Captain Langsdorff believes he is trapped

Battle Damage to the Graf Spee

Captain Langsdorf of the Graf Spee believed he was trapped in Montevideo harbour by a strong Royal Naval task force. He telegraphed Germany:

1. Strategic position off Montevideo: Besides the cruisers and destroyers, Ark Royal and Renown. Close blockade at night. Escape into open sea and break-through to home waters hopeless.
2. Propose putting out as far as neutral boundary. If it is possible to fight our way through to Buenos Aires, using remaining ammunition, this will be attempted..
3. If a break-through would result in certain destruction of Graf Spee, without opportunity of damaging enemy, request decision on whether the ship should be scuttled in spite of insufficient depth in the estuary of the La Plata, or whether internment is to be preferred.
4. Decision requested by radiogram..
(signed) Captain, GRAF SPEE.

The reply came later that day:

1. Attempt by all means to extend the time in neutral waters in order to guarantee freedom of action as long as possible.
2. With reference to No.2: Approved.
3. With reference to No.3: No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled.

(signed) RAEDER

MaritimeQuest has an excellent collection of images of the Admiral Graf Spee.

‘The Battle off the River Plate’: post action report

HMS Exeter

From Admiral Harwood’s post action report as seen by the British War Cabinet:

2. Tactically, the enemy appears to have made two serious mistakes: firstly, in closing the British Cruisers (apparently in the expectation that they would retire), thereby enabling the 8-inch guns of H.M.S. Exeter and the 6-inch guns of Ajax and Achilles to come into action at once. Secondly, in making no attempt to press the attack home on the Exeter after she had been seriously damaged and forced to drop out of the action. This was a critical moment in the fight, and had he done this the end of the story might have been different.

3. The fire of the enemy’s 11 inch guns at a range of 13 miles was very accurate; this emphasises the necessity of zigzagging (speed permitting) to throw out the enemy’s ranged plot. A drastic alteration of course at the moment a salvo was fired was found to be desirable.

4. During the action the enemy altered course continuously behind smokescreens generated by chemical floats. It was found that hits on the Admiral Graf Spee were rarely observed from the control, but splashes of our 8-inch shell could be distinguished from those of 6-inch with ease. Flank marking of H.M.S. Exeter’s fall of shot was carried out in H.M.S. Ajax. No difficulty was found in observation, but casualties and damage prevented the report being received in the former.

5. Concentration of gunfire by His Majesty’s Ships Ajax and Achilles appeared to be effective, until terminated by temporary failure of wireless after 50 salvos had been fired.

6. Spotting by aircraft from H.M.S. Ajax was carried out from about 3000 feet; some difficulty was experienced in distinguishing the fall of shot from H.M.S. Ajax from those of H.M.S. Achilles after concentration ceased. Owing to smoke the air observer found the length of the ship the best guide in judging distances “over” and “short”. Air reports were of considerable assistance in the latter part of the action. A torpedo track, slightly more distinct than the track left by ours, was observed. The aircraft of H.M.S. Exeter was damaged before it could be catapulted, and petrol sprayed over the ship; fortunately it did not catch on fire.

7. British material proved most satisfactory. Except some minor mechanical failures, the 8-inch guns of H.M.S.Exeter, until put out of action by enemy fire, and of the 6 inch guns of the light cruisers functioned well throughout the engagement. The 8-inch mounting proved its worth by the fact that the only turret in H.M.S. Exeter not put out of action fired 95 and 82 rounds per gun.

No serious fires occurred in either of the two 8-inch gun houses which sustained direct hits by 11-inch shell, and the flash tightness of both 8-inch and 6-inch mountings appears adequate. This indicates that the lessons of the Battle of Jutland, when three battlecruisers were lost owing to lack of anti-flash precautions, have been effectively applied in our post-war construction.

