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

‘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.’

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.

HM Submarine Salmon successfully attacks German cruisers

“My First Lieutenant called me to the periscope and I observed enemy forces to the northward, steering to westward at a range of about 12,000 yards.”

The German light cruiser Nurnberg

From the Patrol Report of Lieutenant-Commander Edward Bickford, on HM Submarine Salmon:

0945. My First Lieutenant called me to the periscope and I observed enemy forces to the northward, steering to westward at a range of about 12,000 yards. At ten o’clock, by coming up to 28 feet on the gauge, I was able to identify the enemy as two or possibly three heavy ships from the following: Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Admiral Scheer, Graf Van Spee and four cruisers who were two Hipper class, the Leipzig and a Konigsberg class.

1030. Blucher, Leipzig and Hipper, in that order, turned to the south in line ahead. Salmon turned to the westward to attack.

1036. Fired spread salvo at eleven-second firing intervals. At this moment Leipzig was on a 90 degrees track, range 5,000 yards and Hipper appeared slightly out of station on the starboard quarter of Leipzig. I gave their speed as twenty knots, but on further consideration I now think that that was an under-estimation. I fired a spread salvo with point of aim just ahead of Leipzig’s bow with the object of winging two ships rather than sinking one, hoping thus to provoke a fleet action. Went deep and altered course to 90 degrees from firing course at full speed.

1040. Heard a loud explosion and said, ‘That’s the Leipzig.’

1041. Heard two loud explosions which were either hits on the third ship or the commencement of depth charging.
Until this moment I had been attempting to regain trim for a periscope observation, being very heavy forward after firing (I had flooded ‘1’ to keep her down). Now, however, I considered it unwise to return to periscope depth as I was still not under slow speed control. I continued at full speed.

1046. Heard three explosions which were considered to be remainder of the salvo hitting the bottom…

1050. Took evading action… Salmon was subsequently depth charged until noon …

See TNA ADM199/1839

Salmon had hit and damaged the light cruisers Nurnberg and Leipzig, the latter so badly damaged that she was only used as a training ship, even after repairs.

Lieutenant-Commander Edward Bickford was promoted to Commander and awarded the DSO for leading this “epic” patrol.

The Battle off the River Plate

“A splinter had jammed the door and prevented the medical parties from reaching us. The wounded never murmured.”

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

HMS Salmon spots the Bremen

“I decided to surface on a firing course and stop her with my gun with the intention of firing torpedoes if she opened fire on me, or gunning her only if she refused to stop but did not open fire.”

From the Patrol Report of Lieutenant-Commander Edward Bickford, on HM Submarine Salmon:

December 12th.
Salmon was on the surface at 0745 in position 57 degrees 2′ North 5 degrees 52′ East, when forced to dive by a Heinkel 70. At the time it was thought curious that enemy aircraft should be so far from home at the break of dawn. Salmon, who was regaining patrol position, decided to proceed deep at speed before starting a normal periscope watch.

At 0930 Asdic office reported hydrophone effect 200 revolutions. Salmon came to periscope depth to investigate and found Bremen crossing her stern at high speed, range 2,000 yards. The submarine turned to a firing course at full speed while I searched Bremen through high-power [magnification] for signs of offensive armament. None could be seen and she looked much the same, except for funnels which had been painted light grey, as when I had crossed to America and back on her in 1933. I decided to surface on a firing course and stop her with my gun with the intention of firing torpedoes if she opened fire on me, or gunning her only if she refused to stop but did not open fire.

0940. Surfaced and made ‘K International’ by Aldis Lamp five times over the space of a minute. There was no reply and I ordered a round to be fired ahead of her. Just as the gun layer was about to fire, a Dornier Do 18 appeared and I was forced to dive.

