HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association

 

V.E.KEMBALL

CAPTAIN (Commander) OF HMS AJAX from 7 NOVEMBER 1933 to 11 SEPTEMBER 1934

V.E. Kemball served as Midshipman from 15 January 1911 and was advanced to Sub-Lieutenant 5 March 1915. His promotion to Lieutenant-Commander was on 15 December 1920 and to Commander 15 December 1927. Commander (E) Kemball commanded HMS Ajax while building at Barrow-in-Furness. He was retired with the rank of Captain (E) in 1944.

 

J.E. SISSMORE

CAPTAIN (Commander) OF HMS AJAX from 12 SEPTEMBER to 16 DECEMBER 1934

J.E. Sissmore served as a Midshipman from 15 January 1914 and promoted to Sub-Lieutenant 15 September 1916 and to Lieutenant 15 December 1917. He was appointed Lieutenant15 December1925 and Commander 31 December 1931. Commander Sissmore commanded HMS Ajax while building at Barrow-in-Furness.

 

COLIN S. THOMSON

CAPTAIN OF HMS AJAX from 16 DECEMBER 1934 to 9 OCTOBER 1937

Colin Thomson served as Midshipman from 30 June 1905, as Sub-Lieutenant from 30 September 1908 and Lieutenant from 1 April 1911, when he was appointed to HMS Camelion, a Torpedo Boat Destroyer. He was advanced to Commander June 1925 and Captain 30 June 1931. In 1922 he commanded HMS Viscount, a destroyer. In 1934 he was appointed to the newly-completed HMS Ajax, leaving Barrow for Portsmouth 12 April and commissioning on the 15th. On 11 June she sailed for the Mediterranean station, and was engaged on various exercises until July. On 3 August she sailed for Trinidad, and on the 12th proceeded to Caracas, Venezuela, which was the first visit by a British warship for three years. The rest of August was spent in the West Indies, and in September she returned to join the Mediterranean fleet, Commander-in-Chief Rear-Admiral Max Horton, when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In January 1936 the Ajax Spent some time in Malta refitting, and in April she escorted King Farouk

in the Viceroy of India from Marseilles to Alexandria. From 28 July to 3 August she was Rear-Admiral Evans' flagship in the Mediterranean, and then sailed for the West

Indies and through the-Panama Canal for the South American station.

 

On 28 December she sailed for the Falkland Islands, and in January 1937 picked up the survivors of the RRS Discovery II expedition from South Georgia. She then returned to South America, until March, when she proceeded to Barbados. On 6 August she came home to Portsmouth. Captain Thomson left the ship in November 1937, and his final command was of the Portland Naval Base in 1938, when he retired. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral (Retired List) 8 July 1941.

 

CHARLES HENRY LAWRENCE WOODHOUSE

CAPTAIN OF HMS AJAX from 9 OCTOBER 1937 to 22 APRIL 1940

Charles. Woodhouse was born 9 July 1893 and was educated at Osborne and Dartmouth. He received his appointment to Midshipman 15 May 1911 and served on board HMS Inflexible, an armoured cruiser in the Home fleet's 1st•Cruiser Squadron, from 17 May 1911. He was appointed to HMS Thunderer as Sub-Lieutenant from 6 May 1914, after which he transferred to the Malaya 18 December 1915, having been advanced to Lieutenant 15 May 1916, and was present in the Malaya at the battle of Jutland. In this rank he served in HMS Excellent from 18 January to 16 November 1918.

 

He transferred to HMS St Vincent and then to the Conqueror, and served again in HMS Excellent until 1919. He was appointed to the Ceres, 15 July 1920, to the Excellent again from April 1922, until August 1924; to the Coventry and then the Royal Sovereign 12 July. 1926.

 

He was on the staff of HMS Excellent from.8 April 1927 and promoted Commander 31 December 1927. He attended a SOTC Parts 1 and 2 at HMS Victory 14 October 1929 and was appointed to HMS Warspite 19 December 1930 and acted as Squadron Gunnery Officer 1 January 1931 until 2 January 1933. Next followed spells at HMS Pembroke and HMS President 15 October 1934, and promoted Captain 31 December

1934 and appointed Assistant DNE 28 February 1935.

 

He was appointed to HMS Ajax in 1937 in January 1938 and Valparaiso and Talcahueno, in company with HMS Exeter when a severe earthquake occurred, causing great devastation. The ships rendered what assistance they could.

