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Admiral_Bing

Battle of the River Plate 13 December 1939

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[AJX]
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I have always wondered if part of story of why the British (with her Commonwealth crew members) were successful at the battle of the River Plate was the fact that Commodore Harwood had his flag on the Leander Class Light Cruiser Ajax and not the Heavy Cruiser HMS Exeter normally a Commander of a fleet or Squadron will have their flag on the most powerful warship of a group  (assuming there is one).

 

In the battle the weight of the Graf Spee's attack concentrated mainly on the York class Heavy Cruiser HMS Exeter as the most dangerous opponent. These attacks damaged HMS Exeter very badly early on knocking out A & B turrets and killing most of the senior bridge crew apart from the Captain who was wounded. If the Commodore Harwood had been on HMS Exeter he would have had a high chance of being killed or wounded by the shrapnel hitting the bridge early in the battle and he had survived then been stuck on a ship which was on fire and flooding, barely able to steer, fight, and unable to communicate.  

 

However being on HMS Ajax meant that Commodore Harwood could control the British side of the battle with much less risk of being injured as the two light cruisers were a lower priority for the Admiral Graf Spee which could not effectively spit its main armament though Commodore Harwood and many of HMS Ajax's crew was very lucky that the 11 inch time delayed HE shell that penetrated the shell handling room below X turret (killing all) exited and then exploded in Commodore Harwood's cabin did not cause a catastrophic explosion instead of just incinerating his personal kit and more importantly taking out both X & Y turrets. 

 

That shell hit wounded my cousin Wilfred, once removed, with shrapnel in X turret as the hatch to the shell handling room below exploded upward into the turret decapitating  Marine Corporal Cyril Bashford and injuring most of other Marines in the Turret.

 

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His opponent Kapitan zur See Hans Langsdorff obviously had no choice of which ship to use and though the 6" shells of the light cruisers did little damage to the armored parts of the ship they did significant damage to the upper decks and Langsdorff himself was wounded, knocked unconscious and concussed which understandably makes for poor decision making afterwards. 

 

His decision to head to the Uruguayan port of Montevideo to the surprise and dismay of many of his officers was the beginning of the end of the German ship as it severely limited Graf Spee's options of future escape with many unfriendly British and Commonwealth and neutral local eyes on the ship at all times. The uninjured Commodore Harwood was able to stay in control of his battle plan throughout the operation though it was HMS Achilles with all four turrets in action that took the leading role in the last phases of the battle.

 

HMS Exeter, limping from the battle was in a bad way, after the fires were put out and the flooding controlled  the damage was later assessed that the strength of ships structure forward of Frame 111 was down to only about 40%, most bulkheads, floors and frames were broken or distorted above the waterline with only Y turret operational. However via some luck the steam power plant and engines were in full working order. The crew buried their dead at sea every day for three days until they reached the Falkland Islands where they buried more shipmates.

 

Wilfred left HMS Ajax in the UK in early 1940 and joined 1st RM Battalion later volunteering to be one of the first Royal Marine commandos. In 1949 Wilfred received wartime naval prize money a “1 ¼ share” worth £5 and 5 Shillings. At the rank of Corporal (though he was a Marine at the time) this is most likely a “Prize Bounty” related to the destruction of the of the Graf Spee in 1939 rather than “Prize Money” as the three German merchants caught off South America by Force G were either sunk by the Allies or scuttled by their German crew rather than captured and taken to a port as a prize. 

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Hard to say. I always just assumed that Graf Spee concentrated her fire against Exeter, purely because the Heavy Cruiser, with her 9x 8 inch guns posed more of a threat than the Light Cruisers, with their 8x 6 inch guns.

 

Theoretically if Graf Spee had finished off Exeter, quickly, then the two remaining CLs would be ill-equipped to deal with her. Whereas, if she had knocked out one (or even both) of the Leanders, first, then she would still be at risk of taking significant damage, from Exeter.

 

I was surprised, when I learned that the Commodore flew his flag on the Leander-class and not the Heavy Cruiser; I wonder if there is some documentation out there, somewhere, confirming why Harwood chose (or was ordered?) to command from Ajax? Even if it is something as simple as "...because I like her".

