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Opening Salvo: War at Sea
Part 6 - Admiral Graf Spee and HMS Ajax


The HMS Ajax was a Leander-class British light cruiser commissioned on June 3rd 1935. She would take part in the famous Battle of the River Plate, but also fought the Italians in the Mediterranean, the evacuation of Crete, and bombarded Gold Beach on D-Day. The Canadian town of Ajax, Ontario, was named after her.

Battle of the River Plate
The German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had been raiding British shipping, destroying over nine ships. Commodore Henry Harwood commanded the squadron that engaged the Admiral Graf Spee, which consisted of the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and the light cruisers HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax. The Ajax would serve as Commodore Harwood’s flagship for the battle.

In the ensuing battle the Exeter was heavily damaged, forcing her to withdraw. The Ajax and Achilles received moderate damage as well, but would continue to pursue the German ship. Once the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled by heir captain, the Ajax returned home for repairs.

The Ajax was then sent to the Mediterranean in 1940 where she would engage Italian naval forces, sinking two torpedo boats and damaging a destroyer.

In 1941 the Ajax would be part of the Battle of Crete, and the later evacuation of the island. She then participated in a major engagement against an Italian fleet as part of the Battle of Cap Matapan. The combined British-Australian forces consisted of a carrier, the Formidable, three Queen Elizabeth-class battleships (Barham, Valiant, and Warspite), seven light cruisers, and various destroyers. The Italian fleet included the battleship Vittorio Veneto, the six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and their destroyer escort. The Italians, only expecting to battle one battleship and no carriers, took extremely heavy loses, especially compared to the British fleets loss of only a single plane. After this battle the Italian fleet conceded the Eastern Mediterranean to the British.

The Ajax was refitted in 1942 after being damaged, then sent back to the Mediterranean. Here she was once against damaged once more. After repairs were made once more, the Ajax participated in the bombardment of Gold Beach during D-Day. On August 15th 1944 the Ajax was used to support the landing of troops in Operation Dragoon at Saint-Tropez.

After the war the Ajax would be decommissioned in 1948. Her anchor was sent to the Royal Canadian Legion in Ajax, Ontario, while her bell is in Kingswood school at Bath, England.


Those who have seen February’s Combat Zone will have note the striking similarity between the HMS Ajax and the HMAS Sydney. Not so surprising since they’re both Leander-class cruisers. However, while the basic statistics of the ships are identical, the special ability and cost aren’t. Due to this, while they are of the same class they can be played slightly differently.

The Sydney’s ability, Raider Hunter, aids it against Auxiliaries and Cruisers, giving it one extra die. While this does increases the odds of hitting, it’s not always such a significant factor. Against Auxiliary ships this may be unnecessary. Against cruisers it marginally increases the odds of hitting the vital amour; not bad but not outstanding.

The Ajax on the other hand has Pursuit Ship; an interesting little ability that represents the Ajax’s dogged pursuit of the Admiral Graf Spee. Normally the second player has the advantage of moving his ships last and can therefore gain quite an advantage. Pursuit ship helps offset this by allowing limited movement after the second player. Vulnerable units, such as carriers, that could normally easily slip away suddenly find the Ajax in hot pursuit. It’s not always going to work out quite that perfectly, but it’s nice when it does.

It’s interesting to note that a few of the British units have abilities that take advantage of being the first player, something that’s normally quite the disadvantage. Indeed, you can make quite a nice fleet based around the Ark Royal, which has no flagship rating, or the HMS Hood’s rating of one. With destroyers to provide cover and the cruisers’ pursuit it would be quite the interesting fleet to play.


Commissioned January 1st, 1936, the Admiral Graf Spee was a Panzerschiffe, or armored ship, of the Deutschland class built under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. The treaty restricted the size of German ships built, but the Germans used a number of innovative techniques to make this class quite the marvel of her time. The ships of this class also included the Admiral Scheer and the Deutschland. The later was soon renamed as the Lützow for fear of the political repercussions and blow to morale that losing a ship named after Germany would cause.