By now Bremen was nearing the limit of effective torpedo range, being on a 140 degree track, steaming at high speed, range 5,000 yards. Went deep as I still considered I was unjustified in firing torpedoes at her… Shortly afterwards I intercepted signal from Admiralty telling [HMS] Ursula that Bremen was not a target and felt much relieved… I decided that this area would most likely become unhealthy in the near future and so decided to go beyond my patrol line to the Great Fisher bank in the hopes of stalking a U-boat whose periscope had been reported the previous day by aircraft. .. from 2100 to 2100 I investigated three merchant ships…

See TNA ADM199/1839

HMS Duchess sunk in collision with HMS Barham

Barham impacted the Duchess, cutting her in half. There were only 23 survivors of the 160 crew.

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.

The RAF attack Heligoland, the war in Finland

‘The aircraft proceeded to attack in sections of three and dropped thirty-nine 500-lb, semi-armour-piercing bombs from heights between 7,000 to 10,000 feet. One of the larger ships appeared to be hit by three bombs, while one of the smaller was closely straddled, if not actually hit by two bombs. Cloud prevented accurate observation of other attacks.’

RAF Vickers Wellington bomber

The Naval Military and Air situation up to 12 noon on 7 December 1939, as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval situation.

General review.

The search for the German warships which sank H.M.S. Rawalpindi did not result in any contact. The Fleet has resumed more normal dispositions, the Northern Patrol of Cruisers and Armed Merchant Cruisers has been re-established and convoys are sailing to and from Norway.

2. Casualties due to enemy mining off the East Coast continue, but have not increased, and the flow of trade has been maintained. Good progress has been made in the evolution of a suitable form of sweep for the magnetic mine.

3. The Admiral Scheer has reappeared in the South Atlantic and has attacked, and presumably sunk, two British ships about 600 miles south-east-ward of St Helena. A strong hunting group is working in the area.

4. The severe gales encountered during the past two weeks have caused some damage to units of our light forces, particularly destroyers, and the proportion of these temporarily out of action is considerably above the average.

Home Waters.

5. The greater part of the fleet returned to their bases on 1st December for fuel after their operations in search of the ships which sank H.M.S.Rawalpindi. Armed Merchant Cruises took up their positions on the Northern Patrol on the 2nd December, strong forces being disposed in support of them, and for covering the Norwegian Convoys.

6. The increase in the number of Armed Merchant Cruisers available has relieved the pressure on the 7th and 11th Cruiser Squadrons, composed of old C.and D. class cruisers, and allowed of necessary refits being undertaken. Submarine patrols are being maintained off the German, Dutch and Norwegian coasts. Two thirds of our available submarines are now operating in the North Sea.

German Mine Laying.

25. Further mines have been dropped from the aeroplanes in the Humber and Thames areas. During the night of the 5th/6th December aircraft were particularly active. The extinction of navigational lights reported in last week’s resume appears to have been effective, since patrol aircraft report that aircraft make the fullest use of the very few lights still burning, and, moreover, several mines have been dropped in positions from which they can be recovered with comparative ease. Steps have been taken to reduce the number of lights to a minimum and special precautions are taken with those left burning.

British Mine Sweeping.

27. Experiments are being pressed forward with various sweeps and detecting devices for use with magnetic mines. At least nine different devices are being investigated, several of which have already given practical proof of being capable of exploding mines.

Military Situation

Western Front

British Troops in France.

40. A British brigade, with one machine-gun company, one field company and one field ambulance attached is now on the Saar front, with forward troops holding a sector of the frontline north-east of Metz. Certain French troops in the sector have been placed under the brigade commander. It is intended that British infantry brigade groups shall go in succession to the Saar front up to 25 February, each group doing a tour of duty of about one week in reserve and two weeks in the line.

Operations

41. The Germans have been active on the Rhine-Moselle fronts where they have staged several local attacks, which have been successfully repulsed, mainly by the action of the French artillery. These attacks have usually been carried out by Stosstruppen, or storm troops; the men being carefully picked from volunteers and liberally rewarded with decorations and leave. Patrolling has also been active on the Saar front, especially between the Moselle and the Nied valleys.

Reinforcements from India.

49. Four animal transport companies leave India for France on 9 December. These companies include a total of 1700 men, 2000 mules and 500 carts. They will be followed at a later date by 600 mules, which are being destined for the two animal transport companies now being formed in Cyprus from Cypriot personnel.

Royal Air Force Operations.

