Chapter VII
Ocean Warfare
3rd September-31st December, 1939

  I consider the protection of our trade the most essential service that can be performed.
    Nelson to Captain Benjamin Hallowell. 20th March 1804.

DURING the first phase of the war the enemy used his submarines, aircraft and minelayers to dispute our control of the sea communications in the approaches to these islands and in our coastal waters. The days when U-boats would range far out into the ocean spaces, would supplement and to some extent replace the surface raiders, still lay far ahead. During this period the enemy's threat to our merchantmen in the distant oceans came only from his powerfully armed pocket- battleships. The fast merchant ship specially armed for this purpose had not yet entered on the stage, because the German policy had been to avoid arousing suspicions by starting such measures in times of peace; but the enemy's war plans included converting no less than twenty-six ships into armed merchant raiders and this work was very soon started. One ship was fitted out at Murmansk, near to which the Russians had given their temporary friends the use of a base. The first armed merchant raider was to be ready to start work in February 1940, and Admiral Raeder intended to use them chiefly in the Indian Ocean. In November 1939 a proposal to ask Japan to allow the use of bases by merchant raiders and submarines operating in the Far East was approved by Hitler. The extent of the assistance to German raiding operations given by Russia and Japan before either was at war will become apparent later.

The effectiveness of surface raiders depends not only on the actual sinkings and captures which they accomplish but on the disorganisation to the flow of shipping which their presence, or even the suspicion of their presence, generates. Furthermore they are certain to necessitate redisposition and dispersal of the defending side's naval forces. This may weaken its maritime control in other theatres and thus improve the prospects of operations by other enemies in those theatres. Minelaying in remote waters is another potent weapon which the surface raider can employ, and Admiral Raeder always intended to equip his armed merchant raiders with mines. The impact of the enemy operations now to be discussed must not therefore


be judged solely by the losses inflicted, which, in fact, were not serious during this early phase.

Admiral Raeder's policy was to use his pocket-battleships from the outset of the war for the purpose for which they had been designed. Accordingly, as already mentioned, the Admiral Graf Spee left Germany on the 21st of August and passed through the Faeröes-Iceland channel to her waiting position in mid- Atlantic. She was followed three days later by her sister ship the Deutschland, which took up a similar position in the North Atlantic. Each was attended by a supply ship. Their object was defined as being 'the disruption and destruction of enemy merchant shipping by all possible means'; enemy naval forces, even if inferior, were only to be engaged if such action would further the chief task. There is little doubt that this cautious policy was required by the enemy's knowledge that, since he lacked any overseas bases, serious damage received in action could only be repaired by bringing the damaged ship home. But it seems likely that it led not only to irresolution in action on the part of German senior officers but to the engagement of the enemy--even if superior in strength--with enhanced confidence by our own ships. The enemy's campaign against our Atlantic shipping was, from the beginning, affected by President Roosevelt's order of the 5th of September to the United States Navy to establish a Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic, in order to discourage the belligerents from conducting warlike operations in the waters adjacent to the coastline of the countries of the Western Hemisphere. The Neutrality Patrol area ran initially from a point to the east of Halifax in longitude 60° West, south to latitude 20° North and thence to a point some 600 miles south of the Cape Verde Islands. From there it ran roughly parallel to the coast of South America.1 Hitler was, from the outset, anxious to avoid any action which might alienate the United States, and he instructed German captains to avoid incidents which might have that effect. But German warships soon entered the Neutrality Patrol area in the south and no limit on its right to pursue and engage such enemies was ever admitted by the British Government. Apart from placing a by no means firm limit to the Atlantic waters within which the enemy was likely to attack our merchant ships, the American President's order brought little advantage to our cause.

