- Atwill, R., DSM, Lieutenant, RN (Rtd)
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Meanwhile Ajax and Achilles had opened fire with their 6-inch guns. Achilles opened fire at 0621 and Ajax two minutes later. The two 6-inch gun cruisers immediately developed a high rate of fire combined with great accuracy. The despatch of HMNZS Achilles states that ‘. . . fire appeared to become rapidly effective . . .’ while the despatch of HMS Ajax stated that ‘. . . effective fire developed immediately’.
At 0623 an 11-inch shell burst just short of Exeter on the starboard side amidships. Splinters from this shell killed the crew of the starboard torpedo tubes, cut gunnery communications and riddled the funnels and searchlights. Other splinters pierced the ship’s side and killed two of the decontamination party stationed in the Chief Stoker’s bathroom and started a small fire among clothing and towels.
Reports of damage were now coming into the Actions Repair Headquarters. Parties were sent out to begin the task of repairing damage – dousing fires and plugging splinter holes in the ship’s side with softwood plugs. These would swell when soaked with seawater and help to fill the irregular shaped holes but, most important of all, remain in place under vibrations and shock. Hatches in the vicinity of damage were also shoved down from the deck above to help contain possible flooding of compartments low in the ship. Medical parties removed the bodies of the torpedo tubes crew (other men ‘closed up‘ in their places) and the wounded were led or carried to the nearest Medical Station. Such are the activities which may have to be carried out when ships are in action, apart from the actual serving and firing of the guns.
One minute later, at 0624, Exeter suffered her first direct hit from an 11-inch shell. It landed on B gun deck abaft B turret, ploughed through the Sick Bay below, through the ship’s side and into the sea without bursting. The Sick Berth Chief Petty Officer was knocked unconscious and the bottles of morphine sulphate which he was carrying were unfortunately smashed. This loss of part of limited stocks was going to be sorely felt within a very short time. I don’t remember anyone being killed as a result of that hit.
Almost immediately afterwards Exeter suffered a serious blow – B turret received a direct hit from an 11-inch shell, which put the turret and its two eight-inch guns out of action. The shell landed on the apron below the two guns, ripping off the front armour plate and killing seven or eight of the turret’s crew stationed near the front of the gun house. Splinters from that shell also swept the bridge killing or wounding all the bridge personnel except the Captain and two others and wrecking the wheelhouse communications.
Momentarily, the ship was out of control. Good training, however, came to the rescue. As soon as it was realised in the Lower Conning Position that communications with the wheelhouse had ceased to function, the low position took over the steering. Even so, the ship’s head had begun to swing to starboard and there was danger of the after guns becoming unable to bear on the target. This was noticed by the Torpedo Officer Lt. Cdr C. J. Smith R.N. who, on his own initiative, succeeded in getting an order through to the Lower Conning Position which resulted in the ship being brought back on course. Captain Bell 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 there, however, he found that all communications from that position had also been destroyed. Steering was therefore changed over to the After Steering Position and communication established with that position by means of a chain of messengers. Exeter’s movements were controlled by this method until the action was broken off. It would be difficult to overestimate the difficulty of controlling a ship by this means during a fierce action, with personnel exposed to eight-inch gun blast as well as heavy fire from the enemy.
During this time Exeter received two more hits forward from 11-inch shells and also suffered some damage from shells bursting short. Meanwhile, Ajax and Achilles were making good and rapid shooting with their 6-inch guns, 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 0630 Graf Spee again ‘split’ her main armament, switching over one 11-inch turret to engage the 6-inch gun cruisers. This temporarily reduced the volume of heavy fire to which Exeter was being subjected.
One of the 11-inch shells just mentioned hit the front armour of A Turret outboard of the right gun putting the turret out of action and killing or wounding several of the gun house crew. The other struck a devastating blow within the ship. It entered on the port side just below the upper deck, ploughed aft through two main bulkheads and exploded in the Chief Petty Officers locker flat between the ERA’s and Chief Petty Officers’ messes.
Just at that moment the Chief Quartermaster, Petty Officer Green, and a boy seaman were passing through the flat on their way aft, having been forced out of their shattered wheelhouse by the shell which had hit and destroyed B Turret. Jimmy Green was wounded and very badly burned and the boy seaman was, I believe, killed.
The Chief Petty Officers’ flat had been my Action Station until three days before the action when the Repair Parties of the Shipwright Staff were reorganised, so that Tony Collins, our Chief Shipwright, would be free to carry out a roving commission should Exeter become damaged in some future action. I took over Tony’s post in the Forward Repair Party. When the shell burst in the Chief’s Flat, Tony Collins had just reached there on his rounds. He too, was very badly burned, but valiantly carried on supervising repair work until he fell unconscious. He survived the voyage to the Falkland Islands, but later died of pneumonia in the hospital at Port Stanley.
Our group forming No. 2 Fire and Repair Party was sitting with our back to the forward bulkhead of the broadside messes two compartments forward of the Chief Petty Officer’s Locker flat, when a shell crashed through the ship’s side carrying away some of the bulkhead at our backs. A sort of screech and then daylight was visible at the ship’s side followed by an almighty bang, and a rush of hot air. Then a black fog of smoke and acrid fumes set our eyes smarting and streaming and all of us coughing and gasping for air.
The flicker of yellow flames and the smell of fuel oil woke us up and off rushed the stokers of the Fire Party to do their bit, while we of the Repair Section of the Party carried out in earnest what we had done so often as an exercise – stuffed the hole in the ships side with well lashed hammocks, covered by a ‘hammock board‘ and all kept in place by breast shores.
It was while positioning the hammocks across the shell hole that I got my only glimpse of the Graf Spee – about five miles away, firing her big guns while all around her rose the splashes and smoke of exploding shells fired by our one usable turret and the guns of Ajax and Achilles. What a sight!!
Our shoring of the ship’s side completed – it didn’t take long as timber for such was distributed and stowed throughout the ship – one shore for each hatch cover plus various other sizes of timber for other purposes – we went aft to the scene of the explosion. What a shambles met our eyes – suitcases and clothing everywhere (sodden with fuel oil and fire-fighting water by this time), steel kit lockers blown apart and twisted into grotesque shapes, even somehow rolled up into balls and piled against the bulkheads and in the messes to port and starboard. The fire was under control and fractured fuel and water pipes isolated, it was dark except for the feeble light of moving torches and the deck was wet and slippery with an emulsion of fuel and water.
A medical party was working there alongside the firefighters, but not many needed instant attention. Quite a number of men had been stationed in that part of the ship, but nearly all had been killed – mostly by blast. In the passages leading from the after end of this flat, another repair party from aft was clearing away the debris which filled the passage, so that they too could render assistance.