decided to fight his ship from the after conning position. When he reached that position, however, he found that all communications from the after conning position had been destroyed. The steering was therefore changed over to the after steering position and communication established with that position by means of a chain of messengers. HMS Exeter was controlled in this way until the action was broken off. It would be difficult to over-estimate the difficulty of controlling a ship by this means during a fierce action, with personnel exposed to 8-inch gun blast as well as heavy fire from the enemy. During this time, HMS Exeter received two more hits forward from 11-inch shells and also suffered some damage by splinters from shells bursting short. Meanwhile, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles were making good and rapid shooting with their 6-inch guns, and they were closing the range rapidly and drawing ahead of the enemy. That this 6-inch gunfire was causing the enemy trouble was shown by the fact that at 6:30 am, the Admiral Graf Spee again split her main armament, switching over one 11-inch turret to engage the six-inch gun cruisers. This temporarily reduced the volume of heavy fire to which HMS Exeter was subjected. The secondary armament of the Admiral Graf Spee 5.9-inch guns had been alternately engaging HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, but without effect, although some salvos had fallen close. These guns continued to fire at the 6-inch gun cruisers. At 6:32 am HMS Exeter fired her starboard torpedoes at the enemy. These torpedoes went wide because the Admiral Graf Spee, apparently finding the British gunfire too hot, turned 150 degrees away under cover of a smokescreen before the torpedoes reached her. By 6:36 am, the 6-inch gun cruisers were doing 28 knots. This rapid increase of speed (the ships had been doing 14 knots only 20 minutes previously) reflects great credit upon the engine and boiler room personnel. At 6:37 am HMS Ajax catapulted her aircraft. Orders to get the aircraft into the air at the earliest possible moment had been given as soon as the alarm was sounded, and the catapult had been prepared and the engine of the aircraft warmed up. The operation of preparing to catapult the aircraft was carried out with great coolness in spite of the fact that the personnel, and particularly the pilot and the observer of the aircraft, were subjected to severe gun blast from the guns of the two after-turrets which were firing on a forward bearing. The aircraft itself was whipping about badly owing to the gun blast. As soon as the aircraft was in the air, it took up a position on the disengaged bow of the 6-inch gun cruisers. At about 6:38 am HMS Exeter made a large alteration of course to starboard in order to bring her port torpedo tubes to bear on the enemy. As she was turning, she received two more hits from 11-inch shells. One of these hit the foremost turret putting the turret and its two 8-inch guns out of action. The other entered the hull, did extensive damage, and started a fierce fire between decks.

    The observer in HMS Ajax aircraft reported that ‘she completely disappeared in smoke and flame and it was feared that she had gone’. However, she emerged and re-entered the action. HMS Exeter had indeed suffered severely from the much heavier metal of her adversary. Two of her three turrets were out of action, and the only two guns still in action were aft. All her compass repeaters had been smashed, and the captain was conning the ship with the help of a small boat’s compass. What little internal communication was possible was done by messengers. Some compartments were flooded, and a serious fire was raging in her hull, nevertheless, she was resolutely kept in action. Her port torpedoes were fired as soon as the tubes were brought to bear on the enemy. A minute or two later HMS Exeter altered course to port, that is towards the enemy and hauled around so that she was on a course approximately parallel to that of the Admiral Graf Spee and able to continue to engage the enemy with her two remaining guns. By this time, HMS Exeter had a seven-degree list and was down by the bow but was still steaming at full power. At 6:40 am an 11-inch shell burst just short of HMS Achilles in line with the bridge. Splinters from this shell killed four ratings in the main gunnery control position and stunned the gunnery officer, as well as slightly wounding the captain and the chief yeoman of signals on the bridge. Fortunately, these splinters did not put the director out of action or damage any important instrument. Nevertheless, the main control position was momentarily out of action through these casualties. The gunnery efficiency of HMS Achilles was not however impaired. The secondary control position immediately took over the control of the ship’s armament and continued the action until the main control position was ready to resume control some minutes later. The greatest gallantry and fortitude was shown by the surviving personnel of the main control position. A Sergeant of Royal Marines remained uncomplainingly at his post and carried out his duties until the end of the action, although he was seriously wounded. A seaman boy behaved with exemplary coolness despite the carnage around him and continued his duty of passing information to the guns. He was at one time heard denying most vigorously a report of his own death which had spread around the ship. These were but two instances of gallantry in a fierce action memorable for the bearing of the personnel of the British cruisers. After 6:40 am, the action became virtually a chase; the Admiral Graf Spee had turned away to the westward under cover of a smokescreen, and the two 6-inch gun cruisers were hauling around the north-westward in pursuit, accepting the fact that this entailed being unable to bring the after guns to bear on the enemy. They were by now doing 31 knots and increasing speed, HMS Ajax, and HMS Achilles were fine on the starboard quarter of the Admiral Graf Spee, and HMS Exeter was rather before the enemy’s port beam, still in action with her two remaining guns. At 6:56 am HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles altered course to starboard in order to bring all their guns to bear again. This greater volume of fire from these two cruisers appeared to have an immediate effect on the enemy. The Admiral Graf Spee at once altered course away from the cruisers, and at seven she laid a smokescreen in an attempt to throw off the British gunfire. From this time onwards, the Admiral Graf Spee made frequent alterations of course and great use of smokescreens in her efforts to escape further punishment. At 7:10 am, the range of the enemy from HMS Ajax to HMS Achilles was still eight miles. Commodore Harwood decided to alter course towards the Admiral Graf Spee in order to shorten the range as rapidly as possible, even though this meant that the after guns would once again be unable to bear on the enemy.

