Medals of gunner from WW2's first major naval battle lead UK auction

A rare a well-documented group of five Second World War DSM medals starred in Dix Noonan Webb's July 7 auction, last week.

The medals were awarded to Acting Petty Officer R McClarnan of the Royal Navy for his gallant work in HMS Ajax's magazine during the famous Battle of River Plate.

On December 13, 1942, the Ajax encountered the German pocket battleship (or heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spree - and the confrontation would become the first major naval battle of the Second World War.

The Graff Spree had been commerce raiding since the start of the war, September 1939. Ajax, along with fellow smaller Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter and HMS Achilles comprised one of the hunting groups set up by the British Admiralty to end the German ship's campaign.

Exeter was severely damaged in the ensuing battle. In response, the moderately-damaged Ajax and Achilles pursued the Graff Spree as it retreated to the neutral Uruguayan capital city, Montevideo.

Here, the Ajax played a crucial role in drawing enemy fire away from the Exeter, taking casualties as it prevented the Graff Spree from turning around to finish-off the latter ship.


Distinguished Service Medal, G.VI.R. (R. McClarnan, A.B., 1939), officially
engraved naming; 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star, clasp, France and Germany;
Africa Star; War Medal 1939-45 - all described as 'extremely fine'

Ajax was straddled by the enemy's 11-inch guns and her turrets and radar guns were put out of action. Nevertheless, she responded in kind, with her rapid and accurate fire eventually causing blaze amidships on the Graff Spree.

While moored in Montevideo, Hans Langsdorff, the Graff Spree's captain, was warned that his ship's stay in the city could not extend 72 hours.

Rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led the Graff Spree to believe awaited it, the captain then deliberately sank his damaged vessel...

Although, in terms of losses, the Battle of River Plate could be called a German victory, Langsdorff's subsequent actions resulted in the overall battle being a famous win for the Allies.

McClarnan was presented with his DSM group by King George VI at a special parade held at the Horse Guards on February, 1940.

The officer also attended the subsequent Guildhall "victory luncheon" held in honour of the heroes of the River Plate.

As shown in a newspaper cutting auctioned with his medals at Dix Noonan Webb, McClarnan then received a triumphant welcome in his home town of Walton-Le-Dale on February 28. There, he was carried shoulder high and presented with a silver cigarette case.

On being asked whether he would like another opportunity to meet a German warship at sea, McClarnan replied: "You bet I would - just aching for it.

"It would hardly be as big a ordeal as replying to tonight's speeches of welcome."


RMS Achilles as seen from the deck of RMS Ajax, on which
McClarnan served between 1938 and summer, 1942

The lot auctioned at Dix Noonan Web carried an estimate of £4,000-£5,000, including a large quantity of original documentation such as photographs, letters, postcards and Christmas correspondence.

Among them were the recipient's recruitment papers, Certificate of Service, Gunnery History Sheet, Order for Release from Naval Service, dated 4 January 1946, and newspaper cuttings.

Other papers in the lot included official correspondence relating to his DSM decorations, an Admiralty campaign medal forwarding slip, and even the Guildhall "victory luncheon" programme and menu.

Also included in the sale was a letter opener made "from the teak of HMS Ajax, Battle of the River Plate" and the very presentation silver cigarette case awarded to McClarnan in his home village.

The cigarette case bears a gilt interior and engraved inscription: "Presented to Robert McClarnan, D.S.M., H.M.S. Ajax, As a Token of Appreciation by the Parishioners of Our Lady and St. Patrick, Walton-Le-Dale, 29-2-40."

Unsurprisingly, this remarkably comprehensive - and very personal - collection from the the officer's remarkable life and career emerged as the top lot a Dix Noonan Webb's auction, realising £6,800.

 

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