Monday, April 20, 2015

Graf Spee Cornered…

As the Graf Spee ploughed her way through the waters of the South Atlantic, Harwood was busy thrashing out the battle tactics he wanted his three captains to orchestrate should they come across the German raider. In essence his ships would be split into two divisions so that ideally his two light cruisers could engage the Graf Spee from one wing of the pocket battleship, while his heavy cruiser Exeter would weigh in from the other wing. These tactics made very good sense since Langsdorff would be unable to concentrate all of his fire in one direction and it might give Force G the chance of hitting her and causing some damage, possibly slowing her down and forcing her to use up a good deal of her ammunition into the bargain. If Harwood’s cruisers couldn’t finish her off on their own, they might make her more vulnerable and set her up for destruction at the hands of one of the other Allied hunting groups that were scouring the Atlantic for the armed raider. His tactics would come to naught, however, if the Graf Spee’s 60cm Seetakt radar alerted her to Force G’s presence before the Allied warships could spot her on the horizon. In that case Langsdorff could choose to avoid an engagement with a numerically superior set of enemy warships (as his standing orders indicated) or risk doing battle with them. If he chose the latter option he would have to determine quickly what these blips on the radar screen actually represented. If they were three modest warships, he could use his superior armament to keep out of their range while using his big guns to pound them into submission, picking them off one by one. If any of them was a fast, heavy ship, however, his tactics were likely to be profoundly different. Such a ship would pose the gravest threat to the Graf Spee and would have to be dealt with first of all. In this case he would expect to rely upon his own ship’s excellent range finding and fire control to account for the heaviest enemy warship in the group. Once he had either disabled or destroyed the heavy ship, Langsdorff could then attempt to take on the rest of the group and seek to defeat them in detail.

At 0500 hours on 13 December – some twenty-two hours after Force G had rendezvoused well out to sea off the mouth of the River Plate – the Seetakt radar set aboard the Graf Spee performed admirably once again detecting three ships sailing southwest of her. Ignoring his standing orders not to engage even an inferior set of enemy warships, a confident Langsdorff opted to close the ships and see what type they were. Even when his lookout crew spotted one large warship and two smaller ones (type unknown) sailing as a group at a distance of 17nm (31.5km) less than an hour later, he was inclined to think that they might be a light cruiser and two destroyers possibly out on convoy duty. Despite the fact that his radar hadn’t picked up a trace of any convoy formation in the vicinity, Langsdorff changed course at 0600 hours and increased his speed to 24 knots in a deliberate move to close the three warships and engage them in gunfire with his superior armament. Fourteen minutes later a lookout on Harwood’s light cruiser Ajax spotted a smudge of smoke on the horizon and Exeter was instructed to go and investigate what type of vessel had left this sign of her presence in the area. Within a couple of minutes Harwood received word from Captain Bell of the Exeter indicating that it was likely to be a pocket battleship.

By this time Langsdorff had also discovered the nature of Force G. It was a good deal more formidable than he had previously imagined, but since he couldn’t outrun the much faster cruisers, there was little he could do but to engage them at distance and hope he could knock them out before they had a chance to respond with concentrated fire or get close enough to his ship to use their torpedoes against the Graf Spee. As Exeter swiftly executed a turn to the westward and reached top speed once Bell realised who was in the offing, Langsdorff swung his own ship to port and unfurled his 6 x 280mm (11-inch) guns in an effort to pick off the heavy cruiser at a distance of 18,700 yards (17.1km), while training his secondary armament of 8 x 150mm (5.9-inch) guns on the two light cruisers on his other wing. Opening fire at 0618 hours, the gun crews of the Graf Spee swiftly found their range and within five minutes had begun straddling Exeter with only their third salvo of High Explosive shells. Although a number of casualties and some structural damage were sustained on board Exeter, her plight could have been far worse had all of the German shells actually exploded on impact. As it was, those that did in the early exchanges took out her ‘B’ turret, made a mess of the bridge and primary conning position and penetrated the forward part of the deck in a number of places. Just when it seemed that she might well have succumbed totally if the Graf Spee had continued her assault on her, Langsdorff broke off the engagement at 0630 hours and concentrated his full attention on the two light cruisers who had already shown considerable enthusiasm for the fight. Harwood’s tactical ploy of dividing his force into two polarised fronts had indeed been sufficient to give Langsdorff pause for thought, not least because of the hits his own ship had been taking and the fact that the British light cruisers posed a torpedo threat as they churned closer to his warship. 