 

In August 1939 the zones of command were rearranged, and the Ajax and Exeter were

transferred to the South Atlantic Command, Commander-in-Chief Vice-Admiral Lyons. Commodore Henry Harwood flew his broad pendant in the Exeter. War being declared against Germany on 3 September, the Ajax sank the German SS Olinda on the same day, the first enemy ship to be sunk, on the following day, the SS Carl Fritzen. On 3 October the Ajax was in the Rio de Janeiro area and the Exeter was ordered to join her. The SS Clement had been attacked and sunk on 30 September by a surface raider. HMNZS Achilles was to join the Ajax on patrol in the Rio and River Plate areas and HMS Cumberland joined the Exeter to carry out sweeps north of those areas. On 27 October Commodore transferred his broad pendant to HMS Ajax, while the Exeter went to Port Stanley for repairs.

 

On 29 November the Ajax and Exeter were back in the Falklands. The Doric Star was sunk on 2 December, and the Achilles, Ajax and Exeter concentrated in the area of the River Plate. On 5 December the Ajax intercepted the German merchantman SS Ussukuma; the ship was scuttled and the crew taken on board the Ajax, and later transferred to the Cumberland.

 

Commodore Harwood had always considered that sooner or later the raider would be tempted by the traffic off Rio de Janeiro and the River Plate. Twenty-four hours after he made his concentration, at 0608 on 13 December, the Ajax reported smoke to the south-east, and the Exeter was sent to investigate. Eight minutes later she signalled: 'I think it is a pocket-batt1teship’. Commodore Harwood divided his force into two divisions, the Exeter engaged the enemy from the south, and the two light cruisers from the east to force the German captain to divide his armament. The enemy was now recognised to be the Admiral Graf Spee, Captain Hans Langsdorff. With the help of radar the Graf Spee quickly found the range of the Exeter. The Exeter opened fire at 0620; Achilles at 0621; and the Ajax at 0623. The Exeter was straddled by the Graf Spee's third 11" salvo, which killed the starboard tube's crew. The Ajax and Achilles were in concentrated firing closing the range rapidly and gaining bearing on the enemy. The Graf Spee shifted one 11" turret onto the Ajax. His secondary armament was firing alternately at the Achilles and Ajax.

 

The Ajax catapulted her Seafox, with Lieutenant E.D. Lewin as pilot, a t0637, but did not receive the first spotting report until 0654, due to delay in establishing W/T communication. Graf Spee made frequent alterations of course, and made great use of smoke. By 0724 the Exeter had been very badly damaged, and was dropping astern. The Ajax fired four torpedoes at a range of 9,000 yards. The Graf Spee at once turned 130 degrees to port and turned back three minutes later. The two light cruisers were firing very rapidly and accurately, and the Graf Spee was being hit more frequently. At 0740 Commodore Harwood ordered the Exeter to make for the Falklands. The German battleship had turned away, under smoke, making for the River Plate. The Ajax and Achilles, in pursuit, continued the action, until Harwood decided to break off the fight until dark. The action had lasted one hour and twenty minutes.

 

Shortly after midnight the Graf Spee entered Montevideo Harbour. The Ajax and Achilles lay outside. On the night of the 14th the Cumberland took the place of the Exeter, which shortened the odds once again. Force K, in the north - Renown and Ark Royal, and further north, Neptune, and three destroyers were ordered to Montevideo. Meanwhile, Captain Langsdorff contacted the German Admiralty, giving his strategic position and requesting a decision. He was told to fight through to Buenos Aires if possible, or to scuttle the ship. On the afternoon of the 17th the Graf Spee transferred her crew to a German merchant ship in the harbour. At 1815 she weighed and left harbour. At 2045 the Ajax's seafox reported: 'The Graf Spee has blown herself up.'

 

Captain Langsdorff was broken-hearted at the loss of his ship. That night he shot himself.

 

The Ajax had five marines and two seamen killed, and thirteen wounded. Two of her 6" gun turrets were knocked out and others damaged.

 

Awards:

CB

Captain Charles Woodhouse

DSO

Captain Douglas Everett, MBE

Lieutenant Ian De' Ath, RM

Lieutenant Commander D.P. Dreyer

Lieutenant. N.K. Tod

Lieutenant E.D.C. Levin

Warrant Shipwright F.R.T. Panter

Warrant Engineer A.P. Monk

Gunner F.C. Biggs

DSM

Petty Officer A.E. Fuller

Chief Mechanician W.G. Dorling

Stoker B. Wood

Stoker F.E. Monk

Shipwright D. Graham

Electrical Artificer J.W. Jenkins

Sergeant R.C. Cook, RM

Marine T.S. Buckley

Petty Officer C.H. Gorton

Petty Officer J.W. Hill

Leading Seaman L.C. Card

Able seaman R.D. Macey

Able Seaman R. McClarman

Stoker R. Perry

 

A fortnight after Rear-Admiral Harwood visited Montevideo in the Ajax, Achilles went to Buenos Aires and then home to New Zealand. On 23 February 1940 the officers and men of the cruisers Ajax and Exeter and six of the Merchant Navy captains who had been prisoners on board the Graf Spee, received a magnificent welcome from King George VI and the citizens of London, when they paraded on Horse Guards Parade and then on to Guildhall. The Ajax then went to Chatham for a refit.

