HMS Exeter at the Battle of River Plate

History - WW2, Ship histories and stories
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RAN Ships
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March 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

By Lieutenant R. Atwill DSM RN (Retd)

This eyewitness account of HMS Exeter’s part in the Battle of the River Plate was especially written for Naval Historical Review by Lieutenant Ron Atwill, a former Secretary of the Society and an Honorary Life Member. Ron served in HMS Exeter in the historic battle and his account is graphic and accurate.

THIRTY SEVEN YEARS AGO three cruisers of the Royal Navy were steaming in line ahead in the South Atlantic off the mouth of the River Plate – HM Ships Ajax, Achilles and Exeter – and in that order.

On board Exeter the bugler sounded ‘Action Stations’ followed by a long ‘G’. It was 0500 on the 13th of December 1939 and the bugler had called all hands to turn out for dawn action stations, a routine action stations exercise carried out at dawn and at dusk in all warships at sea during wartime.

It was the time when, during the half hour or so before dawn, all guns, weapons systems and communications were tested to ensure that were 100% efficient and when, with all hands at their proper stations, the ship was ready to do battle should an enemy ship suddenly appear out of the half light of dawn.

That morning all was well. Dawn broke with its promise of a fine day, there was a fair breeze from the south-east and a low, lazy swell – not unusual in the South Atlantic in summer – and nothing but ocean to be seen in any direction. The bugler sounded ‘Secure’ from Action Stations and as was usual, the hands settled down to doze on a settee or even in a hammock for an hour or so before the wash, shave and breakfast would begin another working day.

Suddenly, at about ten past six our dozing, or quiet thinking, was shattered by the familiar call to Action Stations. Listening as usual for the following long ‘G’ we realised that we were not going to hear it. This must be it!! And then all was movement – but orderly movement – collecting necessary gear, rushing off to unlock repair lockers, flooding cabinets each with its array of handwheels – in fact each one doing his little share of the large whole that would bring the ship rapidly, but surely, to the battle state.

We were pretty certain that whatever was ‘out there’ was the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. For some time it had been rumoured that a pocket battleship was raiding in the Atlantic and possibly the Indian Ocean, as some of the victims had managed to get off radio messages before their bridges had been shattered by shell fire. The whys and wherefores of how we came to be patrolling the waters off the mouth of the River Plate have been told in other publications and can have no place in the present story.

Sufficient to say that our adversary was indeed a pocket battleship although it was not until much later in the day that we discovered that it was the Graf Spee and not the Admiral Scheer as had been thought.

A lookout in Ajax had seen what appeared to be a puff of smoke on the horizon, had reported it, and Exeter altered course to the north west, in accordance with Commodore Harwood’s pre-arranged plan. (Commodore Harwood had transferred his broad pennant to Ajax from Exeter a few days previously).

Exeter reported that she thought it was a pocket battleship and so, again in accordance with that pre-arranged plan, the three ships split up – Exeter to the north west and the other two cruisers to the north east. The reason for this manoeuvre was that it would not only force the enemy to split his gunnery, but also enable the two British units to spot and report each other’s fall of shot.

Two or three minutes later we were in battle for at 0618 Graf Spee opened fire on Exeter at about 20,000 yards with her main armament of eleven inch guns.

So began the first major sea battle since Jutland and the last before aircraft and radar completely changed sea warfare and put an end to tactics that Nelson might have used.

Two minutes later, at 0620, 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 8-inch guns (Y Turret) opened fire as soon as they could be brought to bear two and a half minutes later. The 8-inch fire seemed to worry the enemy almost from the beginning. After shifting target rapidly once or twice, Graf Spee concentrated the fire of all six of her 11-inch guns on Exeter. Graf Spee’s first salvo fell short of Exeter, the second was over and the third straddled the cruiser – classic gunnery.

It may be of interest at this point, to give a short description of the gun power of the vessels engaged in this battle.

  • Graf Spee – Six 11-inch, eight 5.9 inch and torpedo tubes.
  • Exeter – Six 8-inch, four 4-inch high angle AA guns and torpedo tubes.
  • Ajax and Achilles – Eight 6-inch, four 4-inch high angle AA guns and torpedo tubes.

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