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 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 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 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.

‘I was only conscious of a hellish noise and a thump on the head which half stunned me,’ wrote Lieutenant Washbourn, RN,1 gunnery officer of the Achilles, in his report on the action. ‘I ordered automatically: “A.C.P.2 take over.” Six heavy splinters had entered the D.C.T.3 The right-hand side of the upper compartment was a shambles. Both W/T ratings were down with multiple injuries. … A.B. Sherley had dropped off his platform, bleeding copiously from a gash in his face and wounds in both thighs. Sergeant Trimble, RM, the spotting observer, was also severely wounded. … A.B. Shaw slumped forward on to his instrument, dead, with multiple wounds in his chest. … The rate officer Mr. Watts, quickly passed me a yard or so of bandage, enabling me to effect running repairs to my slight scalp wounds which were bleeding fairly freely. I then redirected my attention to the business in hand, while Mr Watts clambered round behind me to do what he could for the wounded. Word was passed that the D.C.T. was all right again. A.B. Sherley was removed by a medical party during the action. Considerable difficulty was experienced, the right-hand door of the D.C.T. being jammed by splinter damage. When the medical party arrived to remove the dead, I learned for the first time that both Telegraphist Stennett and Ordinary Telegraphist Milburn had been killed outright. I discovered at the same time that Sergeant Trimble had uncomplainingly and most courageously remained at his post throughout the hour of action that followed the hits on the D.C.T., although seriously wounded. Mr Watts carried out his duties most ably throughout. … He calmly tended the wounded … until his rate-keeping was again required.

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.

… Boy Dorset behaved with exemplary coolness, despite the carnage around him. He passed information to the guns and repeated their reports clearly for my information. He was heard at one time most vigorously denying the report of his untimely demise that somehow had spread round the ship. “I'm not dead. It's me on the end of this phone,” he said. The director layer, Petty Officer Meyrick, and the trainer, Petty Officer Headon, are also to be commended for keeping up an accurate output for a prolonged action of over 200 broadsides. … The rangetakers, Chief Petty Officer Boniface and A.B. Gould, maintained a good range plot throughout the action, disregarding the body of a telegraphist who fell through the door on top of them. …’

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