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Breakfast at Babs

A Blog by Simon 'Peters' Biggs

Extracted from:
Breakfast Chatter & History

L/Cpl HE Harden VC (RAMC) - attached to 45 (Royal Marine) Commando - 23rd January 1945 - Netherlands

Jan 28, 2018 03:49 am

Henry Eric Harden VC (23 February 1912 – 23 January 1945), 32 years old.
Harden was a lance corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to 45 (Royal Marine) Commando during the Second World War.
On 23 January 1945 during Operation Blackcock, at Brachterbeek, the Netherlands, three marines of the leading section of the Royal Marine Commando Troop to which Lance-Corporal Harden was attached fell, wounded.
The Commando section had come under heavy machine-gun fire in the open field that morning, and the men were seriously wounded. One of the casualties was Lieutenant Corey. Under intense mortar and machine-gun fire Harden was wounded in his side as he carried one man back to the aid post, which had been set up in one of the houses along the Stationsweg in Brachterbeek.
Against the orders of another Medical officer he then returned with a stretcher party for the other two wounded. Bringing in the second casualty the rescue party came under enemy fire which killed the wounded Commando. While finally bringing back the third man Lieutenant Corey, who had demanded he be recovered last, Harden was shot through the head and killed instantly.
45 Commando. Henry Harden is the sitting man to the right.
Lance Corporal Henry Eric Harden would have become 33 years old on 23 February, exactly one month after his death. He left behind a wife and two young children.
For his exceptional valour and for giving his life to save three marines, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross
On the Henry Harden bridge near the mill there is a plaque to commemorate Lance Corporal Harden. (51.149730, 5.924556)
The original plaque. In 2009, when the bridge was renovated, two black granite plaques were immured on either side of the bridge, one in English, the other in Dutch. Lieutenant Corey and Julie Harden were present at the unveiling.
Lance-Corporal Harden's final resting place is in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Nederweert, Limburg, the Netherlands.

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The Royal Marines a Geo - History 1664 - Present

Jan 24, 2018 07:17 am

The Royal Marines
A Geo History 1664 to Present
This page is a work in progress as I try to code it, please check back regularly.
In the near future I hope to provide a form to allow people to plot their own Royal Marine history and build a unique data base.

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45 Commando During Tanganyika Revolt January 1964

Jan 24, 2018 05:21 am

Royal Marines in Tanganyika. 25 January 1964,
Royal Marines of 45 Commando were disembarked from HMS Centaur at the request of the Tanganyikan government to deal with a revolt among army units.
At the main Army barracks in Dar-es-Salaam, a Commando disarms one of the mutineers
A wounded Tanganyikan is taken by stretcher from a helicopter on the deck of HMS CENTAUR.

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47 Cdo RM - Battle of Port-en-Bessin 7-8 June 1944 - "It is doubtful whether, in their long, distinguished history, the marines have ever achieved anything finer"

