• Simon 'Peters' Biggs

Battle of the River Plate 13th December 1939 - Royal Marines HMS Exeter B Turret - HMS Ajax X Turre


During the Battle of the River Plate 15 Marines lost their lives mostly manning turrets, HMS Exeter 10 Marines killed, HMS Ajax 5 Marines killed.

Historical background

Since the war started, a German battleship, the Graf Spee, had been roaming the South Atlantic sinking unarmed British merchant ships. She was being hunted by several British hunting groups, and was found by the three British cruisers, Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles on 13th December 1939, and then began the Battle of the River Plate. The main armament of the Exeter was six 8inch guns, and that of the Ajax and Achilles was eight 6inch guns. The Graf Spee had six 11inch guns and eight 6inch guns.

Personal story

HMS Exeter

On the morning of 13 Dec 1939 I was keeping the morning watch in the after control position. My particular job was to keep the lookouts awake and doing their job. It is all too easy to go to sleep sitting on a comfortable seat and leaning against a bracket holding a powerful set of Admiralty binoculars. I was a junior lieutenant in the Royal Marines and was second in command of the Royal Marine Detachment. Humphrey Woods was the Captain of Marines and at action stations he was in charge of B turret manned by the R.M. Detachment. Most cruisers had four turrets A,B,X and Y and the Marines manned X turret.

However as Exeter only had three turrets A,B and Y, The Marines manned B turret. I had tried to get charge of the turret myself a few weeks earlier as it would be more interesting than chasing lookouts. But Captain Woods was not having any of it and I had to remain with my lookouts.

At about 0600 the Graf Spee was sighted well down on the horizon and the bugler sounded Action Stations over the tannoy. I well remember my heart went well down into my boots as everyone was hurrying to his position. Very soon two great clouds of fire and smoke burst from the enemy as he fired his first broadside and about a minute later a line of shells landed in the sea about 300 yards short. Our course was set to get within range of the enemy and return fire. The next enemy broadside was correct for range but fell about 300 yards astern. Thereafter we were receiving our punishment but managed to get within gun range of the Graf Spee and scored several hits.

A and B turrets, HMS Exeter

B turret was hit by an 11 inch shell between the guns after firing about 5 broadsides and everyone in front of the breeches were killed including Capt Woods. Splinters from this shell killed several people on the bridge and cut all communications so Captain Bell (The ship's Captain) came aft to fight the ship from the after control Position. Very soon both A and Y turrets were put out of action because their electrical supplies were cut off, so Captain Bell said within my hearing " I'm going to ram the --------. It will be the end of us but it will sink him too". So off we set. Fortunately the electricians managed to get Y turret working again so we turned away and carried on firing with Y turret. Normal steering of the ship was not possible due to damage so we organised a chain of seamen to pass steering orders down to the after steering position. Lookouts were no longer required so I went to look at B turret. There was some burning debris on top of one gun loading tray and immediately under it a naked charge ready for loading into the gun. Looked a nasty situation so I removed the charge by chucking it overboard and put out the fire.

I remember Marine Russel with his forearm shot away. He was walking around rallying some leaderless seamen and putting them to useful work. When we got back to Stanley in the Falkland Islands Mne Russel was taken into the hospital and appeared to be making a good recovery. However he needed a minor operation to improve his forearm stump and he died under the anaesthetic. He was buried with full military honours in Stanley on the very day the ship left for UK. While we were getting our punishment Commodore Harwood in the Ajax and the Achilles were scoring hits on the Graf Spee from the disengaged side. It was clear that the Graf Spee was trying to get into Montevideo so Commodore Harwood signalled us to report the state of the ship and then ordered us to go back to Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Ajax and Achilles followed the Graf Spee until she was interned in Montevideo and waited outside for reinforcements in case she tried to get away. That evening we buried about 50 of the ships company at sea. On 17th December, the Graf Spee sailed out of Montevideo and scuttled herself, thus saving many lives.

Admiral Graf Spee scuttled and ablaze off Montevideo

Conspicuous Gallantry Medal

Samuel John Trimble, Sergeant, Royal Marines, H.M.S. Achilles; who, early in the action, when several splinters struck the Gun Director, at once killing three men and wounding two others inside the tower, was severely wounded; but stood fast without flinching or complaint throughout the hour of action that followed, bearing his wounds with great fortitude. When the medical party came he helped them to move the wounded and then made his own way to the Sick Bay with little aid. Wilfred A. Russell, Royal Marines, H.M.S. Exeter; who, having his left forearm blown away and his right arm shattered when a Turret was put out of action by a direct hit from an 11-inch shell, refused all but first aid, remained on deck and went about cheering on his shipmates and putting courage into them by his great fortitude; and did not give in until the heat of the battle was over. He has since died of wounds.

Distinguished Service Cross

Lieutenant Aidan E. Toase, Royal Marines, HMS Exeter; who was very active and resourceful in assisting to render the turret safe after it had been hit by an 11-inch shell.

Distinguished Service Medal

Raymond G. Cook, Sergeant, Royal Marines, HMS Exeter; who showed great presence of mind and initiative in carrying out orders when a Turret was severely hit and fires and casualties occurred. Thomas S. Reginald Norman Buckley, Marine, HMS Exeter; who when a Turret was hit showed great presence of mind and efficiency in ensuring the safety of the ammunition.

Frank T. Saunders, Sergeant, R.M. HMS Achilles; who acted with courage and initiative throughout the engagement, overcoming each difficulty and breakdown as it occurred, and by his fine example and leadership urged his quarters to still further efforts.

Arthur B. Wilde, Sergeant, Plymouth, HMS Exeter; who, ordering the evacuation of a Turret after the Gun House had been hit by an eleven-inch shell, calmly put a tourniquet of rope round the stump of a Marine's arm. He then returned to the Gun House where he found a fire over the rammer of the left gun. This rammer contained a charge of cordite. He organised a chain system of buckets to the turret, put out the fire, removed the cordite, and threw the charge over the side.

Mentions in Dispatches.

Marine Albert J. Hester, R.M, H.M.S. Ajax

Marine Ray O. Osment, H.M.S. Achilles

Sergeant George W. Puddifoot, H.M.S. Exeter

Bandmaster (Second Class) Leonard C. Bagley, H.M.S. Exeter

BBC - WW2 People - HMS Exeter- a Royal Marine's Story

The Royal Marines - A Geo History 1664 to Present Day:

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