Saturday, 11 February 2017

HMS Ajax - The Ship

“H.M.S. Ajax”. Photo from the Illustrated London News, 23 December 1939
(Ship shown as built)
The Leander Class light cruiser laid down at Vickers Armstrongs Barrow-in-Furness shipyard on February 7th 1933 as Yard Number 682, launched on March 1st 1934, completed on April 12th 1935 and commissioned three days later, was the seventh warship of the Royal Navy to be named Ajax.

Displacing 9,653 tons, 554’6” overall length, 56’ beam with a main armament of 8 x 6” guns in four twin turrets she was built under the British Admiralty’s 1931 Programme at a cost of £1.48 Million. During her builder’s trials she achieved a speed of 33.06 knots, the fastest of the five vessels of her Class the others being Achilles, Leander, Orion and Neptune, all entering service between 24th March 1933 and 12th April 1935. The ship's full specifications are detailed under Note 9.

View from S.S. Ussukuma of her interception by HMS Ajax
This Ajax was destined to become the most distinguished of her name and one of the modern Royal Navy’s most famous ships. Within three hours of the declaration of World War 2 on 3rd September 1939 as a member of the Royal Navy’s South American Squadron (Note 1) when between the Rio Grande do Sul and the River Plate Estuary she caught the German merchant ship S.S. Olinda (Note 2), took off her crew and sank her by gunfire. That same day she found another German merchant ship, the S.S. Carl Fritzen (Note 3) which was similarly despatched; later their crews were put aboard HMS Cumberland and taken to the Falkland Islands. At 19:10 hours on December 5th accompanied by Cumberland she intercepted the German steamer S.S. Ussukuma (Note 4) off the mouth of the River Plate, taking her crew prisoner but not before they had started to scuttle her, the ship sank later that night. Ussukuma was a supply ship carrying ammunition, explosives, torpedoes and general supplies to replenish German U-boats and surface raiders in the South Atlantic ocean.

Ajax Peace time view of S.S Ussukuma, German East Africa Line

Contemporary film poster, 1956.
(Note 6)
Just eight days later on 13th December Ajax was one of the three Royal Navy warships to fight the first of that war’s major naval engagements in what became one of the best known of all modern sea warfare actions, the Battle of the River Plate which ultimately resulted in the destruction of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee (Note 5). The Battle was further immortalised in a highly successful film (Note 6). For that and later actions Ajax won the remarkable total of nine battle honours during World War 2, more than the combined total of eight already won by her predecessors between 1780 and 1916.

                    German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee
                        At the King George VI Coronation Review
                                        Spithead, 15 April 1937             

German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee
On Fire and sinking off Montevideo, Uruguay
17 December 1939
She was adopted in a civil ceremony by the Yorkshire Town of Halifax on 23rd August 1942 following a successful Warship Week National Savings Campaign. Ajax was also awarded a unique accolade when a munitions plant, established in 1941 in Ontario, Canada, had rapidly grown into a town thus needing a name so its community named itself after this cruiser; the only recorded instance of any town or city in the world to name itself after a ship (ibid: Town of Ajax). The Town also accords the honour of naming and dedicating all of its streets after the names of the Officers and Crew of this Cruiser Ajax, her two companions at the River Plate Battle, Achilles and Exeter and the subsequent Frigate Ajax, the eighth ship of the name. To date over 600 streets have been so named. Thus Bob Sharplin is remembered there by “Sharplin Drive” dedicated in one of several civic ceremonies on 16th June 2014. It is to the town's credit that the chivalrous conduct of the Graf Spee's commander, Kapitan sur Zee Hans Langsdorff, in that in all of his seizures of allied shipping not one allied crew members life was lost was recognised by naming one of the town's main streets in his honour.

