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HIS is the ship which begat a town, which begat a slew of books, which was
immortalised on celluloid, which helped give the Allies their fi rst victory of the
‘Phoney War’ – a victory which, Churchill proclaimed, “warmed the cockles of
the British heart” in a dark, cold winter.
The deeds of HMS Ajax in the South Atlantic one did its Commanding Officer, Commodore Henry
Wednesday in December 1939 assured her place in Harwood, in charge for the past three years.
the annals of Royal Navy history. Harwood made Ajax his flagship, supported by
Yet both before and after the short, yet furious her sister Achilles and the heavy cruiser Exeter.
clash with the Admiral Graf Spee – known to history The German raider had already struck into the
as the Battle of the River Plate – Ajax distinguished Indian Ocean, then returned to the Atlantic to attack
herself as a fighter of renown. shipping along the west coast of Africa.
More than half the battle honours awarded the Harwood and his staff plotted the positions of
name were won by this seventh HMS Ajax during the sinkings and the last reported contacts with
five years of global conflict. the enemy warship, described variously in garbled
She was the third of eight Leander-class light radio transmissions as ‘RRR’ – raider – ‘Von Scheer’
cruisers ordered by the Admiralty in the mid-1930s (Graf Spee’s sister) and ‘gunned battleship’.
– long before the clouds of war gathered. Harwood reasoned the ‘Admiral Scheer’ would
All eight, named for mythological figures, saw make for the River Plate, gateway to Montevideo
action in World War 2; three were lost. and Buenos Aires. The busy trade in meat and grain
Barely had the signal ‘Total Germany’ been offered the German raider rich pickings. Instead,
● HMS Ajax trails her decommissioning pennant as she sails into Chatham in February 1948 and (right)
a series of photographs of the Graf Spee ablaze after she scuttled herself in the River Plate in December
flashed around the Fleet on Sunday, September the Graf Spee found Harwood and his three ships
3, 1939, than Ajax pounced on the Olinda off the waiting for her.
1939 Graf Spee images: A Hobson Collection
coast of Uruguay, sinking the German freighter after The pocket battleship’s captain, Kapitän zur See
removing her crew (gentlemanly conduct mirrored Hans Langsdorff, knew there were strong British the heavy cruiser. Neither would have the chance to attack the
by her future quarry, the Graf Spee). forces in the region, but when he sighted Exeter and She continued the battle, but Harwood ordered German vessel by night: she made for the River
The following day, she intercepted another her two ‘escorts’ at first light on December 13, he Ajax and Achilles to close, attempting to cripple Plate. “We must head into port,” Langsdorff
German steamer, Carl Fritzen, again off the Uruguay chose to fight. It would be his downfall. the raider at the same time as drawing her fire from declared. “The ship is no longer seaworthy for the
coast. Her crew chose to scuttle the vessel rather Graf Spee outgunned all three of her opponents. the Exeter. North Atlantic.” In the small hours of December 14,
than allow her to be captured. To compensate for this disparity, Harwood split his At their closest, they came within 8,000 yards of the Graf Spee arrived in Montevideo. bo
Two barren months followed until December force: Exeter with her 8in guns would attack from the Graf Spee, while Ajax’s spotter plane buzzed The outcome is well known: Langsdorff was ca
5 when she ran into the German passenger ship one side, the smaller-gunned Ajax and Achilles from overhead, reporting the fall of shot. The glow of fire unable to effect repairs in the Uruguayan capital; inf
Ussukuma in tandem with HMS Cumberland. Again, the other. from 6in shells impacting on the German warship he had insufficient ammunition to fight his way da
the crew chose self destruction rather than capture Between 6.20 and 6.23am, all three British ships was signalled back to the cruisers. out; he chose to scuttle his ship at sunset on the
and the liner went to the bottom off Bahia Blanca, opened fire – Ajax the last to do so. Reducing the range so drastically wrought havoc seventeenth. Me
Argentina – only minutes after Ajax’s boarding party The ensuing battle lasted 80 minutes, but the in the two Leanders – for seemingly little gain. With the night sky lit by the glow of fire, the of
had managed to get off the vessel. Graf Spee’s fate was decided just 18 minutes into After 80 minutes of action, Ajax had fired more ship’s companies of Ajax and Achilles lined their A
The real prize was the Graf Spee, the German the clash when an 8in shell from Exeter smashed than three quarters of her ammunition and three respective decks and cheered each other. da
‘pocket battleship’ which had been at sea since through two of the pocket battleship’s decks and turrets were out of action. Harwood broke off the HMS Ajax turned for home and spent the first half to
before war broke out and struck against Allied exploded in the fuel processing plant. battle and decided to shadow his prey rather than of 1940 undergoing repairs.
shipping with seeming impunity. From that moment on, the German raider’s life grapple with it during daytime. He would strike She returned to the Fleet that summer and was tho
Nine task groups ranged the oceans searching was limited to little more than 16 hours – that was again after dark. immediately dispatched to the Mediterranean, now in
for her. Only one found her: Force G, the South as long as her fuel would last. For the rest of December 13, Ajax and Achilles a crucible of conflict following Italy’s intervention. wi
America Division of the America and West Indies Exeter bore the brunt of the damage – a clung on to Graf Spee’s coattails, remaining out of In a night action off Cape Passero, Sicily, in A
Squadron, which knew these waters well. So too succession of 11in shells from Graf Spee mauled range of her main armament for the most part. October 1940, she sank two torpedo boats – Airone su
AAjax Cutaway.indd 3jax Cutaway.indd 3 111/12/09 09:56:491/12/09 09:56:49
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