Undying memories of the Battle of the River Plate Jan 21, 2023 0:59:21 GMT 12 Antonio likes this
Post by Dave Homewood on Jan 21, 2023 0:59:21 GMT 12
D. W. HODGE talks to A. G. Young, of Timaru, a petty officer in H.M.S. Achilles when the German raider Admiral Graf Spec was caught. The picture shows Mr Young at home with his mementoes.
Undying memories of the Battle of the River Plate
A Timaru man played a part in the naval action which ended in the scuttling of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee outside Montevideo Harbour in the early months of World War II.
Mr A. G. Young, aged 58, of 86 Andrew Street, still treasures a lethal memento of the action. This is a jagged piece of shrapnel, 2in square, part of the casing of an 11in shell fired by the Graf Spee, embedded in a Church of England book of common prayer which he was carrying at the time.
The holder of the Distinguished Service Medal for his part in the engagement, Mr Young believes that the prayer book saved the shell fragment from killing him.
Petty Officer Young was hurrying to his gun station — the left 6in gun of B turret — along the upper deck. As he swung his gas respirator haversack over his shoulder he felt a tug, and imagined that he had hit a guard rail.
It was not until after the main action, when gas equipment was being tested, that he found the shrapnel lodged in the prayer book. His gas respirator was shattered, the fragment of metal having gone right through the respirator.
The final perforation was the line of the hymn: "Onward Christian Soldiers.”
The sole Southland survivor of the River Plate action, Mr Young was given the prayer book and a book of hymns by his mother in 1932.
Mr Young joined Achilles before the war, and he was in the Mediterranean before serving in the Battle of the River Plate. The Achilles refitted in 1938 and was recommissioned in January 27, 1939. She returned to Auckland on August 18, and on August 29 put to sea to join the West Indies Force.
A draft of ratings from H.M.S. Philomel and two junior naval reserve officers from H.M.S. Leander joined the Achilles. The ship’s company then numbered 567, of whom 26 officers and 220 ratings were from the Royal Navy and five officers and 316 ratings were New Zealanders.
H.M.S. Achilles, 7030 tons, had eight 6in, four 4in anti-aircraft guns, and other features as for H.M.S. Leander.
On September 2, Achilles was ordered to alter course for Valparaiso, Chile. The Admiralty signal: "Commence hostilities against Germany” was received at 0.53 a.m. (ship’s time) the next day.
The Achilles arrived in Valparaiso roads on September 12.
Captain Parry (later Admiral Sir Edward Parry) was in command, Achilles took in fresh provisions and 1365 tons of fuel-oil.
The advent of H.M.S. Achilles, the sole Allied warship around the coasts of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia sufficed to hold the German trade at a standstill and virtually to immobilise 17 German merchant ships totalling 84,000 tons along a coastline of some 5000 miles from the Panama Canal to Cape Horn. On August 22, 1939, H.M.S. Exeter, commanded by Captain F.S. Bell, R.N., was ordered to return to South American waters. Another cruiser, H.M.S. Ajax (Captain C. H. L. Woodhouse, R.N.), was already on patrol off the coast of Brazil.
On August 21, the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, with a complement of 1134 officers and men commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, had sailed from Wilhelmshaven in accordance with plans to commerce raiding in the Atlantic.
The tanker Altmark, carrying three months supplies for the Admiral Graf Spee, had sailed from Germany as early as August 2, and having loaded 9400 tons of fuel-oil at Port Arthur, Texas, left there on August 19 for the Atlantic.
It was not until September 26 that Langsdorff received orders to commence raiding operations. Four days later the Admiral Graf Spee sank the British steamer Clement, about 75 miles south-east of Pernambuco — though not before the ship had got off a distress signal.
On this occasion, as on several others, the Admiral Graf Spee displayed a name plate of the Admiral Scheer. A report that the Clement had been sunk reached the Admiralty the following afternoon. The Achilles was instructed to leave the Pacific and join Commodore Harwood’s (later Admiral Sir Henry Harwood) South American Division.
