Vol 4. 4th Edition
Victory off the River Plate
by the late George Deacon
All my East Coast forbears had been seamen; Father was an RN pensioner since 1930 after being a Chief Cox’n, so quite naturally it was the Navy for me!
Civvy life didn’t suit Dad and when he took me to Chatham to join in October 1935, he saw a chance for pensioners to sign on again and he was back in long before I got in, for there was a wait of six months for me. Earlier he’d been a Mate on the sailing barge Lapwing for Eastwoods Brick Co and I’d often gone with him. Now a local Skipper was persuaded to take me as an unpaid hand. A few trips and I managed to wangle a berth as Mate on Northampton, she being short handed and anxious to sail. Several months of very hard work followed but I stayed, my soft schoolboy’s hands hardened, and I loved it and learned a lot. HMS Ganges beckoned in April 1936, and I trained as a Seaman Boy, later made Instructor Boy, joining HMS Caledonia.
In January 1938 I joined HMS Ajax, (pictured right) then commissioning for the American and West Indies squadron, based on Bermuda. Eighteen months passed, with me as part of ‘B’ Turret’s crew and we trained and exercised unceasingly, soon becoming an efficient and happy ship. We had visits to West Indian islands and a cruise right round South America. Ashore there were many parties, matches against locals and dances. We landed armed patrols in Jamaican riots and assisted in the Chilean earthquake. Life was interesting and enjoyable. More exercises and ‘shoots’, and then off on our second cruise which was interrupted by the Munich crisis; Chamberlain waved his piece of paper and we went back to normal. Later the ‘balloon went up’ again, shells were fused and warheads put onto torpedoes.
On a Sunday morning suddenly we found that we were at war. No one seemed surprised nor worried. I never heard anyone who “was dying to get at ’em”, as has since been heard. Well trained and ready, it was our job. Only four hours later, we found a German freighter, sunk her after removing the crew and next day did the same. Weeks went by, we got over the first tiredness brought on by extra watches in defence stations and again sank a German freighter.
‘Buzzes’ circulated in the ship about some pocket battleship in the southern ocean, but no one really told us much. Mere sailors don’t need to know such things it seemed. Soon joined by Commodore ‘Flip’ Harwood and with Exeter and our sister ship, New Zealander Achilles, plus the bigger County Class 8” Cumberland, we made one of many hunting groups seeking a German raider, supposedly Panzerschift Sheer.
Harwood planned to attack by day or night operating in two units to confuse opposing fire. Reports of more sinkings and they estimated she might be found off the Plate on 12 December but that passed and nothing was found, so Cumberland was detached for ‘self refitting’. Dawn on the 13th was clear and cloudless and found us closed up at normal Action Stations, steaming through a calm blue sea. The horizon looked bare and we fell out. My hammock already lashed and stowed, I got my head down on the mess table while my ‘Oppo’ Ginger Robinson wet the tea.
All unknown, at 0600 hrs Graf Spee was peering at us just over the horizon. On top of their towerlike bridge, her large rangefinder, looking over the curve of the earth, lined up on us. Earlier, she’d avoided Cumberland by using her reconnaissance aircraft; both were now U/S, being badly designed for use at sea. Now Captain Langsdorf thought we were a cruiser, accompanying two destroyers, and that was his downfall. She closed to attack; Leading Signalman Swanston thought he saw smoke and reported it. Exeter was detached to investigate, then signalled: Enemy in sight - I think it’s a pocket battleship!
Alarm rattlers and the bugle sounded. I was off that table, flying up several ladders to the gun deck. I was an Able Seaman now; loader on a 4” gun. Trousers in one hand and sea boots in the other, I saw this small shape on the horizon. Suddenly a great belch of black smoke came from her. Huge shells splashed all round Exeter now away to port. A rising whine came as engine uptakes sucked air into our boiler rooms as we worked up to full speed. Exeter was firing and soon hitting but we were out of range. Then in quite quick succession, she was heavily hit, losing every gun except one aft and afire from end to end. Soon Ajax sort of lurched, reacting to our first full salvo, all guns in concerted fire with Achilles, our aircraft was catapulted between salvos for spotting. We, too, started hitting the enemy hard but our shells only damaged unarmoured parts. Thirty minutes and the range, now down to seven thousand yards, at almost point blank and splinters rattled on our funnel as enemy shells straddled us again, taking fire away from helpless Exeter. A 5.9” shell felled our main mast, killing Boy Farley. When are we going to let go with our 4”?
Later I read the Captain’s Official Report: “Permission to open fire was requested - but this request failed to reach me.” The moment went and as we turned and fired a spread of torpedoes, an 11” silenced both our after turrets and killed many crewmen. We opened the range and as the enemy, now known to us as Graf Spee, headed away west at speed, with seemingly all of her fire power intact, Harwood decided to shadow her until nightfall when a night attack might do better. To our surprise she just kept heading west! We trailed her, one on each quarter and again she would fire a salvo at one of us when we got a bit too close and shells came too near for comfort.
Eventually she took sanctuary in Montevideo Harbour but, with bad intelligence and more damaged than we ever realised, knew she’d never make it back to Germany. She took off most of her crew and then they blew up their fine ship which, half submerged, burned for many days, outside the navigable channel off Montevideo, while disgraced Langsdorf shot himself. Before this we waited four long nights, full of apprehension, just off the coast until at last she sailed. Joined now by Cumberland, we steamed in formation at Action Stations, once more to engage. Our spotter plane catapulted and we sweated. Then came Capt Woodhouse’s voice over the loudspeakers: “Our aircraft just reported that Graf Spee has blown herself up!”
A moment’s silence, then a cheer came swelling up right from below which engulfed the ship, letting out all our fears and apprehensions of days. We turned, steamed back and round our other ships, everyone who could, up on deck, myself and many others perched astride the heat blistered guns of ‘B’ Turret. We cheered like mad while Achilles’ crew of New Zealanders did an impromptu HAKA!
Back in line ahead, we steamed round the flaming hulk of Graf Spee then down to sea and south, joining Exeter for temporary repairs in the Falklands and home to good old England. A great welcome there, a London review by the King and Queen with a march to the Guildhall, feeling briefly like heroes but knowing differently.
‘Milked’ fully by Winston, this story has been told many times, the action which ended with Graf Spee destroyed in the Plate estuary became a minor legend. Films and TV documentaries made, books written and paintings painted. Even a new town in Canada was named after the ship where all streets bear names of our Officers and crew - quite unique!
Set against the scene of the whole terrible war, it was no Trafalgar. Her crew knew they were never heroes, most never acted that way. Later Ajax went on to more ‘hairy’ actions. She performed with distinction in the Med at Matapan and Crete; fought a lone night action against five Italian destroyers, sinking three of them. Months of almost daily battles against dive bombers and, though damaged, she survived while many sank, until a bomb got her while alongside in Bone Harbour in 1943. Repaired in America, she returned long before D-Day and did magnificent shooting, silencing heavy batteries on the French coast.
I served in Ajax at the Plate, also in the Med later, then post-war until she was scrapped in 1948. The rest of WWII, I spent in Corvettes covering Atlantic convoys, but Churchill’s sonorous and often imitated voice will forever echo in my ears “Your action, which Admiral Harwood conceived and which you executed, takes its place in our naval annals - and in a dark cold winter, it warmed the cockles of the British heart!”
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