Spanish Civil War
On May 9th 1936 the Admiral Graf Spee joined the rest of the German fleet and was designated it’s flagship until August 22th 1938. Her crew trained underwent training in the Atlantic before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, where the Admiral Graf Spee took part in several operations.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Admiral Graf Spee was sent to the Atlantic Ocean and began raiding Allied shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. On September 30th, 1939, the Panzerschiffe sunk its first victim, a British freighter, off of Pernambuco in South America. In all the Admiral Graf Spee would sink over 50,000 tons of shipping. During these raids the Admiral Graf Spee was supported by the supply ship Altmark; a Dithmarschen-class auxiliary ship like the Nordmark.

Battle of the River Plate
The Admiral Graf Spee, after the ninth and final refueling with the Altmark, then ran into the British South American Squadron – the HMS Exter, Ajax, and Achilles. During the course of the battle the Admiral Graf Spee damaged both light cruisers and severely damaged the Exeter. However the Admiral Graf Spee was hit several times, with enough damage to cause her to retreat to repair. Unfortunately no safe German ports were close, so she was forced to put in at the neutral port of Montevideo. International law dictated that ships were allowed to take up to 24 hours refuge at a neutral port for repairs, but the Uruguayan government allowed them an extra 48 hours. During this time the crew was given permission to bury their dead on land. On the third day it was clear the ship would not be ready, and Kaptän zur See Hans Langsdorf, fearing a large British force lying in wait for them decided to scuttle the ship rather than have the British take it. Two days later he committed suicide.


War at Sea’s Admiral Graf Spee aptly represents the ship’s historic strengths and weaknesses. It possesses quite considerable firepower but on a cruiser hull, making it fairly vulnerable. Still it has quite a reasonable cost, a good range for both gunneries, limited torpedoes, and all at a decent price.

The best way to play the Admiral Graf Spee is to keep it at a distance of four where it can use the Extended Range 4 on its main gunnery, and be out of range of most other ships’ retaliation. However to stay at this range you’ll need to win initiative, which usually requires you to include a flagship unit The secondary guns on the ship can also be quite useful, and are the only secondary guns on a cruiser to have a range of three. They’re best against any destroyers or auxiliaries in range, but aren’t completely useless against cruisers either. Also when playing, don’t forget the secondary gunnery doesn’t benefit from extended range.

The torpedoes on the cruiser are more of a backup weapon, as the ship shouldn’t normally be closing to that range voluntarily. However against torpedo boat or destroyer swarms it at least gives a little added firepower. Also, against battleships it doesn’t quite matter what the range is, so the Admiral Graf Spee might as well close in.

Besides the glass cannon syndrome, the ship suffers from several other drawbacks. Like all cruisers, she’s defenseless against submarines and one good torpedo hit will cripple her since she lacks torpedo defense. She has the standard somewhat sub par AA value of six, meaning it may turn back one bomber but won’t easily destroy any. An air attack can be even more disastrous as any damage will prevent the use of the extended range ability before the cruiser even gets to fire. This is especially unfortunate if at range four and you’re up against an enemy ship with extended range; you can suddenly find your cruiser unable to fire at your opponent but still within his range.

However the point cost is low enough and the firepower high enough, that the ship looks quite inviting to play. You can easily fit in a battleship like the Bismarck and still have points left over for a reasonable escort. The German destroyer, Karl Galster, is an excellent choice for this as it’s a close escort and lets you go above the ship limit for a sector. All three together make for a powerful surface taskforce, that just needs a few more units to deal with submarines or aircraft.

The Admiral Graf Spee is a cruiser that requires some delicate play; it’s a rapier not a hammer. Strike with deadly precision and don’t be afraid to run if the odds are against you.

Advanced Rules
As promised, you can now download the Advanced Rule Book for Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures: War at Sea. Not only do the Advanced Rules give you the complete rules set, but it also includes the cards for many ships in the War at Sea set.

Opening Salvo #7
This Friday we will take a look at a French warship. Discuss these ships on our message boards, or read one of our other Axis and Allies Naval Miniatures: War at Sea Opening Salvo Articles:

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