Weaving their way out of trouble with masterly precision, both Achilles and Ajax proved to be far more difficult to hit than Langsdorff would have hoped. Worse was to follow for him almost immediately when the pugnacious Exeter, momentarily freed from sustaining constant punishment at the hands of the Graf Spee, fired off the first salvo of torpedoes from her starboard tubes at the pocket battleship at 0632 hours. Langsdorff now found himself rapidly getting into an unenviable position. With the light cruisers only 13,000 yards (11.9km) away and spoiling for a fight on one wing and Exeter refusing to play dead on the other, Langsdorff reacted by making a 150º turn away to port in a bid to avoid the torpedoes and put some distance between him and the light cruisers. As he did so, he resumed his shelling of the heavy cruiser knocking out her ‘A’ turret, setting off a major fire amidships and driving a hole in the front part of the ship. Despite listing 7°, Exeter was not finished yet and with her speed remarkably unimpaired, Bell was able to turn his vessel so that she could fire her port side torpedoes at the Graf Spee. Langsdorff was forced to alter course yet again – this time 120º away from his enemies – but without having the speed to outrun them, he was left with few alternatives other than to try to destroy Exeter before coping with Achilles and Ajax.

Sensing that his adversary was about to do just that, Harwood decided to intervene by turning westward and shortening the distance between his light cruisers and the Graf Spee. Once Langsdorff made yet another turn to port (0716 hours) so that he could bring his guns to bear on Exeter, Harwood ordered Ajax to turn to starboard so that his own guns could resume firing at the pocket battleship. After one of these shells had hit the Graf Spee amidships, Langsdorff was forced to turn once again to starboard to try to silence the impertinent light cruisers once and for all. Thereafter the duel continued with Langsdorff directing a withering amount of fire at Ajax – some of which struck home knocking out her after turrets – but Harwood’s ship survived and was not cajoled into silence. In the jostling for position that continued apace, Ajax responded by turning to starboard once again and firing a volley of four torpedoes at the Graf Spee from a distance of 9,000 yards (8.23km). Langsdorff combed their tracks and avoided them with ease, responding with his own spread of torpedoes all of which received the same fate. At 0730 hours Exeter’s guns at last fell silent. Although she was something of a floating wreck by this time and had lost sixty-one dead and twenty-three wounded in these exchanges, she had at least survived the pummelling the pocket battleship had given her. Ten minutes later Harwood, believing that Ajax had already used 80% of her 6-inch (152mm) AP shells, ordered his light cruisers to stop firing and turned east to put some extra distance between them and the westward fleeing Graf Spee. Learning that his ship had already expended 60% of her ammunition on this redoubtable trio of enemy ships, and having taken twenty assorted hits from them – some of which needed urgent attention before a homeward passage could be contemplated – Langsdorff opted not to continue pressing home the attack but struck west towards the estuary of the River Plate and the neutral port of Montevideo making smoke and firing her guns as she did so.

Thereafter Harwood’s light cruisers, operating without the benefit of radar, were forced to shadow the Graf Spee as she made for the Uruguayan coast throughout the daylight hours. For the most part they were able to stay out of harm’s way, but they were soon alone in their quest to do so as Exeter’s plight got worse as the morning wore on and Harwood was left with little alternative but to order her south to Port Stanley in the early afternoon for major repairs. As Exeter bore away and laboured south towards the Falklands, Harwood’s other heavy cruiser Cumberland was proceeding north in the opposite direction on the long slog to join Force G. Whether she would arrive in time was an open question for much, if not everything, now depended upon what Langsdorff might decide to do in the next few hours. If he opted to enter the estuary of the River Plate as a ploy or feint to throw Harwood off the scent before stealing away northward again under cover of darkness, Force G would be hard pressed to counter the manoeuvre. If he decided to enter the harbour at Montevideo in order to make some running repairs to the Graf Spee, the critical factor would be the time he would have to spend in port to repair the damage inflicted upon her by the British ships. Obviously the more serious the damage his ship had sustained, the longer he would need to stay in port to remedy the problem and the greater the difficulty he would have in escaping from the River Plate.

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