The Battle of the River Plate was the first naval battle in the Second World War and the only episode of the war to take place in South America. The German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had been commerce raiding since the start of the war in September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navy (RN) cruisers, HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (the last of the New Zealand Division), found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Argentina and Uruguay in South America.
In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical; her fuel system was crippled. Ajax and Achilles shadowed the German ship until she entered the port of Montevideo, the capital city of neutral Uruguay, to effect urgent repairs. After Graf Spee's captain Hans Langsdorff was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure.
Admiral Graf Spee had been at sea at the start of the Second World War in September 1939, and had sunk several merchantmen in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean without loss of life, due to her captain's policy of taking all crews on board before sinking the victim.
The Royal Navy assembled nine forces to search for the surface raider. Force G—the South American Cruiser Squadron—comprised the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter of 8,390 long tons (8,520 t) with six 8 in (200 mm) guns in three turrets, and two Leander-class light cruisers, both of 7,270 long tons (7,390 t) with eight 6 in (150 mm) guns—HMS Ajax and Achilles. Although technically a heavy cruiser because of the calibre of her guns, Exeter was a scaled-down version of the County class, which had eight 8 in (200 mm) guns. The force was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood from Ajax, which was captained by Charles Woodhouse. Achilles was of the New Zealand Division (precursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy) and captained by Edward Parry. F. S. Bell commanded Exeter. A County-class heavy cruiser—HMS Cumberland of 10,000 long tons (10,160 t)—was refitting in the Falkland Islands at the time, but was available at short notice.
Following a raider-warning radio message from the merchantman Doric Star, which was sunk by Graf Spee off South Africa, Harwood suspected that the raider would try to strike next at the merchant shipping off the River Plate estuary between Uruguay and Argentina. He ordered his squadron to steam toward the position 32° south, 47° west. Harwood chose this position, according to his despatch, due to its being the most congested part of the shipping routes in the South Atlantic, and therefore the point where a raider could do the most damage to enemy shipping. A Norwegian freighter saw Graf Spee practising the use of its searchlights and radioed its course toward South America.
The three cruisers rendezvoused off the estuary on 12 December and conducted manoeuvres. Harwood's combat policy of three cruisers versus one pocket battleship was to attack at once, day or night. If during the day, the ships would attack as two units, with Exeter separate from Ajax and Achilles. If at night, the ships would remain in company, but in open order. By attacking from two sides, Harwood hoped to give his lighter warships a chance of overcoming the German advantage of greater range and heavier broadside by dividing the enemy's fire.
Although outgunned by Graf Spee and therefore at a tactical disadvantage, the British did have the upper hand strategically. Any raider returning to Germany would have to run the blockade of the North Sea, and it might be reasonably expected that an engagement would therefore take place with the Home Fleet. For victory, the British only had to damage the raider enough so that she was unable to make either the journey and/or unable to fight the subsequent battle with the Home Fleet (by contrast the Germans would have to destroy the Allied force without being severely damaged themselves). Furthermore, because of overwhelming numerical superiority, the loss of even all three cruisers would not have severely dented Allied naval capabilities, whereas Graf Spee was one of the Kriegsmarine′s few capital ships. The British could afford to risk a tactical defeat if it brought overall strategic victory.
On 13 December at 0520 the British squadron was proceeding on a course of 060º at 14 knots with Ajax in a position 34º 34' South 48º 17' West. At 0610 smoke was sighted on a bearing of Red-100, or 320º (to the North West). Admiral Graf Spee had already sighted mastheads and identified Exeter but initially suspected that the two light cruisers were smaller destroyers and that the British ships were protecting a merchant convoy, the destruction of which would be a major prize. Since Graf Spee′s reconnaissance aircraft was out of service, Langsdorf relied on his lookouts for this information. He decided to engage, despite having received a broadly accurate report from the German naval staff on 4 December outlining British activity in the River Plate area. This report included information that Ajax, Achilles, Exeter and Cumberland were patrolling the South American coast.
