Allied Warships

HMS Ajax (22)

Light cruiser of the Leander class


HMS Ajax before the war

NavyThe Royal Navy
TypeLight cruiser
ClassLeander 
Pennant22 
Built byVickers Armstrong (Barrow-in-Furness, U.K.) 
Ordered1 Oct 1932 
Laid down7 Feb 1933 
Launched1 Mar 1934 
Commissioned12 Apr 1935 
End serviceFeb 1948 
History

HMS Ajax started the war on the South America station. She was damaged by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939. Repaired and refitted at Chatham Dockyard from December 1939 until July 1940. After repairs she went to the Mediterranean. She was refitted at Chatham dockyard between May and October 1942. She returned to the Mediterranean upon completion of her refit and was almost immedeately badly damaged by bombing on 1 January 1943. She went to the United States for repairs at the New York Navy Yard and was out of action until October 1943. She again returned to the Mediterranean but was recalled to home waters for the Normandy invasion in June. Once again she returned to the Mediterranean for the invasion of southern France in August. She remained in the Mediterranean for the remainder of the war.

HMS Ajax was decommissioned in February 1948. Initially intended to be sold to Thailand but this deal did not materialize. She arrived at Newport for breaking up on 18 November 1949.

 

Commands listed for HMS Ajax (22)

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CommanderFromTo
1Capt. Charles Henry Lawrence Woodhouse, RN9 Oct 193722 Apr 1940
2Capt. Edward Desmond Bewley McCarthy, RN22 Apr 194027 Nov 1941
3Capt. Stuart Latham Bateson, RN27 Nov 194126 May 1942
4Cdr. Ralph Heathcote, RN26 May 19422 Jul 1942
5Cdr. Richard Graham Stewart, RN2 Jul 194219 Sep 1942
6Capt. James Joseph Weld, RN19 Sep 194216 Sep 1944
7Capt. John Wilson Cuthbert, RN16 Sep 194419 Mar 1946

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Notable events involving Ajax include:


3 Sep 1939
HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN) intercepts the German merchant Olinda (4576 GRT) off the coast of Uruguay in position 33°50'S, 53°30'W. The German ship is sunk by gunfire.

4 Sep 1939
HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN) intercepts the German merchant Carl Fritzen (6594 GRT) in the South Atlantic off the coast off Uruguay in position 34°19'S, 48°29'W. However before the ship can be captured she is scuttled by her crew.

1 Oct 1939

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

Movements of the German ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee 21 August 1939 – 13 December 1939.

Before the Second World War had started, on 21 August 1939, the German ‘pocked battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee departed Wilhelmshaven bound for the South Atlantic. On 1 September the Admiral Graf Spee was off the Canary Islands where she made rendes-vous with the supply ship Altmark and supplies were transferred.

On 11 September another rendes-vous was made with the Altmark in the South Atlantic. The Admiral Graf Spee had launched her Arado floatplane to scout in the area as supplies were transferred. The aircraft spotted the British heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN). The German ships then immediately parted company and cleared the area at high speed. Two days later, on the 13th, the ships again met and fueling was completed. The Admiral Graf Spee was still under orders to remain unseen.

On 20 September 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee and Altmark met again to fuel. On the 26th the Admiral Graf Spee was ordered to start raiding the British trade lanes. She then proceeded towards the Pernambuco area.

On 30 September 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee found her first victim, the British merchant vessel Clement (5050 GRT, built 1934) that was en-route from New York, U.S.A. to Bahia, Brasil. She then sank the ship in position 09°05’S, 34°05’W. The Admiral Graf Spee then proceeded eastwards and found three more victims between 5 and 10 October. On the 5th she captured the British merchant Newton Beech (4644 GRT, built 1925) in position 09°35’S, 06°30’W. This ship was en-route from Capetown to the U.K. via Freetown. On the 7th she sank the British merchant Ashlea (4222 GRT, built 1929) in position 09°52’S, 03°28’W. This ship was en-route from Durban to Falmouth. The crew of the Ashlea was transferred to the Newton Beech. The next day both crew were transferred to the Admiral Graf Spee and the Newton Beech was scuttled. On 10 October the Admiral Graf Spee captured the British merchant Huntsman (8196 GRT, built 1921) in position 08°30’S, 05°15’W. This ship was en-route from Calcutta to the U.K. On 15 October 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee met the Altmark again to receive supplies and fuel. On the 17th the crew of the Huntsman was transferred to the Altmark and the ship was scuttled in approximate position 16°S, 17°W. The next day the crews of the Newton Beech and Ashlea were also transferred to the Altmark and the German ships then parted company.

On 22 October 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her next victim, the British merchant Trevanion (5299 GRT, built 1937) which was en-route from Port Pirie (Australia) to Swansea. This ship was sunk in position 19°40’S, 04°02’E. On 28 October 1939, near Tristan da Cunha, the Admiral Graf Spee once more refuelled from the Altmark. The Admiral Graf Spee then set course for the Indian Ocean.

On 15 November 1939 she sank the small British tanker Africa Shell (706 GRT, built 1939) in position 24°45’S, 35°00’E. This ship was in ballast and en-route from Quelimane (Portugese East Africa now called Mozambique) to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo, also in Portugese East Africa / Mozambique). Next day the Admiral Graf Spee stopped the Dutch merchant Mapia (7188 GRT, built 1923) but had to let her go as she was a neutral ship. The Admiral Graf Spee then set course to return to the South Atlantic where she met once more with the Altmark on 27 November 1939 and the next day she fuelled from her about 300 miles from Tristan da Cunha.

On 2 December 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her largest victim, the British merchant Doric Star (10086 GRT, built 1921),in position 19°15’S, 05°05’E. This ship was en-route from Auckland, New Zealand to the U.K. The next morning the Admiral Graf Spee sank the British merchant Tairoa (7983 GRT, built 1920) in position 19°40’S, 04°02’E. This ship was en-route from Brisbane, Australia to London. On 6 December 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee refuelled once more from the Altmark. She then set course to the River Plate area where the British merchant traffic was the thickest. She was to sink more ships there and disrupt British shipping movements in that area before returning to Germany.

On 7 December 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee sank what was to be her last victim, the British merchant Streonshalh (3895 GRT, built 1928) in position 25°01’S, 27°50’W. This ship was en-route from Montevideo to Freetown and then onwards to the U.K.

Then in the morning of 13 December 1939, her smoke was sighted by three cruisers from the South America Division. More on this in the article ‘The Battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939’.

British Dispositions in the South Atlantic / South America area

Shortly before the outbreak of the war the South America Division of the America and West Indies Station was transferred to the newly formed South Atlantic Station. The South America Division at that moment consisted of the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (Capt. F.S. Bell, RN, flying the flag of Commodore H.H. Harwood, OBE, RN) and the light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN). In late August 1939 HMS Exeter was at Devonport with her crew on foreign leave when she was recalled to South American waters. On 25 August 1939 she sailed from Devonport. HMS Exeter arrived at Freetown on 1 September 1939. Commodore Harwood then met the Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic Station, Vice-Admiral G. D’Oyly Lyon, CB, RN. Later the same day HMS Exeter sailed for Rio de Janeiro.

