The Battle of the River Plate


At about 06:14 local time (GMT -2) on 13 December the ships sighted each other and closed. Admiral Graf Spee, despite having correctly identified Exeter, initially suspected that the two light cruisers were smaller destroyers and that the British ships were protecting a merchant convoy, the destruction of which would be a major prize.

The British executed their battle plan: Exeter turned to the north-west whilst Ajax and Achilles, operating together, turned to the north-east. The Graf Spee opened fire with her six 11-inch (280 mm) guns at 06:18, eventually splitting her turrets between the two targets to the detriment of accurate gunnery, as the British had planned. Exeter opened fire at 06:20, Achilles at 06:21, Exeter's aft guns at 06:22 and Ajax at 06:23.

At 06:23 an 11-inch (280 mm) shell burst just short of Exeter, abreast the middle of the ship. Splinters from this shell killed the torpedo tubes' crews, damaged the ship's communications, and riddled the funnels and searchlights. One minute later Exeter suffered a direct hit. This shell struck her B-turret, putting it and its two guns out of action. Shrapnel swept the bridge, killing or wounding all bridge personnel except the captain and two others. Captain Bell's communications were wrecked. Communications from the aft conning position were also destroyed, and the ship had to be steered via a chain of messengers for the rest of the battle.

Meanwhile Ajax and Achilles had closed and started making in front of the Graf Spee, causing Graf Spee to split her main armament at 06:30, and otherwise using her 5.9 inch (150 mm) guns against them.

At 06:32 Exeter fired two torpedoes from her starboard tubes but both missed. At 06:37 Ajax launched her spotter aircraft from its catapult. At 06:38, the HMS Exeter turned so that she could fire her port torpedoes and received two more direct hits from 11-inch shells. One hit A-turret and put it out of action, the other entered the hull and started fires. At this point Exeter was severely damaged, having only Y-turret in action, a seven degree list, was being flooded and being steered with the use of her small boat's compass.

At 06:40 an 11-inch shell burst just short of Achilles, in line with the bridge, damaging her and causing a few casualties. However, gunnery continued from the secondary control position. At about this time Admiral Graf Spee turned to the west under the cover of a smokescreen. The light cruisers were now doing about 31 knots, having worked up to speed from 14 knots initially.

At 06:56, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear, causing at 07:10 Admiral Graf Spee to turn away and lay a smokescreen. At 07:10 the two light cruisers turned to reduce the range from 8 miles (13 km), even though this meant only their forward guns could fire.

At 07:16 Admiral Graf Spee turned to port and headed straight for the heavily damaged Exeter, but fire from Ajax and Achilles forced the Graf Spee at 07:20 to turn and fire her 11-inch guns at them, who turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear.

Ajax turned to starboard at 07:24 and fired her torpedoes at a range of 4.5 miles (7 km), causing Admiral Graf Spee to turn away under a smokescreen.

At 07:25 Ajax was hit by an 11-inch shell that put X-turret out of action and jammed Y-turret, causing some casualties.

Glossary of Terms

Side by side; also, opposite; over against; on a line with the vessel's beam.
Near, in or towards the stern of a ship.
The bridge is an elevated platform above the upper deck of a mechanically propelled ship from which it is navigated and from which all activities on deck can be seen and controlled by the captain, etc; smaller ships have a wheelhouse, and sailing ships were controlled from a quarterdeck.
A catapult is a mechanical aid on aircraft carriers designed to help airplanes take off from the flight deck.
To make (a gap) smaller.
To direct a ship.
A convoy is a group of vehicles or ships travelling together for convenience or protection.
A cruiser is a large warship capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously.
A cruiser typically has four gun turrets: two on the front (A and B), and two on the back (X and Y).
A destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet or battle group and defend them against smaller, short-range attackers.
A funnel is a passage or avenue for a fluid or flowing substance; specifically, a smoke flue or pipe; the chimney of a steamship or the like.
The hull is the body or frame of a ship or boat.
A knot is a unit of speed equaling 1 nautical mile per hour (1.15 miles per hour or 1.852 kilometers per hour).
Port is the nautical term (used on boats and ships) that refers to the left side of a ship, as perceived by a person facing towards the bow (the front of the vessel).
The quarterdeck is the aft part of the upper deck of a ship; normally reserved for officers.
A shell is a projectile, which, as opposed to a bullet, is not solid but contains an explosive or other filling.
Shrapnel is a collective term for fragments and debris thrown out by an exploding shell or landmine.
A spotter is a person who observes something.
Starboard is the nautical term (used on boats and ships) that refers to the right side of a vessel, as perceived by a person facing towards the bow (the front of the vessel).
A torpedo is a self-propelled guided missile that is launched against surface ships or submarines by submarines, surface ships or aircraft.
A turret is a revolving tower constructed of thick iron plates, within which cannon are mounted. Turrets are used on vessels of war and on land.
The wheelhouse is an enclosed compartment, on the deck of a vessel such as a fishing boat, from which it may be navigated; on a larger vessel it is the bridge.

Most of the content on this page is copied from a Wikipedia article (and other Wikipedia articles referenced from there), which is available under the GNU Free Documentation License. Most definitions are based on those in Wiktionary, which is also available under the GNU Free Documentation License.