Courtesy of ADM 186/794
06:14hrs HMS Exeter is despatched by Commodore Harwood to investigate smoke bearing 324°- the South American Division had until been sailing at 14knts in line ahead, HMS Ajax, HMS (HMNZS) Achilles & HMS Exeter in the rear
06:16hrs HMS Exeter signals “I think it is a pocket battleship.”
06:18hrs Admiral Graf Spee opens fire… immediately the RN ships increased speed, HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles turned to 340° to close range & engage enemy from the eastward, whilst HMS Exeter turned westward at full speed to engage the enemy from the southward…
- all to carry out Harwood’s plan of attacking from different bearings simultaneously
06:20hrs HMS Exeter opened fire to starboard at 18,700yards with her forward 8in turrets…
- the plan had succeeded in dividing the Admiral Graf Spee’s fire for a while, but after a while the 8in salvo’s of HMS Exeter started to worry her, so she concentrated on the heavy cruiser – a concentration coinciding with Exeter’s aft turret coming to bear
06:23hrs Admiral Graf Spee’s third concentrated salvo, burst short amidships, killing HMS Exeter’s starboard tubes’ crews and damaged her searchlights, communications, funnels and aircraft.
06:24hrs whilst HMS Exeter had fired eight salvos, one shell of Admiral Graf Spee’s 4th salvo knocked out “B” turret, it’s splinters swept the bridge, killing or wounding all the personnel there except Captain ‘Hooky’ Bell & 2 colleagues + wrecked wheelhouse communications
- Captain ‘Hooky’ Bell made his way aft, but he’d hardly left the bridge & HMS Exeter began to swing rapidly to starboard – this would have covered her aft turret, but the Torpedo Officer, Lt Com C.J. Smith managed to get an order through to return her to a westerly course…
- During all this, HMS Exeter had received 2 more hits, riddling her aircraft with splinters, spraying petrol everywhere – leading to them being jettisoned to save the ship – damage had already reached the level that Captain ‘Hooky’ Bell was passing orders through a chain of messengers…
06:30hrs however Admiral Graf Spee could not afford to concentrate & close for the kill, because despite the best efforts of her secondary 5.9in, HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles were closing, concentrating their fire; so now she turned her 11in on to them instead…
06:31hrs three salvos in quick succession straddled HMS Ajax, so her & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles turned away a point or two to confuse the Admiral Graf Spee’s fire…
- at about this time HMS Exeter manages to fire her starboard torpedoes under local control
06:34hrs the turn away didn’t last long though, now after three minutes the light cruisers turned back to port, to close the range as quickly as they could – HMS Ajax in the lead but only just.
06:37hrs HMS Ajax launches her aircraft, Lieutenant E.D.G. Lewin piloting, Lieutenant Kearny observing… this meant that from now on Harwood has an eye in the sky to guide his actions and thinking…
- about now Langsdorff decides the fight is getting very close, his advantage is range, not a slugging match, so gives the order & the Admiral Graf Spee turns 150°, retiring north-west under cover of a smoke screen…
- First Division, HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles go to full speed, first north, then to west, both to close range and regain bearing… History
06:40hrs, at this point HMS Exeter turns several points to starboard to bring her port torpedo tubes to bear… simultaneously an 11in shell burst on the water in line with the bridge of HMS (HMNZS) Achilles…
- damage to HMS (HMNZS) Achilles included killing/seriously wounding of 4 ratings in her director control tower, stunned the gunnery officer, Lieutenant R.E. Washbourn & wounded Captain Parry – rate of fire continued unabated
06:43hrs HMS Exeter fires her port torpedo tubes at Admiral Graf Spee, before steering north-east to close the 1st Division
06:45hrs HMS Exeter is by now burning fiercely amidships, her remaining turret(aft) is firing under local control, her compasses are destroyed; still she turns westerly, to keep the Admiral Graf Spee within range of that turret, to not desert her division mates
06:46hrs HMS (HMNZS) Achilles fire control wireless set broke down, from which point she continued on individual control – having great difficulty in finding range at first… but managed to correct this…
- reports of HMS (HMNZS) Achilles misses were reported to HMS Ajax by Lieutenant Kearney, which interpreted them as her own corrections – this was then complicated by the enemy making a smoke screen… meaning Ajax was no longer had the ‘range’
06:50hrs HMS Exeter is still steering west, her remaining turret still firing, with a 7° list to starboard and several compartments flooded…
06:56hrs the 1st Division hauled round north-westward, resulting in for a time the Admiral Graf Spee altering its course frequently to try to confuse the fir, but they kept coming
07:08hrs HMS Ajax after nearly quarter of an hour of being off on range, finally gets it right when the earlier confusion is cleared up and starts to make contact with the Admiral Graf Spee again.