Meanwhile four destroyers from the 4th Destroyer Division, Mediterranean Fleet, the HMS Hotspur (Cdr. H.F.H. Layman, RN), HMS Havock (Lt.Cdr. R.E. Courage, RN), HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicholson, RN) and HMS Hunter (Lt.Cdr. L. de Villiers, RN) had left Gibraltar on 31 August 1939 for Freetown.

HMS Ajax was already on station off the coast of South America. Shortly after noon on 3 September she intercepted the German merchant vessel Olinda (4576 GRT, built 1927) in position 34°58’S, 53°32’W. This ship was en-route from Montivideo to Germany. As HMS Ajax had no prize crew available the ship was sunk by gunfire a few hours later. In the afternoon of the next day, the 4th, HMS Ajax intercepted another German ship, the Carl Fritzen (6594 GRT, built 1920) in position 33°22’S, 48°50’W. This ship was en-route from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires. This ship was also sunk with gunfire.

On 5 September two of the destroyers from the 4th Destroyer Division, HMS Hotspur and HMS Havock departed Freetown to join the South America Division. They were ordered to examine Trinidade Island on the way. On 8 September 1939 the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt. W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) departed Freetown to join the South America Division as well. This cruiser came from the Home Fleet and had arrived at Freetown on the 7th.

On 7 September 1939, HMS Exeter entered Rio de Janeiro where Commodore Harwood had a meeting with the Brazilian Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs and H.M. Ambassadors to Brazil and Argentine. HMS Exeter departed Rio de Janeiro the next day. Later that day Commodore Harwood was informed by the Admiralty that the German merchant ships General Artigas (11343 GRT, built 1923), Gloria (5896 GRT, built 1917) and Monte Pascoal (13870 GRT, built 1931) were assembling off the Patagonian coast. He decided to move both HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax south, and ordered the Ajax to meet him at 0800/9. They actually made rendezvous at 0700 hours. The Commodore considered it possible that the German merchant ships might embark German reservists and raid the Falkland Islands therefore he decided to sent HMS Ajax there. HMS Exeter proceeded to the Plate area to cover that important area.

On the evening of the 10th, Commodore Harwood was informed that the transportation of German reservists by the three German merchant ships was very unlikely but as it appeared probable that the German ships were converting themselves into armed raiders the Commodore decided to start short distance convoys from the Santos-Rio and Plate areas. He therefore ordered HMS Cumberland to refuel at Rio de Janeiro on her arrival there and to organize and run ‘out’ convoys in that area with HMS Havock as A/S escort. The convoys were to leave at dawn and be protected against submarines and surface raiders until dusk. The ships were then to be dispersed so that they would be far apart by dawn the next day. At the same time the Commodore ordered HMS Hotspur to join him in the Plate area after refuelling at Rio de Janeiro, so that similar convoys could be started from Montevideo. If one of the German ‘pocket battleships’ was to arrive of South America, HMS Cumberland was to abandon the convoy sheme and join HMS Exeter in the Plate area. Also on the 10th, Commodore Harwood was informed by the Admiralty that the German merchant Montevideo (6075 GRT, built 1936) was leaving Rio Grande do Sul for Florianopolis but decided not to intercept her as this would divert HMS Exeter 500 nautical miles from the Plate area.

On the night of 12 September 1939 the Commodore was informed by the British Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that a concentration of German reservists was taking place in southern Argentina with the Falklands as a possible objective. He therefore ordered HMS Ajax to remain in the Falklands till the situation cleared, and the Commodore then proceeded south of the Plate area to be closer to the Falklands himself and yet remain in easy reach of the Plate area. During the next few days HMS Exeter intercepted several British and neutral vessels.

In view of a report that the German merchant vessels Porto Alegré (6105 GRT, built 1936) and Monte Olivia (13750 GRT, built 1925) were leaving Santos on 15 September 1939 Commodore Harwood decided to start the short distance convoys from Montevideo as soon as possible. HMS Cumberland had meanwhile arranged a twelve-hour convoy system from Santos. Ships from Rio de Janeiro for Freetown would sail at dawn on odd numbered days, and ships for the south on even numbered days with HMS Havock as anti-submarine escort and HMS Cumberland in distant support. HMS Cumberland left Rio de Janeiro on 16 September and during the next eight days sighted 15 British and neutral ships while on patrol.

On 17 September 1939, HMS Hotspur joined HMS Exeter in the Plate area. HMS Exeter then made a visit to Montevideo and resumed her patrol off the Plate area on the 20th. Fuelling was done from the oiler RFA Olwen (6470 GRT, built 1917, Master B. Tunnard) in the mouth of the River Plate. Soon after leaving Montevideo on 20 September Commodore Harwood learned from the British Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that the local German authorities were endeavoring to inform German ships at sea that the British merchant Lafonia (1872 GRT, built 1911) was on her way to the Falklands with British reservists for the Falkland Islands defence force. It was also reported that on 17 September an unknown warship had passed Punta Arenas eastwards. In view of these reports and of other pointing out that German merchant ships in southern waters were being outfitted as armed raiders the Commodore ordered HMS Hotsput to escort the Laofona to Port Stanley. As the volume of trade in the Plate area was greater than in the Rio de Janeiro – Santos area, HMS Havock was ordered to proceed southwards to the Plate area.

The first local convoy outward from Montevideo sailed on 22 September 1939. It consisted of the British merchant ships Sussex (11062 GRT, built 1937), Roxby (4252 GRT, built 1923), El Ciervo (5841 GRT, built 1923) in addition to the earlier mentioned Lafonia, and was escorted by HMS Hotspur. HMS Exeter met this convoy during the forenoon and covered it throughout the day. At dusk the merchant ships were dispersed on prearranged courses while HMS Exeter remained within supporting distance and HMS Hotspur escorted the Lafonia to Port Stanley.

On 24 September 1939, Vice-Admiral Lyon (C-in-C, South Atlantic) and Commodore Harwood learned from the Naval Attaché, Buenos Aires, that ‘according to a reliable source’ arrangements had been made for a number of German ships and a submarine to meet near Ascension on 28 September 1939. HMS Cumberland was ordered to proceed there and HMS Ajax was ordered to leave the Falklands and take up her place in the Rio de Janeiro area. HMS Neptune (Capt. J.A.V. Morse, DSO, RN) was also ordered to proceed to the area off Ascension with the destroyers HMS Hyperion and HMS Hunter which departed Freetown on the 25th. No German ships were however encountered off Ascension and all ships then proceeded to Freetown where they arrived on 2 October 1939 with HMS Cumberland low on fuel.

While HMS Cumberland left the station to search for the German ships, HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax were sweeping of the Plate and Rio de Janeiro – Santos area respectively. On 27 September 1939, HMS Havock escorted a convoy made up of the British merchants Miguel de Larrinaga (5231 GRT, built 1924), Pilar de Larringa (7352 GRT, built 1918) and Sarthe (5271 GRT, built 1920) out of the Plate area. The next day another convoy, made up of the British merchants Adellen (7984 GRT, built 1930), Cressdene (4270 GRT, built 1936), Holmbury (4566 GRT, built 1925), Lord Byron (4118 GRT, built 1934), Ramillies (4553 GRT, built 1927) and Waynegate (4260 GRT, built 1931) left the Plate area escorted by HMS Havock and with cover from HMS Exeter.