Jan 23, 2018 05:50 am

The Battle of Port-en-Bessin also known as Operation Auberytook place from 7–8 June 1944, at a small fishing harbour west of Arromanches during the Normandy landings of World War II. The village was between Omaha Beach to the west in the U.S. V Corps sector, and Gold Beach to the east in the British XXX Corps sector. An objective during Operation Overlord, the fortified port was captured by No. 47 (Royal Marine) Commando of the 4th Special Service Brigade.
The main defences of Port-en-Bessin were on 200-foot (61 m) high cliffs known as the Western and Eastern features, either side of the hollow in which the port lay. An entrenched and concreted position had been built just south of the port on the Bayeux road, with more defences in the harbour.
Before the wireless was repaired to arrange covering fire, the Marines began a house-to-house battle through the port. The defensive position on the Bayeux road was charged and quickly overcome and its occupants captured. In the afternoon, after a bombardment by HMS Emerald and three squadrons of Typhoons firing RP-3 rockets, the cliff-top strong points were attacked and the base of the western feature captured.
A troop advanced on the eastern feature against rifle and machine-gun fire and grenades being thrown down the open slope, which was also mined and had hidden flame-throwers. When the Marines were well up the slope, two FLAK ships in the harbour opened fire, killing twelve and wounding 17 men, more than half the troop in a few minutes, forcing it to withdraw.
German counter-attacks overran the Commando rear headquarters and an attack across the Escures–Port-en-Bessin road cut off the troop defending Escures. The strength of the commando in the port was reduced to 280 men, many of whom were wounded but an ammunition shortage was alleviated by several members of 522 Company Royal Army Service Corps, who drove supplies through German machine-gun and tank fire. The German defences in the harbour area consisted of dispersed strong points, which the marines attacked individually and gradually cleared the harbour in a series of costly attacks. The FLAK ships continued to fire and ammunition ran low.
Marine Captain Cousins led reconnaissance patrol towards the eastern feature and found an undefended zig-zag path up to the fortifications at the top. With darkness falling Cousins led a party of four officers and 25 men up the hill unobserved and surprised the defenders, who were thrown into confusion. The Marines then encountered a concrete bunker, which Cousins and four men rushed. Cousins was killed by a grenade and the men accompanying him were wounded but the German bunker was captured.
Outnumbered four to one by the Germans, they fought their way up the feature through the concrete, entrenchments, mines and barbed wire defences. The German positions were captured one-by-one and before dawn the eastern feature had been occupied. The fall of the Eastern Feature persuaded the remaining Germans on the Western Feature to surrender. Capt Terry Cousins was nominated for the Victoria Cross for his leadership, courage and initiative but was declined much to the Commandos' disgust.The Commandos re-occupied Escures and at 4:00 a.m. on 8 June, the garrison commander and 300 men surrendered.
By 8 June, 47 Commando had been reduced to a strength of c. 200 officers and other ranks. The battalion was ordered to move into the area of Douvres-la-Délivrande and were then ordered to move east of the Orne River to reinforce the British 6th Airborne Division.
Lieutenant-General Sir Brian G. Horrocks, commander of XXX Corps towards the end of the Normandy Campaign, wrote of 47 Royal Marine Commando’s capture of Port-en-Bessin: "It is doubtful whether, in their long, distinguished history, the marines have ever achieved anything finer."
Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, historian and Director General of the British Political Warfare Executive during World War II, described 47 RM Commando’s performance as: "The most spectacular of all commando exploits during the actual invasion."
Julian Thompson wrote: "In my opinion the operation by 47 RM Commando at Port-en-Bessin was one of the great feats of arms of any unit, Royal Marines, Army, Navy or Air Force of any nation in the Second World War."
The next day soldiers from the 16th (US) Infantry Regiment who had landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day moved toward Port-en-Bessin and eventually linked up with 47 Commando, joining together the British and American beaches. The major American PLUTO terminal would be located at Cherbourg, however the town would not be finally captured until 30 June, so Port-en-Bessin would play an important role in supplying the allied army fighting in Normandy.
The 47th (Royal Marine) Commando had 136 casualties, 46 killed and 70 wounded.

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Major Anders Lassen VC - SBS - Lake Commachio 8 - 9th April 1945

