December 13, 1939:
From the beginning of the war Commodore Harwood's special care and duty had been to cover British shipping off the River Plate and Rio de Janeiro. Hc was convinced that sooner or later the Spee would come towards the Plate, where the richest prizes were offered to her. He had carefully thought out the tactics which he would adopt in an encounter. Together, his 8-inch cruisers Cumberland and Exeter, and his 6-inch cruisers Ajax and Achilles, could not only catch but kill.
However, the needs of fuel and reﬁt made it unlikely that all four would be present "on the day". If they were not the issue was disputable. On hearing that the Doric Star had been sunk on December 2, Harwood guessed right. Although she was over 3,000 miles away he assumed that the Spee would come towards the Plate. He estimated with luck and wisdom that she might arrive by the 13th. He ordered all his available forces to concentrate there on December 12. Alas, the Cumberland was reﬁtting at the Falkfands; but on the morning of the 13th Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles were in company at the centre of the shipping routes °lithe mouth of the river. Sure enough, at 6.14 a.m smoke was sighted to the cast. The longed-for collision had come.
Harwood, in the Ajax, disposing his forces so as to attack the pocket-battleship from widely-divergent quarters and thus confuse hcr ﬁre, advanced at the utmost speed of his small squadron. Captain Langsdorff thought at the ﬁrst glance that he had only to deal with one light cruiser and two destroyers, and he too went full speed ahead; but a few moments later he reccignised the quality of his opponents, and knew that a mortal action impended.
The two forces were now closing at nearly ﬁfty miles an hour. Langsdorff had but a minute to make up his mind. His right course would have been to turn away immediately so as to keep his assailants as long as possible under the superior range and weight of his 11-inch guns. to which the British could not at ﬁrst have replied. He would thus have gained for his undisturbed ﬁring the difference between adding speeds and subtracting them. He might well have crippled one of his foes before any could ﬁre at him. He decided, on the contrary, to hold on his course and make for the Exeter. The action therefore began almost simultaneously on both sides.
Commodore Harwood's tactics' proved advantageous. The 8-inch salvoes from the Exeter struck the Spee from the earliest stages of the ﬁght. Meanwhile the 6-inch cruisers were also hitting hard and effectively. Soon the Exeter received a hit which, besides knocking out B turret, destroyed all the communications on the bridge, killed or wounded nearly all upon it and put the ship temporarily out of control. By this time however the 6-inch cruisers could no longer be neglected by the enemy, and the Spee shifted her main armament to them, thus giving respite to the Exeter at a critical moment. The German battleship, plastered from three directions, found the British attack too hot, and soon afterwards turned away under a smoke-screen with the intention of making for the River Plate. Langsdorff had better have done this earlier.
After this turn the Spee once more engaged the Exeter, hard hit by the 11-inch shells. All her forward guns were out of action. She was burning ﬁercely amidships and bad a heavy list. Captain Bell, unscathed by the explosion on the bridge, gathered two or three ofﬁcers round him in the after control-station, and kept his ship in action with her sole remaining turret, until at 7.30 failure of pressure put this too out of action. He could do no more. At 7.40 the Eveter turned away to effect repairs and took no further part in the ﬁght.
The Ajax and Achilles, already in pursuit, continued the action in the most spirited manner. The Spee turned all her heavy guns upon them. By 7.25 the two after-turrets in the Ajax had been knocked out, and the Addlles had also suffered damage. These two light cruisers were no match for the enemy in gun-power, and, ﬁnding that his ammunition was running low, Harwood in the Ajax decided to break off the ﬁght till dark, when he would have better chances of using his lighter armament effectively. and perhaps his torpedoes. He therefore turned away under cover of smoke, and the enemy did not follow. This ﬁerce action had lasted an hour and twenty minutes. During all the rest of the day the Spee made for Montevideo, the British cruisers hanging grimly on her heels, with only occasional interchanges of ﬁre. Shortly after midnight the Spec entered Montevideo. and lay there repairing damage, taking in stores, landing wounded, transhipping personnel to a German merchant ship, and reporting to the Fuehrer. Ajax and Achilles lay outside, determined to dog her to her doom should she venture forth. Meanwhile on the night of the 14th the Cumberland, which had bcen steaming at full speed from the Falklands, took the place of the utterly crippled Exeter. The arrival of this 8-inch-gun cruiser restored to its narrow balance a doubtful situation.
It had been most exciting to follow the drama of this brilliant action from the Admiralty War Room, where I spent a large part of the 13th. Our anxieties did not end with the day. Mr. Chamberlain was at that time in France on a visit to the Army...