The Battle of the River Plate

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 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.

The full burden of the engagement now fell upon the Ajax and Achilles. At 7.36 a.m. the Admiral Graf Spee altered course to the south-west in order to bring all her 11-inch guns to bear on the British cruisers. The Ajax and Achilles stood on, however, and by 7.38 the range was down to 8000 yards. The former's aircraft reported that, while the Graf Spee concentrated the fire of her main armament on the Ajax, the Achilles was making ‘beautiful shooting’. The spread of her rapid salvoes was very small and frequent hits on the German ship were clearly seen from the air. Captain Wood-house, commanding officer of the Ajax, also praised the good gunnery of the Achilles. Nevertheless, there was disappointingly little apparent damage to the Graf Spee, and Commodore Harwood remarked to Woodhouse that ‘we might as well be bombarding her with snowballs’.

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.’

‘Towards the end of the action,’ reported Sergeant F. T. Saunders,1 Royal Marines, in charge of ‘X’ turret, ‘the heat in the gunhouse was terrific, even though I had the rear door open and both fans working. The No. 1's of each gun, getting little air from the fans, were sweating streams. Everyone was very dry and thirsty. There wasn't the slightest delay in the supply of shells or cordite, which speaks well for the valiant work of those in the lower compartments. … I was amused watching various men just tear off a garment as opportunity occurred. Some finished up bare to the waist. One of the rammer numbers was completely dressed in only a pair of white silk pyjama trousers, somewhat abbreviated, and a pair of native sandals. Another was clad in a pair of short drawers and his cap, to which he added later a corporal of the gangway's armlet.

‘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.’

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 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.’

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