Jan 18, 2018 06:45 am

On the night of 8th – 9th April 1945 eighteen men from the Special Boat Service set out across Lake Comacchio to attack heavily defended German positions. The assault was led by a Danish national, 24 year old Major Anders Lassen, already a legend within the British Special Forces, three times decorated with the Military Cross for his exploits during raiding parties on enemy occupied ships and positions.
He was originally recruited by the Special Operations Executive after he arrived in Britain as a merchant seaman in 1940. They judged his independent character unsuitable for covert spying but well suited to raiding and patrolling. He began his career for the British with a raid on a Spanish ship in African waters – and then graduated to the Small Scale Raiding Force which made covert cross Channel raids on the Channel Islands and the French coast, before joining the new Special Boat Service in the Mediterranean in 1942.
The night of 8th/9th April, fifth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Denmark, saw Lassen’s luck run out. He was killed after approaching a German machine gun nest that was apparently surrendering. Nevertheless his raiding force had achieved their objective, simulating a much larger attack and diverting German attention from the main attack that was to follow.
The citation for the Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to Lassen for the action on the 8/9th April 1945:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to: Major (temporary) Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau LASSEN, M.C. (234907), General List. In Italy, on the night of 8/9 April 1945, Major Lassen was ordered to take out a patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks to raid the north shore of Lake Comacchio. His tasks were to cause as many casualties and as much confusion as possible, to give the impression of a major landing, and to capture prisoners.
No previous reconnaissance was possible, and the party found itself on a narrow road flanked on both sides by water. Preceded by two scouts, Major Lassen led his men along the road towards the town. They were challenged after approximately 500 yards from a position on the side of the road. An attempt to allay suspicion by answering that they were fishermen returning home failed, for when moving forward again to overpower the sentry, machinegun fire started from the position, and also from two other blockhouses to the rear. Major Lassen himself then attacked with grenades, and annihilated the first position containing four Germans and two machineguns.
Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping fire road from three enemy positions, an additional one having come into action from 300 yards down the road, he raced forward to engage the second position under covering fire from the remainder of the force. Throwing in- more grenades he silenced this position which was then overrun by his patrol. Two enemy were killed, two captured and two more machine-guns silenced. By this time the force had suffered casualties and its firepower was very considerably reduced.
Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied and reorganised his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward himself he flung in more grenades which produced a cry of ” Kamerad “. He then went forward to within three or four yards of the position to order the enemy outside, and to take their surrender. Whilst shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of spandau fire from the left of the position and he fell mortally wounded, but even whilst falling he flung a grenade, wounding some of the occupants, and enabling his patrol to dash in and capture this final position.
Major Lassen refused to be evacuated as he said it would impede the withdrawal and endanger further lives, and as ammunition was nearly exhausted the force had to withdraw. By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Lassen had, in the face of overwhelming superiority, achieved his objects.
Three positions were wiped out, accounting for six machine guns, killing eight and wounding others of the enemy, and two prisoners were taken. The high sense of devotion to duty and the esteem in which he was held by the men he led, added to his own magnificent courage, enabled Major Lassen to carry out all the tasks he had been given with complete success.

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Corporal John Prettyjohn RM - 2nd November 1854 – Crimea