 

Captain Woodhouse was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral 8 January 1944, and to Vice Admiral 21 April 1948. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief East Indies from 1948 to 1950, and was promoted Admiral (Retired List) 26 January 1952.

He was nominated KCB 9 June1949.

 

EDWARD DESMOND BEWLY McCARTHY

CAPTAIN OF HMS AJAX from 22 APRIL 1940 to NOVEMBER 1941

Edward McCarthy was born in 1893 and was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges of  Osborne and Dartmouth. He served as Midshipman from 1 September 1911 in HMS Vanguard, a battleship in the Home Fleet. He was made Sub-Lieutenant 15 May 1914, Lieut Commander 16 February 1924, Commander 31 December 1929 and to Captain 30 June 1935.

 

Captain McCarthy was appointed to HMS Ajax in April 1940, at Chatham. She sailed for Liverpool on 31 July and proceeded to Malta in company with HMS York as escort to an army convoy, on 22 August. They reached the island without incident.

 

On 12 October, a small Italian destroyer force put to sea with the intention of attacking outlying units of the fleet, escorting a small convoy. At 0200 the Ajax, about 110 miles to the east of Malta, reported that she was in contact with enemy destroyers. One, the Ariel, blew up when the Ajax opened fire at 4,000 yards. The second, the Airone, was also sunk, but not before the Ajax had been hit twice on the bridge structure and once amidships. While the Ajax was dealing with the Airone the Artigliere came in from the starboard bow. She also was engaged and her guns silenced, but the Ajax received four more hits, and her radar and one gun were put out of action. Two more destroyers were sighted and one turned to engage, but after a few rounds withdrew behind a smoke screen. Contact with the enemy was lost. Two British officers and ten ratings were killed, and twenty wounded. The Artigliere was sunk later by HMS York, after her crew had abandoned ship.

The Ajax returned to Malta for repairs and was back in Alexandria by the end of October. On 11 November the Ajax, with the Orion and the Sydney, and the destroyers Nubian and Mohawk, under Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell's command - Force K - left the fleet, which was on its way to attack Taranto, to mount a diversionary operation of their own against an Italian convoy. At about 0115 on 12 November they sighted the convoy of four ships and two destroyers off Valoma. One merchant ship was sunk and two set on fire and left sinking. The fourth escaped under cover of smoke. The two destroyers left at high speed after one of them had been hit.

While the fleet sailed to what was to result in the Battle of Matapan on 27 April 1941, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, with his flag in the Orion, had been ordered, with the Ajax, Perth and Gloucester, and destroyers Ilex, Hasty, Vendetta and Hereward, to be south-east of Gavdo Island at daylight on 28 April, to cover the one convoy at sea in the danger area. Just before 0800 Pridham-Wippelll reported to Admiral Cunningham, who was about 90 miles astern of him, that he had sighted three cruisers with destroyers, which he was trying to draw towards the main fleet. The Italian cruisers followed him, and opened fire at a range of nearly thirteen mile, concentrating on the Gloucester. At 0829, when the range had closed by about a mile the Gloucester opened fire, but fell short. The enemy altered course towards the westward and at 0855 ceased firing. Pridham-Wippell swung round to keep in touch. Just before 1100 he sighted a battleship, which immediately opened fire at a range of 16,000 yards. Our cruisers turned away under cover of smoke, and ran at full speed, being straddled by 15" shells.

Admiral Cunningham ordered the Valiant to go to the cruisers' assistance, and the Formidable's torpedo-bombers to be sent in. This relieved the pressure but made the enemy battleship turn away. They reported three hits and said that her speed was down to about eight knots, which, however, proved to be optimistic, as she could still do 12 to 15 knots. Swordfish from Maleme and RAF bombers from Greece also attacked. The torpedo-bombers reported that the battleship was the Vittorio Veneto.

At 1644 Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell was ordered to get into visual contact with the enemy. Admiral Cunningham's plan for the night was for a striking force of eight destroyers under Captain Mack of the Jervis to attack if the cruisers also made contact with the Vittorio Veneto, and for our battleships to follow up if necessary. The Formidable sent in a striking force of torpedo-bombers at 1830. The Vittorio Veneto was now 45 miles from the Warspite, travelling at 15 knots. The Italian fleet was in a bunch, with the battleship in the centre of two columns of ships on either side, one of cruisers and one of destroyers.

 

Information on Cruiser Captains

Captains of HMS Ajax Leander Cruiser

Commissioned 15th April 1935 – 16 February 1948

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