Frederick Secker Bell, RN

Born  17 Aug 1897Westminster, London, England
Died  23 Nov 1973(76)Richmond, London, England

If you can help with photo or any information on this Officer please
use our comment form


31 Jul 1914 Mid.
15 Jul 1916 A/S.Lt.
15 Mar 1917 S.Lt.
15 Jun 1918 Lt.
15 Jun 1926 Lt.Cdr.
30 Jun 1931 Cdr.
31 Dec 1938 Capt.

Retired: 8 Jan 1948


23 Dec 1939 CB

Warship Commands listed for Frederick Secker Bell, RN

HMS Exeter (68)Capt.Heavy cruiser25 Aug 1939mid 1940
HMS Anson (79)Capt.Battleship19 Jan 1946

Career information

We currently have no career / biographical information on this officer.

Events related to this officer

Heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (68)

13 Dec 1939

Battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939.

[Continuation of the event called ‘1 October 1939, an enemy raider reported in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. The chase of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee’]

The battle, first phase.

When Commodore Harwood detached HMS Exeter (Capt. F.S. Bell, RN) at 0614 hours to investigate smoke bearing 324° his squadron was in position 34°28’S, 49°05’W in single line ahead in the order HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN, flying the flag of Commodore H.H. Harwood, OBE, RN), HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, RN) and HMS Exeter, events followed quickly. Two minutes later the Exeter signalled ‘I think it is a pocket battleship’ and two minutes after that the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire on her, now there was no doubt anymore.

When the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles increased speed and turned to 340° to close the range and engage the enemy from the eastward. At the same time HMS Exeter turned westward at full speed to engage her from the southward and to carry out the Commodore’s plan off attacking simultaneously from widely different bearings.

When he commodore signaled that his policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship was to act as two units, on divergent courses to permit flank marking he apparently intended the Exeter to take station on a line bearing from the enemy at approximately right angles to the line of fire of both light cruisers.

To put this into effect HMS Exeter first intention was to engage the enemy on her port bow. Seeing that this might hamper the two light cruisers, however, she turned to 280° and at 0620 hours opened fire to starboard from 18700 yards with her foremost two 8” gun turrets. These tactics were most effective. With two or more targets to engage, an enemy will always have to choose between engaging one ship or dividing her armament amongst them, no matter what formation the target ships are in. The difficulty that enhanced in this case was the wide dispersion of targets. The enemy having to choose between leaving one of the British units disengaged with her main armament or dividing it between them. The enemy choose for the latter and opened fire with one main gun turret on HMS Exeter and with the other on HMS Ajax. The salvoes from the Exeter however soon worried the enemy and the enemy once or twice concentrated both 11” turrets on her and quickly straddled. At this time the after gun turret on HMS Exeter also opened fire on the enemy.

At 0623 hours, a 11” shell from the third salvo from the Admiral Graf Spee, bursting short amidships, killed the crew of HMS Exeter’s starboard torpedo tubes and damaged her search lights, communications, funnels and aircraft. One minute later, when HMS Exeter had fired eight salvoes, another 11” shell knocked out her ‘B’ turret. Its splinters swept the bridge, killng or wounding all the bridge personnel except Captain Bell and two others. It also wrecked the wheelhouse communications. She was no longer under control from forward and Captain Bell made his way aft. He had hardly left the bridge before her head began to swing rapidly to starboard. Although her lower conning position at once took over the steering, she was in danger of masking her after turret. The torpedo-officer, Lt.Cdr. C.J. Smith, RN, had been momentarily stunned, but recovered in time to get an order through to bring her back on a westerly course. By this time she had received two more direct hits forward and damage from shells bursting short. Her aircraft were extensively riddled. Petrol from the port machine was spraying over the after conning position. There was a serious danger of fire and both aircraft were jettisoned.

Captain Bell then arrived aft only to find communications broken down between the after conning position and the steering flat. He was obliged to pass his orders through a chain of messengers. In a ships as heavily engaged this was a task of extreme difficulty, but it was successfully accomplished till Captain Bell was forced to break off the action due to amount of damage sustained.

While the Admiral Graf Spee was fiercely engaging HMS Exeter with 11” gun salvoes she was firing alternately at HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles with her secondary armament. Some of her 5.9” salvoes fell very close but none actually hit. Meanwhile HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles were hitting back hard with ‘concentrated fire’ at a rapidly closing range. Their shooting was effective, for at 0630 hours, the Admiral Graf Spee shifted one of her main turrets to HMS Ajax, halving the heavy volume of fire against HMS Exeter. At 0631 hours three 11” salvoes straddled the Ajax and both light cruisers then turned away a point or two to confuse the enemy’s fire. Three minutes later, however HMS Ajax turned back to port to close the range. At 0637 hours she catapulted her aircraft.