Jan 16, 2018 06:13 am

John Prettyjohns VC (sometimes misspelled Prettyjohn) (11 June 1823 – 20 January 1887) was the first Royal Marine to win the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
On 5 November 1854, Corporal John Prettyjohns won the Victoria Cross during the Battle of Inkerman.
The 2 November 1854 was an active day, 312 rank and file marched off from the heights of Balaklava, for the Light Division, under the command of Captain Hopkins, RMLI, the detachment was divided into four companies, taking turn in the trenches. On the morning of the 5th, the relief, which had just returned, were preparing their rude breakfast; the firing from Sebastopol was gradually increased, and then commenced in our rear. Nothing could be distinguished but fog and smoke from where we were.
The bugle sounded the ‘Fall-in’ at the double, and officers were flying about giving orders, saying vast columns of the enemy were moving up to our rear. The roll of musketry was terrific; we were advanced cautiously until bullets began to fall in amongst us, the Sergeant-Major was the first man killed; order given to lay (sic) down; it was well we did so; a rush of bullets passed over us: then we gave them three rounds, kneeling, into their close columns.
At the same time some seamen opened fire from some heavy guns into their left flank, and this drove them back into the fog and smoke. Our Commanding Officer received several orders from mounted officers at this critical time; first it was ‘advance’, then it was ‘hold your ground and prevent a junction or communication with the town’.
The Inkermann Caves were occupied by the enemy’s sharpshooters, who were picking off our officers and gunners; between us and these men was an open space exposed to the broadside fire of a frigate in the harbour under shelter of the wall, but she had been heeled over so as to clear the muzzles of her guns, when fired, from striking the wall; thus, her fire raked the open part. The Caves were to be cleared, and the Marines ordered to do it; as soon as we showed ourselves in the open, a broadside from the frigate thinned our ranks; Captain March fell wounded. Captain Hopkins ordered his men to lie down under a bit of rising ground, and ordered two privates, Pat Sullivan and another man to take the Captain back, and there he stood amidst a shower of shot and shell, seeing him removed.
A division under Sergeant Richards and Corporal Prettyjohns, was then thrown out to clear the caves, what became of the Commanding Officer and the others I never knew, so many statements have been made.
We, under Richards and Prettyjohns, soon cleared the caves, but found our ammunition nearly all expended, and a new batch of the foe were creeping up the hillside in single file, at the back. Prettyjohns, a muscular West Countryman, said, ‘Well lads, we are just in for a warming, and it will be every man for himself in a few minutes. Look alive, my hearties, and collect all the stones handy, and pile them on the ridge in front of you. When I grip the front man you let go the biggest stones upon those fellows behind’.
As soon as the first man stood on the level, Prettyjohns gripped him and gave him a Westcountry buttock, threw him over upon the men following, and a shower of stones from the others knocked the leaders over. Away they went, tumbling one over the other, down the incline; we gave them a parting volley, and retired out of sight to load; they made off and left us, although there was sufficient to have eaten us up.
Later in the day we were recalled, and to keep clear of the frigate’s fire had to keep to our left, passing over the field of slaughter.
On being mustered, if my memory is not at fault, twenty-one had been killed and disabled, and we felt proud of our own Commanding Officer, who stood fine, like a hero, helping Captain March.
Corporal Prettyjohns received the VC, Colour Sergeant Jordan the Medal and £20 for Distinguished Conduct in the Field, Captain Hopkins a C.B., others were recommended.
— - a report by Sergeant Turner RM

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Surgeon-Captain Richard Jolly OBE has Crossed the Bar Aged 71

Jan 14, 2018 04:54 am

Surgeon-Captain Richard Jolly OBE was a Royal Navy medical officer who served in the 1982 Falklands War and was later decorated by both the British and Argentine governments for his distinguished conduct during the conflict. He went on to practise and give lectures to medical establishments on his experiences. He was a co-founder, with Denzil Connick, of the South Atlantic Medal Association formed in 1997.
As Officer Commanding Medical Squadron of the Commando Logistic Regiment Royal Marines, Jolly was Senior Medical Officer of 3 Commando Brigade RM and commanded the field hospital at Ajax Bay.The facilities at Ajax Bay were set up in an old refrigeration plant which was situated next to an ammunition dump, as those were the only roofed buildings available of any size fit for purpose.
Therefore, due to its position, Brigadier Julian Thompson ordered they were not to paint a Red Cross on the buildings to highlight the hospital due to the terms of the Geneva Convention.
The conditions in the field hospital were poor and despite the dirt, poor lighting, air attacks and the presence of two unexploded bombs, only 3 of the 580 British soldiers and marines wounded in action were to die of their wounds and none while under the care of Dr Jolly.
There will be many a man waiting at the FRV to buy him a drink. Simon Biggs

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42 Commando Raid on Limbang 12th December 1962

