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Battle of the River Plate

Battle Name : Battle of the River Plate

Date(s) : 26 September 1939 - 17 December 1939

Part of : Second World War , Atlantic Naval operations ,

Outcome : A victory for British Royal Navy Force G over Admiral Graf Spee

Type of battle : Sea


The German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee was in position for surface raiding before the war began. She began sinking merchant ships towards the end of September. An extensive search by groups of British warships failed to locate her until dawn on the 13th December. A determined and courageous action by three British cruiser which were out gunnned in both range and weight of shot, caused the German ship to seek shelter in Montvideo harbour. The Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled outside the harbour in the evening of the 17th December 1939.


In the mouth of the river Plate off Punta del Este. On the route taken by British merchant vessels leaving Montevideo harbour. (South Atlantic)

More details

The German heavy cruiser, Admiral Graf Spee, christened by the press 'pocket battleship', left the port of Wilhelmshaven on the 23 August 1939. This was eight days before Germany's invasion of Poland and ten days before Britain's declaration of war. Supply ships had also been placed in readiness in both North and South Atlantic. The Admiral Graf Spee's purpose was to act as a surface raider and destroy merchant ships. The design of the ship, and the propaganda boast, was that she could out gun anything faster and was faster than anything that could out gun her.
By mid September she was in the South Atlantic and on the 30th she sank the Clement off Pernambuco. She crossed to the African coast and there captured the Newton Beech on the 5th October and sank her on the 7th after removing stores. The Ashlea was sunk on the 7th October. The Huntsman was captured on the 10th and sunk on the 17th October. The Trevanion was sunk on the 22nd October. The Trevanion's radio operator was able to put out a distress call in spite of machine gun fire at the bridge, but his message was garbled and did not carry his vessel's name. Captain Langsdorff, commander of the Admiral Graf Spee, was concerned that his ship had been identified and located so he decided to move round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and disrupt Australia-South Africa traffic. The weather was not good enough to allow attacks on the vessels he sighted until the 15th November when he sank the tanker Africa Star at the southern end of the Mozambique Channel. He then intercepted a Dutch ship which he allowed to proceed. Radio traffic from the British base in South Africa indicated that he had achieved his purpose of drawing British naval attention to the Indian Ocean and he sailed back into the South Atlantic. Off the coast of Africa he sank the refrigerator ship Doric Star on the 2nd December and the Tairoa on the 3rd. He then moved across to the South American shore sinking the Streonshalh on the 7th December while on route. Langsdorff began to patrol the shipping lanes off the river Plate where at dawn on the 13th December he sighted a vessel on the horizon.
The Royal Navy's response to the threat of surface raiders had been planned prior to the out break of war and they soon had a number of forces in position around the South Atlantic. Force L the Battle cruiser Repluse and the Aircraft carrier Furious were at Gibraltar, Force X the Aircraft carrier Hermes and two French cruisers were at Dakar, Force K the Battle cruiser Renown and the Aircraft carrier Ark Royal were at Freetown, Force H the cruisers Sussex and Shropshire were at Simonstown. Over the other side of the Atlantic Force F the cruisers Berwick and York were in the West Indies, Force Y the Battleship Strasborg and the cruiser Neptune were off the Amazonian estuary, and Force G the cruisers Achilles, Ajax, Exeter and Cumberland were off Argentina. Each force had a massive search area and given the raider's freedom to switch oceans their task was well nigh impossible. However a well reasoned, and a lttle lucky, prediction by Commodore Harwood, commanding Force G, on receipt of the reports of the sinking of the Doric Star and Tairoa , was that the Admiral Graf Spee would be off the river Plate by the morning of the 13th December. This prediction was based on the two premises that Langsdorff would seek a fresh hunting ground and would sail at about the same cruising speed [15 knots] as his own ship. Leaving his heaviest cruiser, Cumberland, refitting, although at 'short notice', in the Falklands and incidently acting as guardship to Port Stanley, he sailed his force to the river Plate.