Langsdorf realised too late that he was facing three cruisers. Calling upon the immediate acceleration of his diesel engines, he closed the enemy squadron at 24 kn (28 mph; 44 km/h) in the hope of engaging the steam-driven British ships before they could work up from cruising speed to full power. This strategy may seem an inexplicable blunder. Langsdorf could perhaps have manoeuvered to keep the British ships at a range where he could destroy them with his 11 in (280 mm) guns while remaining out of the effective range of their smaller 6- and 8-inch guns. On the other hand, he knew the British cruisers had a 4–6 kn (4.6–6.9 mph; 7.4–11.1 km/h) speed advantage over Graf Spee and could in principle stay out of range should they choose to do so—standard cruiser tactics in the presence of a superior force—while calling on reinforcements.
The British executed their battle plan: Exeter turned north-west, while Ajax and Achilles—operating together—turned north-east to spread Graf Spee′s fire. Graf Spee opened fire on Exeter at 19,000 yd (17,000 m) with her six 11 in (280 mm) guns at 06:18. Exeter opened fire at 06:20, Achilles at 06:21, Exeter′s aft guns at 06:22 and Ajax at 06:23. Lieutenant-Commander Richard Jennings, Exeter's Gunnery officer remembers:
"As I was crossing the compass platform [to his Action Station in the Director Control Tower], the captain hailed me-not with the usual rigmarole of 'Enemy in sight, bearing etc, but with 'There's the f***ing Scheer! Open fire at her!' Throughout the battle the crew of the Exeter thought they were fighting the [sister ship] Admiral von Scheer. But the name of the enemy ship was of course the Graf Spee".
From her opening salvo, Graf Spee′s gunfire proved fairly accurate, her third salvo straddling Exeter. At 06:23, an 11 in (280 mm) shell burst just short of Exeter, abreast the middle of the ship. Splinters from this shell killed the torpedo tubes' crews, damaged the ship's communications, riddled the ship's funnels and searchlights and wrecked the ship's Walrus aircraft just as it was about to be launched for gunnery spotting. Three minutes later, Exeter suffered a direct hit on her "B"-turret, putting it and its two guns out of action. Shrapnel swept the bridge, killing or wounding all bridge personnel except the captain and two others. Captain Bell's communications were wrecked. Communications from the aft conning position were also destroyed, the ship had to be steered via a chain of messengers for the rest of the battle.
Meanwhile, Ajax and Achilles closed to 13,000 yd (12,000 m) and started making in front of Graf Spee, causing her to split her main armament at 06:30, and otherwise use her 5.9 in (150 mm) guns against them. At 06:32, Exeter fired two torpedoes from her starboard tubes but both missed. At 06:37, Ajax launched her Fairey Seafox spotter floatplane from its catapult. At 06:38, Exeter turned so that she could fire her port torpedoes, and received two more direct hits from 11 in (280 mm) shells. One hit "A"-turret and put it out of action, the other entered the hull and started fires. At this point Exeter was severely damaged, having only "Y"-turret still in action under 'local' control with Jennings on the roof shouting directions to those inside. She also had a 7° list, was being flooded and being steered with the use of her small boat's compass. But Exeter had dealt the decisive blow; one of her 8 in (200 mm) shells had penetrated two decks before exploding in Graf Spee′s funnel area—destroying her raw fuel processing system and leaving her with just 16 hours fuel, insufficient to allow her to return home.
Thus, from 06:38, Graf Spee was doomed; she could not make the fuel system repairs (of this complexity) under fire. Two-thirds of her anti-aircraft guns were knocked out as well as one of her secondary turrets. There were no friendly naval bases within reach, and nor were any reinforcements available. She was not seaworthy and could make only the neutral port of Montevideo.
At approximately 06:36, Admiral Graf Spee hauled around from an easterly course, now behind Ajax and Achilles, toward the northwest and laid smoke. This position brought Langsdorf roughly parallel to Exeter. By 06:50, Exeter listed heavily to starboard, taking water forward. Nevertheless, she still steamed at full speed and fired with her one remaining turret. Forty minutes later, water splashed in by an 11 in (280 mm) near-miss short-circuited her electrical system for that turret. Captain Bell was forced to break off the action. This would have been the opportunity to finish off Exeter. Instead, the combined fire of Ajax and Achilles drew Langsdorf's attention as both ships closed the German ship.