The departure of the two pocket-battleships from their home waters was followed by a period of inactivity for them both, because of Hitler's hope that, with the successful conclusion of the Polish campaign, Britain and France would be prepared to make peace. Not until the 26th of September were they permitted to start attacks on British shipping, and, in the vain hope that it would contribute to


dividing the Allied countries, the ban on attacking French ships was maintained until the middle of the following month. When the raiding warships were finally allowed to start work their orders were to obey Prize Law. By doing so the Germans hoped to avoid trouble with neutral countries, and in particular with the United States. But this restriction did not last long. The plans made and dispositions ordered by the Admiralty to deal with the expected threat from powerful surface raiders have already been outlined. The general policy was to patrol the focal areas with cruisers, to form ocean convoys in particularly dangerous waters or for the most valuable ships, but, in general, to rely on 'evasive routing' of shipping from one focal area to the next, at any rate until such time as escorts for ocean convoys were available. When the presence of a raider was known or strongly suspected hunting groups were immediately to be formed. We now know that the Graf Spee narrowly escaped detection very early in her cruise, and before she had been allowed to start attacks on shipping. On the 11th of September, while in company with the Altmark in mid-Atlantic south of the equator, the pocket-battleship's reconnaissance aircraft sighted a British cruiser only about thirty miles away and on an approaching course. There is no doubt that this must have been the Cumberland, which was then on passage from Freetown to Rio de Janeiro. The aircraft was not sighted by the cruiser but was able to warn her parent ship, which immediately slipped away to the eastward. It was not the last time that a raider's reconnaissance aircraft gave timely warning of the approach of one of our cruisers. The Admiralty had reason to suspect that one pocket-battleship was at large during the first weeks of the war and it was on the 1st of October, only a week after Hitler had allowed his raiders to start work, that the presence of such a warship in the South Atlantic was definitely confirmed. On that day the crew of the Graf Spee's first victim, the British S.S. Clement, which had been sunk off the coast of Brazil on the 30th of September and been picked up by another ship, reached the coast of South America. They reported, however, that the raider was the Admiral Scheer. The presence of a second raiding warship was not known until the 21st of October when the crew of the Norwegian S.S. Lorentz W. Hansen reached the Orkneys in another ship and reported that their ship had been sunk on the 14th by the Deutschland 400 miles to the east of Newfoundland.2 On the day following receipt of this intelligence further confirmation was obtained from the arrival of the American S.S. City of Flint at Murmansk with a prize crew from the same pocket-battleship aboard.


The Admiralty acted promptly when the presence of each of these raiding warships was confirmed. On the 5th of October, as a result of the report of the crew of the Clement and after consulting the French Ministry of Marine, no less than eight powerful hunting groups were ordered to be formed. The world-wide nature of these redispositions and their effect on other theatres of war are best indicated by showing them in tabular form:--

Table 6. Raider Hunting Groups, October 1939

Name of
Composition of hunting group Area of operations Diverted from
F Berwick and York North America and West Indies Halifax
G Exeter, Cumberland. (Ajax and Achilles later) South-east coast of America South Atlantic
H Sussex and Shropshire Cape of Good Hope Mediterranean
I Cornwall, Dorsetshire, Eagle Ceylon China
K Ark Royal, Renown Pernambuco Home Fleet
L Dunkerque, Béarn, and three French 6-inch cruisers Brest --
M Two French 8-inch cruisers Dakar --
N Strasbourg and Hermes West Indies Hermes from Plymouth

In addition to forming these hunting groups the Admiralty allowed the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, to retain four destroyers previously ordered home; the Resolution, Revenge, Enterprise and Emerald were sent to Halifax to escort homeward-bound Atlantic convoys and were followed later by the Repulse, Furious and Warspite, while the Malaya and Glorious were passed through the Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean. Force F never worked as a hunting group because, when the Deutschland's presence in the North Atlantic was confirmed, its cruisers were ordered to cover Halifax convoys. Forces G, H and K were placed under the operational control of the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic (Admiral G. H. d'Oyly Lyon), and the long and anxious searches in the wastes of the South Atlantic for the Graf Spee fell chiefly on these three groups.

The Admiralty's measures to hunt down surface raiders greatly depended on the ability of an attacked merchant ship to make a report by wireless immediately an enemy was identified, and instructions to that end had been issued to all masters. The enemy raiders soon became aware of this system and then took steps, such as the threat of immediate sinking, to prevent the transmission of these reports. But, as will be seen, the attacked merchant ships did in many cases manage to send these important messages in time and. at grave risk to themselves.