07:10hrs realising the range to the Admiral Graf Spee had reached 16,000yars the 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles) turned westward at full speed…
07:16hrs the Admiral Graf Spee made a large turn to port, under cover of a smoke screen – seemingly to steer straight for HMS Exeter & finally finish her off
- 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles) almost immediately responded by turning to the rescue, firing so accurately the Admiral Graf Spee was set afire amidships & force to turn back to re-engage
- Admiral Graf Spee soon straddled HMS Ajax at 11,000yard by three 11in salvos, though the 5.9in continued to shoot wildly according to all British reports
07:25hrs an 11in shell knocked out HMS Ajax’s after turrets, she retaliated by turning to starboard & firing 4 torpedoes at 9,000yards range…
- The Admiral Graf Spee avoided the torpedoes with a wide turn to port, but then turned back again in perhaps an attempt to continue to close with 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles)
07:28hrs the 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles) turned 280° to close the range still further – not backing down at all in the face of presumed superiority…
- HMS Exeter had been dropping astern for a while, after turret still firing, but at 07:30hrs pressure in this turret failed…
07:31hrs Harwood receives a report from his aircraft, “Torpedoes approaching; they will pass ahead of you”, taking no chances he turns south, to engage the enemy from the starboard side – still closing the range
07:32hrs Admiral Graf Spee turns westward under cover of smoke to try to confuse the at that point quite accurate gunfire of 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles)
07:36hrs Admiral Graf Spee now turns south-west, bringing all her guns to bear on the 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles)
07:38hrs a salvo from Admiral Graf Spee brings down the topmast & wireless aerial of HMS Ajax at 8,000yards
07:40hrs HMS Exeter now turns slowly south-east to repair damage… at the same time Harwood received a report that only 20% of HMS Ajax’s ammunition remained
- At this point Harwood decides the prospects of a continuing successful daylight action were anything but rosy, so acts to break of the fight till dark, when there would be a better chance of closing to successful torpedo range
07:42hrs so the 1st Division (HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles) turns away under cover of smoke
07:45hrs it is considered that at this point the first phase of the battle is over and what now happens is more of a chase – the battle had lasted an hour & 22 minutes
08:00hrs HMS Ajax was in 34° 25’ S., 49° 29’ W, 15miles to the rear and in the port quarter of the Admiral Graf Spee, HMS (HMNZS) Achilles was in similar position on the starboard quarter
08:07hrs HMS Ajax broadcast the enemy’s position, course and speed, both to inform the Admiralty & to help merchants keep out of danger
08:14hrs HMS Exeter was now out of sight, so Harwood ordered the aircraft to signal her to close with the rest of the squadron
09:10hrs the aircraft signalled that HMS Exeter was closing as best she could – although by this point Captain ‘Hooky’ Bell was steering by boat compass
09:12hrs HMS Ajax recovered the aircraft… Harwood decided to reduce speed to try to help HMS Exeter catch up…
09:30hrs Harwood turned westward to head for the nearest land…
09:46hrs Harwood sent a message for HMS Cumberland to make best speed for the plate, his signal didn’t get through in time though, so when she sailed at 12:00hrs it was on the initiative of Captain Fallowfield
10:00hrs HMS (HMNZS) Achilles, over-estimating the speed of the Admiral Graf Spee, closed to a range of 23,000yards…
10:05hrs Admiral Graf Spee turned suddenly and fired on HMS (HMNZS) Achilles, the first salvo fell short, but the second fell almost alongside… seeing nothing to be gained by risking unnecessary damage, Achilles retired behind a smokescreen
11:04hrs HMS Ajax sighted the British merchant ship, SS Shakespeare, stopped near the Admiral Graf Spee – which a few minutes later signalled the merchant’s lifeboats would need to be picked up, however this turned out to be a ruse…
11:05hrs HMS Exeter signals that she was flooded forward, all turrets out of action, but could still steam at 18knts… later reporting one gun of the aft turret was working…
13:40 HMS Exeter was ordered by Harwood to make for the Falklands – so at 15:10hrs she would turn south…
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