 

Personally, I don't think the fact that he was on Ajax and not Exeter was the deciding factor. I believe it was more the fact that he ordered his flotilla to rush a perceived-superior force, bringing the smaller 6 inch guns into optimum range, which Langsdorff believed they would not do. This surprised him and put him in the uncomfortable position of sailing a large target, with powerful and unyieldy guns, having to concentrate on just one-of-three smaller targets, at a time... all armed with smaller, faster-firing weapons. If Langsdorff had retreated, while laying down fire, with Spee's rear turret, I don't think the outcome would have been the same. Yes, they would eventually catch her, but while they were at arm's length and (assuming the german guns were on point) she could have caused significant damage, without any reprisals.

 

It's a very interesting topic. I actually watched the film, for the first time, only a couple of weeks ago! Fantastic film, thoroughly enjoyed it.

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[AJX]
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My understanding is that HMS Exeter technically was not part of Force G at the time (she was replacing HMS Cumberland self refitting at the Falklands) and the British Navy is a stickler for protocol, had it been part of the force Commodore Henry Harwood almost certainly would have transferred his flag onto HMS Exeter.  I think my point was the British may well have lost their commanding officer very early in the battle on HMS Exeter which can be a turning point in any sea battle due to loss of moral and direction at critical points. The British force may well have then retreated or protected HMS Exeter leading to Germany's first Naval victory of WW2.

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Ahh, I bet you're absolutely spot-on, that sounds extremely plausable!

 

As far as what would happen if the commanding officer was killed... hmmm, tough one...

I guess that really depends on how much he impacted the men, their morale and the battle as a whole. Was he a tactical genius? Did he have the ability to adapt the the changing tide of battle, beyond that of an ordinary naval officer? Was he known to inspire great feats in his men? Would his loss have crushed the spirits of those under him? And if he were killed, how competent a leader(s) were the men who would have taken his place?

 

I would like to believe that the training, discipline, seamanship and belief of their cause of the British men would have allowed them to carry the day, regardless. Certainly, by the time the war was well into its second or third year, the men had learned that loss and death were part of the course and that they probably would have been able to shrug it off as "one of those" ...well, at the time of battle, at least. I'm sure afterwards, when they had time to stop and reflect, the sense of loss was utterly devastating.

 

However, even at that first battle, I still would still like to think they would have pulled through, even if Harwood had been killed. I could be very wrong.

 

It's definitely something to think about and worth dicussing. What's your opinion? Do you think Harwood's death, had he been on Exeter would have led to a German victory?

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[AJX]
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A difficult one to call, ever since the court martial and subsequent execution of of Admiral Byng by firing squad (I always thought he was hung) for the loss of Minorca in 1756, British Naval Captains have tended to be super agressive in naval actions (Not always the best idea like in the Battle of Coronel in 1914, but it often seizes the initiative).

 

Commodore Henry Harwood's policy was in daylight to split the ships into two forces HMS Exeter on one flank and the two light cruisers on the other to spot fall of each others shells and to split the fire of the enemy Heavy Cruiser. If Harwood had his flag on HMS Exeter and it suffered the same fate as it did and the two cruiser captains kept to their part of the policy without hesitation then history may well have beeen the same.

 

However if one or both of the ships had paused to help try and save HMS Exeter (After the war on officer on HMS Ajax reflected that he did not see a more damaged ship that had not sunk over the war years) i.e. to lay a smokscreen to cover her or to let the Commodore, if still alive, transfer his flag  etc then the inititive may well have passed back to the Graf Spee with the possiblity of dictating the range of engagement and defeating the force in detail or escaping over the horizon (None of the British ships had radar, HMS Ajax was the first to be refitted with it in 1940) both of which would be considered German victories.

 

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The pendulum could sea easily swing the other way. That's part of the reason why historic naval combat is so interesting.

 

Nice insight, thanks.

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[DREAD]
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Interesting topic.

 

My thoughts are that we still can’t dismiss that GS was facing three enemies of basically the same type as herself. While she had some unusual large guns she was just a cruiser and this engagement showed that it is impossible to protect such a small ship entirely even from light cruiser shells.

 

I certainly agree in that that battle could have turned out the other way with GS defeating or even sinking the three British ships. But it wouldn’t have changed the fundamental problem of missing bases abroad as a single unlucky hit would mean the end of a raiser as the Germans didn’t have means to repair the ships so far from home. An interesting line of thoughts is however what a long range Battlecruiser could have achieved in comparison. 