Map 11. The Cruises of the <i>Admiral <i>Graf Spee</i></i> and Deutchland, 1939
Map 11.
The Cruises of the Admiral Graf Spee and Deutchland, 1939

After sinking the Clement off Pernambuco on the 30th of September the Graf Spee crossed the South Atlantic and on the 5th of October found her second victim, the S.S. Newton Beech, who managed to send a distress message before she was captured.3 The message was picked up by another merchant ship and passed to the cruiser Cumberland whom she met later the same day. The cruiser was, of course, keeping wireless silence and, assuming that the Commander-in-Chief at Freetown had received the message, did not pass it to him. It had, in fact, not been received at Freetown and Admiral Lyon therefore remained in ignorance of the raider's action for some weeks. Had this message been passed immediately, the raider and her supply ship might have been caught within the next few days. A chance to destroy the supply ship was also missed when, on the 9th of October, aircraft from the Ark Royal, which was on passage to Freetown, sighted a stopped ship to the west of the Cape Verde Islands. She claimed to be the American S.S. Delmar, and, having no destroyers with him, Vice-Admiral Wells (Vice-Admiral, Aircraft Carriers) decided not to close and investigate. It was later ascertained that the Delmar was in New Orleans on that date. But the, Altmark had a narrow escape.

The Graf Spee sank or captured three more ships on the trade routes from the Cape of Good Hope between the 5th and 10th of October and then returned to her cruising ground in the centre of the South Atlantic, where, on the 15th, she fuelled again from the Altmark and transferred to her the crews of her victims. Then she steered to the east once more and sank the S.S. Trevanion on the 22nd of October. This ship made a distress message which was picked up by the Llanstephan Castle and passed to Freetown. The Commander-in-Chief organised extensive searches by all his forces, but without result.

There now followed a period of silence from the South Atlantic and of doubt in the Admiralty as to whether a pocket-battleship was still at large in that area. It must be remembered that the making of distress messages could at any time be simulated by the enemy to deceive us and disorganise our hunting operations, and that only two ships, the Clement and the Stonegate, which latter had been sunk on the 5th of October 600 miles east of Bermuda by the Deutschland, were at this time definitely known to have been victims of pocket-battleships. The Trevanion's distress message, if genuine, might be attributable to an armed merchant raider, and the pocket-battleship which had sunk the Clement and Stonegate might meanwhile have returned to her home waters. The sinking of the Rawalpindi in the Faeröes-Iceland Channel on the 23rd of November was for some


time, it will be remembered, attributed to the Deutschland.4 The weakness of our intelligence regarding the movements of major enemy vessels to and from home waters thus reflected itself in distant operations.

These deductions were, however, partially dispelled on the 8th of November when the masters of the Clement and Stonegate were released. Their reports left no doubt that two pocket-battleships had been involved and that one of them, believed by the Admiralty to be the Admiral Scheer, was probably still at sea. The Graf Spee, knowing that she was hunted, had actually steamed south-west after sinking the Trevanion on the 22nd of October, fuelled again from the Altmark far to the west of the Cape of Good Hope on the 28th and then, adopting a suggestion signalled out to her by Admiral Raeder, steered east around the Cape into the Indian Ocean, where her presence was confirmed on the 15th of November by the sinking of a small tanker in the Mozambique Channel. The next day she stopped a Dutch ship in the same area, after which she doubled back around the Cape again.5

Meanwhile the patrolling by British warships had not been entirely in vain, since three enemy merchant ships were intercepted --the Uhenfels on the 5th of November by the Ark Royal and destroyers, the Adolph Woermann by the Neptune off Ascension Island on the 22nd and the Emmy Friederich by the Caradoc in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is now time to turn to the movements of the three hunting groups principally concerned--Forces G, H and K. The first, the South American Division, was commanded by Commodore H. Harwood whose broad pennant was flown in the Exeter (Captain F. S. Bell) until the 27th of October, when she had to go to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands for repairs; he thereupon transferred to the Ajax (Captain C. H. L. Woodhouse). The New Zealand cruiser Achilles (Captain W. E. Parry) had meanwhile come from the Pacific by the Straits of Magellan and replaced the Exeter, and Commodore Harwood continued to cover the Rio de Janeiro-River Plate areas with the Achilles and Ajax. Not least of the Commodore's anxieties was the fuelling of his ships, since he was operating off neutral coasts with the nearest British base 1,000 miles away. By the Hague Convention rules belligerent warships could only fuel once every three months in a port of any one neutral country, which meant that he could only use an Argentine, Uruguayan or Brazilian port once at that interval. Within these rules the governments of the countries concerned made no difficulties; but the fuelling restrictions produced many problems for Commodore Harwood. As long as a pocket-battleship was at large he could not afford to disperse his slender strength in cruisers.