8. The 11-inch shell fired by the enemy were of two types, some being armour piercing, with delay action before bursting, and others bursting immediately on hitting ships or water. These latter showered splinters, which caused many casualties and much unexpected damage; most of the bridge personnel of H.M.S. Exeter were killed by splinters ricocheting under the side of the bridge roof.

See TNA CAB 66/4/47

HMS Exeter after the Battle off the River Plate

After retiring from the action HMS Exeter made for the British base on the Falkland Islands to make temporary repairs. During the voyage she stopped three times to bury her dead at sea.

The Battle off the River Plate

The Admiral Graf Spee

The British had known for over a month that there was a German battleship operating in the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic, sinking merchant shipping. After radio messages were received from her most recent victims, the SS Doric Star on the 2nd December, and the SS Tairoa on the 3rd December, giving their positions just before they were sunk, the commander of Royal Navy ‘Force G’ deduced that the raider was headed for the River Plate between Argentina and Uruguay. Commodore Henry Harwood in HMS Ajax was correct – the Graf Spee came into view at 0613. Also in Force G were HMS Exeter and HMSNZS Achilles.

HMNZS Achilles

A shot from the Graf Spee straddled the Achilles about 20 minutes after the fight began and the shrapnel from an explosion bursting on the surface of the water caused casualties on the ship. The Captain was wounded and six pieces of shrapnel entered the Director Control Tower where Lieutenant Commander R.E. Washbourn was in command. Three people in touching distance of him were killed and three more seriously wounded. He later described how they still carried on their job of directing the ship’s guns:

The survivors behaved just as one expected and hoped. They took no notice of the shambles (and it looked more like a slaughterhouse on a busy day than a Director Control Tower) and took over the jobs of those who had been put out as if nothing had happened. One youngster had to seat himself on the unpleasantness that very shortly before had been a very efficient GO’s writer and carry out his job. He was a little wide-eyed after we had disengaged but otherwise unmoved.

A splinter had jammed the door and prevented the medical parties from reaching us. The wounded never murmured. Shirley quietly applied a tourniquet to himself and saved his life thereby. A sergeant of Marines who was sitting right alongside me never let on that he was wounded. I didn’t discover it until the first lull, an hour later, when he nearly fainted from loss of blood.

I learnt this lesson-though it’s a difficult one to put into words -that one can wish for nothing better than these troops of ours. They may be a bit of a nuisance in the easy times of peace, but one can’t improve on them when things get a bit hot. A spot of trouble of this sort completely changes one’s attitude to the troops. I felt very proud of my fellow countrymen.

From a letter written to Rear Admiral Cosmo Graham. See A space for delight: Letters from the late Rear-Admiral Cosmo Graham to his wife during the years 1939 to 1942 also available from and

HMS Duchess sunk in collision with HMS Barham

HMS Barham

On 12 December 1939 the 1,375 ton destroyer HMS Duchess H64 (Lt.Cdr. R.C.M. White, RN) was arriving in the Clyde escorting the 33,000 ton battleship HMS Barham. At 0400 hrs in the North Channel, 9 miles off Mull of Kintyre, at position 55.19 N, 06.06 W, possibly due to fog in the area, the zigzagging pattern of the Barham and Duchess crossed. HMS Barham crashed into HMS Duchess, cutting her in half. There were only 23 survivors out of the 160 crew.

The tragedy recently inspired composer Sally Beamish to write the Sea Psalm.There is a much larger image of the sister ship to HMS Duchess, HMS Daring, at Naval History net.

HMS Rawalpindi encounters the Scharnhorst

HMS Rawalpindi was an “armed merchantman”, a merchant ship equipped with outdated six inch guns just before the war so that she could perform a military role. In November 1939 she was under the command of Captain Edward Coverley Kennedy (father of Ludovic Kennedy) in the north Atlantic. Her role was to enforce the British blockade of Germany, intercepting German and other merchant ships heading for Germany and commandeering them. If she sighted German battleships it was intended that she would report their position so that the Royal Navy could attack then in strength. In particular the British believed the German pocket battleship Deutschland was in the area. When Captain Kennedy sighted a battleship in the late afternoon of 23 November he believed it was the Deutschland. In fact it was the Scharnhorst, probably the most powerful ship that the German navy then possessed.

