Colin F. Jones

THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE: DECEMBER 1939
(The Admiral Graf Spee)

The Admiral Graf Spee
The End of The Admiral Graf Spee

IWVPA Double Tap Award for War Poetry: January 25, 2005
Awarded: January 25, 2005
Achilles leapt forward with a burst of powerful speed,
A New Zealand ship at war, with the German greed,
Sighted short ahead, the pride of the German Fleet,
The Pocket Battleship Graf Spee with sides as gray as sleet.

At last the hunt was over “or was it?” was the cry,
Many ships had gone below, were others going to die?
The Ajax and the Exeter were gathering speed nearby,
We will sink the Graf Spee, was the battle cry.

Three light cruisers against the German ship,
Still her guns were more and the shells were falling fast,
Exeter forged westward as the others surged northeast,
Geysers belched around them and splinters tore their masts.

Exeter’s forward turrets belched with flame and smoke
The shells hurled forward towards the German ship,
The Graf Spee changing course from a near hit,
Shells made her dodge again made her surge and dip.

Then the Pocket Battleship turned her every gun,
Upon the Cruiser Exeter a terrier of the sea,
A salvo came through the air in the glistening sun,
Falling short and overhead, how close could it be.

The German Pocket Battleship was fighting for her life,
The Achilles trembled as her guns began to boom,
Ajax was cutting through the sea like a silver knife,
Firing as she surged ahead; had the Graf Spee met her doom?

The German ship was hit by three bursting shells,
Flame splashes showed that she was hit again,
Again and again on the German ship they fell,
She dodged and she zigzagged but all was in vain.

She trained her guns on Exeter with a will,
An eleven inch German shell hit her torpedo tubes,
Wrecking her communication (but she was fighting still)
Smashing all her search lights, killing the torpedo crew.

The medics were kept busy among the twisted steel,
Even then she shuddered from another German shell,
Losing her eight inch guns in B turret steel:
Then the wheelhouse shattered the walls caved in and fell.

The bridge was blown to splinters only three men being left,
Exeter swung to starboard her keel swinging free,
A torpedo officer acted quickly and he was smart and deft,
With the lower conning position he brought her back to sea.

Her remaining guns kept firing upon the Battle ship,
Achilles and Ajax racing in with blazing guns,
From the fury of their salvo’s Graf Spee was momentarily rocked,
As she tried to sink Exeter with her mighty blazing guns,

Twice again Exeter was shook with German fire,
Shells tearing through her deck to cause a vivid blaze,
The Captain gave his orders calmly without tire,
“Fire what guns we have, through the crimson haze.”

But then the Pocket Battleship was baulked from her prey,
For Achilles and Ajax were darting at her now,
Firing all their gun shell to keep her from the way,
The Graf Spee wheeled and ran with spray across her bow.

She let out a smoke screen as she tried desperately to dodge,
A torpedo attack from Exeter who was fighting yet,
For the German Pocket Battleship, the raider of the sea,
Had taken on a fighting force who had her in their net.

Ajax sent up her observer plane as many held their breath,
To report the raider’s moves where ever she might go,
The Graf Spee was cornered and would fight until her death:
She would wage battle with the Cruisers of her valiant foe

A shell hit her superstructure with a crashing sound,
Another went through her funnel and brought the steel down,
Desperately she trained her guns on the pursuing ships,
She knew she had to sink then and not make any slips.

She fired her guns on Exeter the shells smashing through her hull,
Flame swept through the little ship; was she going to last,
The observation plane reported “I’m afraid she is gone”,
Exeter had vanished in thick smoke and flame and blast.

But drunkenly she emerged from the smoky gauze,
Her two remaining guns roaring defiance at the foe
She fired her port torpedoes then she altered course,
Steering towards the battleship as fast as she could go.

Then she swung around to give her guns a hit,
But she had a dreadful list and her bow was lower down,
Still she struggled on towards the German ship,
Her guns hammering loudly as she swung around.

An eleven inch shell burst short of Achilles
It smashed the gunnery control position killing ratings four,
The captain was wounded and it stunned the Yeoman Chief,
The Graf Spee gave Achilles all she had and more.

The main control position on Achilles was smashed,
But the crew carried on through the heat of burning decks,
With superb seamanship the cruisers raced and dashed,
Keeping the raider under heavy fire breathing down her neck.

Again and again she fired at one but the other two came in,
Making her divide her fire among the rapid three,
Belching out a smoke screen while she swung her guns around,
As Ajax and Achilles were trying to cut her down.

Then Achilles was taking a battering from the Hun,
Her boiler rooms and engine were just a mass of flames,
As the Graf Spee fired on her the shells were all a hum,
And Achilles so battered now did not look the same.

As Ajax swept in to take the fire from Achilles,
The German ship showed her stern and fled towards the west,
But she failed to lose the Cruisers,
Though with her smoke screen she did her best.

She turned at full speed her shells humming fast,
As she drove towards Exeter trying to finish her off,
But she reeled under the smaller Cruisers blast,
But she turned against the two of them her guns began to cough.

Her secondary armour suddenly failed her will,
and she fled as her ‘midships burst into flame and smoke,
The Graf Spee was on fire the Cruiser dashed in for the kill,
The egg had been broken soon to lose her yolk.

Ajax fired her port torpedoes at the fleeing Hun,
And she quickly altered course firing as she did go,
A shell hit Ajax smashing X Turret and her guns,
Jamming Y Turret crippling the crews with the blow.

Exeter was falling astern making water fast,
Her two guns were firing but both were badly flooded,
They knew that now she could not last,
And there she stopped and shuddered.

Achilles and Ajax went on at full speed
A torpedo approach was signalled from the plane,
Swiftly they turned away to be freed,
From the lethal dangers that swiftly came.

But they came close to the Graf Spee
And she fired on Ajax leaving her with only three guns,
Achilles sent a salvo crashing into the Graf Spee,
She turned away in one of her rapid runs.

Orders were then received to break off the action,
The Cruisers were to shadow the raider until night
Then move in close and finish her off,
Using torpedoes to finish the fight.

Under cover of a smoke screen they turned away,
With the Graf Spee still blasting at them,
The main top mast of Ajax was torn away,
And with it went a lot of good men.

For the rest of the day they shadowed the German ship,
Several times she turned on them but they slewed away,
Forever out of range, forever on the lip,
Waiting for the night to claim the day.

The Graf Spee had fought a great battle,
Now badly wounded she was making for the Estuary
of the River Plate on the South American Coast,
Wounded as she was she could not tarry.

She radioed to Ajax and Achilles from Admiral Graf Spee,
“please pick up lifeboats off British steam ship”
They saw the British SS Shakespeare her boats were hoisted,
The message of course had been a trick.

She signalled “no need of assistance, carry on:
The delaying ruse had failed,
And at Sundown the Graf Spee altered course,
All day the ships had fought and sailed.

They passed Lobus, an island small,
Ajax turned away south of the English Bank,
To catch her if she tried to turn back at all
Achilles remained like a ghost on her flank.

Graf Spee opened fire at half-past-eight,
Achilles replied but laid a smoke screen,
The Graf Spee kept firing her shells of weight,
But Achilles was no where to be seen.

At ten o’clock that night Graf Spee was off Montevideo,
Achilles shadowed her into the straights at midnight,
It was then that the Cruiser Cumberland came;
Soon night was gone and it was light.

After a few days in the neutral port,
The Graf Spee was forced to make her run,
So had come the final day,
For she was aught this raider Hun.

But the Graf Spee refused them battle,
She scuttled herself still undefeated,
Before the waiting British Cruisers,
Who slowly to sea retreated.