Meanwhile the Exeter had fired her starboard torpedoes in local control, and at 0637 hours the Admiral Graf Spee apparently finding the British attack too hot, turned 150° to port and retired to the north-westward under cover of a smoke screen. Both light cruisers then immediately hauled round at full speed, first to the north and then to the west to close the range and regain bearing. Three minutes later HMS Exeter turned several points to starboard to bring her port tubes to bear. At 0643 hours she fired her port torpedoes. She then steered north-east to close HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles but at 0645 hours she turned back once more to a westerly course to keep within range. By this time she had received two more direct 11” hits, one of them on ‘A’ turret, and was showing signs of acute distress. Both her foremost turrets were out of action and she was burning fiercely amidships. Her one remaining 8” turret was in local control. Her compasses were destroyed.

Meanwhile the Admiral Graf Spee was heavily engaging the light cruisers. At 0640 hours, a 11” shell bust on the water in line with the bridge of HMNZS Achilles. It killed or seriously wounded four ratings in her director control tower, stunned the gunnery officer, Lt. R.E. Washbourn, and slightly wounded Captain Perry. Her director tower, however was undamaged and her rate of fie unaffected as she was in concentration firing. At 0646 hour her fire control wireless set broke down, and she carried on in individual control. She had great difficulty at first in finding the range and her first salvoes fell short. Reports of these salvoes were transmitted by the aircraft from HMS Ajax. The Ajax however, not knowing the the Achilles was no longer in concentration firing, accepted them as referring to her own salvoes and corrected accordingly. At this time the enemy was making a smoke screen and spotting conditions were extremely bad. As a result the salvoes from from HMS Ajax fell far beyond the enemy. The range was not found again until 0708 hours.

At 0650 hours, HMS Exeter was steering west with her remaining 8” gun turret still in action. She had a 7° list to starboard and several forward compartments flooded. At 0656 hours the light cruisers hauled round to the north-westward and for a while the Admiral Graf Spee kept altering course frequently to confuse their fire. At 0710 hours the range was still 16000 yards. To shorten it HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles turned westwards at full speed. At 0716 hours the enemy made a large turn to port under the cover of a smoke screen steering straight for HMS Exeter in an apparent attempt to finish her off. The light cruisers immediately turned to the rescue, firing so accurately that the enemy was set on fire amidships and was forced to turn back to the north-west to re-engage HMS Ajax which was immediately straddled at 11000 yards by three 11” salvoes although the enemy’s secondary armamanet was shooting wildly.

At 0725 hours an 11” shell knocked out Ajax’s after turrets. She at once retaliated by turning to starboard and firing four torpedoes from 9000 yards. The Admiral Graf Spee avoided them with a large turn to port but almost immediately turned back to the north-west in an apparent attempt to close the light cruisers. At 0728 hours they turned to 280° to close the range still further. At 0731 hours the aircraft from Ajax reported ‘torpedoes approaching, they will pass ahead of you’. Commodore Harwood decided to take no chances and turned south and engaged the enemy on it’s starboard side with the range still closing rapidly. One minute later the Admiral Graf Spee turned westwards under the cover of yet another smoke screen to confuse the accurate gunfire of the light cruisers. At 0736 hours the enemy turned south-west, again bringing all her guns to bear. Two minutes later one of her salvoes brought down the topmast and wireless aerial of HMS Ajax from a range of 8000 yards.

Meanwhile HMS Exeter was dropping slowly astern with her after turret still firing. At 0730 hours pressure in this turret failed. She could keep up no longer and at 0740 hours turned slowly south-east to repair some of the damage.

About this time a report reached the Commodore that only 20 percent of Ajax’s 6” ammunition remained. With HMS Exeter out of action and with both the after turrets of HMS Ajax out of action and he decided that the action had to be broken off. The enemy was still firing accurately and appeared little damaged so the Commodore decided to break off the fight until dark when there would be a better chance to get close to a range in which his lighter armament and torpedoes would be effective. At 0740 hours the light cruisers turned away to the east under the cover of smoke. Thus ended the first phase of the battle. It had laster one hour an twenty-two minutes.

The battle, second phase.

