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Submitted by Nicky Smith

This obituary from today's Guardian might be of interest to anyone who has seen Battle of the River Plate.


Captain Ralph Medley
(October 2 1906 - July 23 1999)

Naval officer who helped corner one of Hitler's pocket battleships

Dan van der Vat Friday September 3, 1999 The Guardian

Captain Ralph Medley, who has died aged 92, was Commodore Henry Harwood's senior staff officer at the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, when three outgunned British cruisers took on the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, forcing her to scuttle.

Harwood's Force G of four cruisers from the South America Division was one of eight groups of allied ships formed to hunt major German surface raiders sent out to attack merchant shipping.

One of the ships, the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland, was replenishing in the Falklands when the SS Doric Star, off the Brazilian coast, sent out the RRR signal on December 2, indicating she was under attack by a surface raider. Harwood, flying his pennant on the light cruiser Ajax, on which Medley was serving as his operations and intelligence officer, correctly guessed the intruder would make for the River Plate estuary and the rich pickings to be found there.

Harwood sent his strongest ship on hand, the heavy cruiser Exeter with her eight-inch guns, to investigate. When she reported a pocket battleship with six 11-inch and eight 5.9-inch guns, the commodore, although his ships were outranged and outgunned, decided to get within range by attacking at his top speed, four knots faster than the Germans. The heavy cruiser attacked from the south, the Ajax and her light companion, the New Zealand cruiser Achilles, from the east. Captain Hans Langsdorff concentrated his fire on the Exeter, reducing her to a floating inferno and forcing her to limp away to the Falklands.

Ajax and Achilles both suffered considerable damage too, but they and Exeter were able to divide the enemy's attention and spot the fall of each other's shot. The British ships registered 20 hits on the Graf Spee, tearing a six-foot hole in her side above the waterline and scorching her upper works.

This moderate damage prompted Langsdorff to retire to Montevideo in neutral Uruguay for repairs.

Cumberland was racing north from Port Stanley to replace Exeter as Harwood took up station in the estuary, outside territorial waters. The BBC broadcast reports of a massive convergence of allied heavy ships, although they were many days' sailing away. Visiting British merchant ships were sent to sea from Montevideo at daily intervals, obliging the Graf Spee under international law to give each one a 24-hour start. On December 17 Langsdorff raised steam and the Graf Spee sailed slowly out of port to the three-mile limit, accompanied by a German steamer and flying her battleflag.

Thousands of spectators lining the shore saw the German sailors transfer from the battleship to the steamer and heard a series of small explosions, followed by much larger detonations as the warship's ammunition blew up. The Graf Spee settled on the shallow bottom on an even keel and burned all night. The steamer took her crew to Argentina, where Langsdorff wrapped himself in the Kaiser's ensign, under which he had fought at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and shot himself.

Harwood was knighted and promoted to rear-admiral; Medley received a mention in his dispatches on the classic cruiser engagement.

Medley joined the Royal Navy as a 14-year-old officer cadet. He served on a battleship as a midshipman and on a cruiser as sub-lieutenant. His appointments as a lieutenant included a sloop, a cruiser and a destroyer.

His first command was a destroyer in 1938. Early in 1942 he took over another, HMS Beagle, working with the Home Fleet and escorting convoys on the appalling run to Murmansk in north Russia. The ship was escorting the homeward-bound convoy QP 11 when it came under strong German U-boat, surface and air attack, crippling the cruiser Edinburgh (eventually sunk), which had to be helped by two destroyers.

The four destroyers that left with the convoy, including Beagle, were attacked by three large German destroyers, much more heavily armed. The British escorts had few guns, carrying extra depth-charges instead, but put up such a fierce resistance that the Germans eventually withdrew after sinking one freighter and damaging a destroyer. Otherwise the convoy came through unscathed. For this action Lieutenant-Commander Medley was awarded the DSO.

He went on detachment to work with the hard-pressed Canadian Navy as temporary Senior Officer, Escort, with the Support Group C3. He finished the war as a commander, serving as Staff Officer (Operations) in the Mediterranean Fleet, for which he was made OBE.

Promoted captain in 1947, Medley transferred to frigates and took command of a flotilla on the China Station in 1947. From 1950 he served in staff appointments, finishing his naval career in the honorary rank of commodore as chief of staff to a Nato admiral until 1960.

Medley then worked for 11 years as clerk to a City of London livery company, becoming a freeman of the city.

He and his wife, Letty, married in 1934 and had two daughters.

Ralph Medley, sailor, born October 2, 1906; died July 23, 1999

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999

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