Jan 12, 2018 05:30 am

The Limbang raid (Malay: Serangan/Serbuan di Limbang) was a military engagement between British Royal Marine commandos and insurgents of the North Kalimantan National Army (Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara: TNKU), on 12 December 1962.
After an amphibious assault on the town of Limbang in Sarawak, Borneo, the commandos managed to rescue the hostages being held there by the TNKU.
On 9 December 1962, as the Brunei Revolt broke out, TNKU militants led by Salleh bin Sambas seized the small town of Limbang. From the police station, they captured several rifles, Sterling submachine guns and one Bren light machine gun. This greatly enhanced their weaponry, as they had only been armed with shotguns. They imprisoned the British resident and his wife, along with 12 others, and announced their intention of hanging them on 12 December.
The task of freeing the hostages was given to L Company, 42 Commando, commanded by Captain Jeremy Moore, who were deployed from the commando carrier HMS Albion. To bring the commandos to their target, two cargo lighters were commandeered and crewed by Royal Navy personnel. One of them carried a Vickers machine gun. Moore planned to sail his force up the Limbang river, and then to assault the town directly, so as to avoid giving the rebels time to execute the hostages.
The lighters approached Limbang at dawn on the morning of 12 December. The sound of their engines warned the rebels, and the commandos lost the element of surprise. As they moved into their landing area, they were met by heavy fire from the police station, where Salleh himself was manning the Bren gun. The deck of the lighters offered little protection, and two marines were killed before landing. One craft provided covering fire with the Vickers gun, while the first disembarked its men.
The commandos charged the police station, where they killed ten rebels and captured the Bren gun. Salleh Bin Sambas was injured, but made good his escape. The hostages were discovered in the hospital, where the resident was singing loudly, to avoid being mistaken for a rebel. After all the commandos had landed, they spent the rest of the day clearing Limbang house by house, during which three more marines and two more rebels were killed.
British forces operations continued in the area in the following days, and captured 11 more prisoners. The intelligence they gathered suggested that the TNKU force had been undone by the Limbang battle: the more committed fighters had escaped into the surrounding jungle, while the local conscripts had thrown away their weapons and uniforms.
Their leader, Salleh was subsequently captured by the British Forces six months after the raid. He was found guilty for bearing the arms against the Crown, and was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment at Kuching Central Prison. During the trial, he pleaded guilty on all charges, and requested the judges to release the other prisoner, citing that he was willing to take the fall himself and would head to the gallows. However, none of his requests were granted and his sentence proceeded as planned. He was later released in the 1970s, and now resides in Limbang as a Penghulu (Village Headman) at Kampung Pahlawan.
For their role in the battle, Corporals Lester and Rawlinson were awarded Military Medals, while Captain Moore was awarded a bar for his Military Cross. He later went on to command the British forces during the Falklands War.
Jeremy Black, the RN officer who commanded one of the lighters, later became Captain of HMS Invincible, during the same conflict. After this action L Company became known as "Limbang Company".
The lighters were piloted in by Erskine Muton of the Brunei State Marine who was awarded the MBE for his civilian gallantry. Citation in The London Gazette.
A memorial stands alone opposite the Limbang Police Station.
It commemorates the death of five Royal Marines and four Royal Malaysian Police Constables who was killed in action during the Limbang Rebellion/Limbang Raid.
Built close to the spot where where the first Z craft landed, the unveiling of the monument in 1963 was attended by many of the Royal Marines who took part in the raid.

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Sea Borne Escape from Crete in a Damaged Landing Craft #RoyalMarines #Commando

