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Admiral Graf Spee
Admiral Graf Spee
On 13 December at 05:20, the British squadron was proceeding on a course of 060? at 14 knots with Ajax at 34? 34′ South 48? 17′ West, 390 nmi (720 km) east of Montevideo. At 06:10, smoke was sighted on a bearing of Red-100, or 320? (to the north-west). Harwood ordered the Exeter to investigate. She swung out of line and at 06:16 she signaled by lamp: "I think it is a pocket-battleship", and Captain Bell ordered Flag N hoisted to the yard arm ? "Enemy in sight" Admiral Graf Spee had already sighted mastheads and identified Exeter, but initially suspected that the two light cruisers were smaller destroyers and that the British ships were protecting a merchant convoy, the destruction of which would be a major prize. Since Admiral Graf Spee's reconnaissance aircraft was out of service, Langsdorff relied on his lookouts for this information. He decided to engage, despite having received a broadly accurate report from the German naval staff on 4 December, outlining British activity in the River Plate area. This report included information that Ajax, Achilles, Cumberland and Exeter were patrolling the South American coast.

Langsdorff realised too late that he was facing three cruisers. Calling on the immediate acceleration of his diesel engines, he closed with the enemy squadron at 24 kn (28 mph; 44 km/h) in the hope of engaging the steam-driven British ships before they could work up from cruising speed to full power. This strategy may seem an inexplicable blunder: Langsdorff could perhaps have manoeuvred to keep the British ships at a range where he could destroy them with his 283 mm (11.1 in) guns while remaining out of the effective range of their smaller 6" and 8" guns. On the other hand, he knew the British cruisers had a 4?6 kn (4.6?6.9 mph; 7.4?11.1 km/h) speed advantage over Admiral Graf Spee and could in principle stay out of range should they choose to do so, standard cruiser tactics in the presence of a superior force, while calling for reinforcements.

The British executed their battle plan: Exeter turned north-west, while Ajax and Achilles, operating together, turned north-east to spread Admiral Graf Spee′s fire. Admiral Graf Spee opened fire on Exeter at 19,000 yd (17,000 m) with her six 283 mm (11.1 in) guns at 06:18. Exeter opened fire at 06:20, Achilles at 06:21, Exeter′s aft guns at 06:22 and Ajax at 06:23. Lieutenant-Commander Richard Jennings, Exeter's gunnery officer remembers:

"As I was crossing the compass platform [to his Action Station in the Director Control Tower], the captain hailed me, not with the usual rigmarole of 'Enemy in sight, bearing, etc', but with 'There's the fucking Scheer! Open fire at her!' Throughout the battle the crew of the Exeter thought they were fighting the [sister ship] Admiral von Scheer. But the name of the enemy ship was of course the Graf Spee".

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