At daylight on 29 September 1939 HMS Ajax was off Rio de Janeiro ready to escort ships sailing northward. She sighted none until the early afternoon when she met the Almeda Star (12848 GRT, built 1926) and a few hours later the tanker San Ubaldo (5999 GRT, built 1921). That night several neutral steamers were sighted off Rio de Janeiro and the next day the British La Pampa (4149 GRT, built 1938) was met and escorted during daylight on her way to Santos. So far on the work of the South American Division during September 1939. The ships assigned to Commodore Harwood had been busy patrolling and escorting ships near the focal areas.

A surface raider reported, 1 October 1939.

When a report that the British merchant Clement had been sunk on 30 September 1939 by a surface raider off Pernambuco was received by the Admiralty in the afternoon of October 1st, the C-in-C, South Atlantic was informed that he should retain the 4th Destroyer Division and that his command would be reinforced by the cruisers HMS Norfolk (Capt. A.G.B. Wilson, DSO, RN), HMS Capetown (Capt. T.H. Back, RN), HMS Effingham (Capt. J.M. Howson, RN), HMS Emerald (Capt. A.W.S. Agar, VC, DSO, RN) and HMS Enterprise (Capt. H.J. Egerton, RN). Also the battleships HMS Resolution (Capt. C.H. Knox-Little, RN), HMS Revenge (Capt. E.R. Archer, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes (Capt. F.E.P. Hutton, RN) were to proceed to either Jamaica or Freetown. These dispositions however never materialised being superseded on 5 October 1939 by a more general policy (the institution of hunting groups) which cancelled them.

The institution of hunting groups, 5 October 1939.

On 5 October 1939 the Admiralty formed five hunting groups in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean of sufficient strength to destroy any ‘pocket battleship’ or Hipper-class cruiser. These were;
Force F; area: North America and West Indies.
HMS Berwick (Capt. I.M. Palmer, DSC, RN),
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN),
Force G; area: S.E. coast of South America.
HMS Cumberland,
HMS Exeter
Force H; area: Cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
HMS Sussex (Capt. A.R. Hammick, RN),
HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN),
Force I; area: Ceylon.
HMS Cornwall (Capt. C.F. Hamill, RN),
HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.S.C. Martin, RN),
HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN),
Force K; area: Pernambuco, Brazil.
HMS Renown (Capt. C.E.B. Simeon, RN),
HMS Ark Royal (Capt. A.J. Power, RN),
Force L; area: Brest, France.
Dunkerque (Capt. J.L. Nagadelle, replaced by Capt. M.J.M. Seguin on 16 October),
Bearn (Capt. M.M.A. Lafargue, replaced by Capt. Y.E. Aubert on 7 October),
Georges Leygues (Capt. R.L. Perot),
Gloire (Capt. F.H.R. de Belot),
Montcalm (Capt. P.J. Ronarc’h),
Force M; area: Dakar, Senegal.
Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury),
Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu),
and Force N; area: West Indies.
Strasbourg (Capt. J.F.E. Bouxin),
HMS Hermes
.

The institution of the hunting groups were not the only measures taken. The battleships HMS Resolution, HMS Revenge and the light cruisers HMS Emerald and HMS Enterprise were ordered to proceed to Halifax, Nova Scotia to escort homeward bound convoys. Light cruiser HMS Effingham was to join them later. The battleship HMS Ramillies (Capt. H.T. Baillie-Grohman, DSO, RN) left Gibraltar on 5 October for the same duty but was recalled the next day when the battleship HMS Malaya (Capt. I.B.B. Tower, DSC, RN) and the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (Capt. G. D’Oyly-Hughes, DSO and Bar, DSC, RN) were ordered to leave the Mediterranean and proceed to the Indian Ocean where they formed an addition hunting group, Force J which was to operate in the Socotra area off the entrance to the Gulf of Aden.

Now back to the South Atlantic, on 9 October 1939 the C-in-C, South Atlantic had informed the Admiralty and Commodore Harwood that he intended to co-ordinate the movements of ‘Force G’, ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’. As this would entail long periods of wireless silence in ‘Force G’ he proposed that Commodore Harwood should transfer his flag to HMS Ajax, leaving Capt. Fallowfield of HMS Cumberland in command of Force G. The Admiralty approved of this. Commodore Harwood stated that it was his intention to transfer his flag from HMS Exeter to HMS Ajax in the River Plate area on 27 October. He also stated that the endurance of HMS Exeter was only half the endurance of HMS Cumberland and that this would prove problematic when they were to operate together and he proposed that the Exeter would be relieved by another 10000 ton cruiser but for the moment no suitable cruiser was available to relieve her.

On 12 October 1939 the first of the hunting forces arrived on their station when HMS Renown and HMS Ark Royal reached Freetown that morning coming from the U.K. They were soon followed by three more destroyers of the H-class coming from the Mediterranean; HMS Hardy (Capt. B.A. Warburton-Lee, RN), HMS Hasty (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN) and HMS Hostile (Cdr. J.P. Wright, RN). On 13 October 1939 the cruisers HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire arrived at Simonstown from the Mediterranean and one day later HMS Hermes arrived at Dakar from Plymouth.

The South America Division during the first half of October 1939.

When the news of an enemy raider in the South Atlantic reached the C-in-C at Freetown on 1 October 1939 he immediately suspended sailings from Pernambuco and Natal and he ordered HMS Havock and HMS Hotspur to escort British ships clear of the area. But next morning he cancelled these dispositions and ordered Commodore Harwood to concentrate HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and the two destroyers off Rio de Janeiro. By this time, however, the raider was far away from the South American coast. On 3 October 1939 the Commodore signalled the C-in-C that he intened to concentrate the Exeter and Ajax off Rio and have the Hotspur to cover the Rio – Santos area and keep the Havock off the Plate but upon receiving the orders from the C-in-C to concentrate he ordered to destroyers to join the cruisers after fuelling but not later then 0800 hours on 4 October. Reports that the enemy raider was not a ‘pocket battleship’ however kept coming in and the Commodore decided that he could not leave the heavy traffic in the Plate area without some form of protection and he ordered HMS Havock to return there but when a report coming in from Bahia, Brazil confirmed that the Clement had been sunk by the ‘pocket battleship’ Admiral Scheer the Commodore once more ordered HMS Havock to join him. In the end HMS Ajax joined HMS Exeter at 1700/3, HMS Hotspur at 0500/4 and finally HMS Havock at 1300/4.

The Commodore was also informed by the Admiralty that the New Zealand cruiser HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, RN) would join his station coming from the west coast of South America. HMS Cumberland left Freetown at 1900/3 to join the Commodore in the Rio de Janeiro area as well.

Commodore Harwood’s policy against enemy raiders and a new raider report coming on on 5 October 1939.

Commodore Harwood had decided to keep his forces concentrated and as no new raider reports had come in to patrol the Rio de Janeiro area in accordance with the C-in-C, South Atlantic’s order. If he met a ‘pocket battleship’ he intended to shadow it until dusk. He would then close and attack in the dark hours. If, on the other hand, he made contact at night, his destroyers would at once close the enemy’s beam and attack her with torpedoes.

On 5 October 1939, the British merchant Martand (7967 GRT, built 1939) informed HMS Cumberland that a German armed raider had attacked an unknown ship, this unknown ship was in fact the Newton Beech that was attacked about 900 nautical miles away. This information was not acted upon by the Commanding Officer of the Cumberland. The Captain of the Cumberland assumed the raider report would have been intercepted by other ships and passed on to the C-in-C, South Atlantic. He considered it was important to keep radio silence and decided against breaking it. The Admiralty however later was of the opinion that the report should have been passed on to the Commander-in-Chief.