The appearance of a single enemy raider in the South Atlantic set in motion numerous naval forces directly involving 31 powerful ships.
Commodore Harwood, in the Exeter, joined the Ajax off the south coast of Brazil. On October 3, the Commander-in-Chief directed that, failing any news of further raider activities in the immediate future, the Ajax and Achilles and the destroyers Hotspur and Havock were to protect shipping in the Rio de Janeiro and River Plate areas.
The Exeter and the 8in cruiser Cumberland were to carry out their initial sweep as a hunting group as far north as their fuel supplies would allow.
Having steamed up from the Falkland Islands, the Achilles closed the Exeter in the southern approach to the River Plate at 7.30 a.m. on October 26.
After sinking the Clement on September 30, the Admiral Graf Spee made a wide sweep of more than 1800 miles across the Atlantic to the Cape route.
Over the next few weeks she sank nine British ships.
The Admiral Graf Spee was classed officially as an armoured ship of 10,000 tons displacement. Her actual load displacement on her over-all length of 609 ft and breadth of 69ft 6in was probably about 14,000 tons.
She carried a main armament of six 11in guns mounted in two triple turrets, one forward and one aft, and secondary armament of eight 5.9 in guns, four on each beam. The 11in guns had a maximum range of 30,000 yards and fired a projectile of 670lb. The ship also had eight 21 in torpedo-tubes and carried two aircraft.
H.M.S. Exeter, a light cruiser of 8390 tons displacement, was armed with six 8in guns in three turrets, each gun firing a projectile of 256lb. The Ajax and Achilles, 7030 tons displacement, each mounted eight 6in guns in four turrets, each firing a projectile of 112 lb.
The secondary guns of the German ship were the equal in weight of the main armament of either the Ajax or the Achilles. She could fire a total weight of 4830lb against 3328lb from the three British cruisers, though the rate of her 11in guns was slower.
The British ships had an advantage in speed of about five knots.
The battle started on the morning of December 13 when the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter were 240 miles due east from Cape Santa Maria on the coast of Uruguay, some 340 miles from Montevideo.
In the end, the Admiral Graf Spee, herself damaged, retired from the Ajax and Achilles behind a smoke screen without attempting to finish off the damaged Exeter.
The action had lasted 82 minutes. In that brief period the Achilles had fired more than 200 broadsides.
Captain Langsdorff steered for Montevideo. The ship proceeded at 23 knots direct for the River Plate.
In due course, the Cumberland, which had been refitting at the Falkland Islands, proceeded at full speed to the River Plate area.
Orders had also been given for the Ark Royal, Renown, and other ships which had been patrolling some 3000 miles away to proceed at once to the South American coast.
The net was tightening.
The Admiral Graf Spee anchored in Montevideo roads shortly after midnight.
Thus ended the day-long pursuit of the pocket battleship, which had covered some 350 miles in 16 hours to gain shelter in a neutral harbour, later referred to by her captain as “the trap of Montevideo.”
The Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles had gained the day in one of the most brilliant cruiser actions in the long annals of the Royal Navy.
As was emphasised in an Admiralty survey, only a tactical blunder of the first magnitude by the enemy and the superiority of the British personnel prevented the destruction of one of our ships and our being forced to abandon the action.
The most salient point of the enemy’s tactics was that the raider closed on sighting the British ships and split her main armament, firing one turret at the Ajax and Achilles and the other at the Exeter. This initial closing of the range had the effect of bringing all three ships into effective gun range at once and so avoided for them the most difficult problem of gaining range in the face of 11in gunfire.
The casualties in the British cruisers during the action were five officers killed and six wounded, and 67 ratings killed and 41 wounded.
On December 15, the Admiral Graf Spee landed a funeral party to bury her 36 dead. The raider had been granted an extension of her stay up to 72 hours in order to make her seaworthy.
