"Royal Navy and Maritime Book Reviews" PROVIDED BY - Rob Jerrard


Copy of Newspaper Cutting, April 23rd 1940, "Graf Spee's last Indignity" "Sitting on the seal of Success of British Naval Triumph" A Seal on one of the "11" guns.
My interest in The Battle started when as a 15 year old boy seaman (1956) we were marched through the Streets of Gosport, Hampshire to see the film of that Battle. It then transpired that my Instructor CPO Howell had served on the Exeter. Years later I found a letter in a Newspaper which was from a Mr Howell - (Possibly CPO Howell) - the letter was wrongly headed "An Ajax Veteran remembers" The facts, in my opinion, backed up by others, is that the letter fits the "Exeter" not "Ajax". (Exeter went south to the Falklands). I have tried to trace CPO Howell but have had no luck yet. I hope he will forgive me for publishing his letter. Many books have been written about "The Battle of the River Plate", but this shows the views of one of the crew of Exeter, or if I am wrong, Ajax.

An Exeter Veteran Remembers

I have beside me a battered journal of the events of the Battle of the River Plate, as they occurred, written for the most part in the cramped confines of my action and Cruising station in the High-angle control tower. It presents a picture of a bored ship's company, still chafing from the frustration of being recalled from eight weeks foreign service leave to be sent back to the South Atlantic.

International law restricted our opportunities to stretch our legs ashore; we refuelled at sea, kept out of sight of shipping, and listened with envy of those seeing action in home waters, or enjoying ENSA "somewhere in France". Our starboard propeller had suffered damage in a refuelling operation with a tanker in heavy seas, and range-taking at speeds in excess of eighteen knots became progressively inaccurate. Morale was not improved by the absence of fresh vegetables on our menus, and the disappearance of cigarettes and tobacco from the canteen shelves.

We were in no shape to meet an efficient unit of Hitler's navy, and yet I doubt if there was a single matelot in that ship who did not hear the marine bugler's "Open Fire" on that clear December morning with relief. From then on it was an organised chaos and the ship eventually limped southwards, listing badly and on fire, with survivors already aware that they had been saved by their long experience in her, and their ability to call upon the habits acquired in repetitive and routine exercises - all contributory causes of their pre-action boredom.

We mourned our losses and felt for those near to them, but the need for hard work necessary to the return of trained men to the war effort was welcomed, and eventually, with an escort that grew as we approached these shores, we entered Plymouth Sound to be greeted by crowds who had found relief from their "phoney war" in the news of our action.

We still have our annual reunions in Plymouth, and at one of these our guests included the Graf-Spee's engineer officer, who released the news for the first time that the main reason for the German Captain's decision to withdraw from the action resulted from the destruction of his condensers by our shells.

The full story of that commission, like many of those relating to ships of that era, is not of war alone; while we were preparing for the inevitable we were very much involved in the humanities. We saw industrial tragedy in the Trinidad oil riots, we took relief to earthquake devastated areas in Chile, and we were always working hard to stimulate the trade necessary to our producers in the factories at home. Good luck to you in your contribution to reminders of those hard, but valiant days.

Mr. B. Howell, 92 West Avenue, Castle Bromwich, Birmingham.

EXETER 8" Guns ACHILLES 6" Guns AJAX 6" Guns

I would welcome any Photographs of her taken by Crew members. (Both sides)

Do you have a story to tell. Please write and tell me.

New Book

    "The Battle of the River Plate" Dudley Pope Softback Edition & Hardback

The story of HMS Exeter W.E. Johns

ALSO Another Excellent book, (If you can find a copy) is By Lord Strabolgi RN, Published about 1940.

Five our other books - one the story of HMAS Sydney a modified Leander,a novel about a Leander Class Cruiser, 'The Wake of the Raiders' by AD Divine 1940 and Langsdorff of the Graf Spee - Prince of Honor 1999 & I was Graf Spee's Prisoner by Captain Patrick Dove


Commander Richard Jennings, DSO, DSC and Bar, veteran of the Battle of the River Plate, was born on February 11, 1903. He died on August 16, 2001, aged 98.

Gunnery Officer of the Exeter in the heroic action against the pocket battleship Graf Spee off the River Plate

RICHARD JENNINGS was awarded his first DSC for his courage and efficiency as the gunnery officer of the cruiser Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate.  This celebrated engagement, which took place on December 13,1939, resulted in the scuttling of the German warship Admiral Graf Spee and was a timely tonic during a depressing period of mixed disaster and inactivity early in the Second World War.

