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Submitted by Terry Hanstock

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

Naval officer who duelled with Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate and later helped to save an Arctic convoy from German raiders

Captain Ralph Medley, who has died aged 92, was Operations and Intelligence Officer on the staff of Commodore Henry Harwood, who flew his broad pennant in the cruiser Ajax in the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939.

The German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sailed from Wilhelmshaven on August 21 1939 and sank the British merchant ship Clement off Brazil on September 30. The Admiralty organised eight hunting groups to search world-wide for the raider. Harwood's Force G, of the cruisers Exeter and Cumberland, later joined by Ajax and Achilles, operated off the south-east coast of America.

By December 7 1939, when Graf Spee had sunk eight ships in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean, Harwood and his staff concluded that the raider would most likely head for the busy shipping routes off the River Plate. By December 12, Harwood had concentrated his three cruisers, Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (Cumberland was in the Falklands) some 150 miles off the Plate estuary.

Early on the morning of December 13, smoke was sighted on the north-west horizon. Exeter signalled: "I think it is a pocket battleship." Graf Spee's shooting with her 11-inch guns was excellent, hitting and damaging Exeter so badly she had later to retire to the Falklands for repairs, and putting five of Ajax's eight guns out of action.

But Graf Spee also made fatal mistakes. "Her best tactic," as Medley himself summed it up, "would have been to turn away from us, when the greater range of her guns would have enabled her to engage only Exeter (with 8-inch guns) before Ajax and Achilles could get within range of her, and then attack our smaller ships with relative impunity.

"Instead, she apparently mistook these two for destroyers and allowed us all to engage her from different directions and thereby confuse her gunnery. In fact she took the only action which allowed us to defeat her."

Graf Spee took refuge in Montevideo, while Churchill and the BBC conjured up vast but entirely imaginary forces waiting outside to destroy her. Her captain scuttled his ship and then committed suicide.

It was a great victory which, as Churchill said, "in a cold and dark winter warmed the cockles of our hearts". Commodore Harwood was promoted to Rear Admiral, and Medley was mentioned in despatches.

Medley remained on the South American Station for another two years, serving in eight different cruisers, before coming home in December 1941 and taking command of the destroyer Beagle in the Greenock Escort Force early in 1942.

In April, Beagle was part of the escort of the Arctic convoy QP11, homeward bound from Murmansk. On April 29, the cruiser Edinburgh was hit by two torpedoes from U.456. Her stern was blown off and she started back towards Murmansk at slow speed, escorted by two of the convoy's destroyers. She later had to be sunk by Allied forces.

Meanwhile, on the afternoon of May 1, QP11 was attacked by three large German destroyers. The convoy's four remaining destroyers, Amazon, Beverley, Bulldog and Beagle, had had their after guns removed to make more room for depth-charges.

They mounted six 4.7-inch and three 4-inch guns between them, with antiquated fire control systems, against the Germans' modern six 5.9-inch and five 5-inch guns.

In theory, it should have been a clear victory for the enemy, followed by the destruction of the convoy, but the four elderly destroyers, audaciously led by Commander Richmond in Bulldog, defended with such vigour that they convinced their opponents that they were much stronger than they actually were.

Over a period of several hours the destroyers drove off five enemy lunges at the convoy. Amazon was hit and damaged and one convoy straggler was sunk, but QP11 was otherwise unscathed. Medley and the other three destroyer captains were all awarded the DSO.

Ralph Cyril Medley was born on October 2 1906 and joined the Navy as a cadet in 1920, going to Osborne and Dartmouth.

His first ship as a midshipman in 1924 was the old coal-burning battleship Benbow and he went on to serve as a sub-lieutenant in the cruiser Cornwall on the China Station.

Between 1928 and 1936, he served as a lieutenant in the sloop Sandwich and the cruiser Devonshire on the China Station, and in the destroyer Crusader in the Home Fleet.

His first commands, in 1938 and 1939, were the destroyers Stronghold and Beagle (for the first time). In 1943, Medley was loaned to the Royal Canadian Navy as Senior Officer of C3 Escort Group, commanding the destroyers Burnham and Saskatchewan, and later the frigate Prince Rupert.

The largest Atlantic convoy C3 escorted was colossal: 150 ships, in 15 columns spread across a front of 10 miles, with 10 ships in each column, carrying a million tons of cargo.

C3 at that time consisted of Prince Rupert and five corvettes, but the convoy crossed without loss. Prince Rupert assisted in the sinking of U.575, west of Cape Finisterre, on March 13 1944.

In 1944, Medley was appointed Staff Officer (Operations) to the C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir John Cunningham in Italy, and then to Admiral Sir Algernon Willis in Malta. He was appointed OBE in 1946.

He was disappointed to be sent to Portsmouth as Drafting Commander in 1946, which he thought was a dead-end job, but he was promoted captain in 1947.

A year later, he took command of the frigate Cardigan Bay in the Mediterranean and then went out to China as Captain (F) 4th Frigate Flotilla.

Medley was appointed Deputy Director of the Operations Division in 1950, and Senior Naval Directing Staff Officer at the Joint Services Staff College, Latimer, in 1952. His last appointment, from 1955 until he retired in 1957, was as Chief of Staff to the French Admiral Jaujard at Nato headquarters, Fontainebleau, with the rank of Commodore.

From 1960 to 1971, Medley was Clerk to the Worshipful Company of Saddlers, and he was a Freeman of the City of London.

He was one of the participants who advised on Powell and Pressburger's 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate, and he also assisted with Michael Powell's book on the battle.

He himself published several books on the history of the Medley family. He married, in 1934, Letty Boyce. As a First Officer WRNS, she was appointed MBE in 1944 for her work as Senior Cypher Officer, Plymouth Command, during Operation Neptune. They had two daughters.

Saturday 4 September 1999 (Issue 1562)
© The Daily Telegraph

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