At 06:56, Ajax and Achilles turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear, causing Admiral Graf Spee to turn away and lay a smokescreen. At 07:10, the two light cruisers turned to reduce the range from 8 mi (7.0 nmi; 13 km), even though this meant only their forward guns could fire. At 07:16, Graf Spee turned to port and headed straight for the badly damaged Exeter, but fire from Ajax and Achilles forced her at 07:20 to turn and fire her 11 in (280 mm) guns at them, while they turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear. Ajax turned to starboard at 07:24 and fired her torpedoes at a range of 4.5 mi (3.9 nmi; 7.2 km), causing Graf Spee to turn away under a smokescreen. At 07:25, Ajax was hit by an 11 in (280 mm) shell that put "X"-turret out of action and jammed "Y"-turret, causing some casualties. By 07:40, Ajax and Achilles were running low on resources and the British decided to change tactics, moving to the east under a smokescreen. Harwood decided to shadow Graf Spee and try to attack at night when he could attack with torpedoes and better utilise his advantage of speed and manoeuvrability while minimising his deficiencies in armour. Ajax was again hit by an 11 in (280 mm) shell that destroyed her mast and caused more casualties. Graf Spee continued on a south-westward course.
The battle now turned into a pursuit. Captain Parry of Achilles wrote afterwards: 'To this day I do not know why the Admiral Graf Spee did not dispose of us in the Ajax and the Achilles as soon as she had finished with the Exeter. The British and New Zealand cruisers split up, keeping about 15 mi (13 nmi; 24 km) from Graf Spee. Ajax kept to the German's port and the Achilles to the starboard. At 09:15, Ajax recovered her aircraft. At 09:46, Harwood signalled to the Cumberland for reinforcement, and the Admiralty also ordered ships within 3,000 mi (2,600 nmi; 4,800 km) to proceed to the River Plate. At 10:05, Achilles had overestimated Graf Spee′s speed, and she came into range of the German guns. Graf Spee turned and fired two three-gun salvoes with her foreguns. Achilles turned away under a smokescreen.
According to Pope, at 11:03 a merchant ship was sighted close to Graf Spee. After a few minutes, Graf Spee called Ajax on W/T using both ships' pre-war call-signs, with the signal: "please pick up lifeboats of English steamer". The German call-sign was DTGS, confirming to Harwood that the pocket-battleship he had engaged was indeed Graf Spee. Ajax did not reply but a little later the British flagship closed with SS Shakespeare with its lifeboats still hoisted and men still on board. Graf Spee had fired a gun and ordered them to stop, but when they did not obey orders to leave the ship, Langsdorff decided to continue on his way, and Shakespeare had a lucky escape. The shadowing continued for the rest of the day until 19:15, when Graf Spee turned and opened fire on Ajax, which turned away under a smokescreen.
It was now clear that Graf Spee was entering the River Plate estuary. Since the estuary had sandbanks, Harwood ordered the Achilles to shadow the Graf Spee while Ajax would cover any attempt to double back through a different channel. The sun set at 20:48, with Graf Spee silhouetted against the sun. Achilles had again closed the range and Graf Spee opened fire, forcing Achilles to turn away. During the battle, a total of 108 men had been killed on both sides, including 36 on Graf Spee.
Graf Spee entered Montevideo in neutral Uruguay, dropping anchor at about 00:10 on 14 December. This was a political error, since Uruguay, while neutral, had benefited from significant British influence during its development, and it favoured the Allies. The British Hospital, for example (where the wounded from the battle were taken) was the leading hospital in the city. The port of Mar del Plata on the Argentine coast and 200 mi (170 nmi; 320 km) south of Montevideo would have been a better choice for Graf Spee.