When the Ajax and Achilles turned away at 0740 hours, the Admiral Graf Spee did not follow them. After opening the range for six minutes under cover of smoke Commodore Harwood turned back to the west. The action now developed into a procession, the Admiral Graf Spee in the van steering at 22 knots straight for the River Plate with both light cruisers about 15 miles behind with HMNZS Achilles on the starboard quarter and HMS Ajax on the port quarter.

At 0800 hours, HMS Ajax was in position 34°25’S, 49°29’W. Seven minutes later and afterwards every hour the cruisers broadcasted the enemy’s position, course and speed to warn merchant vessels to keep out of danger. By 0814 hours the Exeter was out of sight and Commodore Harwood ordered the aircraft from Ajax to tell her to close. At 0910 hoursm, the aircraft informed him that the Exeter, though badly damaged, was joining him as best she could. Two minutes later HMS Ajax recovered her aircraft. The Exeter was however unable to gain contact. Captain Bell decided to slow down to allow her to be brought to an even keel and bulkheads to be shored up. He then turned westwards for the nearest land. At 0946 hours, Commodore Harwood signalled HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) which was still at Port Stanley to proceed towards the Plate area at full speed. This signal took some time to get through. When HMS Cumberland sailed at 1200 hours she did so at the initiative of her Commanding Officer. When the signal from the Commodore finally reached him he increased to full speed.

Shortly after 1000 hours HMNZS Achilles had closed the Admiral Graf Spee to 23000 yards, having over estimated the speed of the enemy, was taken under fire by her when the enemy suddenly turned. Her first salvo was short but the second fell almost alongside. HMNZS Achilles then turned away at full speed behind a smoke screen to resume shadowing from a safe distance and the enemy ceased fire.

The next hour was uneventful. Then at 1104 hours, HMS Ajax sighted the British merchant Shakespeare (???? GRT, built ????) laying stopped near the Admiral Graf Spee. A few minutes later the enemy asked both cruisers to pick up the lifeboats from the British steamer. When they however reached her they found her in no need of assistance.

At 1105 hours HMS Exeter signalled that though she was flooded forward and had all her turrets out of action she could still steam 18 knots. Some time later she was able to report that one of her after turret guns could be fired in local control. It was clear, however, that she had no further fighting value and at 1340 hours the Commodore ordered her to make for the Falklands so at 1510 hours she turned south.

Meanwhile the early afternoon had passed quietly for both cruisers that were shadowing the enemybut then at 1543 hours HMNZS Achilles signaled ‘enemy in sight bearing 297°. Shortly afterwards she identified this new enemy as an 8” gun cruiser. The alarm fortunately turned out to be false as both cruisers were in no condition to take on an additional enemy. At 1559 hours the approaching vessel was identified as the merchant Delane (6054 GRT, built 1938). Her streamlined funnel had given the appearance of a ‘Blücher’ class cruiser at long range.

Shadowing then continued without further incident until 1900 hours. By that time the intention of the enemy to enter the River Plate was becoming clear. At 1902 hours Commodore Harwood signalled to the Achilles that she was to follow the enemy if she went west of Lobos Island.

At 1915 hours the enemy turned and fired two salvoes at HMS Ajax from 26000 yards. The first salvo was short but the second salvo fell in her wake as she turned away behind a smoke screen. HMNZS Achilles, too, turned away on seeing the gun flashes but soon resumed her westerly course. At 2000 hours Ajax turned south to frustrate a possible attempt by the emeny to double back and shake off the shadowing cruisers. They were now in position 35°08’S, 54°49’W about 50 nautical miles east of English Bank.

For more then twelve hours the Admiral Graf Spee had been closing the Plate at a steady speed of 22 knots with the two light cruisers on her tail. As soon as she passed Lobos Island the whole duty of shadowing her developed upon HMNZS Achilles. At 2014 hours Captain Perry increased speed to close before dusk. In half an hour he had reduced the distance to 23000 yards. At sunset, 2048 hours, the enemy, apparently as a counter to the shortening of the range, turned and fired three salvoes. The first two fell short and as the Achilles turned away at full speed, the third salvo fell only just astern. Two minutes later the Achilles turned northward to keep the full advantage of the after glow, and at 2054 hours fired five salvoes which appeared to straddle. She then turned west once more and increased to 30 knots to keep in touch. Between 2130 and 2145 hours the enemy fired three final salvoes from her after turrets. All three salvoes fell short, and the Achilles, not wanting to give away her position, did not return fire.