Ajax under repair at Brooklyn Navy Yard,
New York, USA  between 3 March and October 1943.
Photo taken 16 October, 1943. 
After the River Plate Battle Ajax returned to Chatham Dockyard for heavy repairs and upgrades between February and June 1940. She went on to survive the war despite being very seriously damaged twice more, on each of those two occasions being sent back to repair yards, firstly again to Chatham from 3 May to June 1942. The next was in 1943, when after being seriously damaged in a bombing raid at Bone in January, she underwent temporary repairs at Gibraltar in February following which she spent from 3 March until October in the USA at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York.

Ajax under repair
Camouflage paint suggests 1941, probably at Alexandria
In 1944, after supporting the D-Day allied invasion forces at Normandy, she exacted revenge for the Crete actions when, back in the Mediterranean as a member of the British Aegean Force, she was deployed to accept the surrender on 19th September of the German garrison at Santorin north of Crete.

Exodus after being boarded
Following the war she saw little service apart from being involved in the “Exodus Incident” in July 1947. Ajax was then part of a Royal Navy task force trailing the illegal immigrant ship Exodus which was crowded with Holocaust survivors determined to attempt to make a new life for themselves in British-controlled Palestine. Exodus was stopped and boarded by the Royal Navy resulting in the Holocaust survivors being transported back to Europe. The incident, regarded then with horror by global opinion and now infamous, is an example of how a ship’s proud tradition can easily be tarnished in undertaking questionable government policy.

Ajax was finally decommissioned at Chatham on 16th February 1948. Negotiations took place to sell her to Chile when reputedly Sir Winston Churchill (Note 7), intervened to stop that holding the view that a ship with such an illustrious reputation should not be sold off to a foreign power but rather broken up while holding such a fine heritage so she was placed on the Disposal List. The 8th November 1949 saw her towed away from the River Fal where she had been laid up and arrived ten days later on the 18th at Cashmore’s Yard, Newport, Monmouthshire, where she was broken up.