Yet he was required not only to keep his squadron at sufficient strength to deal with such a powerful enemy, but to patrol the focal areas on his station and to keep an eye on enemy merchant ships in many ports whence they might at any time make a dash for home.

At the beginning of December the Exeter and Cumberland were both at Port Stanley in case the enemy should conceive the idea of attacking it on the anniversary of the Falkland Islands battle of the 8th of December 1914; the Achilles was off Rio de Janeiro and the Ajax had recently sailed from Port Stanley for the River Plate. In the eastern Atlantic Forces H and K were patrolling in their respective areas. The Neptune, the submarine Clyde and four destroyers covered Freetown to Natal (Brazil) while, further north, the French cruisers Dupleix and Foch, assisted by the small aircraft carrier Hermes (a combination of Forces M and N) patrolled from Dakar.6

Between the 28th of November and 2nd of December Forces H and K patrolled south of the Cape of Good Hope to intercept the raider if she broke back into the Atlantic; but she had, in fact, already done so and had fuelled from the Altmark north-east of Tristan da Cunha on the 27th of November. On the 2nd of December the Renown sank the German merchantman Watussi after she had been sighted by a South African Air Force reconnaissance plane and intercepted by the cruiser Sussex; and, on the same day, a distress message was received from the British S.S. Doric Star far to the north and in the raider's former hunting ground.

Admiral Lyon at once altered his dispositions. Force H was ordered to cover the trade route from the Cape to the latitude of St. Helena; Force K was ordered to sweep north-west from the Cape to 28° South 15° West and thence proceed to Freetown. These sweeps did not succeed in catching the raider, but they did yield a useful secondary result, for the enemy merchantman Adolf Leonhardt was caught by the Shropshire on the 9th of December. On the other side of the ocean the Ajax and Cumberland had intercepted the Ussukuma on the 5th of the same month. Both ships scuttled themselves in spite of strenuous attempts to effect their capture. The Doric Star was sunk some 3,000 miles away from the South American focal areas guarded by Commodore Harwood, but he had always considered that, sooner or later, a raider would be tempted by the rich traffic off Rio de Janeiro and the River Plate. He calculated that the Doric Star's assailant could reach the former by the 12th of December and the latter one day later. He therefore decided to concentrate his forces. The Exeter was ordered to leave Port Stanley on the 9th and the Achilles to join him the following day. By 6 a.m. on the 12th the three ships were concentrated 150 miles off the entrance to the River Plate.

The Graf Spee found another victim, the S.S. Tairoa, on the day


after she sank the Doric Star, and then steered due west. In mid-ocean on the 7th of December she sank her last ship, the S.S. Streonshalh. She then steered direct to the estuary where Commodore Harwood's cruisers were waiting. Twenty-four hours after he had made his concentration, at 6.8 a.m. on the 13th of December, the Ajax reported smoke to the north-west and the Exeter was sent to investigate. Eight minutes later she signalled 'I think it is a pocket-battleship'. The long hunt was over.

A detailed description of the battle which now took place will be of less interest to posterity than the ocean-wide strategy which led to it, and it is therefore right, without in any way belittling the gallantry and tenacity with which Commodore Harwood's lightly armed cruisers tackled their formidable adversary, that it should occupy a smaller space in these pages. What matters is that the far-flung dispositions ordered by the Admiralty and the hunting operations conducted by the responsible Flag Officers finally yielded the desired result to one of the groups so employed and thus eliminated a serious threat to our shipping.