Dec 27, 2017 10:00 am

Colour Sergeant Charlie Bowden, who died aged 94 2011, was a Royal Marines gunner who survived being shot at by both the enemy and his own side before taking part in a remarkable seaborne escape from Crete in 1941.
On May 20 1940, when the Germans invaded Crete, Bowden was in a hospital suffering from dysentery. Soon he and the other patients were being marched, in their pyjamas, into captivity.
Bowden's column was attacked by a patrol of New Zealanders, however, and in the confusion he escaped and hid in a cave near Suda Bay until he could set out to discover his own battery. He eventually located it but, still dressed in pyjamas, was shot at by a sentry.
Scrounging a uniform and a rifle, Bowden manned the guns until receiving the order to blow them up rather than let them fall into German hands. His unit then became part of an infantry platoon under the command of Major Ralph Garrett which, during the next four days, fought a bloody rearguard action. Retreating to the island's south coast, half the men of the formation were wounded or killed.
There Garrett told survivors that they could wait to be taken prisoner, join the resistance, or try to make their way off the island. Bowden chose to stay with Garrett who, when they found an abandoned landing craft, called out: "Who's for home? All aboard the Skylark."
They set out with 139 men, including 56 Marines, some Australians, New Zealanders, a Greek and two Palestinians. There was little fuel, food or water, but Bowden had found a map of the Mediterranean in a deserted school and this became their chart. "It was all in Greek," he recalled, "but we could still recognise the shape of the countries."
Their supplies were a travelling clock, odd tins of oil and petrol, and biscuits and bully beef which had been abandoned on the beach. With only one engine working, and the deck just above water level, they set sail at 08.55 on the morning of June 1.
When they ran out of fuel they used their bootlaces to stitch together a sail of blankets, and dived over the side in groups to steer the landing craft by swimming. After nine days, during which time two men died, the craft beached on the North African coast. Many of the survivors were so weak that they could not stand, but two Maoris went to search for water. Meanwhile, not knowing if they were behind British or German lines, Bowden and a young Australian officer set off into the darkness to reconnoitre.
A pipeline led them to a British anti-aircraft battery, where they summoned transport, and Bowden returned to the beach to report to Garrett. Though many were ill and without boots, they marched to a rendezvous which Bowden had fixed, where a convoy of lorries was waiting to take them to safety. Within days Garrett's Royal Marines were re-equipped and ready to fight again.
Image; A painting by Lt-Cdr Roland Langmaid of the landing craft in which Bowden and 140 others escaped from Crete

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The Christmas Truce 1914

Dec 25, 2017 03:28 am

The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden; French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front of World War I around Christmas 1914.
The Christmas truce occurred during the relatively early period of the war (month 5 of 51). Hostilities had entered somewhat of a lull as leadership on both sides reconsidered their strategies following the stalemate of the Race to the Sea and the indecisive result of the First Battle of Ypres. In the week leading up to the 25th, French, German, and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into no man's land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Dayto mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of soccer with one another, giving one of the most memorable images of the truce. Peaceful behavior was not ubiquitous; fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.
Image: British and German troops meeting in no man's land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)
The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting fraternisation. Soldiers were no longer amenable to truce by 1916. The war had become increasingly bitter after devastating human losses suffered during the battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the use of poison gas.
The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of "live and let live", where infantry close together would stop overtly aggressive behavior and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised or worked in full view of the enemy.
Image: A cross, left in Saint-Yves (Saint-Yvon – Ploegsteert; Comines-Warneton in Belgium) in 1999, to commemorate the site of the Christmas Truce. The text reads: "1914 – The Khaki Chum's Christmas Truce – 1999 – 85 Years – Lest We Forget"
The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation—even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable—and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.

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Battle of the River Plate 13th December 1939