HMS Ajax Laid Up
Photo believed to be on River Fal, 1948 or 1949

  1. Force G, of which Ajax was the flagship (Commodore Henry Harwood RN). The other two ships were the light cruisers Exeter and Achilles, a fourth member, the cruiser Cumberland, arrived later and assisted in blockading the Admiral Graf Spee from escape. 
  2. Owned by South American Steamship Line, Hamburg, 4,576gt built 1927 
  3. Owned by Johs Fritzen & Sohn, Emden, 6,594 gt built 1920 
  4. German East Africa Line vessel of 7,834 tons built 1921.Her departure the day before from the port of Bahia Blanca had been observed by the British Naval Attaché.  After the Ussukuma sank, Ajax transferred Ussukuma’s 107 crew to the Cumberland, which put them ashore on the Falklands Islands. On 1 February 2008 Bloomberg News reported that Argentina's navy had identified Ussukuma’s precise wreck site almost 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the Brazilian coastal town of Necochea  at a depth of some 38 fathoms (70 metres or 230 feet). 
  5. The Admiral Graf Spee was a German Deutschland Class heavily armoured cruiser which became defined as a Pocket Battleship. Of 16,020 tons, commissioned just three years before in 1936 , armed with 6 x 11” guns in triple turrets, 8 x 5.9” guns in single turrets, 8 x 21” torpedo tubes she easily outgunned the British ships. She also carried two Arado Ar 196 Seaplanes. She had sailed from Germany on 21 August 1939, before war was declared,  with orders to station herself deep in the Atlantic to take up the role of a commerce raider. Between the declaration of war and 2 December she had caught and sunk ten cargo ships. On that day just south of the Island of St Helena  she caught the eleventh, the 10,093 ton cargo ship "Doric Star" of the Blue Star Line, homeward bound to England with a full cargo of mutton, lamb, butter, cheese and wool from Australia and New Zealand. Unlike the  previously caught ships "Doric Star" was successful in radioing a message that she was being attacked before being sunk by Graf Spee's gunfire in position 19.15 South by 5.5 East after removal of her crew. This message was received and retransmitted by two other vessels thus alerting the Admiralty to her position and that of the Graf  Spee. The message was in turn passed on 3 December to Commodore Henry Harwood RN who commanded the  Royal Navy's South American Division with his squadron of three light cruisers, the Ajax, the mainly New Zealand crewed Achilles (Note 10) and Exeter, Harwood's flagship. Harwood who proved to be an adroit tactician conjectured that the Graf Spee would be heading to the River Plate area as a worthwhile hunting ground. So Harwood decided to lay a trap there and devised a strategy for his outgunned ships to take the fight to the far superior German pocket battleship. Graf Spee's commander, Kapitan sur Zee Hans Langsdorff, flagrantly disobeyed strict orders by allowing himself to be lured into this trap and thus into the action that became the Battle of the River Plate which the Royal Navy won by a combination of superior tactics and sheer guts; a combination that had become known within the Royal Navy as the "Nelson touch". That combination in the opinion of the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, in a private letter he wrote on 11 January 1940 to Harwood he described as “your ships...must have... largely influenced... (Admiral Graf Spee’s) unintelligible actions” (Note 8). Naval historians still debate to this day as to why Langsdorff decided to seek shelter in Montevideo as his ship had not suffered sufficient damage as to make that necessary plus he could easily have outgunned the three British ships, finished them off and withdrawn. In his mitigation the British did all they could to make him believe that additional warships had joined or were joining Ajax, Achilles and Exeter to build a much superior force                                                                                                                                  
  6. “The Battle of the River Plate” made in 1956 starred John Gregson (as Captain Bell of HMS Exeter), Anthony Quayle (as Commodore Harwood), Ian Hunter (as Captain Woodhouse of HMS Ajax), Jack Gwillim (as Captain Parry of HMS Achilles) and Peter Finch (as Kapitan sur Zee Hans Langsdorff of the Admiral Graf Spee). It was first shown on 25 October 1956 as the Royal Command Performance film followed by its general release on 24 December. Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger it was nominated for three BAFTA Awards. Running time 119 minutes. The film was also released in German and Spanish.
  7. Then Leader of the Conservative Party in Opposition. 
  8. “The Battle of the River Plate” P478-479, by Dudley Pope, Republished In “Great War Stories” (ibid – Bibliography). 
  9. Ships Details as Built -
    Builder:      Vickers Armstrongs, Barrow-in-Furness. Yard No. 682
    Machinery: By Cammell Laird
                        Parsons steam geared turbines driving 4 shafts developing                              72,000shp delivering 32.5 knots                    Dimensions: Length 522ft (between perpendiculars), 554ft 6in                     (overall)                     Beam 56ft Armament (as built): 
         Eight 6in Mk XXIII guns on four twin Mk XVI mountings
  1. Four 4in Mk V guns on four single Mk IV mountings
    Three 0.5in guns on quadruple Mk II mountings
     Eight 21in torpedo tubes on two quadruple QR IV mountings
    Ordered: 1st October  1932
    Laid Down: 7th Feb 1933
    Launched: 1st Mar 1934. Sponsor at launching Ceremony was Lady Chatfield, Wife of the First Sea Lord Admiral Alfred Ernle Montacute Chatfield.
    Completed: 12th Apr 1935
    Commissioned: 15th Apr 1935 
    Displacement:  As built: 7,259 tons
                             1/2 Oil: 8,626                   
                             Fully loaded: 9,653 tons (Oct 1942)
    Pennant No: 22
    Fate: De commissioned at Chatham 16 Feb 1948. Placed on Disposal List. Laid up in River Fal. After frustrated sale to Chile, towed from River Fal 8 Nov 1949 to Cashmore’s, Newport (Mon) Yard, where she arrived on 18th to be broken up. Refer below to The Attempt to sell HMS Ajax to Chile

  2. At the time of this battle the HMS Achilles was a member of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy,  On 1 October 1941 the prefix "Royal" was granted by King George VI to the Division thus creating the Royal New Zealand Navy and the New Zealand Naval ships then gained the prefix HMNZS. Officers on board Achilles at the battle were almost all assigned from the Royal Navy while the ratings were mainly New Zealanders.   


