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Battle of the River Plate - Royal Marines HMS Exeter B Turret - HMS Ajax X Turret

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

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.

HMS EXETER at the Falkland Islands: View of the forecastle of HMS EXETER showing splinter damage to 'A' and 'B' turrets and the bridge. © IWM HU 43488

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 aftercontrol 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.

HMS EXETER at the Falkland Islands: Scene inside a wrecked compartment onboard © IWM HU 43507

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.

Admiral Graf Spee scuttled and ablaze off Montevideo

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. [1]

HMS Exeter at Plymouth in 1940 : Back from the Graf Spee action © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 1848


September Took-up war station

3rd Deployed for trade defence duty.

Intercepted German ships OLINDA and CARL FRITZEN between Rio Grande

do Sul and Plate estuary and both scuttled.

11th Guardship at Port Stanley and carried out patrol in Falklands area.

21st Redeployed on trade defence between Plate Estuary and Rio de Janeiro.


3rd Joined HM Cruiser EXETER after sinking of ss CLEMENT by German battleship

GRAF SPEE which HAD LEFT Germany before the outbreak of war.

5th Deployed with HM Cruisers EXETER and CUMBERLAND as Force G Hunting

Group in South Atlantic to search for GRAF SPEE.

November Search for commerce raider in continuation.

27th Arrived at Port Stanley.

December Resumed search duty with Force G

5th Intercepted German freighter USSKUMA with HM Cruiser CUMBERLAND.

German ship scuttled.

13th Took part in Battle of the River Plate with HM Cruisers EXETER and


Harried GRAF SPEE after HMS EXETER retired from action. X and Y-turrets

were disabled and some structural damage was sustained.

There were 12 casualties including 7 killed.

16th Remained off Plate estuary with HMS CUMBERLAND and HMS ACHILLES.

17th GRAF SPEE scuttled off Montevideo..

18th Detached to refuel at Port Stanley.

29th Resumed trade defence duty.



9th Recalled to join HMS AJAX and HMS ACHILLES off Plate estuary in

anticipation of an early encounter with GRAF SPEE.

13th Took part in action against GRAF SPEE with HMS AJAX and HMS ACHILLES.

Seriously damaged by 11in shells with many casualties and outbreak of fire.

Continued to engage the enemy until power lost by flooding. Withdrawn

from action with heavy list and all guns unserviceable (photo above).

Casualty List included 63 killed and 23 wounded.

15th Passage to Port Stanley after relief by HM Cruiser CUMBERLAND.

20th Under temporary repair at Port Stanley.


The King decorated the officers and men of the cruisers Ajax and Exeter. Cheers were hushed as his Majesty presented to Mrs. Russell, widow of Marine W. A. Russell, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Russell died of wounds after the battle.

Mrs. W. Russell, widow of the marine who died in action with both arms shot off, was given the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal won by her husband. The King shook hands with her and spoke to her, the Queen is held the hand of Mrs Russell's little daughter.

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

Roll of Honour

HMS Exeter lost 9 Royal Marines:

BLANDFORD, Bert, Marine, PLY/X 711,

CROKER, Alfred, Marine, PLY/X 835,

HARRINGTON, Stanley, Marine, PLY/ 22286,

HILL, Ronald, Boy Bugler, PLY/X 2238,

MARSH, William, Corporal, PLY/X 1361,

MCEVOY, James, Marine, PO/X 2091,

MILLS, Edward, Marine, PLY/X 1914,

RUSSELL, Wilfred A, Marine, PLY/X 214, DOW 20th January 1940,

STUBBS, Agean, Marine, PLY/X 1370,

WOODS, Humphrey, Captain, RM.

HMS Ajax lost 5 Royal Marines:

BASHFORD, Cyril, Corporal, CH/X 959,

BURRELLS, Albert, Marine, CH/X 1688,

CLEMENTS, James, Marine, CH/X 654,

FOLLETT, Harry, Sergeant, CH/X 688,

LAMBARD, William, Marine, CH/X 1663.

Other Royal Marines 'Dits' from this Battle

References/ further reading:

London Gazette dispatch, penned by Rear Admiral Harwood who was on the bridge of HMS Ajax throughout the action - Navy

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