Commodore Harwood had long considered the tactics which he would use by day or by night on just such an occasion and he now put them into effect. In either case he intended to attack at once, but by day he would attack in two divisions to give his ships the benefit of being able to report each other's fall of shot. The first phase of the battle lasted from 6.14 a.m. to 7.40 a.m. The Ajax and Achilles engaged the enemy from the east, opening fire at about 19,000 yards range, while the Exeter left the line and turned west to engage her from the south, thus presenting the Graf Spee with the problem of either leaving one adversary unengaged or of dividing her main armament to engage both divisions at once.7 She first chose the second alternative, but soon shifted the fire of all her six 11-inch guns to the Exeter, whose 8-inch salvos probably appeared the more dangerous. Moreover, her Captain had at first thought that his adversaries consisted of one cruiser and two destroyers--an error of identification which can easily be understood--and to engage the heaviest adversary with his main armament would be his obvious tactic.

The German gunnery was accurate during this phase and, indeed, remained formidably so throughout the day. Unlike her adversaries the Graf Spee had a radar set which, though not specially designed for gunnery purposes, could pass its ranges to the armaments. The Exeter was soon heavily hit, lost one turret and had her steering gear put out of action temporarily, though Captain Bell quickly regained control from the after steering position. She then resumed the action


Map 12. The Battle of the River Plate
Map 12.
The Battle of the River Plate
6.14-7.40 A.M. Dec. 13th 1939

and fired her torpedoes, only to receive further hits from 11-inch shells which left her with only a single turret in action. By 6.50 she was steering west with a heavy list to starboard but was still engaging the enemy with her solitary turret; by 7.30 she could keep up no longer and turned to the south-east to effect repairs.

Meanwhile the Ajax and Achilles had been engaged alternately by the enemy's secondary armament of eight 5.9-inch guns, but had not been hit. They were themselves firing in concentration, with the Ajax controlling, and were rapidly closing the range. Their fire was effective, and at 6.30 the enemy shifted one 11- inch turret on to the Ajax which was quickly straddled but not hit. At 6.40 the Achilles was damaged, but not seriously, by a heavy shell which burst on the water line. Some confusion to the two ships' gunnery now occurred through failure of the Achilles' gunnery wireless set, and both ships lost accuracy until 7.08 when the range was found again--still at about 16,000 yards. A smoke screen made by the enemy added at this time to the difficulty of spotting accurately the fall of shot. At 7.16 the Graf Spee made a large turn to port (to the south) apparently with the intention of finishing off the crippled Exeter. Both the smaller cruisers at once turned to her assistance and fired so effectively that the enemy abandoned his attempt and turned again to the northwest to re-engage the Ajax. She received her first 11-inch hit at 7.25 and lost both her after turrets. The range was about 11,000 yards but by 7.38 had closed to 8,000, and the Ajax now suffered another hit which brought down her topmast. The battle appeared to have taken a dangerous turn as the enemy was still firing accurately and had apparently suffered little damage; and the total armament remaining to the two British cruisers was little superior to the enemy's secondary weapons. Commodore Harwood therefore turned to the east under cover of smoke at 7.40, and thus ended the first phase of the action.

The Graf Spee, however, did not press her weakened adversaries but continued on westerly courses so that, after six minutes, the British cruisers turned back to the west and followed her. The second phase of the action consisted of shadowing the enemy on her course towards the River Plate while she turned periodically and fired a few salvos, some of which fell dangerously close, if ever the cruisers closed the range sufficiently. By 11.17 p.m., when Commodore Harwood finally recalled the Achilles from shadowing the enemy, it was quite clear that she intended to enter Montevideo. The Commodore now had to face a difficult problem: he must prevent the enemy from escaping once more into the oceans after he had fuelled or accomplished whatever purpose lay behind his entrance into neutral waters. And, for the time being, he had only two small cruisers, one with half her armament out of action, wherewith


to accomplish it. At 9.46 the previous morning, when it had become clear that the Exeter must seek port, the Commodore had ordered the Cumberland to sail immediately from Port Stanley; but she could not join until the evening of the 14th. Until this much needed reinforcement, which would restore the squadron to its original strength, had arrived, the two smaller cruisers could only patrol the wide mouth of the river and hope to keep the enemy inside it. All other reinforcements were several thousand miles away. But the enemy made no attempt to escape.

