HMS Ajax and The Royal Navy’s First Victory in World War II


“We Made Contact With Our First Enemy Ship”

 During the war’s first year, German surface raiders were the principal worry for Britain’s naval forces. The Royal Navy celebrated its first victory of the war when a force of its cruisers trapped and sank the powerful German raider Graf Spee in December 1939.

 Light cruiser Ajax had been out to sea for two weeks when the war began. Marine Gunner Samuel Shale remembered that,

…on the day war was declared we made contact with our first enemy ship … a German ship called the Karl Fritzen … and we took the crew on board Ajax and we sank her there and then as she stood. She was a merchant ship (and) we was in shipping lanes. And the second day we got another ship called Ussukuma. and we did exactly the same thing to her, and they were all Germans and we took them aboard … and they became our prisoners of war … and we had to look after them and feed them … there was plenty of room for them and they were fed and they had cigarettes and they seemed quite happy … (we) used to see them (and) talk to them and (we) got to know them … they were quite alright … they knew the war was over for them; they’d been caught and that was it. They didn’t hold anything against us; they knew we had a job to do… I had no axe to grind with them; they were just like me doing a job.1.

The third ship encountered by Ajax was the actual Ussukuma that stopped after receiving a shot across her bow from one of the cruiser’s 4-inch guns. The German crew immediately took to lifeboats and headed over to Ajax. In the meantime, a boarding party of armed marines and stokers who would work the German ship’s engines and take the vessel as a prize went over to Ussukuma. When they got there, they saw that the ship’s sea cocks had been opened to prevent any salvage. She was allowed to sink. The German sailors were confined in Ajax’s recreation space along with those of Karl Franken (called “Fritzen” by Marine Gunner Shale) and those from another previously interdicted ship, Olinda. Several of the German mariners pointed out an SS officer among them who was then quickly separated from the rest. The prisoners were kept below decks except when allowed to get air and exercise on the foc’sl. Ajax eventually landed some on the Falklands and the rest were placed aboard a Royal Navy oiler for transport back to Europe. 2.

 The British sailors aboard Ajax had little, if anything, against their Kriegsmarine counterparts. They had even gotten to know some German naval personnel in the pre-war period as recalled by Seaman John Henry Gates:

During the early part of our commission on the Ajax (1935 – 1936) we had been on Bermuda with a German sailing ship which had German cadets on it called the Horst Wessel and we had a fairly happy time with these cadets and these young chaps were about our own age … there was an island in Bermuda called Ports Island (which) was a part of the Naval Dockyard complex on which the various ships on station used to send their ships’ companies to have a relaxing week or fortnight … and we met these German cadets off the Horst Wessel and we (competed with them in) rowing and sailing and swimming and as far as I was concerned they were just seamen.3.

The specific concern for Ajax and her division companions in those first days of war were the activities of the Kriegsmarine’s three panzerschiffe surface raiders: Graf Spee, Deutschland (later renamed Lützow) and Scheer. Graf Spee had left port in late August and was instructed, a month later, to commence raiding operations. The British tracked her relentlessly. British intelligence as well as the ship’s trail of activities alerted the Royal Navy that she was stopping and sinking shipping in the South Atlantic. Over the next two and one half months, Graf Spee sank or captured nine merchant ships. In early December, the panzerschiff stopped the merchant vessel Doric Star which got off a radio signal before being sunk. The next day, she attacked another merchant ship, the Tairoa, which also transmitted a distress message by radio. The signals gave the British force patrolling the area a good idea of Graf Spee’s speed, heading, and destination. Ajax, heavy cruiser Exeter, and light cruiser HMNZS Achilles, under command of Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, made visual contact with the German raider on 13 December. She was not far from the River Plate which lies between Uruguay and Argentina in the area of Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

