Speed. Superior technology. Superior Sailors. Long-range, accurate weapons. Superior training.
From LCS to DDG-1000, we are all told that these are the key to victory at sea. They make up for inferior numbers. They are Transformational. War has changed. We own them.
All that came to mind when I thought of three ships, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax, and HMNZS Achilles.
The Graf Spee was, well, the Graf Spee. With memories of the SMS Emden in mind, she was the terror of the seas.
To go after her you had three old, under armed, and relatively unarmored cruisers. On paper, there should be no contest. But the combined British and New Zealand Force had a plan. They had what you cannot put on paper or PowePoint - but that which wins almost all battles at sea; audacity.
13th. of December 1939.At 0520 ( 5.20 AM ) the squadron was in position 34 degrees 34 minutes South, 49 degrees 17 minutes West, on a course of 060 degrees, at a speed of 14 knots, cruising in line ahead Ajax, Achilles and Exeter. Smoke bearing 320 degrees, ie to the South West from the force, was sighted at 0610 ( 6.10 AM ) and Exeter was ordered to investigate, she soon replied:Fullbore.
"I think it is a pocket Battleship!"It did not take long for Graf Spee to act, in only two minutes she opened fire with her 11 inch turrets, one firing at Exeter, and one at Ajax.
The first division altered course to 340 degrees to close the range to the enemy, whilst Captain Bell hauled out of the line, altering course to the west, so he might attack Graf Spee from a widely different angle. All ships increased speed, now it should be noted that the enemy armament had almost twice the power of the British
cruisers, both Ajax and Achilles were light cruisers mounting 6 inch guns in their turrets, whilst Exeter was the lone ship of her class, mounting 6 by 8 inch guns in three twin turrets, A and B turrets forward, and a single Y turret mounted aft.
By 0623 ( 6.23 AM ) all ships had opened fire, and an enemy report was broadcast.Graf Spee straddled Exeter ( that means shells in a salvo fall both sides of the target ), one shell burst short, and killed the starboard torpedo tube crews, riddled the searchlights and the aircraft on the catapult, which was manhandled over the side, leaving the ship without any spotting capability from that source. The enemy ship seemed undecided about her gunnery policy, as she shifted targets several times before concentrating both turrets upon Exeter. The third salvo from
By 0624 ( 6.24 AM ) Exeter sent off 8 salvoes against the enemy, but on the incoming path, she received a direct hit from an 11 shell in the fore part of the B turret, putting it out of action, as splinters from this shell burst swept the bridge it killed or wounded all personnel there except for the Captain and two others. It also demolished the wheel house communications, leaving Captain Bell without any means of giving wheel orders to enable course changes, or orders to the engine room regarding speed changes. He decided to fight his ship from the after conning position, but the communication system here was also damaged from the shell burst earlier that effected the torpedo tube crews etc. A chain of messengers was set up to pass orders to the after steering position.
Now two further 11 inch shell hits registerd in the fore part of the cruiser, and Graf Spee shifted one 11 inch turret onto Ajax, who was straddled three times. The secondary armament of the German ship now took on Ajax and Achilles alternately, but to little effect.
During all of this intensive engagement, Ajax achieved a minor miracle by being able to catapult her aircraft for spotting purposes.
Exeter had fired off her torpedoes at 0632 ( 6.32 AM, ) but did not achieve any result, now at 0637 ( 6.37 AM ) Graf Spee altered course some 150 degrees, steering to the North West under cover of smoke.
0638 to 0650 ( 6.38 to 6.50 AM )At about 0638 ( 6.38 AM ) Exeter altered course to Straboard to allow the firing of her starboard torpedoes, then took off to the North East to close the First Division, at 0645 ( 6.45 AM ) she turned westerly to keep within range.
Two more 11 inch hits fell upon Exeter, one put A turret out of action, and another started a fierce fire in the Chief Petty Officer's flat amidships, the 4 inch magazine was flooded through a burst water main. All the compass repeaters were out of action, the Captain had to rely on a simple boat's compass to allow him to keep the ship pointed so that Y turret might keep up her firing at the enemy, locally controlled, with the Gunnery Officer taking control from the searchlight platform.
At 0640 ( 6.40. AM ) an 11 inch shell fell just short of Achilles in line with her bridge, it burst at the waterline, with splinters killing four sailors, stunning the Gunnery Officer, ( many unkind Officers might comment, But that is but the normal condition for most Gunnery Officers. ) and slightly wounding the Captain and his Chief Yeoman of Signals.
0650 to 0708. ( 6.50 to 7.08 AM )Achilles with her guns firing in local control could not find the right line with her gun fire, her salvoes falling short. The aircraft from Ajax, reporting that the salvoes were all falling short, but in Achilles, their gun control officer was unaware that Ajax was not still in concentrated firing, he therefore wrongly concluded it was his fall of shot being reported as short, and corrected accordingly, this had the effect of all his gunfire falling way over the enemy pocket battleship. A real mix up at a time when to achieve hits on the enemy was crucial. With all the smoke added to the general confusion, direct spotting was quite hard.
Graf Spee made frequent course alterations trying to throw off the British ship's gunfire, she also made skilful use of the smoke she generated.
Exeter valiently kept up firing her Y turret in local control, but she now had developed a 7 degree list to starboard, adding to the difficulties of keeping Y turret firing. She was still a target for fire from Graf Spee, but shots fell consistantly over.