Bomber Command.

Attack on Enemy Warships at Heligoland.

56. On 3rd December, shortly before noon, 24 Wellington aircraft, engaged on a reconnaissance in force into the Heligoland Bight, located a number of enemy warships lying off Heligoland. The aircraft proceeded to attack in sections of three and dropped thirty-nine 500-lb, semi-armour-piercing bombs from heights between 7,000 to 10,000 feet. One of the larger ships appeared to be hit by three bombs, while one of the smaller was closely straddled, if not actually hit by two bombs. Cloud prevented accurate observation of other attacks. Photographs were taken, but, owing to weather conditions, only indifferent results were obtained. From the depth of water in which it appears that the ships were lying it is probable that the majority of the vessels were destroyers; but it may well be that the enemy gunnery training ship Brummer, which was towed into Emden in a damaged condition on the 4th was among those hit. Heavy and fairly accurate A.A.fire was encountered. Our aircraft observed about 20 enemy fighters which seemed reluctant to attack; seven or eight aircraft followed the returning bomber formation without attempting to close. Only in one instance does a serious attack appear to have been made by a M.E.109, which, it is thought, was shot down. Two British aircraft were hit by A.A.fire, but all returned safely to their bases.

Russian – Finnish Hostilities

Situation At Sea.

69. The Russian Baltic Fleet, consisting of two battleships and five modern cruisers, is greatly superior to the two small coast defence ships of Finland. In light craft the Russians have seven modern destroyers and twenty of older types, as against the seven motor torpedo boats and several gunboats, minelaying and minesweeping craft of the Finnish Navy. Russia also has fifty-four submarines, of which twenty-three are small ones of 180 tons, to Finland’s five, one of which is a midget on Lake Ladoga. The Finns are, however, natural seamen and can be expected to handle their ships with skill and energy, although they have no officers of real war experience. In the last few years, under the guidance of a British Naval Adviser, the Finnish Navy has made considerable progress and may be considered reasonably efficient.

The efficiency of the Soviet Baltic Fleet is limited by the inexperience of its officers. Recent purges have removed over half of the Flag Officers and captains and a high proportion of the remainder. Those who remain are men of little education and lack officer-like qualities. The submarine service is, however, considered reasonably efficient.

Situation on the Land and in the Air.

73. Finland’s strength lies in the natural difficulties of the country rather than in her army of nine weak divisions, which has only recently started to replace its out-of-date artillery and is still short of tanks and aircraft. Russia, on the other hand, has an almost inexhaustible supply of manpower and equipment, her main difficulty being to get her forces to the scene of action, and to maintain them once they are there.

How long the Finns can resist is difficult to foretell. In the north they are helped by the difficulties of the country and the distance of the Soviet troops from their railheads. Moreover, the Finns are better fighters in the snow than the Russians and they are likely to destroy all available shelter as they withdraw. In the centre the Finns are, again, helped by the length and paucity of the Russian road communications and the thick woods which make it difficult for the enemy to deploy. It is in the south that they are likely to have the most difficulty in holding out, for communications are simpler and, if the lakes are frozen hard, the Russians will find it easier to bring their great superiority in tanks and artillery to bear.

Probably, however, the Finns are at the greatest disadvantage in the air. Although they have already claimed considerable successes against Soviet aircraft, there are immense numbers of the latter available. If the weather is favourable, and the Russian ability to hit targets is greater than it appears to be, an intensive bombing of the Finnish towns, factories and communications may have a decisive effect, even if the army itself is well protected from air attack by natural cover. There is still a possibility that the combination of climate, terrain and Russian inefficiency will result in a deadlock; but the odds against the Finns are very great, and it is hard to see how the Russians can fail to win if they press on as their prestige will probably demand.

TNA CAB/66/4/1

The British prepare trenches on the western front

“For the British, digging was the order of the day-digging in cold, wet soil behind the Franco-Belgian frontier. Day after day and week after week the trenches slowly grew.”