By 5 October 1939, the Exeter, Ajax, Havock and Hotspur were concentrated in the Rio de Janeiro area ready to engage the raider if she came south from the Pernambuco area. HMNZS Achilles was on her way round Cape Horn.

When HMS Ajax visited Rio de Janeiro on 7 October 1939, Commodore Harwood directed her to suggest to the Consular Shipping Advisers there, and at Santos, that, owning to the small volume of shipping leaving these ports, the local convoy systems, which had been instituted on 22 September against armed merchant raiders, should be suspended, and Allied merchant ships be routed independently.

The Commodore intended to meet HMS Cumberland at 1700/8, but at 1600/7 he received a message from the Consular Shipping Adviser at Rio de Janeiro in which he desired an escort for a 13 knot convoy that was to sail at 0430/8 and that had received much local publicity. The Commodore thought that this publicity might draw the enemy raider to the area and he therefore took his entire force back towards Rio de Janeiro and sent HMS Hotspur ahead to make contact with the convoy, while keeping his other ships in support. The convoy consisted of the British merchants Highland Chieftain (14131 GRT, built 1929), Nariva (8723 GRT, built 1920) and the French merchant Alsina (8404 GRT, built 1922).

Meanwhile the Commodore had directed HMS Cumberland to meet him at dawn on October 9th. When the convoy was dispersed at 1800/8 the Exeter and Ajax steered to meet her while the Havock was detached to fuel at Rio de Janeiro. At 2200/8 HMS Ajax was detached. HMS Cumberland made rendezvous with HMS Exeter at 0500/9. They were ordered by the C-in-C, South Atlantic to make a sweep northwards but this could not be carried out as HMS Exeter was short of fuel. The Commodore therefore decided to make a sweep southwards towards the Plate area where HMS Exeter could refuel. He also decided to keep HMS Hotspur with the two cruisers as long as possible.

On 12 October 1939, Rio Grande do Sul reported that the German merchant Rio Grande (6062 GRT, built 1939) was about to sail. The Commodore at once ordered HMS Cumberland to proceed there and intercept. She arrived off Rio Grande do Sul at 1600/13 but on finding it all quiet in the harbour she shaped course for the Plate area at nightfall. Meanwhile the Commodore had ordered HMS Hotspur to fuel at Montevideo when HMS Havock left that port early on the 14th.

about this time RFA Olwen informed the Commodore the the German merchant Bahia Laura (8611 GRT, built 1918) was leaving Montevideo at 1000 next morning and might protest if HMS Havock sailed the same day. Instead, therefore, of entering Montevideo HMS Hotspur at once fueled from the Olwen and then remained out on patrol. The Bahia Laura however, showed no signs of leaving and at 0800/14, HMS Havock put to sea. At 1200 hours HMS Hotspur entered Montevideo. Later that day HMS Exeter and HMS Cumberland fueled from the Olwen in San Borombon Bay at the southern entrance to the Plate estuary. At 1430 hours they were joined by HMS Havock. Commodore Harwood then ordered her to patrol off Montevideo to watch the Bahia Laura. When HMS Exeter finished fueling she immediately put to sea. HMS Cumberland rejoined him next morning at 0700 hours. HMS Havock was then ordered to join the cruisers. On 16 October the commodore learned that the Bahia Laura had sailed at 1015 hours the previous day. By the time the signal reached him the German ship was far out at sea well past his patrol line. But as the whole area was enveloped in dense fog the Commodore decided against trying to catch her.

The South America Division during the second half of October 1939.

Meanwhile Commodore Harwood had informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic on 13 October that as HMS Exeter required certain minor repairs he proposed to proceed to the Falklands on the17th and then return to the Plate area on the 27th. The Commander-in-Chief replied that he preferred that HMS Exeter would stay in the Plate area till the Commodore would transfer his Broad Pendant to HMS Ajax on the 27th. As HMNZS Achilles was due in the Plate area on this day also, she and HMS Cumberland could then operate as ‘Force G’ during the Exeter’s absence. This would mean that there would be no cruiser in the Rio de Janeiro area until HMS Exeter would return from her repairs at the Falklands. The Commodore therefore ordered HMS Havock to sail on 21 October for a four day patrol in the Rio – Santos Area, where HMS Hotspur, which could remain at sea until 2 November, would relieve her. From that date until the relief of HMNZS Achilles there would be no warship in this area. The Commodore therefore asked the Commander-in-Chief to allow ‘Force G’ to operate in that area from 2 to 10 November. When HMS Hotspur joined the Exeter and Cumberland from Montevideo on 17 October the Commodore ordered her to patrol off Rio Grande do Sul to intercept the German ships Rio Grande and Montevideo if they would come out, and sent HMS Havock to patrol inshore with orders to anchor the night clear of the shipping route.

This proved to be the last duty of these two destroyers with the South America Division. On 20 October the Admiralty ordered their transfer to the West Indies. Three days later the Commodore sent them into Buenos Aires to refuel, and as the distance to Trinidad, 4000 miles, was at the limit of their endurance, also obtained permission to refuel them at Pernambuco. They both left Buenos Aires on the 25th and, bidding the Commodore farewell, proceeded northwards. They sailed from Pernambuco on 1 November but on the 3rd HMS Havock was diverted to Freetown with engine trouble. The two remaining destroyers of the 4th Division, HMS Hyperion and HMS Hunter, had left Freetown with convoy SL 6 on 23 October. Off Daker their escort duty was taken over by the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin (Capt. J.M.C. Trolley de Prevaux). The destroyers then fueled at Dakar on the 27th and sailed for Trinidad early on the 28th.

Meanwhile HMS Cumberland had entered Montevideo at 0800/26. At 0900/26 HMNZS Achilles joined HMS Exeter in the Plate area and after fueling from RFA Olwen sailed to meet HMS Cumberland off Lobos the next day and then patrol with her as ‘Force G’ in the Rio – Santos area. The Olwen was now nearly out of fuel and filled up HMS Ajax ,which had arrived from the Rio area on the 26th, with her remaining fuel minus 500 tons for her passage to Trinidad. In the morning of 27 October, Commodore Harwood transferred his Broad Pendant to HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter then parted company to proceed to the Falklands for repairs.

Meanwhile the newly formed ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ were busy on the other side of the South Atlantic. ‘Force H’, made up of HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire had reached the Cape on 13 October. As HMS Cumberland had not passed on the report of the Martland, no news on the raider had reached the Admiralty or the Commander-in-Chief since October 1st. On 14 October ‘Force H’ sailed to search for her along the Cape – Freetown route as far as the latitude of St. Helena. That day ’Force K’ (HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown) left Freetown with HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero (Cdr. C.F. Tower, MVO, RN) and HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN) to search westwards towards St. Paul Rocks, the direction of their sweep being determined by the complete lack of any further raider information.

Finally a raider report on 22 October 1939, Sweeps by ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’.

