Damage – overview
Splinter damage from high explosive shells that explode on impact have the potential to cause a lot of damage. Even when they explode on impact with the water as near misses, splinters can easily penetrate the sides of ships and allow water to enter. It is often not appreciated that some parts of the sides of a ship are quite thin, constructed to be flexible, protect against the sea and reduce weight. Armour-piercing shells, on the other hand, may pass straight through a lightly armoured ship without exploding.
It was near misses that finally put Exeter out of action when water ingress through splinter holes damaged the electrical supply to Y-turret, the last one firing.
While a single hit from one of Graf Spee’s 11 inch shells was able to cause major damage on several occasions, Ajax and Achilles’ 6 inch shells were seen to bounce off Graf Spee’s armour, prompting Harwood to comment, as the 1956 film put it, “We might just as well be bombarding her with a lot of bloody snowballs.”
Contrary to prediction, however, one of Exeter’s 8 inch shells did penetrate Graf Spee’s armour and did major damage and missed an engine room by only a few feet.
Shortening the range allowed Ajax and Achilles to use their 6 inch guns to effect, but also brought them within range of Graf Spee’s 5.9 inch guns though these obtained no hits.