Also, had Graf Spee left port at this time, the damaged Ajax and Achilles would have been the only British warships that it would have encountered in the area.
Trap of Montevideo
In Montevideo, the 13th Hague Convention came into play. Under Article 12, "...belligerent war-ships are not permitted to remain in the ports, roadsteads, or territorial waters of the said Power for more than twenty-four hours...", modified by Article 14 "A belligerent war-ship may not prolong its stay in a neutral port beyond the permissible time except on account of damage..." British diplomats duly pressed for the speedy departure of the Graf Spee. Also relevant was Article 16, of which part reads, "A belligerent war-ship may not leave a neutral port or roadstead until twenty-four hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary."
The Germans released 61 captive British merchant seamen who had been on board in accordance with their obligations. Langsdorff then asked the Uruguayan government for two weeks to make repairs. Initially, the British diplomats in Uruguay—principally Eugen Millington-Drake—tried to have Admiral Graf Spee forced to leave port immediately. After consultation with London, which was aware that there were no significant British naval forces in the area, Millington-Drake continued to openly demand that Graf Spee leave. At the same time, the British secretly arranged for British and French merchant ships to steam from Montevideo at intervals of 24 hours, whether they had originally intended to do so or not, thus invoking Article 16. This kept Graf Spee in port and allowed more time for British forces to reach the area.
At the same time, efforts were made by the British to feed false intelligence to the Germans that an overwhelming British force was being assembled, including Force H (the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown), when in fact only the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland was nearby. Cumberland—one of the earlier County class cruisers—was only a little more powerful than Exeter, with two more 8 in (200 mm) guns. She was no match alone for Admiral Graf Spee, whose guns had significantly longer range and fired much heavier shells. Cumberland arrived at 22:00 on 14 December, after steaming at full speed for 36 hours from the Falkland Islands. Overwhelming British forces (HMS Renown, Ark Royal, Shropshire, Dorsetshire, and Neptune) were en route, but would not assemble until 19 December. For the time being, the total force comprised the undamaged Cumberland, and the damaged Ajax and Achilles. To reinforce the propaganda effect, these ships—which were waiting just outside the 3 mi (2.6 nmi; 4.8 km) limit—were ordered to make smoke, which could be clearly seen from the Montevideo waterfront.
The Germans were entirely deceived, and expected to face a far-superior force on leaving the River Plate. Graf Spee had also used two-thirds of her 11 in (280 mm) ammunition and had only enough left for approximately a further 20 minutes of firing, which was hardly sufficient to fight her way out of Montevideo, let alone get back to Germany.
While the ship was prevented from leaving the harbour, Captain Langsdorff consulted with his command in Germany. He received orders that permitted some options, but not internment in Uruguay. The Germans feared that Uruguay could be persuaded to join the Allied cause. Ultimately, he chose to scuttle his ship in the River Plate estuary on 17 December, to avoid unnecessary loss of life for no particular military advantage, a decision that is said to have infuriated Adolf Hitler. The crew of Admiral Graf Spee was taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Captain Langsdorff committed suicide on 19 December. He was buried there with full military honours, and several British officers who were present attended. Many of the crew members were reported to have moved to Montevideo with the help of local people of German origin. The German dead were buried in the Cementerio del Norte, Montevideo.
The German propaganda machine had reported that Admiral Graf Spee had sunk a heavy cruiser and heavily damaged two light cruisers while only being lightly damaged herself. Graf Spee's scuttling however was a severe embarrassment and difficult to explain on the basis of publicly available facts. The battle was a major propaganda victory for the British during the Phoney War, and the reputation of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was enhanced. Exeter limped to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs and later to Devonport for a 13-month refit.
Prisoners taken from merchant ships by Admiral Graf Spee who had been transferred to her supply ship Altmark, were freed by a boarding party from the British destroyer HMS Cossack, in the Altmark Incident (16 February 1940)—whilst in Jøssingfjord, at the time neutral Norwegian waters. Prisoners who had not been transferred to Altmark had remained aboard Graf Spee during the battle: they were released on arrival in Montevideo.
