Bob Harvey, Able Seaman on HMS Achilles, describes the scene during the Battle of the River Plate. The interview is from 1997 and the interviewer is Jim Sullivan. The image is a detail from the director control tower of the Achilles showing the shrapnel damage described by Bob Harvey. See full image and reference
Jim Sullivan: what are your recollections of how the battle began and what your job was?
Bob Harvey: We didn't have a great deal of time to think, we had been up early for a dawn action stations which we carried out every morning in wartime - preceding radar, we had no radar of course, and the horizon seemed clear when we went down and got back down and into our hammocks for another half hour. All of a sudden the alarm rattlers went and we thought what, we must have been too slow last time and we'll have to do it again quicker.
So we all jumped out of our hammocks and up to our action stations, and when we got up there I always remember going into the lobby door inside and Henry Page, who had just come down from the ladder from inside the pumps base, he was waving his arms over in an oval manner saying, ‘They're going just over ... they're going just over.' I didn't quite really realise what was happening but we were all trained to do a particular job and we sort of got stuck into it straight away. And as youngsters we didn't take life terribly seriously and everything was a great thrill, it was new, we were trained to do a job and we virtually did it automatically.
It wasn't till afterwards that we realised that we could have been killed. I remember at one stage working in this lobby - it's like a square box, the lobby which surrounds the base of the moving structure of the gun house and its only an inch thick - it's supposed to be armoured steel but an inch-armoured steel wouldn't do much good if anything came through. As splinters proved in the bridge structure which had special armoured steel up there but it went straight through it.
JS: Bob, you talked about coming up again because you thought maybe it was another practice but at what stage did you know and how were told - yes this is it, when you start firing this is the real thing?
BH: Well since we got into the lobby we realised the panic - the pump was going you see, and when you go into the lobby, or the turret's crew would be the same, when the pump's going it vibrates and throbs and you knew something was going when the pump was going when the old turret was, and it was then training at that time, and you started to load straight away. And it went up, and they started firing straight away virtually.
JS: I often imagine that if you are in certain parts of the ship it's difficult to know what is actually happening, and I'm wondering for instance, did you and the other crew members know that the Graf Spee was floating around and that was going to be the ship you were going after?
BH: Well, we only heard from the people like old Henry Page who gave us our initial information about it and any word that trickled down because we had no phone numbers in the lobby - we just got about doing our job.
JS: So as the day wore on you started to get more dribs and drabs of information, and you knew vaguely what was happening up there?
BH: Oh yes. And of course once there was a lull - I think we were firing for about what, about an hour and 20 minutes, and there was a lull in the action and we were able to able to come out, about 20 to eight  we were able to come out on the upper deck.
They'd called a lull in the action because we were - they'd broken it off. The problem was of course we only had a certain amount of ammunition and if you're firing as fast as those ships were firing you were liable to run out and we couldn't afford to do that. But they only carried about 200-250 rounds per gun and at the rate they were firing they really got rid of that ammunition, particularly from the for'ard turrets because they were the two turrets they were bearing on enemy most of the time, which is only a normal procedure. So what they did during a lull is shift some of the ammunition - the shell and cordite up from the after turrets to the for'ard turrets. This was a very normal thing on ships.
JS: And do the sailors, say during the first lull, that first break - are you able to get any reports on whether you were having any success or is it still firing blind to a degree?
BH: Well, yes we were getting reports from the Ajax's aircraft how the shots were firing and he was giving pretty encouraging reports about the fall of shot on the Graf Spee, although you know as history has told us the number of shots relative to the number of shells we fired wasn't a great number - but they did a lot of damage, and damage that affected the ship's company. But a couple of times during the day we did have alarms but they didn't start firing again, they just kept their distance, knowing that he was going into the coast.
JS: So there wasn't a time then when the Achilles itself was hit or under heavy fire?
BH: Well, she wasn't hit but you can be hit or - we had an 11-inch explode close to the bridge - and by the way that was very close to where we were in B Turret, but the splinters from this explosion, the shrapnel went up through the bridge and through into the director [control] tower - killed a couple of guys in the director, very seriously wounded a couple and wounded the captain on the bridge, the chief yeoman of signals who lost a leg owing to that later on. This shrapnel can do vicious damage, its jagged metal exploding at the force of any bullet - and its large metal, all different size pieces. Ghastly stuff really.