 “Suddenly a Lookout Sighted Smoke on the Horizon”- The Battle of the River Plate

 Graf Spee’s captain assumed that the warship masts her lookouts had sighted belonged to the escorts of an enemy convoy. He turned towards them and, as the tactical situation unfolded, maneuvered in attempts to keep out of range of what he soon realized would be 8-inch and 6-inch British guns. He stayed close enough, however, to allow his own 11-inch guns to be effective. The British divided their force in order to avoid concentrated fire from a ship that clearly outgunned theirs. Ajax and Achilles steamed together to the east of the German ship while Exeter steamed to her west. In a running gun battle that lasted a bit over an hour, Exeter was heavily damaged. Smoke screens and gunfire from the two light cruisers helped protect the heavy cruiser from even greater damage. The Germans later admitted that the panzerschiff did not close Exeter to finish her off for fear of the torpedoes that practically all British cruisers were known to carry. The British managed a number of gunfire hits on Graf Spee but, from their vantage point, they did not appear significant. Despite launching several such attacks, the British made no torpedo hits on Graf Spee. Exeter was forced to haul off to save herself, Ajax suffered gunfire damage which made her two aft turrets inoperable, and, although just lightly damaged, Achilles was low on ammunition. Graf Spee’s captain was apparently concerned with the damage his ship had taken and continued to fret about the possibility of having more torpedoes launched against him. He surprised the British as much as some of his own officers when he broke off the action. Graf Spee entered Montevideo harbor for repairs. She also placed her wounded ashore for medical care and buried her dead.

Ajax, Achilles, and the recently arrived heavy cruiser Cumberland waited outside the mouth of the River Plate. Uruguay, mindful of the laws governing neutrality, could not allow the German ship to remain for a period longer than three days. Graf Spee, deliberately deceived by British news broadcasts on BBC into believing that an overwhelming force that included the battlecruiser Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal was waiting for her nearby, slipped anchor on the 17th. Unwilling to expose his crew to what he thought was certain doom, the German captain, on advice from Berlin, sailed with just a skeleton crew. The Germans set timed scuttling charges aboard the ship which exploded and wrecked her. The Graf Spee’s sailors then escaped by boat back to Montevideo. Shortly afterwards, the captain, perhaps second guessing his sudden breaking off of the battle, committed suicide by gunshot. He has been remembered kindly by his former adversaries as a gentleman of honor at whose hands not a single captured sailor died.

 “Our Guns Were Getting So Hot”- A View of the Battle From Gun Turret B 4.

 Leslie T. Denis, a former petty officer aboard Ajax wrote the following about the battle with Graf Spee,

The morning of 13 December dawned fine and clear with a clear horizon. Three parts of the ship’s company went to breakfast, and (the) Admiral to his cabin. Suddenly a lookout sighted smoke on the horizon and the alarm bells rang out. Most of the sailors were having a wash or were at breakfast following a night cooped up in the gun turrets on action stations. Mostly the hands arrived back at action stations clad only in shorts. It must have been the first time that a ship had gone into action with a half-naked crew! The Admiral was better dressed – with uniform jacket and pyjama trousers … HMS Exeter attacked Graf Spee alone while Ajax and Achilles attacked in company. My action station was director layer in B turret. The cabinet was a steel box, six feet by three feet and contained, besides myself, my sight setter and turret trainer. When the door was shut we were penned in. My job was to take over firing the turret if the Director up the mast was shot away. It was rather unnerving sitting there doing nothing while all hell was let loose outside. We were firing a salvo of 8X6-inch guns every 15 seconds at a range of 18,000 yards (nine miles). The Exeter was getting a hammering and was in a bad way and had to haul off with many fires on board … By this time our guns were getting so hot that they were expanding in their jackets, and more seriously we were running out of ammunition as we still had only a peacetime allowance. The two light cruisers closed the range and hammered the upper deck of the German pocket battleship until it was a shambles. Graf Spee then drew off and headed for Montevideo … By this time HMS Cumberland had arrived from the Falklands and was a valuable addition to our force … We withdrew out to sea and buried our dead.

 On 17 December the Graf Spee slipped her moorings and proceeded out to sea … Shortly afterwards huge explosions were heard from her — she was on fire. All ships closed in as far as was safe and the order to cheer ship was given. The ships’ companies cheered each other like mad. 5.

 “I’m Hit! I’m Hit!”- The Battle As Seen From Turret X

 Gunner Shale of the Ajax’s Marine X turret offered his version of the battle between the three British cruisers and Graf Spee off Montevideo,

