‘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.

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