Graf Spec slightly exceeded the 10,000 ton restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles and was armed with six 11 inch and eight 5.9 inch guns, torpedoes and a floatplane.  Her unconventional large die­sel engines gave her a massive action radius.  Faster than anything that could outgun her, and outgunning anything that could catch her, she was a formidable commerce raider, her class fully earning the sobriquet of "pocket battle­ship".

Leaving home waters before the outbreak of war, Graf Spee and her sister ship Deutschland vanished into the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans, thereafter har­rying the merchant shipping of the Allied powers.  In re­sponse, the British and French navies formed eight search groups spread thinly from Ceylon to the West Indies.

One of these, under Commo­dore Henry Harwood, com­prised the 8 inch gun cruiser Exeter with the 6 inch gun light cruisers Ajax and the New Zealand Navy's Achilles.  Harwood, in Ajax, deduced that the Graf Spee, which had so far managed to sink only nine ships, would be drawn towards the density of River Plate shipping.  In the early dawn of December 13 he was rewarded by the sighting of smoke on the horizon. Exeter was sent to investigate and soon made the heart-stopping signal: "I think it is a pocket battleship."

Badly outgunned, Harwood manoeuvred to divide the enemy's fire, but Graf Spee concentrated on the heavier ship and Exeter was soon very badly damaged, with splinters from near-misses causing nearly as much harm as direct hits.  Jennings lost his primary gunnery control system early in the battle, the last of his three turrets ceasing to func­tion about an hour after opening fire. Listing, ablaze and with 62 killed and 60 wounded, she had to with­draw.  Ajax and Achilles were themselves also forced to break off and all were sur­prised when Graf Spee retired to Montevideo to nurse her wounds.

Here the rules governing actions towards belligerents by neutrals came into force, Captain Hans Langsdorff win­ning a 72-hour extension to effect repairs and bury his dead over the 24 hours which was normally permissible be­fore being interned.  Various diplomatic subterfuges con­vinced Langsdorff that power­ful British reinforcements were nearer than they were, and on December 17 he decid­ed to disembark his crew and scuttle his ship.  Although this action had been authorised by Hitler, Langsdorff shot him­self two days later.

Richard Borthwick Jen­nings was the son of a Scottish surgeon, his mother having lived for many years in Smyr­na (now Izmir) in Turkey.  His was a strict upbringing, and he owed his good French to a requirement to speak it at home every day except Sun­days.  His first sea duty was as a midshipman in the Dread­nought battleship Ajax in 1921, and he served subsequently as a lieutenant in the battleship Revenge.

He qualified as a gunnery specialist in 1928.  Tours at the Devonport gunnery school and as gunnery officer of the submarine squadron based at Malta were followed by his appointment to Exeter in Janu­ary 1936. While in Exeter in 1938 he was appointed an Officer of the Chilean Order or Merit for his work during relief operations after the Val­paraiso earthquake.

After the River Plate action, he was promoted to command­er and appointed gunnery and operations officer of the battle­ship Royal Sovereign where in July 1940 he took in the part in Admiral Cunningham's first major engagement of the Med­iterranean campaign, the inde­cisive Battle of Calabria.  Sub­sequently he was landed and attached to an inshore squad­ron consisting of a variety of destroyers, monitors and gun­

boats with orders to help General Richard O'Connor's brilliant campaign against the Italians in Cyrenaica in every way possible.  His effectiveness as naval officer in charge of the ports of Mersa Matruh, Sollum and Benghazi, where he organised defence, repairs and supply, was rewarded by a second DSC.

Promoted to acting captain in September 1942, he was appointed in command of the 9th Minesweeping Flotilla led by the sloop Sidmouth and took part in numerous mine clearance operations in home waters.  Despite the losses they had sustained, German E­boats and aircraft were stir. conducting a vigorous mining campaign against coastal con­voys.  A particularly hazardous period between December 1942 and January 1943 result­ed in the award of the DSO to Jennings.

During the invasion of Nor­mandy in June 1944 he was assigned to take charge of ten flotillas of minesweepers de­ployed to clear any mines laid within the assault areas.  For this he won a second mention in dispatches.

Reverting to the rank of commander, he saw out the war as second-in-command of the cruiser Birmingham, tak­ing part in the German surren­der in Norway and the restora­tion of the Norwegian royal family. After the war he was briefly in command of the light fleet carrier Venerable, which was non-operational at the time, and the Gibraltar shore establishment HMS Rooke until 1951.

He retired in 1954 after a tour in the Admiralty and became a Kentish smallholder, rearing sheep and cattle.


Royal Navy & Maritime Book Reviews Copyright Rob Jerrard