 Just after 6:15 AM on the 13th of December, Action Stations was sounded … all we could see was a bit of smoke on the horizon … I was dressed in a pair of shorts and gym shoes and I started running to my gun position and as I reached the top of the ladder leading to X turret there was a massive explosion of 16-inch shells (these were in fact 11-inch which Shale consistently misidentifies as 16-inch. Ajax was also hit by 5.9-inch shells from Graf Spee’s secondary battery guns) … within seconds I was at the rear door of X turret and went inside. Quickly we were loading and firing our six-inch guns. We were now in line ahead and the Exeter was in the rear … all we saw at the moment was shells landing and the smoke on the horizon. Exeter was sent to investigate … and as she broke off on a different course she was seen to be hit repeatedly by 16-inch shells but all three (British) ships carried on firing … we altered course then to draw fire from (Exeter) … and it was then while we was carrying out this maneuver that we hit the control tower of the Graf Spee … and some of her … guns were put out of action and we could see fires burning on her upper deck … and in the meantime, the Exeter … had been hit again and again … The next thing that happened, a smoke screen was laid across the Exeter to allow her to withdraw from the battle ant to return to the Falkland Islands. … the period that Exeter was in action lasted about 15 to 18 minutes … she was in a terrible state. We started then a zig-zag move – the Achilles and the Ajax – and it was during one of these zig-zag moves that we were carrying out at increased speed some of the 16-inch shells hit the Ajax just above the waterline and came through the ship’s side exploding underneath X turret … they killed all the crew in the handling room that was just below us and at the same time that put X turret out of action. Corporal Bashford (the rammer with whom Shale had traded places during the ship’s gunnery competitions) was hit and he just said to me, “I’m hit; I’m hit” … and his stomach just lay at my feet. The temperature inside that turret now was extremely hot; there was smoke and steam; bodies were covered in sweat and Corporal Buckley, during this period, had the presence of mind to flood the cordite (explosive charge) hoist to save the turret from blowing up … we made certain that everything was safe in the turret, then we were given instructions to leave (it) … as we came out … we were to discover then that the shrapnel not only killed all the people beneath X turret … in the handling room … it had also carried on to another part of the ship and come out in a different area and put Y turret out as well … We were then ordered to go down below to help with the dead and when we got down there, when you saw the carnage, it was a miracle that we hadn’t been blown to pieces.6.

The British were as surprised as they were relieved to see Graf Spee suddenly break off the action. She did not immediately make for port, but lingered out of British gun range to fire an occasional shell in their general direction. By evening, however, she had gone. Ajax took the time to make what repairs she could and to bury her dead at sea. Shale spoke tearfully of his friend, Corporal Bashford,

We were mustered quietly on the quarterdeck to say farewell to our mates and friends and they were buried at sea in the traditional way… one my old friend, Corporal Bashford, who died in my place … someone you can’t ever forget after all these years. 7.

The British sailors on their ships offshore followed events by normal radio broadcasts from Rio de Janeiro or Montevideo. They were even alerted by civilian radio to the fact that Graf Spee had slipped her berth on the 17th and was headed their way. At action stations, the men were aware that there were curious crowds all along the waterfront. Some local people had even taken to boats in order to follow whatever events would unfold. The crew of Ajax heard several loud explosions which they assumed was the Graf Spee opening fire. Still listening to the on-going local radio narrations, they soon realized that the panzerschiff had been scuttled and, satisfied that they had done their jobs, cheered in relief and in joy. 8.

 “Frightened to Death”- Other Views of Ajax’s Encounter With Graf Spee

 Colin Mason left school at 14 and worked as paper boy. He realized that the poor economy would offer him few prospects better than standing on street corners hawking papers. He joined the Navy as a boy seaman. He recalled that information aboard Ajax was not generally plentiful and the younger ratings did not often know what was happening outside of their routine and duties. In December 1939 he did understand, however vaguely, that Ajax had put to sea to “look for something” that the talk in the lower deck suggested to him was “an enemy ship.”

When action stations was called on the 13th, Mason went into the 6-inch gun director forward and above the bridge where he worked on an instrument called the inclinometer. His job was specific and simple. He had to look through the slit in the turret-like director, visually line up a set of pointers on a selected target, and allow another sailor to make note of its speed and heading. This information was relayed to a station below where it would be used to work out firing solutions on a mechanical computing device. Mason did not know what was happening until he heard voice reports from the bridge stating that Exeter had been hit. He continued with his duty of lining up his data collecting pointers and followed the action by listening to voice commands and messages from the bridge. He stated that he was “frightened to death” but kept himself under control by remaining busy with his job. He had no sensation of the ship being hit and was unaware of any damage to Ajax until later. The firing of Ajax’s guns and the concussion of their blasts masked all his other senses. Between gun discharges, he could hear the ship’s spotter plane’s radio reports of over”, “under”, or “straddle” that told the gunnery department how and where its shells were landing. As the ship began to close on the panzerschiff to launch a torpedo attack, Mason watched as they went closer and closer and wondered, “Oh, God … how much closer are we going to get?” Only then did he realize, as he heard a report from the spotter plane, that the name of their adversary was Graf Spee. Unlike Marine Gunner Shale, Mason did not attend or even see the burial service held on the quarterdeck. Not for some time after the action did he even know that there had been casualties aboard Ajax, and he never actually saw any of those who had been killed or wounded. 9.