Dec 13, 2017 09:53 am

The Battle of the River Plate took place on December 13th 1939. The battle in the South Atlantic was the first major naval battle of World War Two. Ships from the Royal Navy’s South American Division took on the might of Germany’s Graf Spee which was successfully attacking merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.
The Graf Spee
The crew of the Graf Spee watch as another victim sinks Great Britain’s South American Naval Division was made up of four cruisers. On Saturday, December 2nd,1939, HMS Ajax, commanded by Captain Woodhouse, was harboured at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Also at Port Stanley was HMS Exeter, commanded by Captain Bell. Two other ships made up the South American Division – HMS Cumberland, commanded by Captain Fallowfield, and HMNZS Achilles, commanded by Captain Parry. The commander of the South American Division was Commodore Harwood.
Harwood knew that the Graf Spee was in the South Atlantic somewhere but he had received no intelligence since November 15th as to her exact position. Harwood came to two conclusions:
The Graf Spee would be tempted to attack the shipping using the route from Argentina/Brazil to BritainThe 25th anniversary of the German defeat at the Battle of the Falkland Islands would be an appropriate date for the Graf Spee to seek revenge by attacking the British South American Division.
There were three neutral countries in South America that allowed ships to use their harbour facilities – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Under international law, a naval ship could only use a harbour once every three months. However, Harwood had built up a number of contacts in each country and this ‘law’ was given a liberal interpretation by both parties.
On December 2nd, 1939, Harwood received a message that a merchant ship, the ‘Doric Star’ had been attacked by a large German naval vessel just off St. Helena. The next day, Harwood was informed that another ship, the ‘Tairoa’, had also been attacked 170 miles to the south-west of where the ‘Doric Star’ had been attacked. Harwood assumed that it was the ‘Graf Spee’. By using the distance covered over 24 hours, Harwood estimated where this German naval ship could be. He worked off of an average speed of 15 knots an hour – in fact, the Graf Spee cruised at 22 knots; 50% faster than that estimated by the British. However, luck also assisted Harwood’s skill. The Graf Spee’s average speed was 22 knots – but it had been reduced as a result of the Graf Spee’s attacks on merchant shipping……to 15 knots, exactly what Harwood had calculated.
HMS Achilles seen from Ajax
Harwood could not split his force of four cruisers so he decided that out of his two obvious choices, the River Plate in Argentina and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, he would place his force at the mouth of the River Plate and wait. Even so, Harwood had to assume that the Graf Spee would go to South America – what if it turned to the West Indies?
HMS Ajax
On paper, four British cruisers against one German pocket-battleship would have been no contest. In fact, the Graf Spee was potentially an awesome opponent. The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany from making what would have been considered to be classic battleships. To get round the restrictions of Versailles, Germany produced pocket battleships. The Graf Spee was commissioned in 1936. The Graf Spee was fast enough to outrun any battleship but was also armed with sufficient weapons to be a potent enemy. The Graf Spee had six 11 inch guns, numerous anti-aircraft guns and six 21 inch torpedo tubes at her stern. Her broadside range was 30,000 yards. She carried two Arado aircraft that could be launched by catapult. Her weaponry was superior to any carried by a British heavy cruiser and her armour, at 5.5 inches, was sufficient to resist shells up to 8 inches. Her eight diesel engines gave the ship 56,000 horsepower and a top speed of 26 knots. The engines also allowed the Graf Spee to travel 12,500 miles without refueling – near enough halfway round the world.
In the Battle of the River Plate, the Graf Spee was to be pitted against British cruisers. Though faster than the Graf Spee, they were all outgunned. The Exeter had six 8 inch guns, a top speed of 31 knots but her broadside range was 27,000 yards. Ajax, seen below, and Achilles had a smaller broadside range of 25,000 yards and were equipped with eight 6 inch guns.
The commander of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff, knew that he had range on his side and he could effectively engage the enemy while they could not engage him – as long as the Graf Spee kept its distance. The only threat in terms of distance was the Exeter – if the Graf Spee took the Exeter out of any battle, Langsdorff knew that he was relatively free of trouble. For Harwood, he knew that he had speed on his side and that he could keep out of the range of the Graf Spee but keep up with her, trailing her, until bigger reinforcements arrived.