By 2200 hours, she had closed within 5 nautical miles, but finding it increasingly difficult to see the enemy. So she altered course at 2213 hours to silhouette her against the lights of Montevideo. She continued her westerly course for another hour. Then at 2317 hours the Commodore ordered her to withdraw. Shortly after midnight the Admiral Graf Spee entered Montevideo. Thus ended the second phase of the Battle of the River Plate.

The watch on the River Plate, 14 – 17 December 1939.

When commodore Harwood recalled the Achilles at 2317 hours the intention of the Admiral Graf Spee was quite clear. She was going to enter Montevideo. The main question was how long she would stay there. It was also of the utmost importance that the British cruisers should keep to seaward of her if she came out. It was equally important that they should not be caught against the light of dawn. At 2350 hours, therefore, both cruisers withdrew temporarily from the Plate. Achilles was to patrol the northern area between the Uruguayan coast and a line of 120° from English Bank while Ajax patrolled the southern area. The night passed without incident. Both ships moved back towards Montevideo as soon as the danger of the dawn light had passed.

For the moment these two small British cruisers stood alone between the enemy and the open sea. Both had been heavily engaged the previous day and were short of fuel. They had no hope at all to destroy the enemy unless they were concentrated, nor were the geographical factors in their favour. From the River Plate estuary, which is 120 miles wide between Cape S. Antonio and Lobos Island, run three widely separated deep-water channels. The difficulties of the situation were great and the Commodore could look for little immediate assistance.

On the morning of 13 December 1939, the day of the battle, ‘Force H’ (HMS Sussex (Capt. A.R. Hammick, RN),
HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN)) were sweeping off Lobito, on the west coast of Africa, 4000 nautical miles away from the Plate Estuary. ‘Force I’ of the East Indies Station (HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN), HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hamill, RN) and HMS Gloucester (Capt F.R. Garside, RN)) were at Durban. ‘Force G’ (HMS Cumberland) was at the Falkland Islands, 1000 nautical miles to the South. This was the closest ship to reinforce the cruisers of the Commodore. ‘Force K’ was the most powerful force on the South Atlantic station (HMS Ark Royal (Capt. A.J. Power, RN) and HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN)). This force was off Pernambuco, 2000 nautical miles to the north. ‘Force X’ (the French cruisers Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury) and Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu) with the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN)) were off St. Paul Rocks, even further to the north. The British light cruiser HMS Neptune (Capt. J.A.V. Morse, DSO, RN) and the British destroyers HMS Hardy (Capt. B.A. Warburton-Lee, RN), HMS Hostile (Cdr. J.P. Wright, RN) and HMS Hero (Cdr. C.F. Tower, MVO, RN) were with them. The submarine HMS Severn (Lt.Cdr. B.W. Taylor, RN) was now halfway between St. Helena and Bahia, she was on the way from Freetown to the Falkland Islands. The submarine HMS Clyde (Cdr. W.E. Banks, RN) was approaching Dakar from a patrol off St. Paul Rocks.

Throughout 14 December 1939 HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles kept a constant watch over the mouth of the River Plate estuary as they possibly could. That night they received a much needed reinforcement as HMS Cumberland arrived from the Falklands at 2200 hours. She had made the passage north in 34 hours. This enabled Commodore Harwood to watch all three deep water Channels throughout the night. The Cumberland was placed in the centre, Achilles to the north and Ajax to the south.

Next day the problem of refuelling had to be faced. Fortunately RFA Olynthus was at hand and the Commodore ordered her to meet HMS Ajax in San Borombon Bay. HMS Cumberland closed them to provide cover in case the Admiral Graf Spee came out to attack them. Weather was bad and the lines which hold the ships together parted but despite this HMS Ajax was able to take on board 200 tons of fuel. She then proceeded to join the Cumberland.

Shortly after this the Commodore learned that the Admiral Graf Spee, which had been hit between 60 and 70 times, and was more extensively damaged then at first thought, had been given permission to remain in Montevideo for another 72 hours to make herself seaworthy. There could be no guarantee however, that she would stay there, so the British cruisers were in no way able to relax their instant readiness for action.

Thus, when just for dawn the next morning HMS Ajax, HMNZS Achilles and HMS Cumberland were concentrated off San Antonio in the southern part of the estuary, HMS Ajax flew off her aircraft for a reconnaissance flight. It returned at 0830 hours with a report that though visibility was extremely bad it had been fired on near the whistle buoy. This indicated that the enemy might be leaving and the three cruisers went to action stations. It was a false alarm as the enemy was soon reported to be still in the harbour. The day passed without further incident. The squardron spent the night patrolling north and south 5 miles east of English Bank.