The three weeks old ‘mystery’ of the raiders whereabouts was partially solved on 22 October when the British merchant vessel Llanstephan Castle (11293 GRT, built 1914) intercepted a message from an unknown ship ‘Gunned in 16°S, 04°03’E’ at 1400 G.M.T. There was however no immediate confirmation of her report and the Commander-in-Chief ordered ‘Force H’ to sail after dark on the 27th to sail for the latitude of St. Helena. At noon on 31 October this Force was in 15°S, 02°51’E, the north-eastern limit of it’s patrol, when a Walrus aircraft failed to return to HMS Sussex from a reconnaissance flight. It was never found, though the two cruisers spend over three days searching for it. Being short of fuel they then returned to the Cape by the same route they had used outwards.

Sweep by ‘Force K’, 28 October – 6 November 1939.

To cover the northern end of the route from St. Helena onward, HMS Neptune and the destroyers HMS Hardy, HMS Hasty, HMS Hero and HMS Hereward had left Freetown on 28 October. HMS Neptune was to sweep independently from position 03°20’S, 01°10’W and then through 14°30’S, 16°50’W back to Freetown. On 30 October a report from Dakar stated that the German merchant Togo (5042 GRT, built 1938) had left the Congo on 26 October, that the German merchant Pionier (3254 GRT, built 1934) had sailed from Fernando Po (now called Bioko Island) on 28 October and that five German ships had left Lobito (Angola) the same day. When the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers, received this information her detached HMS Hardy and HMS Hasty to sweep north-westward for the Pioneer, while ‘Force K’ and the remaining two destroyers searched for her to the south-westward. Both searches were unsuccessful. Meanwhile a message from Lobito had stated that the five German ships that were stated to have left the harbour were still there. On 5 November the German merchant vessel Uhenfels (7603 GRT, built 1931), that had left Laurenco Marques (now called Maputo, Mozambique) on 16 October was sighted by an aircraft from HMS Ark Royal. Only energetic action from HMS Hereward saved her from being scuttled in position 06°02’N, 17°25’W. She was brought into Freetown on 7 November by HMS Herward, a few hours behind ‘Force K’.

’Force H’ and ‘Force G’, first half of November 1939.

The first half of November was relatively quiet on both sides of the South Atlantic At the start of the month ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ were still on the shipping lane between Sierra Leone and the Cape. On 3 November 1939 the Admiralty informed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic that all German capital ships and cruisers were apparently in home waters. It appeared therefore that the pocket battleship, which was still thought to be the Admiral Scheer, had returned home and that the raider reported by the Llangstephan Castle on 22 October was nothing but an armed merchantman. Here was a good opportunity for resting the hunting groups and on 4 November the Admiralty issued orders that ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’ should exchange areas. This exchange would not only give ‘Force G’ an opportunity of resting and refitting at the Cape, but would also provide Commodore Harwood with the hunting group of long endurance that he desired.

The Commander-in-Chief had planned that ‘Force H’ which had returned to the Cape on 7 November would then sweep towards Durban, arriving there on 16 November. However on the 11th they were ordered to sail for patrol in the Atlantic and on the evening of the 17th, while west of St. Helena, exchange patrol areas with ‘Force G’. The exchange of areas however did not take place as ‘Force G’ was delayed due to HMS Exeter being damaged while casting off from the oiler in heavy seas. Before the exchange now could take place it was cancelled.

South America Division, first half of November 1939.

After hoisting Commodore Harwood’s Broad on 27 October the HMS Ajax had swept the Plate focal area. When the Commodore received the signal of the Commander-in-Chief on the 5th regarding the changeover over patrol areas between ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’, he ordered HMS Cumberland to proceed to the Plate at 20 knots to refuel. About this time a message reached him from Buenos Aires that the Argentinian Foreign Minister had drawn attention to cases of fueling in the Plate by HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax. Although the Argentinian Government had no apparent intention of raising the issue he decided to cut down the fuellings in the inshore waters of the Plate as much as possible. He therefore cancelled the fuelling of HMS Exeter, due to take place on 7 November from the oiler RFA Olynthus (6888 GRT, built 1918, Master L.N. Hill), which had relieved RFA Olwen. He ordered HMS Cumberland to fuel at Buenos Aires on 9 November. HMS Exeter which had arrived at the Falklands on 31 October for repairs, sailed again on 4 November to meet up with HMS Cumberland off the Plate on 10 November, but the Commodore ordered her to enter Mar del Plata for a 24-hour visit on the 9th. As this gave her some time at hand, he ordered her to cover the Plate while HMS Ajax visited Buenos Aires from 6 to 8 November during which the Commodore discussed the question of fuelling his ships in the River Plate Estuary with the Argentine naval authorities. During his visit to Buenos Aires, the Commodore discussed the matter of fuelling his ships of English Bank with the Argentinian Minister of Marine and his Chief of Naval Staff they both suggested that he should use San Borombon Bay which was most acceptable. He had in fact been using it for some time.

When HMS Ajax left Buenos Aires on 8 November she patrolled the Plate area. HMS Exeter arrived at Mar del Plata the next day but fuel could not be obtained there. She was ordered to fuel from RFA Olynthus in San Borombon Bay on the 10th and then meet up with HMS Cumberland off Lobos Island at 0600/11. On the 10th HMS Ajax also fueled from RFA Olynthus as did HMS Exeter after her while HMS Ajax was at anchor close by. However weather quickly deteriorated and the Olynthus was forced to cast off, damaging the Exeter in doing so. Besides that she was still 600 tons short of fuel. As she could not reach the Cape without a full supply the sailing of ‘Force G’ to exchange areas with ‘Force H’ was delayed. The Exeter finally finished fuelling on the 13th and sailed with HMS Cumberland for Simonstown. Before the exchange of areas could be effected, however, a raider was reported in the Indian Ocean and the order was cancelled.

Another raider report, 16 November 1939.

On 16 November 1939 the Naval Officer-in-Charge, Simonstown, reported that the small British tanker Africa Shell ( GRT, built ) had been sunk off Lourenco Marques the previous day by a raider identified as a pocket battleship. After the usual conflicting reports from eye-widnesses during the next few days, however, it was doubtful how many raiders there were or whether they were pocket battleships or heavy cruisers.

The presence of an enemy heavy ship in the Mozambique Channel called for new dispositions. When the raider report reached the Admiralty on 17 November they immediately cancelled the exchange of areas between ‘Force G’ an ‘Force H’. ‘Force H’ was ordered to return to the Cape and ‘Force G’ was ordered to return to the east coast of South America. They also ordered the dispatch of ‘Force K’ towards the Cape with instructions to go on to Diego Saurez in Madagascar. That morning a report reached the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic that the German merchant vessels Windhuk (16662 GRT, built 1937) and Adolph Woermann (8577 GRT, built 1922) had left Lobito. He at once ordered ‘Force H’, which was at that moment west of St. Helena in the approximate latitute of Lobito to spend three days searching for them.

Next day, 18 November 1939, ‘Force K’ left Freetown together with HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero and HMS Hostile to sweep west of St. Helena through position 16°30’S, 10°W and thence on to Diego Saurez. The destroyers parted company at 2300/18 to search for the German ships. On 20 November 1939, the Commander-in-Chief ordered ‘Force H’ to return to the Cape of nothing of the German merchant vessels had been sighted. HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire did so on 23 November.