The Scharnhorst
The Scharnhorst

Kennedy managed to radio the position to the British Admiralty, who began to direct Royal Navy ships in the area to join him. The Rawalpindi ignored calls to “heave to” and, hopelessly outgunned, proceeded to attack. Unfortunately Scharnhorst was now joined by her sister ship Gneisenau, making a desperate situation even worse. 
On board the Rawalpindi was steward Royston Leadbetter and his brother Jack:

Our guns, eight six inch made around 1900, were standard for Armed Merchant Cruisers. My gun was one of two 3 inch dual purpose guns of 1917 issue, as was the ammunition. Stewards were given the job of ammunition supply. On our second patrol we sank a German ship called the Gonsenheim, after having taken off her crew.

Half way into our third patrol at 3 pm on November 23rd 1939, the alarm bells sounded and I made my way to the boat deck. It was almost dark and it was freezing cold. In the poor light it was possible to see two grey shapes approximately five miles away. Suddenly a spout of water rose up a few yards away. It was quiet and at first we thought it was one of our own ships mistaking us for the enemy. Captain Kennedy and a midshipman came by and we were informed that there was a German ship near by, and that we were going to lay a smoke screen. Thick black smoke came from the funnel, but the smoke floats failed to work as it was too cold!

After a short while the German ships opened fire – one on each side of us. Their aim was good. They first hit the wireless cabin, then two hits demolished the bridge. Our guns opened up in retaliation, and we hit one of the ships several times causing some casualties. I had gone to the ammunition hoist to get some Star Shells, but when I returned my gun and fellow gun crew had all been blown over the side. Our position was hopeless and the order was given to abandon ship. One boat got away but was picked up by one of the German ships.

I went in search of my brother whose gun was on the fore well deck, but his gun was lying on its side with the remains of the Bridge on it, and no sign of life. Eventually I found Jack and a friend in the paint locker in the forecastle. I took them on to the boat deck to see if any lifeboats were left, but they all appeared to be damaged or on fire. The Germans at this stage were still firing, but at irregular intervals as they were giving the smaller guns an opportunity for fire practice. I eventually managed to find two life jackets, I put one on, the other I took back to Jack. He was waiting for me with a friend who said he wanted one, so off I went in search of an extra life jacket. However when I returned there was no sign of Jack or his friend, and I never saw either of them again.

It was by now getting extremely dangerous on the open deck and fires had broken out everywhere. At one time I went down a rope ladder and hung there above the water. Suddenly a few feet away there was a shower of sparks where an armour-piercing shell went through the hull. I returned to the deck. Fire was enveloping the ship and a few of us who remained alive were gathered at the stern sitting on depth charges in their racks! The ship was gradually turning over and a lifeboat fell over the side into the sea. By the time I saw it, it was about 100 yards away but as I decided it was our last chance into the sea I dropped. I didn’t notice how cold the water was. I was also a non-swimmer, but with my life belt on I somehow managed to reach the lifeboat before anyone else. The lifeboat was full of water and I don’t know how I managed to climb into it. I was panic stricken and breathless.

Eventually ten of us got to the lifeboat, there would have been more but we were unable to row the boat, as all the oars except the steering oar, had fallen out as the lifeboat had fallen overboard. We gradually drifted away and watched as the Rawalpindi blew up and finally sank. One of the German ships saw us and stopped while we drifted towards it. The remarks shouted down to us, in English, were about the cold, hot tea, and their “ancestry” from us. Suddenly the Germans called down and said, “Sorry we cannot stop, one of your ships is near. Good night and good luck”. They then went off, nearly drowning us in their wash.