On December 13th, 1939, the Graf Spee was targeting the route used by merchant ships near the River Plate in Argentina. Harwood had given the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter orders to engage the Graf Spee “at once by night or day” if the ships came across her.
At 05.52, look outs on the Graf Spee saw two tall masts on the horizon. By 06.00, Langsdorff had identified one of the ships seen as being the Exeter. He decided that the ships trailing the Graf Spee were protecting an important merchant convoy and he decided to attack. The engines of the Graf Spee were put onto a battle footing – their power was greatly increased. This gave out a plume of highly visible black smoke from the funnels of the Graf Spee and the following British cruisers could clearly see her position. The Graf Spee turned to attack and at 06.17 opened fire on the Exeter. The Exeter was hit amidships and the ship sustained damage. A salvo from the Graf Spee did a great deal of damage to the wheelhouse and killed all but three of the officers in it. The captain, Bell, survived and he ordered that the remaining turrets should fire on the Graf Spee. One salvo hit the Graf Spee near its turrets.
The Achilles and Ajax were also involved in this battle but they had stayed away from the Exeter in an attempt to split the Graf Spee’s fire power. It proved to be a successful ploy. More shells from the Graf Spee’s 11 inch guns hit the Exeter that continued to take massive damage. However, some of the Exeter’s torpedo tubes were undamaged and at 06.31, three torpedoes were fired at the Graf Spee from the Exeter. At that moment, Langsdorff had decided to turn and the three torpedoes missed. His attack on the Exeter continued and 11 inch shells hit the cruiser. However, the engine room was not damaged but electricity in the ship was lost and it was this that forced the Exeter out of the battle. Bell planned to ram the Graf Spee but he was ordered out of the battle by Harwood.
Now the Achilles and Ajax took up the battle. They were against a ship that had been hit but had suffered minimal damage at this stage even though Langsdorff had been knocked unconscious in one attack. Both ships were ordered by Harwood to approach the Graf Spee “at the utmost speed”.
Langsdorff, a torpedo specialist, kept both ships astern to give them the smallest possible target with regards to a torpedo attack.
“My own feelings were that the enemy could do anything he wanted to. He showed no sign of being damaged; his main armament was firing accurately; the Exeter evidently was out of it, and so he had only two small cruisers to prevent him attacking the very valuable River Plate trade.”Captain Parry – commander of the Achilles
What happened next is open to interpretation. Langsdorff went around the Graf Spee to assess the damage. He then told his navigator:
“We must run into port, the ship is not now seaworthy for the North Atlantic.”
This decision, according to the Graf Spee’s gunnery officer was not well received. The ship had been hit by seventeen shells but junior officers of the Graf Spee later stated that the damage done to the ship was insufficient to cause it to run to a port. At this stage in the battle, the Graf Spee had suffered 37 dead and 57 wounded out of a total complement of 1,100. In comparison, the Exeter was three feet down in the waterline and had lost 61 men killed and could only use a ship’s compass for navigation with shouted orders to ensure that those orders were carried out. Harwood ordered her to return to the Falkland Islands.
All the indications pointed to the Graf Spee heading towards the River Plate and Montevideo. In fact the ship’s action report states clearly that it was the navigating officer that recommended Montevideo. Langsdorff sent a telegram to Berlin that stated:
“Inspection of direct hits reveals that all galleys except for the Admiral’s galley have been badly damaged. Water entering flour store endangers bread supply while a direct hit on the forecastle makes the ship unseaworthy for the North Atlantic in the winter…………as the ship cannot be made seaworthy for the breakthrough to the homeland with means on board, decided to go into the River Plate at risk of being shut in there.”
Whether the Graf Spee was so badly damaged is open to question. The ship had been hit by seventeen shells but one gunnery officer recorded that three of these hits had simply bounced off of the armour and that the others had hit the ship “without causing damage”. The authorities in Uruguay, on inspecting the Graf Spee when it reached the River Plate, commented that the largest hit was six feet by six feet but was well above the waterline – as was all of the damage to the ship.
The Graf Spee made for the River Plate – the Plate estuary is a huge bay 120 miles across. The two remaining cruisers, Ajax and Achilles, patrolled the estuary to ensure that the Graf Spee could not slip out back into the Atlantic under the cover of dark. The crews later called this the ‘death watch’.
Citation: C N Trueman "The Battle Of The River Plate" The History Learning Site, 18 May 2015. 13 Dec 2017.

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