The Adolph Woermann had not escaped. Early on 21 November 1939, the British merchant Waimarama (12843 GRT, built 1938) reported her in position 12°24’S, 03°31’W. At 1127/21, ‘Force K’ (HMS Ark Royal and HMS Renown) was in position 05°55’S, 12°26’W, altered course to close, and HMS Neptune, which was still with them, went ahead at high speed. Shortly after 0800/22 she made contact with the Adolf Woermann in position 10°37’S, 05°11’W and went alongside. Despite efforts to save her the German vessel was scuttled and when HMS Neptune returned to Freetown on 25 November 1939 she had 162 German survivors on board.

’Force H’ and ‘Force K’, second half of November 1939.

As the search for the Adolf Woermann had taken ‘Force K’ nearly 200 miles to the eastward, the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers decided to proceed to the Cape by the route east of St. Helena to save fuel. In hindsight this might have saved Altmark for being intercepted as she was waiting for the Admiral Graf Spee in the area ‘Force K’ would have otherwise passed through. On 23 November 1939, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, ordered ‘Force H’ to sail from the Cape the next day and patrol the ‘diverse routes’ as far as 33°E until 28 November.

At the northern end of the South Atlantic station HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hero, HMS Hostile, HMS Hasty and the submarine HMS Clyde (Cdr. W.E. Banks, RN) had established a patrol between 22 and 25 November 1939 to intercept escaping German merchant ships or raiders. No ships were however sighted and they were recalled to Freetown on 30 November.

In the meantime the Admiralty had ordered, ‘Force H’ and ‘Force K’ to conducted a combined patrol on the meridian of 20°E. The two forces met early on 1 December. The plan, according to the Commander-in-Chief, appeared to be a good one in theory but was found unsuitable in practice that on account of local weather conditions. These permitted flying off aircraft from HMS Ark Royal only once in five or six days, so that the patrol could not be extended far enough to the south to intercept a raider bent on evasion. In fact, only once, on 2 December weather was suitable for flying off aircraft.

South America Division, second half of November 1939.

After HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter (‘Force G’) had sailed from San Borombon Bay for Simonstown on 13 November 1939, HMS Ajax patrolled the Plate area and escorted the French Massilia ( GRT, built ) that was bound for Europe from Buenos Aeres with French reservists. After parting from the Massilia she closed Rio Grande do Sul and ascertained that the German merchant vessels Rio Grande and Montevideo were still there. For the next two days she patrolled the normal peace time shipping routes.

When the Admiralty cancelled the exchange of ereas between ‘Force G’ and ‘Force H’ on 17 November, Commodore Harwood sent ‘Force G’ to cover Rio de Janeiro. He ordered HMNZS Achilles to fuel off the Olynthus in the Plate area on 22 November and then relieve ‘Force G’ in the Rio area as HMS Exeter would need to refuel in the Plate area again on 26 November. HMS Cumberland was to remain with the Exeter to keep ‘Force G’ together so she could refuel from the Olynthus as well. They were then to patrol the Plate area so that HMS Ajax could visit the Falklands.

On 18 November the Commodore was informed that the German merchant Ussukuma ( GRT, built ) might sail from Bahia Blanca for Montevideo at any time. He at once ordered the Olynthus to watch for her between Manos and Cape San Antonio and took the Ajax south to the same vicinity.

On 22 November 1939 HMNZS Achilles heard the German merchant Lahn (8498 GRT, built 1927) calling Cerrito by wireless, and when HMS Ajax arrived half an hour later a search was carried out. It was insuccessful for both cruisers but both the Lahn and another German merchant the Tacoma (8268 GRT, built 1930) reached Montevideo safely during the forenoon.

HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles then both fuelled from the Olynthus at San Borombon Bay during the next afternoon. The Achilles the sailed for the Rio de Janeiro area. She had orders to move up to Pernambuco and show herself off Cabadello and Bahia as a number of German ships in Pernambuco were reported ready to sail to Cabadello to load cotton for Germany. She was to return at once to the Rio area if any raiders were reported in the South Atlantic.

HMS Ajax left the Plate area on 25 November 1939 and sent up a seaplane to reconnoitre Bahia Blanca. The Ussukuma showed no signs of sailing so HMS Ajax proceeded to the Falklands, arriving there on the 27th. By this time HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter were in urgent need of refits after long periods at sea, and Commodore Harwood ordered the Exeter to proceed to the Falklands forthwith. She arrived at Port Stanley on 29 November 1939 and her defects were immediately taken in hand as far as local resources permitted.

8 December 1939 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Falklands, and thinking the enemy might attempt to avenge the defeat, the Commodore ordered HMS Cumberland to patrol off the Falklands as of 7 December for two days after which she too was to enter Port Stanley for rest and refit.

French Forces at Dakar in November 1939.

During November them most important event at Dakar, where the French were maintaining a number of more or less regular patrols, was the reorganisation of ‘Force X’. On 1 November 1939 the large destroyer L’Audacieux (Cdr. L.M. Clatin) sailed from Dakar to the westward to 26°W and thence south-west to search for the German merchant Togo. She returned to Dakar on 4 November having sighted nothing. That day the French light cruiser Duguay-Trouin sailed to sweep round the Cape Verde Islands and then on to St. Paul Rocks. She returned to Dakar on 10 November. The old ‘Force X’, the Strasbourg (Capt. J.F.E. Bouxin), Algerie (Capt. L.H.M. Nouvel de la Fleche) and Dupleix (Capt. L.L.M. Hameury) sailed on 7 November to sweep west of the Cape Verde Islands. It returned to Dakar on 13 November 1939. Meanwhile French submarines based at Casablanca were maintaining a continuous patrol round the Canary Islands between 25°N and 30°N.

On 18 November a new ‘Force X’ was formed, now made up of the Dupleix and her sister ship Foch (Capt. J. Mathieu) and the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. On 21 November the Strasbourg, Algerie and the destroyers Le Terrible (Cdr. A.E.R. Bonneau) and Le Fantasque (Capt. P.A.B. Still) left Dakar to return to France. The next day the new ‘Force X’ sailed with the destroyers Milan (Cdr. M.A.H. Favier) and Cassard (Cdr. R.A.A. Braxmeyer) to cruiser towards 08°N, 30°W. That day L’Audacieux departed Dakar with a convoy for Casablanca.

On 25 November, the Duguay-Trouin sailed to patrol the parallel of 19°N, between 25° and 30°W. Two days later the British submarine HMS Severn (Lt.Cdr. B.W. Taylor, RN) docked at Dakar. On the 30th the Dupleix and Foch returned from patrol being followed the next day by HMS Hermes and her escorts Milan and Cassard.

Dispositions of South Atlantic Forces at the beginning of December 1939.

At the beginning of December 1939, HMS Ark Royal, still flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Aircraft Carriers, and HMS Renown (‘Force K’), were patrolling the meridian of 20°E, south of the Cape together with HMS Sussex and HMS Shropshire (‘Force H’) to intercept the raider reported in the Mozambique Channel on 15 November 1939.

In the north the light cruiser HMS Neptune with the destroyers HMS Hardy, HMS Hero, HMS Hostile and HMS Hasty and the submarine HMS Clyde were returning to Freetown after patrolling between there and Cape San Roque for escaping German merchant ships or raiders. The French cruiers Dupleix and Foch and the British carrier HMS Hermes (‘Force X’) and their two escorting destroyers Milan and Cassard were approaching Dakar. The French cruiser Duguay-Trouin was patrolling the parallel of 19°N, between 25° and 30°W. The British submarine Severn was refitting at Dakar. Across the South Atlantic, Commodore Harwood, in HMS Ajax was at Port Stanley as was HMS Exeter. HMS Cumberland was patrolling of the Plate area and HMNZS Achilles was off Rio de Janeiro.

