THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE
as experienced by
Bernard John (Bunny) Sole
By William Saul
This article was originally published in the March 2012 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
In December 1939 the British cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter with the New Zealand cruiser HMNZS Achilles were in action against the German battleship Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. Eventually the Graf Spee sought shelter in the mouth of the River Plate at Montevideo, Uruguay and subsequently was scuttled. This is a letter written by Bernard Sole on board the Achilles to his wife Nola. It was sent to us by Dianne Thorstensen who was one of the organisers of the New Zealand Sole Family Reunion in 1991 which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival there in 1841 of a Kentish family. Unfortunately we have not discovered how Bernard is connected to this family but his letter gives a firsthand account of one of the early sea battles of World War 2 – Bob Sheldon.
From B Sole, 19 Mess, 18-12-1939
Just an effort to give you an idea of what happened on the “Glorious Thirteenth” as we call it. I suppose you will have seen nearly all the details in the paper before this gets to you. On the morning of the action I turned in my hammock about 6 a.m. hoping to get a little sleep before they called the hands at 6.30.
The first thing I remember was the alarm buzzers which we had heard quite often during the last four months. I turned out in a hurry but suspected nothing until I reached the upper deck and saw huge spouts of water within a short distance of the ship and then our own guns opened fire. Believe you me my stomach must have hit the deck for a moment. By the time I was on the tubes more spouts were visible within a close proximity of the ship, certainly some shooting by the “Jerries”. Our guns weren’t inactive either for they were getting hits. Some of us were inclined to be a bit excited, for this was the first time in action. Every man played his part and not one faltered. Although we had four killed and three injured not a man faltered, their places were taken by someone else immediately. Shell splinters were numerous (for after the action was over a hundred pieces were collected). The action lasted for about two hours (two hours I hope never to go through again for a while). The Exeter went out of action temporarily, for she took the brunt of the action with the Graf von Spee’s eleven inch shells while we were able to close in. The Graf then turned her heavier guns on us and the Ajax and a very warm time followed. The action lasted about two hours when she ceased firing so we trailed her. She opened fire on us twice during the day again. We remained closed up all through the day around our gun and tubes, etc.
Nola, Clyde and Bernard Sole in 1944
We never thought of food till well after the main action. We managed to get a few loaves from the bake house and a pound of butter; this lasted (with the help of chocolate and oranges, kindly supplied by the canteen manager) till supper when we were given ham sandwiches. After dusk we again closed in and let her have a few salvos in which she replied. With the help of smoke screens we managed to dodge these although they were pretty close. Sometime after midnight she entered Montevideo so with the Ajax we patrolled the entrance of the river. It was about Sunday night when we saw a hammock again for every night we remained closed up around our stations sleeping when we could around our guns. Sunday was a very tense day for us for that was the day she was coming out. The Americans were making a running commentary on her leaving. Much was the relief when news came through that she had scuttled herself as we were prepared to destroy her at all costs. Many were the cheers that rang out between the two ships remaining, Ajax and Achilles. The Cumberland that had relieved Exeter was standing silently by. She had been a welcome sight when she joined us. Most of our thoughts were with the Exeter which was not present at the end for it was through her taking the brunt of the action at first that gave us our chance. She remained with us throughout the scrap. After the Spee scuttled herself we steamed slowly up to a point of about five miles from her and saw that she was nothing but a mass of flames. Our job was certainly finished. It certainly made us feel proud that we were the first ship to carry the Digger flag into action. We and the Ajax and Exeter have received hosts of congratulations from Admiralty New Zealand, etc. We are looking forward to returning to New Zealand but a lot remains to be done yet.
I am afraid this is another rush letter as mails close with such little warning. Hoping you are all well and fit as this leaves me at present. Please give my best to all and tons of love.
From your Bunny.
PS. Please tell mum she will have to get a perm when the old Achilles steams up the Waitemata, Hoping to see you again soon dear.
HMS Achilles on which Bernard Sole served