0708 to 0728. ( 7.08 to 7.28 AM )Graf Spee was still 16,000 yards from theFirst Division, and they were ordered to close the enemy at speed, accepting they would lose the benefit of having their guns bear on the enemy whilst they steamed closer to the German ship.
At 0708 ( 7. 08 AM ) Graf Spee made a dramatic alteration of course to port under cover of her smoke, and at 0720 ( 7. 20 AM ) she turned back to the North West to bring her guns to bear, and Ajax was very quickly straddled three times from a range of 11,000 yards.
At the same time, the First Division turned to starboard to bring all their main armament bearing on Graf Spee, their fire appeared to most effective with Graf Spee on fire amidships. But at 0725 ( 7. 25 AM ) Ajax was hit by an 11 inch delayed action shell on the after superstructure, its passed through some cabins, wrecking them, then it went through X turret trunk, wrecking all the turret machinery below the gun house, a part of this shell base then struck Y turret barbette, close to the turret training rack, and jammed the turret. Thus one shell was responsible for putting both X and Y turrets out of action, for killing four, and wounding another six of X turret's crew.
It appeared that Graf Spee was neglecting Exeter, as she steered North West to close on the First Division, with Ajax assuming that the German ship would hold this course, she decided to fire off a broadside of her torpedoes. At 0724 ( 7. 24 A M ) she turned to starboard, and let go four torpedoes at a range of 9,000 yards, but without result.
Graf Spee must have seen them coming, and quickly took avoiding action by turning 130 degrees to port, and then returned to the North West after about three minutes.
Exeter was slowly dropping astern of the action, the forward damage taking it's toll. At 0740 ( 7. 40 A M ) Y turret still in local control stopped firing, this was due to a power failure caused by flooding. At 0740 ( 7. 40 A M ) Exeter was steering South East at a very slow speed, she needed to both make repairs and herself seaworthy again.
Now Ajax and Achilles altered course to 260 degrees so that the range to the enemy was reduced even more, then at 0721 ( 7.21 A M ) the spotting aircraft reported "Torpedoes approaching, they will pass ahead of you." The two cruisers decided to make sure they missed, and altered course to 180 degrees.
At 0732 ( 7.32 AM ) Graf Spee turned away to the West and started to zig zag, and Ajax seemed to be making good use of her three available guns, one of the hoists had failed in B turret, and both X and Y turrets were out of action.
Suddenly at 0736, ( 7.36 AM ) Graf Spee altered course to the South West to again bring all her armament to bear on the First Division, the range now down to 8,000 yards.
Ajax reported she had only 20% of her ammunition left.
The shooting by Graf Spee was accurate, and Commodore Harwood did not think she had suffered much damage from the salvoes from the British ships, so he decided to break off the action, at least till after dark. One of the last salvoes from the enemy had demolished Ajax's top mast, and with it all of her aerials, so jury aerials were rigged as quickly as possible. As the British ships turned away, Graf Spee did not follow them, but then altered course to 270 degrees, her speed 22 knots, this course would take her directly to the River Plate. The First Division, now turned to place themselves in shadowing positions on both quarters of the German ship, at a distance of about 15 miles.
British shipping in the area was alerted to Graf Spee's position, course and speed, this information was also sent off to the British Admiralty.
At 0912 ( 9.12 AM ) Ajax recovered her aircraft, then at 0916 ( 9.16 AM ) Harwood ordered Cumberland from the Falkland Islands to close the River Plate at full speed, he was in dire need of reinforcements to his force.
At 1104 ( 11.04 AM ) a merchant ship close to Graf Spee was stopped and blowing off clouds of steam, a signal from the pocket battleship read: "Please pick up lifeboats of English steamer." When coming up to the British ship, SS Shakespeare, all her boats were hoisted, and she reported that she was not in need of any assistance.
At 1105 ( 11.05 AM ) Exeter signalled that all her turrets were out of action, she was flooded up to No. 14 bulkhead, but could proceed at 18 knots, she was ordered to sail to the Falkland Islands at her best speed without placing strain on her bulkheads.
At 1342 ( 1.42 PM ) the British Naval Attache at Buenos Airies was informed that Graf Spee was making for the Plate. The shadowing of Graf Spee continued, and at 1915 ( 7.15 PM ) she suddenly fired off two salvoes at Ajax who turned away under smoke, the first salvo fell in line, the second in her wake as she turned, the range 26,000 yards.
It now seemed that Graf Spee intended to enter the Plate, and Achilles was told to follow her if she went West of Lobos, now Ajax was to proceed South of the English Bank, just in case the German doubled back that way.
Just after sunset, Graf Spee fired off three salvoes at Achilles, the third lobbed very close, in return, AchillesGraf Spee now proceeded North of the English Bank, and anchored in Montevideo roads at 0050. ( 00.50 AM ) fired 5 salvoes that seemed to straddle the enemy ship.
Harwood now reports that his main concern was how long Graf Spee intended to stay here.
At 2350 ( 11.50 PM ) Ajax and Achilles were ordered to withdraw from the Plate, Harwood did not want to risk them having to face Graf Spee silhouetted by the rising sun behind them. Achilles was to patrol the area from the Urugayan coast to a line 120 degrees from English Bank, whilst Ajax was to look after the Southern area. Both cruisers were to move back to the mouth of the Plate after the threat posed by the dawn had passed.
UPDATE: Reader Oyster sends along the radio report. Cool.