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THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE. Compiled in the Admiralty from despatches forwarded by Rear-Admiral
Harwood and the Captains of H.M. Ships Ajax, Achilles and Exeter.
THE SECOND PHASE.
At the time of the sighting of the smoke, the Admiral Graf Spee and the British cruisers were steering converging courses. As soon as the smoke was identified as that of the German raider, the ships of the British squadron began to act in accordance with the tactics practised on the previous day. All ships increased speed and began to work up to full speed as rapidly as possible. The eight-inch gun cruiser, H.M.S. Exeter, the most powerful unit of the British squadron, made a large alteration of course to the westward, while the two six-inch gun cruisers, H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles forged ahead to the north-eastward, altering course slightly in order to close the range rapidly. These manceuvres were carried out so that the " pocket battleship " should be simultaneously engaged from widely different angles. This would force him either to " split " his main armament in order to engage both units, or to leave one of the British units unengaged by his eleven-inch guns.
At 6.18 a.m., only four minutes after the first sighting of smoke, the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire with her main armament of six eleven-inch guns. She had " split " her main armament, and one turret fired at H.M.S. Exeter and the other at H.M.S. Ajax and Achilles. The range was very long, but it was being shortened rapidly by all three of the British cruisers.
Two minutes later, at 6.20 a.m., H.M.S. Exeter opened fire with her two forward turrets-four eight-inch guns. The range was then 9 and a half sea miles. Her two after guns opened fire as soon as they would bear, two and a half minutes later. This eight-inch gunfire seemed to worry the enemy almost from the beginning. After shifting target rapidly once or twice, the Admiral Graf Spee concentrated the fire of all six of her eleven-inch guns on H.M.S. Exeter. The Admiral Graf Spee's first salvo fell short of H.M.S. Exeter. The second was over, and the third straddled the cruiser.
Meanwhile H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles had opened fire with their six-inch guns. H.M.S. Achilles opened fire at 6.21 a.m. and H.M.S. Ajax two minutes later. These two six-inch gun cruisers immediately developed a high rate of fire, combined with great accuracy. The despatch of H.M.S. Achilles states that " fire appeared to become rapidly effective," while the despatch of H.M.S. Ajax states that " effective fire developed immediately ".
At 6.23 a.m. an eleven-inch shell burst just short of H.M.S. Exeter, abreast the middle of the ship. Splinters from the shell killed the torpedo tubes crews, damaged the communications of the ship, and riddled the funnels and searchlights. One minute later H.M.S. Exeter suffered a direct hit from an eleven-inch shell. This shell struck " B " turret, putting that turret and its two eight-inch guns out of action. Splinters from that shell swept the bridge. All the bridge personnel except the captain and two others were either killed or wounded. The wheel-house communications were wrecked. Momentarily, the ship was out of control.
The steering was therefore changed over to the after steering position, and communication established with that position by means of a chain of messengers. H.M.S. Exeter was controlled in this way until the action was broken off. During this time H.M.S. Exeter received two more hits forward from 11-inch shells, and also suffered some damage by splinters from shells bursting short.
Meanwhile H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles were making good and rapid shooting with their six-inch guns, and they were closing the range rapidly and drawing ahead on the enemy. That this six-inch gunfire was causing the enemy trouble was shown by the fact that at 6.30 a.m. the Admiral Graf Spee again " split " her main armament, switching over one eleven-inch turret to engage the six-inch gun cruisers. This temporarily reduced the volume of heavy fire to which H.M.S. Exeter was subjected. The secondary armament of the Admiral Graf Spee-5.9-inch guns-had been alternately engaging H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles, but without effect, although some salvoes had fallen close. These guns continued to fire at the six-inch gun cruisers.
At 6.32 a.m. H.M.S. Exeter fired her starboard torpedoes at the enemy. These torpedoes went wide, because the Admiral Graf Spee, apparently finding the British gunfire too hot, turned 150 degrees away under cover of a smoke screen before the torpedoes reached her.
By 6.36 a.m. the six-inch gun cruisers were doing 28 knots. This rapid increase of speed-the ships had been doing 14 knots only 20 minutes previously-reflects great credit upon the engine and boiler room personnel. At 6.37 a.m. H.M.S. Ajax catapulted her aircraft. Orders to get the aircraft into the air at the earliest possible moment had been given as soon as the alarm was sounded.
At about 6.38 a.m. H.M.S. Exeter made a large alteration of course to starboard in order to bring her port torpedo tubes to bear on the enemy. As she was turning she received two more hits from 11-inch shells. The H.M.S. Exeter had, indeed, suffered severely from the much heavier metal of her adversary. Two of her three turrets were out of action, and the only two guns still in action were aft. Her port torpedoes were fired as soon as the tubes were brought to bear on the enemy.
By this time H.M.S. Exeter had a seven degree list and was down by the bow, but was still steaming at full power.'At 6.40 a.m. an 11-inch shell burst just short of H.M.S. Achilles, in line with the bridge. Nevertheless, the main control position was momentarily out of action through these casualties. The gunnery efficiency of H.M.S. Achilles was not, however, impaired. The secondary control position immediately took over the control of the ship's armament, and continued the action until the main control position was ready to resume control some minutes later.
After 6.40 a.m. the action became virtually a chase. The Admiral Graf Spee had turned away to the westward under cover of a smoke screen, and the two six-inch gun cruisers were hauling round to the north-westward in pursuit. They were by now doing 31 knots and still increasing speed. H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles were fine on the starboard quarter of the Admiral Graf Spee, and H.M.S. Exeter was rather before the enemy's port beam, still in action with her two remaining guns.
At 6.56 a.m. H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles altered course to starboard in order to bring all their guns to bear again. This greater volume of fire from these two cruisers appeared to have an immediate effect on the enemy, for the Admiral Graf Spee at once altered course away from the cruisers, and at 7.00 she laid a smoke screen in an attempt to throw off the British gunfire.
At 7.10 a.m. the range of the enemy from H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles was still eight miles. At 7.16 a.m. the Admiral Graf Spee made a drastic alteration of course to port under cover of smoke. She was then steering almost directly for H.M.S.
Exeter. Four minutes later, however, the effective support of H.M.S. Exeter's consorts obliged the Admiral Graf Spee to make another large alteration of course. The range at that time was 56 miles. H.M.S. Ajax was straddled by 11-inch salvoes, but she was not hit. At 7.20 a.m. H.M.S. Ajax and H.M.S. Achilles had turned to starboard to bring all guns to bear on the enemy. Rapid and accurate shooting was maintained, and a fire was observed amidships in the Admiral Graf Spee.
Source: The Naval Review. August 1940.
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