Next morning, 17 December 1939, HMS Ajax and HMS Cumberland coverered HMNZS Achilles while she refuelled from the Olynthus off Rouen Bank. The whole squardron then cruised in company throughout the afternoon ready to take up its night patrols at dusk.

British Forces close the Plate Estuary, 13-17 December 1939.

While the cruisers of the South America Division were watching the Plate between 13 and 17 December strong British forces were steadily closing in on Montevideo.

On the afternoon of 13 December 1939, the day of the battle, the Admiralty placed ‘Force I’ that was at Durban at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. He immediately ordered them to proceed to the Cape ports with all despatch. They sailed the next morning, but the Admiralty soon placed them back under the Commander-in-Chief, East Indies for work in connection to Australian and New-Zealand troop convoys. The Commander-in-Chief, East Indies immediately ordered them to return to Durban where they arrived on the afternoon of the 15th.

On the afternoon of 13 December 1939, ‘Force H’ were on their way south from the neighbourhood of Lobito Bay towards Cape Town. They had still some 400 nautical miles to go when at 1752 hours when to Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered them to proceed with all possible speed and refuel. Next morning he instructed them to sail to Freetown when they had completed fuelling but when ‘Force I’ was ordered to return to Durban they were ordered to remain at the Cape. At 1745/15 the Admiralty ordered HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.S.C. Martin, RN) which had arrived at Simonstown from Colombo on 9 December to proceed with HMS Shropshire to the River Plate steaming at 20 knots as to arrive off Montevideo on 23 December. HMS Sussex proceeded from Cape Town to Simonstown that day. She was kept at short notice to sail into the South Atlantic in case the Admiral Graf Spee cleared the River Plate. HMS Dorsetshire had orders to call at Tristan da Cunha on the 16th but the Admiralty cancelled these on the 15th and ordered her and HMS Shropshire on the 17th to close the Falklands at 25 knots to counter any attempt by the Admiral Graf Spee to escape to the southward. This was later changed to proceed to the Falklands at economical speed. Shortly after that order they were placed under the orders of the (now) Rear-Admiral South America Division (Commodore Harwood had been promoted to Rear Admiral) to intercept the German merchant the Tacoma (8268 GRT, built 1930) in case she might break out of Montevideo.

’Force K’ had left Cape Town on 4 December to sweep through position 28°S, 15°W. By 13 December they were near Pernambuco en-route to meet up with HMS Neptune and her destroyers near St. Paul Rocks. As HMS Renown had barely enough fuel on board to reach the Plate estuary they were to make rendez-vous as soon as possible and then proceed to Freetown to refuel. Early next morning the Admiralty ordered ‘Force K’ to proceed to the Plate Estuary which they did at 20 knots. Later the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic ordered them to proceed to Rio de Janeiro to refuel, on which they increased speed to 25 knots. They reached Rio at 0600/17. HMS Ark Royal left at 1800/17, having finished fuelling, for the Plate area at 25 knots. HMS Renown and HMS Neptune, which had now also arrived with her destoyers, were ordered to follow as soon as possible. Just before midnight however the Vice-Admiral Aircraft Carriers on board the Ark Royal ordered them and the destroyers to meet him at 1800/18 in position 22°50’S, 40°W.

The end of the Admiral Graf Spee

At 1540 hours on 17 December 1939, Rear-Admiral Harwood, learned that the Admiral Graf Spee was transferring 300 to 400 men to the German merchant vessel Tacoma. At 1720 hours he received a message that over 700 men with baggage and provisions, were being transferred and shortly after that he learned that the enemy was weighing anchor. He immediately increased speed to 25 knots and turned to close the whistle buoy and flew off the aircraft from HMS Ajax to report the enemy’s position.

The Admiral Graf Spee left the harbour at 1815 hours and was followed by the Tacoma. They steamed slowly westwards. The British cruisers were in state of instant readiness. At 2054 hours the aircraft from the Ajax reported that the enemy was in shallow water six miles south-west of Montevideo and then made the dramatic signal ‘The Admiral Graf Spee had blown herself up !’.

The British cruisers then steamed towards Montevideo, passing the burning wreck of the German warship in the darkness. It was ablaze from stem to stern with flames reaching as high as the top of the control tower, a magnificent sight. (1)


  1. ADM 186/794

ADM numbers indicate documents at the British National Archives at Kew, London.

You can help improve officers Frederick Secker Bell's page
Click here to Submit events/comments/updates for this officer.
Please use this if you spot mistakes or want to improve his page.

Allied Commanders main page