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Admiral Graf Spee in flames having suffered a hit to her funnel

On this day 13 December 1939

Published: 13 Dec 2012

Pursuit of German heavy cruiser Graf Spee in South Atlantic on 13 December 1939.

The Battle of the River Plate was the first major naval battle in World War II and the first occasion an RN aircraft had been employed to spot for ship's guns in a sea battle. The German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee had been commerce raiding since the start of the war in September. It was found and engaged off the estuary of the River Plate off the coast of Argentina and Uruguay by one of the hunting groups set up by the British Admiralty, comprising three smaller Royal Navy cruisers: HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.

HMS Exeter’s two Walrus aircraft were both put out of action by an 11” shell. However, HMS Ajax was able to launch one of her two Fairey Seafox seaplanes (K8591 & K8582). Flown by Lt Edgar Duncan Goodenough Lewin with Lt Richard Edward Neville Kearney as observer, the Seafox (belonging to 718 Catapult Flight) spotted throughout and did reconnaissance fights every day. During the engagement an 8” shell penetrated Graf Spee’s two decks then exploded in funnel area — destroying her raw fuel processing system and leaving her with just 16 hours fuel, insufficient to allow her to return home; with further Royal Navy ships closing the net the ship was doomed and her Captain gave the order to scuttle the ship. At 20:45 on 17 December 1939 the Seafox signalled that the Graf Spee had blown herself up. Lt EDG Lewin became the first FAA officer to be decorated in the war when he was awarded the DSC for his part in the action; Lt REN Kearney received a Mention in Dispatches (both in London Gazette 23 February 1940).


FAA Battle Honour – River Plate
FAA Squadron: 700 (718 Catapult Flight lost its Squadron status when absorbed into 700 Squadron, 21 January 1940)


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