Forces ‘H’ and ‘K’, 1 – 13 December 1939.

No further reports have been received of the raider which had sunk the Africa Shell off Laurenco Marques on 15 November and it seemed clear that she had either gone further into the Indian Ocean or doubled back into the South Atlantic by going well south of the Cape. On 2 December 1939 the Admiralty ordered ‘Force K’ and ‘Force H’ to their patrol line south of the Cape after refueling, and the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic at once ordered them to proceed for the Cape ports to fuel. That day a reconnaissance aircraft of the South African Air Force reported a suspicious ship south of Cape Point at noon. HMS Sussex intercepted her but her crew set her on fire. She proved to be the German merchant Watussi (9521 GRT, built 1928). She was eventually be HMS Renown. Her survivors were taken on board HMS Sussex and were landed at Simonstown.

No news of the missing raider had been coming in since 16 November but then the mistery shrouding her whereabouts was again partially solved. At 1530/2 a raidar signal ‘R.R.R., 19°15’S, 05°05’E, gunned battleship) reached the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. It came from the British merchant Doric Star. As this signal placed the raider in the South Atlantic he immediately ordered to abandon the patrol south of the Cape and ordered ‘Force H’ to cover the trade routes between the Cape and the latitude of St. Helena at 20 knots on completion of fuelling. As it was too late for ‘Force K’ to reach the Freetown-Pernambuco area in time to intercept the rainder if she was to proceed to the North Atlantic he proposed the Admiralty that ‘Force K’, after fuelling should sweep direct from the Cape to position 20°S, 15°W. This was changed at the request of the Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers to place his force in a more central position for proceeding to Freetown, to the Falklands or to Rio de Janeiro. At 1030/3 a report reached the Commander-in-Chief that the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer had been in 21°20’S, 03°10’E at 0500 hours, clearly indicating that the raider was moving westwards, clear of the Cape-Sierra Leone trade route. ‘Force H’ left Simonstown at 1700 that afternoon and ‘Force K’ sailed from Capetown at 0915/4.

The Commander-in-Chief estimated that if the enemy was proceeding northwards to the North Atlantic she would cross the Freetown-Pernambuco line between 9 and 10 December. He therefore arranged that ‘Force X’ should take HMS Neptune and her destroyers under her orders and patrol the parallel of 3°N between 31° and 38°W from 10 to 13 December. ‘Force K’ would meet HMS Neptune and the destroyers on the 14th and then return with them to Freetown to refuel. The destroyers of the 3rd Division of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla (HMS Hardy, HMS Hostile and HMS Hero) left Freetown on 6 December with the oiler RFA Cherryleaf ( GRT, built ). They had orders to meet the Dupleix, Foch, HMS Hermes and their escorting destroyers Milan and Cassard and HMS Neptune in position 03°N, 31°W on 10 December. On 7 December ‘Force X’ left Dakar for the rendez-vous. That day the submarine HMS Clyde left Freetown to patrol between 03°N, 23°W and 03°N, 28°W and thence to 05°15’N, 23°W between 9 (PM) and 13 (AM) December.

On the evening of 8 December 1939 the German merchant ship Adolf Leonhardt (2989 GRT, built 1925) sailed from Lobito for South America. ‘Force H’ which was by then between St. Helena and the west coast of Africa, was at once ordered to intercept her. The Walrus from HMS Shropshire made contact at 0952 hours next morning and alighted alongside in position 13°S, 11°44’E. At 1250 hours HMS Shropshire arrived at that position but the German ship was scuttled by her crew and could not be saved. ‘Force H’ then returned to the Cape to refuel where they arrived on 14 December.

At 0800/11 the submarine HMS Severn left Freetown for Port Stanley. She was to protect the whaling industry in South Georgio and was to intercept hostile raiders or supply ships. The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, which arrived at Simonstown from Colombo on the 9th to finally relieve HMS Exeter in the South America Division left Simonstown on 13 December for Port Stanley. She was to call at Tristan da Cunha on the way. On that day, 13 December 1939, was fought the action between the British South America Division and the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, known as the Battle of the River Plate.

The South America Division, 1 to 13 December 1939.

At the beginning of December 1939, HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter were at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. HMS Cumberland was off the River Plate and HMNZS Achilles was patrolling the Rio de Janeiro area. On 2 December HMS Ajax left Port Stanley for the Plate area. That evening the Commodore learned that the Doric Star had been sunk by a raider to the south-east of St. Helena. Two days later the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic informed him that HMS Dorsetshire would arrive at Port Stanley on 23 December to relieve HMS Exeter which was then to proceed to Simonstown for a much needed refit.

Early on 5 December the British Naval Attaché at Buenos Aires reported that the German merchant Ussukuma had left Bahia Blanca at 1900 hours the previous evening. The Commodore immediately ordered HMS Cumberland which was on the way south to the Falkland Islands to search for her. Meanwhile HMS Ajax turned south and closed the Argentinian coast in case the Ussukuma, which was known to be short of fuel, should attempt to reach Montevideo inside territorial waters. At 1910/5, HMS Ajax sighted her smoke to the north-north-east but the Germans managed to scuttle their ship and despite the efforts to save her she sank during the night. At 0615/6, HMS Cumberland came up and embarked the German survivors and made off for the Falklands. HMS Ajax then refuelled at San Borombon Bay from the Olynthus.

About the same time the Brazilian authorities asked that HMNZS Achilles should not refuel in any Brazilian port at an interval less then three months. The Commodore, therefore, ordered her to return south and refuel at Montevideo on 8 December. HMNZS Achilles then joined HMS Ajax at 1000/10 in position 35°11’S, 51°13’W, 230 miles west of English Bank. At 0600/12 they were joined by HMS Exeter in position 36°54’S, 53°39’W.

Ever since the beginning of the war Commodore Harwood’s cruisers had worked off the east coast of South America either single or in pairs. The concentration of these three cruisers off the River Plate on 12 December 1939 was, however, no mere matter of chance.

Concentration of British Force in the River Plate area, 12 December 1939.

When a pocket battleship was located in position 19°15’S, 05°05’E on 2 December by the sinking of the Doris Star, her position was over 3000 miles from any of the South America focal areas. The Commodore however recognised that her next objective might be the valuable shipping off the east coast of South America. He estimated that at a cruising speed of 15 knots the enemy could reach the Rio area on 12 December the Plate area on 13 December and the Falklands on 14 December. As the Plate area was by far the most important of these three focal areas he decided to concentrate all his available ships off the Plate on 12 December.

The three cruisers then proceeded together towards position 32°N, 47°W. That evening the Commodore informed the Captains of his cruisers that it was intention that if they met a pocket battleship to attack immediately, by day or by night. By they they would act as two units, the light cruisers were to operate together and HMS Exeter was to operate diverged to permit flank marking. By night the ships were to remain in company in open order.

At 0614/13 HMS Ajax sighted smoke bearing 324° in position 34°28’S, 49°05’W and Commodore Harwood then ordered HMS Exeter to investigate it.

