The lead-up to World War 2 (1939-1945) saw many ships and ship-types built. The British Royal Navy continued to strengthen its forces and, in the early 1930s, developed the new Leander-class group of light cruiser warships. The group would number eight strong (three eventually to become part of the related Amphion-class) and one of her number - HMS Ajax (22) - saw her keel laid down on February 7th, 1933. She was launched on March 1st, 1934 and formally commissioned on June 3rd, 1935. Her fighting motto became "None but Ajax Can Overcome Ajax".
The vessel was given a conventional side profile with a forward bridge superstructure set ahead of midships, a single smoke funnel arrangement and double masts. As built she carried 8 x BL 6" (150mm) Mk XXIII main guns (in four double-gunned turrets, two forward and two aft), 4 x WF 4" (100mm) Mk V guns, 12 x .50 caliber Vickers heavy machine guns and 8 x 21" (530mm) torpedo tubes (the latter armament quality was a carry-over from the First World War in which surface ships were regularly armed with torpedo tubes). Onboard systems eventually included a mix of air-search / surface-search radars and fire control systems for improved situational awareness more accurized ranged fire of surface targets. Armor protection ranged from 4" at the main belt and 1" at the turrets to 2" at the deck.
Her crew complement numbered 550 in peacetime and this ballooned to around 680 under wartime conditions. Her propulsion systems constituted 4 x Parsons geared steam turbines fed by 6 x Admiralty 3-drum, oil-fired boiler units developing (altogether) 72,000 horsepower to four shafts under stern. This allowed the relatively compact ocean-going vessel to reach speeds of 32.5 knots in ideal conditions and range out to 5,730 nautical miles. To help improve her over-the-horizon viewing range, a Fairey "Seafox" aircraft could be launched by way of a catapult. Dimensionally, HMS Ajax held a length of 555 feet with a beam of 56 feet and a draught of 19 feet. She displaced at 7,270 tons under standard load and 9,740 tons under full load. Fast and well-armed, Ajax marked a strong addition to the British fleet.
Her construction was handled by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness in Northwest UK. Originally intended to serve as part of the North America and West Indies Station fleet, she was instead rerouted to Mediterranean waters for 1935 due to the growing threat of instability and war - indeed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) did not help matters. She eventually made her way to Bermuda waters and undertook several goodwill stops in America and various training exercises to promote combat readiness.
In 1937, she was returned to Britain and underwent a refit which replaced her single-gunned 4" armament with twin-gunned units, expanding her medium-ranged firepower. In early 1938 she became a part of the West Indies squadron and was sent, in 1939, to Pacific waters where she was able to assist in earthquake recovery efforts with the Chilean government. By the middle of 1939 she was in service as part of the South Atlantic Division.
The German "pocket battleship" cruiser Admiral Graf Spee had become a nuisance to British interests and this led to the Royal Navy forming a dedicated attack group to end her reign as a raider. "Force G" was made up of HMS Ajax (as flagship) and joined by HMS Exeter, HMS Cumberland and HMS Achilles. The group eventually located and engaged the Graf Spee in what became "The Battle of the River Plate" beginning on December 13th, 1939.
The German warship opened fire while closing in at full speed with Ajax in its crosshairs. HMS Exeter received most of the blows as her forward turrets were disabled while Ajax and Achilles closed ranged. Ajax took a total of seven hits to her structure that resulted in the loss of her two aft turrets. Also damaged with wounded aboard, the German warship made its way to neutral Montevideo where she was eventually scuttled by her crew - the Germans believed there to be a much larger British naval contingent waiting for them in open waters. Such ended the reign of Graf Spee which marked one of the earliest critical British victories of the war.
Following a refit period, HMS Ajax was pressed into action against the Italian Navy in Mediterranean waters where she would be used for convoy protection and convoy-hunting. Operations ranged throughout the region and included supporting actions across North Africa. She partook in the Battle of Cape Matapan (March 1941) where she took damage from German aerial bombs but survived. She then assisted in the Allied evacuation of Crete in late May.
1942 and Beyond
From the period of 1942 to 1943, HMS Ajax remained out of the war and underwent a substantial refit to improve her capabilities in the growing war. This led to a revision of her armament where 11 x 20mm Oerlikon Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns were added for local defense. Her fire control systems and radar fits were also upgraded and she lost her aircraft-launching capability. In December of 1942, she was back in the fold as part of "Force Q" near Algeria where convoys would once again be the call of the day.
A bomb explosion in one of her boiler rooms on January 1st, 1943 led to her being relocated to the Norfolk Navy Yard in the United States for repairs and this kept her out of the fight into September of that year. At this time her AA facilities through installation of quad-gunned 40mm Bofors AA turrets and improve fire control and radar systems. She rejoined the British fleet in December of 1943.
Her final wartime actions were recorded during 1944 where she was stationed in Mediterranean waters again and, later, supported the June 6th, 1944 D-Day landings in northern France. Her area of operation became "Gold Beach", the beach assigned to British forces near Le Hamel and La Riviere. She then returned to the Mediterranean and support the oft-forgotten Allied landings in Southern France and further aided Allied actions in the Balkans. The war in Europe ended in early May of 1945.
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