Remembering: Captain Peter Lachlan

Captain Peter Lachlan, who has died aged 92, was one of the last veterans of the Battle of the River Plate, when Royal Navy cruisers forced the scuttling of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.

At first light on December 13 1939 three British cruisers of the South America Squadron, under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood, succeeded in locating Admiral Graf Spee 300 miles east of the river Plate. Lachlan was torpedo firing officer in the light cruiser Ajax, and from the open bridge enjoyed an uninterrupted view of the battle which followed. By 06.20 all ships on both sides had opened fire at close range. Soon the heavy cruiser Exeter had been put out of action, and Graf Spee had sustained superficial damage.
As Lachlan wrote to his mother: “Spee was a pocket battleship, capable of some 28 knots with a secondary armament as large as our main armament. She had 6x11in guns, 8x6.9in guns, and numerous 4in guns... Her broadside of 11in guns was bigger by some 1,000lb than the combined broadside of all the British ships put together. I am not allowed to say anything about our tactics, except that as you know she concentrated her first lot of salvoes on the Exeter, as she was her most powerful antagonist. After a bit she concentrated on us, as the leading ship.”
As Exeter limped off to the south, Admiral Graf Spee made for Montevideo with the two remaining light cruisers, Ajax and Achilles, in hot pursuit; and at 07.25 Lachlan fired three torpedoes at a range of 9,000 yards. Two minutes later Ajax shook as one of Spee’s broadsides hit her, putting the after turrets out of action. As the range closed, Lachlan could see Ajax’s own shells hitting the battleship but bouncing off the armour.
In his letter Lachlan described the eerie feeling when “you see the flashes from her guns, the dirty brown fumes blown out and the shells rise to the sky, waiting to see where they land, and knowing that a hit from those terrific shells could easily put the Ajax out”. As each of Spee’s shells landed, Lachlan ducked to avoid the fountains of water and shrapnel which swept over the bridge, but the cruisers pursued their quarry until Spee took refuge in Uruguayan waters.
After days of bluff and counter-bluff, Spee’s captain, Hans Langsdorff, was led to believe that major British reinforcements had arrived on the scene. In fact, the only new ship was the heavy cruiser Cumberland ; but Langsdorff, convinced that Harwood had been reinforced by battleships and aircraft carriers, decided to scuttle his ship off Montevideo.
Peter Graham Lachlan was born into an Army family on August 5 1920 and educated at Wellington College, where his principal memory was of sneaking out at night to cycle to The Crooked Billet, a pub near Wokingham. He joined the Navy as a special entry cadet in 1937. As a midshipman under training in the months before the war, Lachlan enjoyed an idyllic life on the South America station, enjoying the hospitality of the expatriate community . On the first day of the war, Ajax sank the German merchant ship Olinda off the river Plate, and the next day she intercepted the German merchantman Carl Fritzen, which was scuttled to avoid capture. After his service in Ajax, Lachlan volunteered for combined operations and took part in the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He was twice mentioned in despatches, and in December 1945 was appointed MBE for his distinguished service during the war in Europe. Post-war, Lachlan attended the Royal Navy staff course in the rank of lieutenant; the Joint Services Staff College at Latimer; and, as a captain, the Imperial Defence College in Belgrave Square. He served as commanding officer of the petty officers’ leadership school at HMS Royal Arthur, Corsham, Wiltshire, and as Director of Naval Service Conditions. Lachlan was one of the Navy’s most successful peacetime seagoing commanders; his ships included the corvette Hadleigh Castle (1945), the destroyer Crispin (1952-53) and the guided missile trials ship Girdleness (1960-61). From 1967 to 1969 he commanded the guided missile destroyer Fife, visiting both the East and West Coasts of the United States and the Pacific. He was commended for leading the rescue in rough weather of 79 people from the stranded passenger ship Tui Lau off Suva in the Fiji islands. After leaving the Navy, Lachlan worked for the John Lewis Partnership, and soon reached managerial status. His first challenge was the London distribution centre for Peter Jones . Lachlan could be ruthless towards those who fell short of his own high standards, but showed himself a firm friend to others, across the divide of class and rank. His privately printed and circulated autobiography, A Naval Career: Peter Lachlan 1937-1969 (2012) is a frank account of his life at sea. Peter Lachlan married, in 1942, Prue Stewart-Moore, who predeceased him by a week. Captain Peter Lachlan, born August 5 1920, died December 10 2012 Source: Telegraph via Forces War Records Blog.    
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