Videos connected with the Ajax

For video clips of the Battle of the River Plate Celebrations in February 1940 with the crews of HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter see:


    Click on this image to play the video

Officers and crews of HMS Ajax and Exeter marching past the Houses of Parliament up Whitehall and onto Horse Guards Parade where King George VI takes the salute then decorates crew members including a recipient of the Victoria Cross. The streets are lined with dense crowds. The Admiral Graf Spee on fire and sinking. Also features the Guildhall Luncheon and Churchill’s speech with the above quotation.  Source:


    Click on this image to play the video

Lord Mayor of London Sir William Coxen, giving a speech of welcome to officers and crew of HMS Ajax and Exeter (ships that fought at the Battle of the River Plate) at a luncheon in their honour at the Guildhall, London. Also features other speakers including Churchill’.Source:


Chile’s claim to territorial rights in the Antarctica had and still have to this day shallow foundations - firstly by the Treaty of Tordesillas signed on June 7th 1494 when Antarctica was totally unknown, was shared between Spain and Chile. This Treaty was reinforced by a Papal Bull Es Quae pro bono pacis issued in 1506. This basically carved up the unknown world between the Catholic realms of Spain and Chile. It was not recognised by the European non-Catholic countries such as France, Britain, Netherlands and Russia among others who considered these unknown lands to be res nullius, “no man’s land”. Their basic collective attitude became who finds it, claims it which evolved into by raising a flag, announcing a few words detailing who was claiming it, they then became entitled to it, took it and kept it. As time progressed between 1534 and 1959 a whole host of various other treaties and or decrees were made. In 1939 Chile’s territorial claims overlapped the claims of both Britain and Argentina. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s there was a flurry of various activities in the region involving France, Britain, Norway, Germany, The USA, Argentina, Chile, Soviet Union and Australia.  Britain accused Chile of various naval incursions of its territories and relations between the two countries became quite sensitive. One would have expected this sensitivity to have evaporated when in January 1939 Ajax in company with the cruiser HMAS Exeter were  deployed to Chile to render assistance to local authorities to rescue victims of an earthquake on January 27th at Talcuahano. It probably was as Chile presented medals to members of the crews for their service albeit some did not arrive until 2017,

In 1948 history repeated itself when Royal navy ships were despatched to prevent naval incursions by Latin American States navies into British Antarctic interests.  It was against this history and acts of the day that hostility developed by the British populace increasingly opposing the sale of Ajax to Chile (Note 1).

Ajax was decommissioned in February 1948. The subsequent negotiations to sell her to Chile were essentially frustrated by Winston Churchill who although being Leader of the Opposition and therefore out of government is attributed to being the driving influence that stopped the sale he believing that Ajax being one of the Royal Navy’s most Iconic ships of recent times she should not be sold into any foreign Navy where her name could possibly be sullied. Better she be scrapped than lose that heritage. A cynic might suggest that being a wily politician he knew he would gain increased popularity in so doing - rather it may have been that he had a personal fondness for Ajax. As a previous Lord of the Admiralty, who had several times been on the ship, he had praised her iconic status at his famous speech in London’s Guild Hall (Refer to vdeo link GUILDHALL LUNCHEON FOR RIVER PLATE HEROE above) when he welcomed the crew back from their success at the battle of the River Plate.

Even Ajax was reluctant to go to her demise as while under tow to the scrapyard she ran aground on 9 November 1949, however she was re-floated and duly arrived at Cashmore′s yard, in Newport, South Wales, for breaking up on 18 November 1949.


1. This public reaction  was reported in a illustrated article on this aspect of ajax's life in a copy of the  llustrated London News published in the later half of 1948.