By now it was about 6pm and completely dark. The sea was rough and getting worse. Gradually we got some of the water out of the lifeboat, found the plughole, screwed it up with bits of rag and plugged up the holes in the sides. The buoyancy tanks that had holes in them were put on the seats to break the strong wind. In this fashion we passed a night with an occasional spell at bailing out. During the night it snowed, but that saved us from getting thirsty. The only food in the lifeboat lockers was sweetened condensed milk tins and ships biscuits. These had to be chewed by those with good teeth, and then passed to those who could not chew these very hard biscuits. By daylight we were past caring, all frozen and sleepy, feet and hands badly swollen after being in the freezing water. At about 2pm we sighted a ship, but it took over an hour before we were seen. The steering oar with an oil skin tied to it was all we had to attract their attention, and it was getting dark. Luckily a look out spotted us and we were saved.

The ship was the Chitral another P and O liner converted to an armed cruiser, and there were a few old friends among the crew. A week later we landed in Glasgow, from there we were sent to London for questioning and then sent home with a rail warrant and £5. My mother came home from chapel to find two telegrams on the mat. One to say she had lost a son, the other to say another son was among the survivors. She never said which telegram she opened first!

Royston Leadbetter’s full account can be read at  BBC WW2 People’s War , where there is also an account by the son of Lieutenant Harold Cholerton, who did not survive the action, describing the impact his death had on his family.

238 men died on HMS Rawalpindi. There were 38 survivors.  Although a number of British warships converged on the scene, bad weather enabled Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to escape. Captain Kennedy was Mentioned in Despatches. 

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke in the House of Commons afterwards:

These men might have known, as soon as they sighted the enemy, that there was no chance, but they had no thought of surrender. They fired their guns until they could be fired no more, and many went to their deaths in the great tradition of the Royal Navy. Their example will be an inspiration to those that come after them

See also November 24th 1939: Ludovic Kennedy on learning of the death of his father.

The last minutes of HMS Royal Oak

HMs Royal Oak in 1937, torpedoed while at anchor, 14th October 1939

From the Royal Navy Board of Enquiry

Narrative of events in ROYAL OAK.

At 0104 on 14th October, 1939, H.M.S. ROYAL OAK was lying at single anchor in Scapa Bay when an explosion occurred right forward the starboard side below water. Its effect was to break all the slips on both cables which allowed the port cable to run out to a clinch and let go the starboard anchor. The explosion itself and the effect of the cable running out woke most of the Officers and some of the Ship’s company. The Admiral, Captain, Commander, Engineer Commander and others hurried on deck after putting on a few clothes. Many Officers who were aft thought that the explosion was in or under the after part of the ship, this being accounted for by the vibration effect from the other end of the ship.

Witnesses in the A.D.P. and on the Flag Deck state that a column of water was shot up the starboard side forward and drenched the fore part of tha forecastle. Through the hole in the side a number of shores and other timber may have dropped or been blown out.

The Captain, on turning out, went on to the Q.D. and being informed that the slips on the cable had parted went forward to the forecastle. It was a fine clear night, the sea was calm, and the sky was lit up by the Northern Lights. He arrived on the forecastle, looked at the cables, received reports from various Officers, and sent the First Lieutenant down to inspect the forward compartments. He remained on the Forecastle a few moments in order to ascertain whether the ship was in any way effected by what he thought was an internal explosion in the Inflammable Store. As the ship was neither listing nor settling down by the bows he went down the after forecastle hatch and forward to the cable locker flat. Here he met several Officers, including the Engineer Commander, and received reports that the Inflammable store was venting through the breather pipe showing that water was entering that compartment and that there was no fire. The compartment immediately abaft it, the C.O. 2 room, was intact. Up to this time no one had thought that the ship might have been torpedoed, the general impression being that there had been an internal explosion, or possibly a bombing attack by aircraft. Under the Captain’s directions orders were given for starting salvage pumps and preparing to open and examine damaged compartments. No orders were given for closing watertight doors or deadlights.