    The battlecruisers were now steaming at their utmost speed. At 7:16 am, the Admiral Graf Spee made a drastic alteration of course to port under cover of smoke. He was then steering almost directly for HMS Exeter, and it seemed that her intention was to finish off that damaged cruiser. Four minutes later, however, the effective support of HMS Exeter’s consorts obliged the Admiral Graf Spee to make another large alteration, of course, she hauled round to the north-westward until all her 11-inch guns would bear on HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, and at once opened fire on the small British cruisers. The range at that time was five and a half miles. HMS Ajax was straddled by 11-inch salvos, but she was not hit. The enemy was also firing with her secondary armament of 5.9-inch guns but their fire had by this time become inaccurate and ragged. At 7:20 am HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles had turned to starboard to bring all guns to bear on the enemy. Rapid and accurate shooting was maintained, and a fire was observed amidships in the Admiral Graf Spee. At this time, it appeared to Commodore Harwood that the Admiral Graf Spee intended to neglect HMS Exeter and to close the 6-inch gun cruisers on a north-westerly course. Thinking that the enemy was likely to remain on this course for some time, HMS Ajax swung to starboard at 7:24 am and fired her port torpedoes at a range of four and a half miles. The enemy probably saw these torpedoes being fired, for the Admiral Graf Spee at once made a large alteration of course, turning away some 130 degrees to port and at the same time laying a smokescreen. Although the Admiral Graf Spee altered back to her north-westerly cause three minutes later, this large alteration of course was sufficient to avoid the torpedoes from HMS Ajax. At 7:25 am, HMS Ajax was hit by an 11-inch shell. This shell put X turret out of action, and by a stroke of bad luck, it also led to the jamming of Y turret. Thus, this one shell robbed HMS Ajax of the use of four of her guns besides causing a number of casualties. It was about this time that the pilot of HMS Ajax’s aircraft, which had been spotting the fall of shots for the 6-inch gun cruiser, decided to approach the Admiral Graf Spee in an attempt to discover the extent of damage the ship had received. As soon as the aircraft came within range of the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns these opened fire. As the primary and most important duty of the aircraft was spotting the fall of shot for the control of the British cruisers’ gunfire, the aircraft retired out of range of the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns. HMS Exeter had been dropping gradually astern as she had been forced to reduce speed owing to the damage forward. She still continued in action, however, engaging the enemy with her two remaining guns firing in local control under the direction of an officer standing in an exposed position on the searchlight platform. At about 7:30 am, however, HMS Exeter’s remaining turret ceased to operate due to flooding. Thus, HMS Exeter could no longer engage the enemy nor keep up with the action. Reluctantly, therefore, she was forced to break off the action, and at about 7:40 am she turned to the south-east and steamed away at slow speed, starting to repair damage and make herself seaworthy.

    Sam Willis

    The Battle of the River Plate podcast series will continue over the next few days with a special episode on the Graf Spee, launching our iconic ships series and an analysis of the battle by Eric Grove. Now we’ve had some interesting additions to the Society’s free forum; you can find it @snr.org.uk. We’ve actually had a response to a historic query, one for a couple of years ago. I love it when this happens, and the answer suddenly materialize. Malcolm Lewis wrote: ‘The Britannia Naval Research Association is investigating sail making locations in the UK during the Age of Sail. The majority of sails for the Royal Navy were made in royal dockyards. It is believed many sails for commercial vessels were made in workhouses. The Oracle workhouse in Reading, Berkshire (now the Oracle shopping centre) weaved cloth and properly made ships’ sails under contract, any leads and information on this topic would be gratefully appreciated, many thanks.’ And then we’ve just had this response from Sue Maxwell. She apologizes for her late participation in the discussion (Don’t worry about that Sue). ‘From 1576’, she writes, ‘the poldavies and medinack sails were made from hemp by the brothers John and Richard Collins in Bramford, a village two miles outside Ipswich on the River Gipping. Their family were originally from Brittany and seem to have come to England in Henry VIII’s reign. They had the exclusive patent from the crown to supply the Royal Navy in 1576, and the patent was renewed in 1590. Originally, they had the right of search and seal for their sailcloth for 20 miles around Ipswich and Woodbridge and had the monopoly of supply to the London royal dockyards on condition that they trained Englishmen in their craft, which they did: apprentices set up trade in Ipswich, which the Collins brothers as foreigners were not allowed to do. When religious conditions turned unfavourable for them in the 1620s the whole family emigrated to America and the quality of the Ipswich sailcloth deteriorated as they took their secrets with them. Some inmates in the Ipswich workhouses of the time helped to weave the hemp and cloth. More information is available if anyone is interested.’ Thank you very much indeed Sue for getting in touch with that. Thanks for listening guys. Do please follow us on social media @nauticalhistory on Twitter and the Mariner’s Mirror Pod has its own Instagram and YouTube pages which have only just begun but will be growing all the time, so do please hop on board. Want to help? Well, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes. It’s really easy. If you’re listening to the podcast on the iTunes app just hit the number of stars that you think the podcast deserves. Hopefully, that’s five or you can scroll down to leave a more detailed review. If you do leave a review, we promise that we’ll read it out and give you and your social media handle a shout out. What else can you do? Well, please please join the Society for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk and your money will go towards sharing the world’s latest and best maritime historical research and preserving maritime heritage.

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