On 22 December 1939, over 1,000 sailors from Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and interned there; at least 92 were transferred during 1940 to a camp in Rosario, some were transferred to Club Hotel de la Ventana in Buenos Aires Province and another group to Villa General Belgrano, a small town founded by German immigrants in 1932. Some of these sailors later settled there. There are many stories, but little reliable information, about their later wartime activities, including escapees illegally returning to the German armed forces, espionage, and clandestine German submarine landings in Argentina. After the war, many German sailors settled permanently in various parts of Uruguay, some returning after being repatriated to Germany. Rows of simple crosses in the Cementerio del Norte, in the north of the city of Montevideo mark the burial places of the German dead. Three sailors killed aboard Achilles were buried in the British Cemetery in Montevideo, while those who died on Exeter were buried at sea.
Plans to raise the wreck are discussed in the article on Admiral Graf Spee.
Intelligence gathering and salvage
Immediately after her scuttling, the wreck of Admiral Graf Spee rested in shallow water, with much of the ship's superstructure remaining above water level, but over the years, the wreck has subsided into the muddy bottom and today only the tip of the mast remains above the surface.
A radar expert was sent to Montevideo shortly after the scuttling and reported a rotating aerial, probably for gunlaying, transmitting on either 57 or 114 centimetres. In February 1940, the wreck was boarded by US Navy sailors from the light cruiser USS Helena.
In 1964 a memorial to the ship was erected in Montevideo's port. Part of it is the Graf Spee's anchor.
In 1997, one of Admiral Graf Spee′s 5.9 in (150 mm) secondary gun mounts was raised and restored; it can now be seen outside Montevideo's National Maritime Museum.
In February 2004, a salvage team began work raising the wreck. The operation is in part being funded by the government of Uruguay, in part by the private sector, as the wreck is now a hazard to navigation. The first major section, the 27 long tons (27 t) heavy gunnery control station, was raised on 25 February 2004. It is expected to take several years to raise the entire wreck. Director James Cameron is filming the salvage operation. After it has been raised, it is planned that the ship will be restored and put on display at the National Marine Museum.
Many German veterans do not approve of this restoration attempt, as they consider the wreck to be a war grave and an underwater historical monument that should be respected. One of them, Hans Eupel, a former specialist torpedo mechanic, 87 years old in 2005—said that "this is madness, too expensive, and senseless. It is also dangerous, as one of the three explosive charges we placed did not explode."
On 10 February 2006, Graf Spee′s gilt-bronze eagle stern ornament was recovered. This spread-wing statue of a Nazi eagle with a wreath in its talons containing a swastika was attached to the stern, not the bow like traditional figureheads. It was a common feature of pre-war Nazi warships. In other cases, it was removed for a variety of practical reasons upon the outbreak of the war, but because Graf Spee was already at sea when the war began, she went into action (and was scuttled) with it attached, thus permitting its recovery. To protect the feelings of those with painful memories of Nazi Germany, the swastika at the base of the figurehead was covered as it was pulled from the water.
In 1956, the film The Battle of the River Plate (US title: Pursuit of the Graf Spee) was made of the battle and Admiral Graf Spee's end, with Peter Finch as Langsdorff. Finch portrayed Langsdorff authentically as a gentleman. HMS Achilles, which had been recommissioned in 1948 as HMIS Delhi, flagship of the Royal Indian Navy, played herself in the movie. HMS Ajax was "played" by HMS Sheffield, HMS Exeter by HMS Jamaica and HMS Cumberland by herself. Graf Spee was portrayed by the U.S. heavy cruiser USS Salem.
The battle was for many years re-enacted with large-scale model boats throughout the summer season at Peasholm Park in the UK seaside resort of Scarborough. The re-enactment now portrays an anonymous battle between a convoy of British ships and an unspecified enemy in possession of the nearby shore.
After the battle, the new town of Ajax, Ontario in Canada, was named after HMS Ajax. Many of its streets are named after Admiral Harwood's crewmen on Ajax, Exeter and Achilles.