In the meantime the S.O.O. turned out and went to the Admiral’s cabin at 0106. The Admiral had already turned out. S.O.O. made a quick examination of the after part of the ship and returned to report “no damage aft”. This was confirmed a few moments later by the Engineer Commander who had also made an inspection of the after compartments. S.O.O. accompanied the Admiral on deck, but the latter then went forward and S.O.O. went on to the Marines’ Messdeck. He did not see the Admiral again.

The Ship’s company generally were not much disturbed by the first explosion, and there are several records of men having turned out and then turned in again between the first and second explosions. During this interval the launch and picket boat were called away, the Drifter DAISY II was ordered to raise steam, and two prisoners were released from the cells.

At 0116 the Captain was still near the C.O.2 room with several Officers. In his own words “I had no thought other than that a local explosion had taken place in the Inflammable Store. This was backed up by the report I received that the C.O.2 room was intact. I had not even thought of the ship being torpedoed. I felt no uneasiness about the safety of the ship”. Suddenly there was another” shattering” explosion, followed at very short intervals by a third and fourth. These explosions occurred on the starboard side of the ship approximately between “A” and “X” turrets, and had an immediate and catastrophic effect. The ship at once started to heel to starboard and, with only a slight “hang” for perhaps three or four minutes, heeled over with increasing velocity until she capsized at 0129.

From the moment the second explosion occurred it was practically impossible to do anything effective to save the ship, nor was it possible to broadcast the order to “Abandon Ship” as the lights went out and power failed. Officers in various parts of the ship told the men near them to save themselves. The Captain was still in the cable locker flat. He told Officers and men to clear out of the flat and walked aft to the Messdeck which was in darkness. He sent the men up to the forecastle and followed them up. On the forecastle he realised that the ship was going over as she was heeling so quickly and felt sure that the only thing left to do was to throw over the side the Carley floats etc. and as much wood as possible. The Captain and Commander got to work on this assisted by a few men, but, the ship turned over so rapidly that little could be done. In a few minutes they found the deck becoming impossible to stand on so climbed over the port guard rails and up the port side until they slipped or were flung into the sea.

The ship capsized and finally sank at 0129, twenty five minutes after the first explosion and thirteen minutes after the second explosion. An Officer who had climbed up the port side, over the bilge keel and onto the bottom checked the time at 0133 before taking to the water.

The second, third and fourth explosions were observed by men stationed in the A.D.P. These explosions were accompanied by columns of water which fell on the A.D.P., also a flash which was seen round the funnel casing, and a quantity of black smoke which covered the after part of the ship for a short period.

After the first explosion the Assistant Torpedo Officer went to the Main Switchboard, then on the Messdeck where he reported to the Engineer Commander and met the Warrant Electrician. The Assistant Torpedo Officer and Warrant Electrician again went down to the Switchboard and thence to Nos. 4 and 3 Dynamo rooms where everything was normal.

While still in No. 3 Dynamo room the second third and fourth explosions occurred. The second seemed to be well forward, the third abreast the Boiler Rooms and the fourth close to No.3 Dynamo Room but forward of it, probably at the starboard wing Engine Room. After the second and third explosions orange-coloured flames appeared at the top of the dynamo room hatch. After
the fourth explosion the forward bulkhead of the dynamo room between the dynamo room and the wing engine room began to bulge inwards and steam began to escape. The two Officers and the Watchkeeper made their way up the ladder. The lights then failed and the flames became less intense. By the time they reached the Marines Messsdeck the ship had listed about 25 degrees to starboard. The Messdeck was full of choking fumes and burning hammocks and other material.

From other reports it appears that after the third and fourth explosions the Marine Messdeck swept by flames and full of smoke and fumes. Several hammocks caught fire and were extinguished by men near them. There is also evidence that holes appeared in the decks and that the decks caved in.