In the forward areas, save for wire entanglements visible here and there in front of hidden trenches, there were few signs of war. Farmhands worked unhindered in the fields; the placid cattle grazed their fill; villages and farms lay inviolate. In the west, the forts of the Maginot Line, the great system on which France implicitly relied for her security against the aggressor, crouched silent and concealed. By day, the watchers cowered from sight, hidden; by night, patrols skulked stealthily from bush to bush, their hands and faces darkened. This furtive, creeping warfare in the West, this imperceptible oozing forward from a zone of supine fortresses formed ignoble contrast to the great battle on the Eastern front. Here the last desperate resistance of Poland was beaten down by the mighty torrent of German arms. Soon Germany had achieved strategic freedom to concentrate her every effort on her main object-the defeat of France.

For the British, digging was the order of the day-digging in cold, wet soil behind the Franco-Belgian frontier. Day after day and week after week the trenches slowly grew.

Major-General Roger Evans: The Story Of The Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards

Nazi aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin under construction

She was never completed, as the constant argument within the Nazi regime as to how best to allocate naval construction resources was to continue throughout the war.

The Graf Zeppelin, the only German Aircraft carrier, never completed.

The German Navy started work on two aircraft carriers but only the Graf Zeppelin was launched, in December 1938. She was never completed, as the constant argument within the Nazi regime as to how best to allocate naval construction resources was to continue throughout the war. Construction was halted on 29 April 1940 because her naval guns were needed for shore based batteries in Norway, and it was believed that she would not be completed in time to play a useful part in the war. Construction recommenced in May 1942 after the potential value of aircraft carriers became more apparent following the sinking of the Bismarck and the assault on Pearl Harbour. However Hitler became disillusioned with the Kriegsmarine, and the value of capital ships compared with U-boats, and construction stopped again in January 1943.

Another view of the Graf Zeppelin

HMS Salmon sinks a U-boat in the North Sea

“At least one torpedo broke surface and much disturbance was visible on the surface on firing. I lost trim temporarily but regained it in time to be at periscope depth before my shot could have taken effect. I saw her through the periscope blown to small fragments which rose at least 200 feet into the air.”

A pre-war image of HMS Salmon

From the Patrol Report of Lieutenant-Commander Edward Bickford, on HM Submarine Salmon:

Nothing of interest occurred until December 4th, when I was on patrol in my area and at 1330 a U-boat was sighted in position 57° North 5°10′ East by my First Lieutenant. Its conning tower appeared like a box floating in the water, but he had noticed that it did not go ‘up and down’ with the waves and had come to a shallow depth for further investigation. Simultaneously the Asdic office reported a hydrophone effect on the same bearing.

On going to the periscope I found the U-boat to be steering approximately 350 degrees, evidently on passage outward bound. I was a long way off track and closed her at full speed and eventually fired at 5,000 yards on 110 degrees track, the salvo being spread at seven-second intervals, torpedoes being set at eight feet.

At least one torpedo broke surface and much disturbance was visible on the surface on firing. I lost trim temporarily but regained it in time to be at periscope depth before my shot could have taken effect. I saw her through the periscope blown to small fragments which rose at least 200 feet into the air.

I surfaced to pick up survivors but found nothing but oil, wreckage, one dead body and a lifebelt. Bubbles continued to come up from the bottom for some time. Many volunteered to swim out through the oil to retrieve the life belt as a memento. I considered this unnecessary and, fearing aircraft and the possible presence of another U-boat, I dived once clear of the oil patch. The U-boat had one gun and was therefore of the sea-going or ocean-going class. It is impossible to tell the difference between these types except at close range …

The U-boat was U-36, commanded by KrvKpt. Wilhelm Fröhlich on his second patrol.

U-36 before the war

See TNA ADM199/1839

Soviet troops advance into Finland

The Soviet invasion of Finland was marked by incompetence. Although their Intelligence services already possessed detailed maps of the Mannerheim Line, the main Finnish defence line, these were not consulted by the invading Army.

Russian troops and light tanks entering Finland

The Soviet invasion of Finland was marked by incompetence. Although their Intelligence services already possessed detailed maps of the Mannerheim Line, the main Finnish defence line, these were not consulted by the invading Army.