Frederick Cadby, a torpedoman, had an interesting, and even amusing, experience during the battle. He was assigned to a damage control party and merely stood by during action to await any call to make emergency repairs as they might be needed. When one of the gun turrets was hit, he made his way to it, but found that it had already been abandoned and sealed off. He stopped by an empty compartment on his way back to his duty station and picked up a magazine. He idly flipped through its even as Ajax continued to fight. He came to a story entitled, “Five Minutes To Live,” was immediately offended, and flung the journal across the deck and left. 10.

 After Graf Spee had retreated to Montevideo the men on Ajax listened to BBC’s deliberately false news reports about the force gathering outside the River Plate to await the panzerschiff’s next appearance. Torpedoman Cadby and his shipmates did not know any better so they spent some anxious hours scouring the horizon and wondering just where the likes of Ark Royal and Renown could possibly be. All aboard Ajax understood that, even supported by Achilles and Cumberland, their ship would have little chance against Graf Spee. A plan for a special mission was devised. Ajax was the force flagship and, therefore, carried a sturdy and fast craft in the form of the Admiral’s barge. A decision was made to place several depth charges aboard the barge, run it up close to the German ship when she sortied, and set the charges to detonate at a depth of 10 feet. Through great good fortune, they might just manage to sink the panzerschiff. Volunteers were requested and Cadby, “like an idiot” who was by his own later admission, “too young and foolish to know better” volunteered even though he knew that he would not likely make it back. In the end, the plan was not needed. 11.

 “We Had a Whale of a Time”- Celebrating the Navy’s First Victory

 After the action against Graf Spee, Ajax returned to Port Stanley in the Falklands to refuel. She then remained in the area on trade defense duty. She stopped for a port visit to Montevideo on New Year’s Day, 1940 and a number of the crewmen were given bus tours of the city. There were crowds out and about to celebrate the New Year with singing and dancing, but many stopped to greet or cheer the British sailors and place offerings of flowers onto the tour buses. Ajax then weighed anchor to slowly make her way across the Atlantic. She arrived home at Plymouth at the end of January. The nation was more than ready to celebrate its first victory of the war.

Many of the crew made their way to London where Boy Seaman Mason recalled,

When we got back they had a march through London (and we) went to the Mansion House for tea with the Lord Mayorwe had a whale of a time. We still had our cap bands on then … with the name ‘Ajax’ on it (and) of course everywhere you went you got stopped by people wanting to shake your hand and one thing or another … it certainly boosted us up and being the first naval action of the war it sort of boosted everybody’s feelings up a bit.12.

 Other crewmen reported that, once home, they were granted celebrity status by many whom they had only just met. Round after round of drinks were bought for them whenever they would find themselves in a pub. Leslie Bradley, who had hoisted signal flags aboard Ajax during the action with Graf Spee, also remembered the march in London and the days that immediately followed:

we marched for two and a half hours and it was so loud the cheering (that) you couldn’t even hear the band. Then we had dinner with Churchill at Guildhall and he gave a speech. Then when I went back to my hometown (in Lancashire), eventually (on leave) and I had to go round to all the schools. (At) the first one I didn’t mention the River Plate but that’s what they wanted …there was 500 of these kids all asking me questions, ‘how long was the ship?’ ‘how many crew?’ — you know … and I had to stand at attention and salute while this girl sang (a patriotic song). 13.

Ajax departed Plymouth for Chatham where she was paid off and put into the yard for refit that began in February. She had her damage repaired, guns updated, and received a reinforced mast onto which an air search radar set was installed.   She also received the rather novel Mountbatten pink paint scheme. The color, promoted by Lord Mountbatten after he had observed ships of a similar color while at sea, was supposed to render a ship difficult to see in the low light of early morning or at dusk. While suitable in low light, the color had an opposite and highlighting effect in brighter light which resulted in a rather clear and sharp view of the ship during the hours around noon. 14.