Meanwhile, on the 13th, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, had sailed the Dorsetshire from the Cape of Good Hope for the Plate and the Admiralty ordered the Shropshire to follow on the 15th. Both ships were diverted to Port Stanley on the 18th but placed under the orders of Rear-Admiral Harwood.8 Other reinforcements were also hastening to the scene. The Ark Royal and Renown were ordered to fuel at Rio de Janeiro and thence proceed to the Plate at full speed. The Neptune was also ordered there, and the 3rd Destroyer Division arrived at Pernambuco on the 15th and sailed for Rio within an hour. The Ark Royal, Renown and Neptune all reached Rio de Janeiro on the 17th, fuelled and hurried south. Thus was overwhelming strength directed towards the danger point. But it could not be concentrated there before noon on the 19th of December.

It is not necessary to follow in detail the diplomatic negotiations which were meanwhile proceeding in Montevideo. Captain Langsdorff obtained for the Graf Spee a seventy-two-hour extension of the permissible twenty-four hours stay in port in order to repair damage. The British Government's objections to this were more technical than real; for they had no desire to force the Graf Spee to sea before the reinforcements had arrived. British merchant ships were sailed from Montevideo at intervals and the Uruguayan Government was requested to allow them a day's clear start ahead of the enemy. The seventy-two-hour extension expired at 8.0 p.m. on the 17th of December. Captain Langsdorff believed that the Ark Royal, Renown and destroyers were already waiting for him outside, and as early as the 15th his gunnery officer had told him that he could see the Renown from the control tower. The spreading of false intelligence regarding the British reinforcements was therefore, at least in part, done by the enemy. On the 16th of December Captain Langsdorff reported to Berlin the strength of the concentration which he presumed, incorrectly, to be waiting for him outside the estuary and proposed to try to fight his way through to Buenos Aires. He added a request for a decision whether, if the attempt to make such a breakthrough would result in certain destruction of his ship without


causing his adversaries appreciable damage, it was preferred for him to scuttle his ship or allow her to be interned. Admiral Raeder and Hitler, who discussed the matter the same day, were both agreed that the attempted break-through was the proper course but that scuttling was preferable to internment, and a reply in that sense was sent from Berlin at 5.17 that evening.

At 6.15 p.m. on the 17th of December Captain Langsdorff sailed down river with the German S.S. Tacoma following in his wake. At 7.56 the Graf Spee blew herself up. Shortly afterwards the British blockading squadron, which still consisted only of the Cumberland, Ajax and Achilles, steamed into the estuary and on towards Montevideo--passing the blazing wreck of the German pocket-battleship on the way. Three days later Captain Langsdorff shot himself, leaving behind a letter addressed to the German Ambassador in Montevideo but intended for Hitler, in which he explained the reasons which led him to commit his ship to her ignominious end. The action was considered at Hitler's conference with his war leaders on the 30th of December and, not without reason, Hitler then reiterated his previously expressed view that the Exeter should have been destroyed.

Thus ended the first challenge to our control of the ocean communications: far away in the North Atlantic, the Graf Spee's sister ship, the Deutschland, had been recalled on the 1st of November after sinking only two ships. She had reached Kiel on the 15th of the same month. The Graf Spee, though the more successful of the two, had, during a cruise lasting from the 26th of September until the 13th of December, sunk only nine ships totalling some 50,000 tons. It must stand to the credit of Captain Langsdorff that not one British life was lost through his ship's action against defenceless merchantmen.

This chapter has dealt primarily with the positive use of British maritime power. In our first chapter it was mentioned that such operations, if successful, always produced the secondary result of denying the use of the same communications to the enemy.9 The truth of this is well demonstrated by the interceptions of German merchantmen by British warships which have appeared incidentally in these pages. But the effectiveness of this denial of the sea routes to the enemy went much deeper. On the outbreak of war Germany ordered all her merchant ships to seek the shelter of the nearest neutral port. Some were captured on the way, but by the 24th of September no less than 206 German ships were immobilised in Atlantic ports alone. Attempts were made at various times to get some of these ships home, but the successful blockade runners were few.


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