 

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Hello Guys

 

I don't know much about the organisation of the fleet but

 

from my point of view my grandfather was aboard HMS Exeter at the river plate. He survived and spent a good deal of time in the Falkland's repairing the ship ( he was a navy veteran engineer and had served in the RN from a fifteen years boy sailor, and had been at Jutland at 16 years old). He spent a great deal of time cannibalising the SS great Britain then in the Falkland's for iron to repair the Exeter and make her seaworthy. the damage was that bad it was amazing she had reached the Falkland's at all.

 

The graf spey certainly put up a good fight and was only really defeated because of false intelligence info fed to the Germans indicating several large RN warships where v close to his position when in reality they where 1000 miles away.  This basically kept lansdorf in the harbour as he did not want to sacrifice his crew against  supposedly overwhelming odds.

 

Hope this adds some background

 

 

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Hi Balzabar.

 

Nice to hear of your Grandfather's experience. Sounds like a great example of making the best of a bad situation and finding the means, when there seemingly isn't one.

 

FYI, we are aware of the misinformation, sent to trick Gras Spee's crew, when in Montevideo, don't worry about that!

 

We were more discussing the naval battle that precluded the berth in Montevideo. How the battle played out and how it could have, very easily turned out different.

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[AJX]
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Balzabar

 

Very interesting comment on using metal plate from SS Great Britain to patch up HMS Exeter I have never seen any references about this activity anywhere. .At the time SS Great Britain was being used as a fueling hulk at Port Stanley so was a readily available donor.

 

I know there was some debate on another Naval forum trying to work out where HMS Exeter was getting additional metal plate from, all warships carried a small stock of plate but in Exeter's case this would have been very short of of the need and someone on the forum was trying to find out if a steam ship had traveled with stocks of  plate from either South America (from either of  the Capitals of Argentina or Uraguay) or from the Grytviken Whaling Station at South Georgia which had whaler ship repair facilites to no avail.

 

Your Grandfather's team did an amazing job in battle damage control on  HMS Exeter just after the battle and patching in the Falklands (which had no local ship repair facilities) and getting her back to Devonport (Plymouth).

 

If you have not already I am sure Malcolm Collis the Archivist at the "HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association" (which commemorates all the ships in the battle) would be very interested in recording your Grandfather's stories and memories that you have about the events so they are not accidently lost forever. It is also worth checking (if you are not already aware) to see if your Grandfather has currently has a street named after him (sometimes two people share a street) in the Town of Ajax in Ontario, Canada.

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On 5/24/2018 at 4:10 AM, _PraetoR__ said:

Hard to say. I always just assumed that Graf Spee concentrated her fire against Exeter, purely because the Heavy Cruiser, with her 9x 8 inch guns posed more of a threat than the Light Cruisers, with their 8x 6 inch guns.

 

Just 3x2 8" guns. Exeter was a "budget" heavy cruiser, lighter than many light cruisers...

 

Do not forget initial ID by Graf Spee was "One cruiser, two Destroyers", so focus on the perceived single cruiser is clear - without cruiser, destroyers would not matter.

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[AJX]
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Thanks Tuccy, missed that. The York sub class was sometimes thought of as "Export" Cruisers by RN officers due to their limited number of main guns. It would be interesting to imagine if the County Class Cumberland (with its 4x2 8" turrets and extra torpedo each side) was available instead, how much that extra armament could have effected the battle in the Allies favor.

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9 hours ago, Admiral_Bing said:

Thanks Tuccy, missed that. The York sub class was sometimes thought of as "Export" Cruisers by RN officers due to their limited number of main guns. It would be interesting to imagine if the County Class Cumberland (with its 4x2 8" turrets and extra torpedo each side) was available instead, how much that extra armament could have effected the battle in the Allies favor.

Given that she was no better armored than the Exeter, a better question would be would she even have had the time to use it before the Graf disabled her as well..

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Well at least with 2 turrets disabled she would still have 2 turrets to play with. Not that chances of hitting with local control only would be high. Also didn't they have better internal subdivision? Canberra took quite some time being scuttled. Plus a bigger ship would likely take longer to get disabled, giving more time to the light cruiser.

 

in the end though the battle shown the weakness of the "Heavy Raider" concept, as fairly slight damage mission killed Graf Spee. 

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