A sliding horizontal hatch abaft “A” turret slid across and jammed in the closed position due to the heel of the ship and to the fact that the wire strop used to hold it open had not been properly secured. Men in this compartment may not have had time to escape by another route. Sliding hatches in other positions may have closed similarly.

During this period there are several reports of men being blown through doors, up hatches, and out of scuttles. By the time the ship capsized a large number of men had reached the water via the Forecastle and Quarter Deck. It appears that few men were saved from the Engine and Boiler Rooms.

The Admiral had been on the Boat Deck, where the Engineer Commander on his way aft, reported to him. Later the Admiral was seen on the Q. D. by the Captain’s Maltese Steward who had come up from below and collected a lifebuoy from the starboard guard rails. This steward saw the Admiral amidships calling to the men on the Port side to jump overboard further forward because they were likely to injure themselves by jumping on the the propellers. The steward climbed up towards the Admiral and asked him to come overboard with him as he had a lifebuoy, but the Admiral refused saying, “Don’t worry about me; try to save yourself.”He remained there helping the men to save themselves and was not seen again.

Men who tried to man the launch at the starboard lower boom had a terrifying experience. They would not cast off from the boom and saw the ship turning over on top of them. Metal from the foretop fell into the launch and sank her, and the funnel came down into the water between the launch and the ship’s side. One man from the sunken launch was partially sucked into the tunnel and then blown out again. Others saw “A” and “B” turretts swing round and “fall into the sea”.

After the ship capsized she rolled over to about 160 degrees, possibly righted a little, and is now lying bottom up at an angle of 40 degrees from the vertical with a trim of 2 degrees aft.

Rescue work was first carried out by the Drifter DAISY II who had been lying alongside the port side. Other men were kept afloat by the picket boat, gig, one or two Carley floats or bits of Carley float, pieces of wood, church deals and empty petrol drums, but the picket boat capsized twice through being overloaded, and the gig, having her cover on, turned over and over when men tried to climb into her. Very soon boats from PEGASUS joined in the rescue work and also drifters from Scapa Pier. Later drifters came across from Lyness and Gutter Sound.

The general behaviour of the Ship’s Company was calm and good.

The Board was to conclude that

‘We consider that Captain W.G. Benn and his officers did all that was possible to save their Ship. Captain Benn remained in the ship until the last possible moment, until in fact the ship left him, and his behaviour was in the best traditions of the service.’

The Board ‘deplored’ the death of Rear Admiral H.E.C. Blagrove.

TNA ADM 199/158

833 men died on HMS Royal Oak. Their story is told at

The opening shots of World War II on the Westerplatte

World War II began with the invasion of Poland. Without warning at 0445 the German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte, while the German army swept across the border. The old battleship had sailed into the free city of Danzig earlier in August on a ‘courtesy visit’ and would have launched an assault on 26th August, only for Hitler to postpone the date of the invasion.

The German Battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling the Polish garrison at Westerplatte

The heavily wooded Westerplatte peninsula had been a popular park but now contained an ammunition depot. The Polish garrison of only 182, armed mainly with machine guns and mortars, was to make a heroic stand, fighting against overwhelming odds for over a week. The episode might well be seen as the Polish ‘Alamo’ except on this occasion most of the defenders survived, inflicting much greater losses on the German attackers. Ignacy Skowron, then a corporal in the Polish garrison, later remembered

The cruiser then sailed into the channel and started to fire shell after shell at us. I saw huge trees being snapped in two.

On the second day there were three attacks before midday. We fought back and then later we heard some noise and there were planes overhead. They started to dive-bomb us and guardhouse number five was completely destroyed. Five soldiers were killed.

The Germans saw that their attacks weren’t working so they used flame-throwers to try and overcome us with flames. By the sixth day we were barely managing to survive because we were cold, hungry, dirty, and we hadn’t slept. We were struggling.

There were hundreds of German dead but most of the Poles survived and they were allowed to make an honourable surrender, with the officer keeping his sword. See BBC 2009 news report

The devastated Westerplatte a week later as the Germans advance