A number of streets in Nelson Bay, New South Wales, have been named after the Battle including Montevideo Pde, Achilles St, Ajax Ave, Harwood Ave, Exeter Rd (now called Shoal Bay Rd).
The names of each ship, and the commander of Force G, have also been used for the Cadet Corps. The Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC) Ajax No. 89 in Guelph, Ontario; the Navy League Cadet Corps (NLCC) Achilles No. 34 in Guelph, Ontario; the Navy League Wrenette Corps (NLWC) Lady Exeter (now disbanded) and the camp shared by all three corps, called Camp Cumberland (this camp no longer exists. It was decommissioned around 1999). RCSCC Harwood No. 244 and NLCC Exeter No. 173 are situated in Ajax, Ontario.
According to an article in the German language paper Albertaner on 6 October 2007, a street in Ajax, Ontario was named after Captain Langsdorff, this despite protests by some Canadian veterans. Steve Parish, the mayor of Ajax, defended the decision, declaring that Langsdorff had not been a typical Nazi officer. An accompanying picture shows Langsdorff at the funeral of his crew members who were killed in the battle. He is paying tribute with a naval salute, while people beside and behind him—even some clergymen—are giving the Fascist salute. The picture is credited to Diego Lascano (Gilby Collection).
- O'Hara 2004, p. 7.
- Churchill 1948, p. 525–526.
- Churchill 1948, p. 516
- Churchill 1948, p. 519
- Barnett, 83.
- Battle Report
- Barnett, 84.
- Dudley Pope (1956), The Battle of the River Plate, Chatham Publishing, UK, 1999, ISBN 1-86176-089-2 p. ix
- Arthur, Max - Forgotten Voices of The Second World War , 2004, Random House, ISBN 0091897343 p.29
- Churchill 1948, p. 520
- Arthur, pp. 29-30
- Maier, Rohde, Stegemann and Umbreit 1991, p. 166.
- Barnett, 85.
- Millington-Drake, Eugen: The Drama of Graf Spee and the Battle of the Plate: A Documentary Anthology, 1914–1964. P. Davies, 1965. pp. 226 and 228
- "The Avalon Project: Text of the 13th Hague Convention". http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hague13.asp.
- [dead link]
- Johnson, Brian. The Secret War, BBC 1979, pp. 101–102 ISBN 0-563-17769-1
- Anchor of the Graf Spee, Montivideo
- Rohter, Larry (25 August 2006). "A Swastika, 60 Years Submerged, Still Inflames Debate". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/25/world/americas/25ship.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&oref=slogin. Retrieved 19 May 2008.
- "Friends of Peasholm Park". http://www.peasholmpark.com/about/naval-warfare.html.
- Churchill, Winston (1948). The Second World War: The Gathering Storm. I (1st ed.). Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Hayes, James (producer & director), Battle of the River Plate, episode 24.2 (2006) of Timewatch, BBC
- Maier, Klaus; Rohde, Horst; Stegemann, Bernd; Umbreit, Hans. (1991) Germany and the Second World War: Germany's initial conquests in Europe. Clarendon, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-822885-6
- O'Hara, Vincent (2004). The German fleet at war, 1939–1945. Naval Institute Press.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of the River Plate.|
- Battle of the River Plate animated battle map by Jonathan Webb
- History learning site articles with much detail on The Battle of the River Plate and Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo
- Jilani, Capt (Retd) AA (December 1999). "The Battle of the River Plate". http://www.defencejournal.com/dec99/river.htm.
- Official HMSO report
- Royal New Zealand Navy (official history)
- Achilles at the River Plate (official history)
- (Spanish) "The crew of the Graf Spee" – Largely anecdotal information on activities of the interned crew after the battle.
- (Spanish) Laurence, Ricardo E. (2000). Tripulantes del Graf Spee en tres atrapantes historias. Rosario: Edición del Autor. ISBN 987-43-1754-X.
- 13th Hague Convention (Convention Concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War)
- Battle of the River Plate (NZHistory.net.nz)
- Memorial to those lost
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