What then followed can be read in the article ‘The battle of the River Plate, 13 December 1939’ which can be found on the pages of HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and HMNZS Achilles. (1)

5 Dec 1939
The German passenger ship Ussukuma (7834 GRT) is intercepted in the South Atlantic off Bahia Blanca, Argentina in position 39°25'S, 57°15'W by the British heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland (Capt W.H.G. Fallowfield, RN) and the British light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, RN). However, before the German ship can be captured she is scuttled by her own crew.

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)

5 Jan 1940
HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN) made rendez-vous in the Plate area with HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, CB, RN, flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir H. Harwood, KCB, OBE, RN) and HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry, CB, RN). HMNZS Achilles then took over as flagship of the South America division as HMS Ajax was to return to the U.K. to refit soon. (2)

9 Jan 1940
In the early evening, HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN), made rendez-vous with HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, CB, RN). They then coninued their patrol in the 'Rio de Janeiro area'. (2)

12 Jan 1940
After gunnery exercises, in the early evening, HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse, CB, RN) parted company with HMS Dorsetshire (Capt. B.C.S. Martin, RN) and HMS Shropshire (Capt. A.W.la T. Bisset, RN). HMS Ajax set course to proceed to Freetown and eventually the U.K. where she was to refit. HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Shropshire continued their patrol. (2)

8 Oct 1940
Operation MB-6;

A British convoy with the merchants
Memnon (7506 GRT),
Lanarkshire (11275 GRT),
Clan Macauley (10492 GRT) and
Clan Ferguson (7347 GRT)
left Alexandria for Malta on 8 October 1940. This convoy was escorted by the British Anti-Aircraft cruisers
HMS Calcutta (Capt. D.M. Lees, DSO, RN),
HMS Coventry (Capt. D. Gilmour, RN)
and the Australian destroyers
HMS Stuart (Capt. H.M.L. Waller, DSO, RAN),
HMS Voyager (Cdr. J.C. Morrow, DSO, RAN),
HMS Waterhen (Lt.Cdr. J.H. Swain, RAN)
and the British destroyer
HMS Wryneck (Cdr. R.H.D. Lane, RN).

Cover was provided by the Mediterranean Fleet (Admiral Cunningham) with the British battleships
HMS Warspite (Capt. D.B. Fisher, CBE, RN),
HMS Valiant (Capt. H.B. Rawlings, OBE, RN),
HMS Malaya (Capt. A.F.E. Palliser, DSC, RN),
HMS Ramillies (Capt. H.T. Baillie-Grohman, OBE, DSO, RN),
the British aircraft carriers
HMS Illustrious (Capt. D.W. Boyd, DSC, RN),
HMS Eagle (Capt. A.R.M. Bridge, RN),
the British heavy cruiser
HMS York (Capt. R.H. Portal, DSC, RN),
the British light cruisers
HMS Gloucester (Capt. H.A. Rowley, RN),
HMS Liverpool (Capt. P.A. Read, RN),
HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN),
HMS Orion (Capt. G.R.B. Back, RN),
the Australian light cruiser
HMAS Sydney (Capt. J.A. Collins, CB, RAN)
escorted by the British destroyers
HMS Hyperion (Cdr. H.St.L. Nicolson, DSO and Bar, RN),
HMS Havock (Cdr. R.E. Courage, DSO, DSC, RN),
HMS Hero (Cdr. H.W. Biggs, DSO, RN),
HMS Hereward (Lt.Cdr. C.W. Greening, RN),
HMS Hasty, (Lt.Cdr. L.R.K. Tyrwhitt, RN),
HMS Ilex (Lt.Cdr. P.L. Saumarez, DSC, RN),
HMS Imperial (Lt.Cdr. C.A.deW. Kitcat, RN),
HMS Jervis (Capt. P.J. Mack, DSO, RN),
HMS Janus (Cdr. J.A.W. Tothill, RN),
HMS Juno (Cdr. W.E. Wilson, RN),
HMS Nubian (Cdr. R.W. Ravenhill, RN),
HMS Dainty (Cdr. M.S. Thomas, DSO, RN),
HMS Decoy (Cdr. E.G. McGregor, DSO, RN),
HMS Defender (Lt.Cdr. St.J.R.J. Tyrwhitt, RN)
and the Australian destroyers
HMAS Vampire (Cdr. J.A. Walsh, RAN) and
HMAS Vendetta (Lt.Cdr. R. Rhoades RAN).

The convoy was not spotted and arrived safe at Malta on 11 October. The only damage sustained was to the destroyer HMS Imperial that was mined off Malta and was out of action for over 6 months.

While on the return trip the Mediterranean Fleet was sighted by an Italian aircraft. The Italian Navy tried to intercept them in the Ionian Sea. In the night of 11/12 October the first Italian torpedo boat flotilla with Airone, Alcione and Ariel attacked HMS Ajax. The attack failed and Ajax sank Airone and Ariel, Alcione escaped. A little while later the Italian 11th destroyer flotilla, with Artigliere, Aviere, Camicia Nera and Geniere arrived at the scene. They were surprised by the radar-directed gunfire from HMS Ajax. Artigliere was heavily damaged and Aviere was slightly damaged. Camicia Nere tried to tow Artigliere away but she was sighted by a British Sunderland aircraft that homed in 3 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious. However, the torpedoed they fired didn't hit the Italian ships. Later the British heavy cruiser HMS York arrived at the scene. Camicia Nera quickly slipped the towing line and sped off. After her crew had left the ship Artiglire was sunk by York.

While the Mediterranean Fleet was still on the return trip aircraft from HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle attacked Leros and in the evening of the 14th the British light cruiser HMS Liverpool while south-east of Crete was hit in the bow by a torpedo from an Italian aircraft. The cruiser was heavily damaged and was repaired at the Mare Island Navy Yard in the USA. HMS Liverpool was not operational again until January 1942.

9 Jun 1941
During the British operations against Vichy-French held Syria, the Vichy-French submarine Caiman narrowly misses the British light cruiser HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, RN).

1 Dec 1941
Acting on an ULTRA intercept, a British force sailed from Malta in the evening of 30 November with the British light cruisers HMS Neptune (Capt. R.C. O'Conor, RN), HMS Aurora (Capt. W.G. Agnew, RN), HMS Ajax (Capt. E.D. McCarthy, DSO and Bar, RN), HMS Penelope (Capt. A.D. Nicholl, RN) and the British destroyers HMS Kimberley (Cdr. J.S.M. Richardson, DSO, RN), HMS Kingston (Cdr. P. Somerville, DSO, DSC, RN) and HMS Lively (Lt.Cdr. W.F.E. Hussey, DSC, RN).
At 0330 hrs of 1/12 the British intercept and sink the Italian transport Adriatico (1976 GRT) then proceed towards the Libyan coast.
At a point 60 nautical miles north-north-west of Tripoli, Libya, Penelope, Aurora and Lively intercept a small convoy consisting of the Italian oiler Iridio Mantovani (10540 GRT) escorted by the Italian destroyer Alvise da Mosto (2125 tons) and sink both.

18 Dec 1942
HrMs O 15 (Lt. A.J. Schouwenaar, RNN) conducted A/S exercises with HMCS Iroquois (Cdr. W.B.L. Holms, RCN). Iroquois was escorting HMS Ajax (Capt. J.J. Weld, MVO, RN) on which HrMs O 15 conducted practice attacks. (3)

Sources

  1. ADM 186/794
  2. ADM 53/112031
  3. File 2.12.03.6397 (Dutch Archives, The Hague, Netherlands)

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


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