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 amazon.com and amazon.ca

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