Reports indicated that the ship had been hit from 60 to 70 times during the action.
The Uruguayan Government adhered to its decision that the Admiral Graf Spee must put to sea by 6.45 p.m. on December 17 or be interned.
Preparations for the destruction of the ship went forward. Most of her crew were transferred to the German merchant ship Tacoma.
At 6.17 p.m. the raider hoisted a large ensign on her foremast, as well as one at the main, and left the harbour, stopping about eight miles from the entrance. By 7.40 p.m. the fuses of the scuttling charges had been set and Langsdorff and his demolition party left in the ship’s boats for the Tacoma.
The first explosion occurred at sunset.
Fires continued to burn in the ship for six days.
It was an ignominious end.
On December 19, the Argentine Government decided to intern the crew of the Admiral Graf Spee, in spite of the German claim that they were shipwrecked seamen.
That night Langsdorff shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel.
In a message to the New Zealand Naval Board, Rear-Admiral Harwood said the Achilles was handled perfectly by her captain and fought magnificently by her captain, officers and ship’s company.
He fully concurred with the remark of Captain Parry that "New Zealand has every reason to be proud of her seamen during their baptism of fire.”
H.M.S. Achilles arrived at Auckland on February 23 — the day on which the officers and men of the Ajax and Exeter were being reviewed by the King in England.
Mr Young recalls that during 24 hours leave at Montevideo the men of H.M.S. Achilles mingled with the German sailors from the Graf Spee.
Mr Young paid a tribute to the German marksmanship. He said it was only the wonderful seamanship of Captain Parry, combined with an element of luck, that a direct hit on Achilles was not scored by the Admiral Graf Spee.
The first shell from the enemy raider was fired from a range of 16 miles, said Mr Young. It landed only about 200 yards from the Achilles.
Captain Langsdorff, in a speech before taking his own life, said it had been reported from the crow’s nest of the Admiral Graf Spee that a cruiser was escorting two merchantmen, and it was not until after an attack had been launched on the Exeter that it was discovered that the supposed merchantmen were the Achilles and Ajax.
It was not until 18 minutes after the Graf Spee opened fire that the Achilles got within range with its guns. For 23 minutes a “head-on” battle ensued, with Achilles travelling at full speed for the Graf Spee. The Exeter took the bulk of the early fire and retired from the action after 17 minutes.
“The rate of fire from Achilles and Ajax was terrible, and when the enemy realised that most damage was being done by the light cruisers she concentrated her 11in guns on them. Splendid manoeuvring by the cruisers made the big guns of the Graf Spee ineffective although one shell landed a matter of feet from the Achilles,” said Mr Young.
“When the raider turned and ran for it, the Achilles kept on her port side so that she could not bring her big guns into action during the night. The cruisers, however, kept out of range and relentlessly pursued the Admiral Graf Spee, awaiting darkness so that they might manoeuvre for torpedo attacks." he said.
Mr Young said the rapidity of the fire during the action could be judged by the fact that Achille’s guns were white-hot, and had to be spelled at intervals.
He said that the last three days of waiting for the raider to come out were more trying on the men than the actual engagement. Every man remained at his action station, being fed there.
The cruisers patrolled backwards and forwards awaiting the departure of the Graf Spee keeping 16 miles out to sea during the day and closing the gap to seven miles at night.
At 8 p.m. on the third day, the pilot of the reconnaissance aircraft reported that the pocket battleship was weighing anchor. Within a short time the Ajax, Achilles and Cumberland were steaming up the River Plate to meet her.
But the Graf Spee’s destiny had already been decided.
Mr Young said he had corresponded regularly with Admiral Sir Edward Parry until his death about four years ago at Twyford Abbey, Park Royal, London.
The R.N.Z.N., he said, owed its strength and efficiency to Admiral Parry, who had inculcated fine traditions among the rank and file of the service.
PRESS, 2 FEBRUARY 1977