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Gorleston pensioner remembers key battle

PUBLISHED: 16:07 11 December 2008 | UPDATED: 12:31 03 July 2010

Gorleston pensioner Les Tindle

Gorleston pensioner Les Tindle

It was one of the legendary naval engagements of the second world war that ended with the pride of the German fleet a sunken wreck.

Gorleston pensioner Les Tindle is among the remaining veterans of the Battle of River Plate that took place on December 13, 1939.

VETERAN: Les Tindle during his war years

It was one of the legendary naval engagements of the second world war that ended with the pride of the German fleet a sunken wreck.

Gorleston pensioner Les Tindle is among the remaining veterans of the Battle of River Plate that took place on December 13, 1939.

The memories of that day 69 years ago in the south Atlantic are still vivid for the former petty officer.

Mr Tindle, who was just 19 at the time, was serving on board one of the cruisers hunting the German battleship Graf Spee.

SCUTTLED: The German battleship Graf Spee

It was a pursuit that finally ended off the coast of Uruguay when the battleship, which had sunk nine merchant ships in three months, was spotted on the horizon.

During the 100-minute battle he narrowly avoided death when his ship, HMS Exeter, was struck by shellfire

Stoker Mr Tindle can still recall his trepidation at having to face the mighty guns of the Graf Spee.

He said: “The Graf Spee had bigger guns and a much longer firing range than any of our ships so it was a daunting engagement.

“Working below decks I could hear the shells pounding and explosions, but didn't know how the battle was going. I escaped unscathed when that section of our ship was struck by shellfire, I don't know how I survived - it was luck I suppose.”

One of three Royal Navy ships involved, the Exeter bore the brunt of the Graf Spee's fire as the battle raged.

The German ship limped into port at the Uruguayan capital Montevideo after suffering severe shell damage.

The Exeter had been left battle scarred too, its navigation equipment destroyed and unable to fire another shot.

There was a final dramatic twist to the drama when, after four days in port, Graf Spee captain Hans Langsdorff was given 72 hours to set sail.

With the Royal Navy vessels lying in wait Langsdorff decided to scuttle his ship before committing suicide.

When the Exeter finally arrived back home in Plymouth following the battle the crew were featured in a propaganda film called For Freedom.

“One scene they took involved stokers rushing into the boiler room when action stations were sounded,” recalled Mr Tindle.

“The custom was to raise the feet and slide down the rail and the chief stoker, who was a large figure, decided to do the same, but tripped at the bottom so the rest of us had a nice soft landing.

“Another episode was filmed of us sitting at the mess table when we heard the Graf Spee had been scuttled. We had to stand up to dance and cheer and I suffered a black eye in the melee; it was strange getting injured like that when I had got through the battle unscathed.”

Mr Tindle continued to serve throughout the war on naval convoys to Malta and Russia and had another scrape with death when his ship was attacked during minesweeping operations in the English Channel.

Originally from South Wales, Mr Tindle moved to Great Yarmouth with wife Winifred after the war, working for a time as a police telephonist and at the Birds Eye Factory. Now aged 88 and a great grandfather, he is a resident at St Augustine's Place, in Addison Road, Gorleston.

The 69th anniversary of the battle will be commemorated tomorrow with a ceremony held by the Battle of River Plate Association in Plymouth.


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