As dawn broke on 13 December 1939 the Graf Spee was sailing at 15 knots on a South South Easterly course. Langsdorff had captured papers from a British merchantman which lead him to believe a convoy bound for Britain would be forming somewhere in the area he was patrolling. The British cruiser squadron, Force G, were sailing at 14 knots East North East some way to the south of the Graf Spee. Harwood's order to his captains should they meet the Graf Spee was in the best Nelsonian tradition. It began with the words 'Attack at once by day or night ..' He had planned to split his ships into two divisions, Exeter as one, and Ajax and Achilles as the other. The divisions were to attack from different angles so as to divide their opponents fire and report each other's fall of shot.
At 0552 the lookout on the Graf Spee spotted two tall masts off the starboard bow. Langsdorff cleared his ship for action and by 0600 the Exeter had been identified. Other masts seen were assumed to be destroyers. Their position was roughly where a convoy could be forming up and, assuming the warships were the escort, Langsdorff decided on an immediate attack. He called for full speed. This sudden influx of power to the diesel engines cause a mass of dense black smoke to be emitted.
'Smoke on the horizon' was the first sighting from the British ships. Harwood detached Exeter to investigate and she turned out of the line at 0615. Within a few minutes Exeter and the other British ships were aware that they had a pocket battleship in view. Quite fortuitously Harwood had his squadron where he had planned it. Exeter would be closing on her starboard bow while the other division would attack from her port bow.
The difference in broadside range [30,000yards to 27,000 yards] meant that even at the best closing speed for three or four minutes Graf Spee could hit the Exeter while Exeter could not reach Graf Spee. It was worse for the other two cruisers whose 6" gun range was 20,000 yards.
Graf Spee opened fire on the Exeter with all her main armament, six 11" guns, at 0617hrs. The first two salvoes missed but the third and subsequent salvoes began to destroy the Exeter. B turret was knocked out and the bridge destroyed, Captain Bell, one of only three bridge officers left alive, though badly wounded, moved to con the ship from aft.
At 0631 three torpedoes were fired by Exeter but this was just as Graf Spee was turning North and they ran wide. Ajax and Achilles had been closing with Graf Spee and at 0620 they opened fire at maximum range. Langsdorff engaged them with his secondary armament, 5.9" guns, while continuing to concentrate his big guns on Exeter. The amount of smoke coming from Exeter lead the Germans to believe she was deliberately making smoke to hide in. Langsdorff switched his big guns to the smaller cruisers but before more than ranging salvoes could be fired he was aware of the Exeter positioning for another torpedo attack and switched his big guns back. These changes were just what Harwood had hoped for in that each change took time and relaying the guns loss some accuracy for a salvo or two.
At 0639 hrs Exeter's A turret was knocked out, by the sixth direct hit from the 11" guns. Within the same salvo a shell burst knocked out the dynamo and most of the electrictric 'brains' of the main guns. A serious fire was started just above the 4" magazine. Only Y turret was still firing and it was being directed by the Gunnery Officer, Lt-Commander Jennings, standing on top of the turret and shouting orders to the gunners below. One 4" gun was also still firing. The Exeter was in a serious condition with a number of leaks below the waterline she was three feet down by the bow, listing 10 degrees, the bridge, the director control tower and the transmitting station were all wrecked, fierce fires were burning in the petty officers mess and the kitchens, a large number of minor fires a other places throughout the ship threatened to get out of control, all internal telephones and radio communications were destroyed. At 0713 Exeter broke off the action and turned South away from the Graf Spee.
The other two British cruisers had manoeuvered to match Graf Spee and to both keep most guns bearing and close the range. Achilles had been damaged by shell bursts close alongside, Captain Parry was wounded in both legs by splinters and the ships gunnery control had been put out of action. By 0700 hrs the Graf Spee was sailing North West at 24 knots, Ajax and Achilles were closing at 30 knots on her Starboard quarter and Exeter in the condition described above was on her Port beam. Graf Spee began making smoke.
While within her smoke screen Graf Spee turned west leaving Ajax and Achilles about nine miles due astern. At 0716 Langsdorff turned further to port. Although Harwood had his ships in perfect position for all their guns to bear he knew that the range was too great for the 6" shells to be hurting the Graf Spee. He therefore ordered a turn to port to point directly at the enemy and brought his ships up to full speed.
At this stage in the battle the gunnery from the two British cruisers was fast, three salvoes a minute, and accurate. Langsdorff turned back to North West and took his 11" guns off Exeter who was retreating under smoke, to respond to the fire from the other two cruisers.
At 0724 the range was down to 9,000 yards and Ajax fired a spread of torpedoes. Unfortunately these surfaced, were spotted, and Langsdorff was able to turn away from them, he then resumed his original course. Shortly after this Ajax was hit by one of the 11" shells which knocked out both her rear turrets. However with his ships head on to the Graf Spee Harwood was not immediately concerned.
By 0738 the range had been reduced to 7000 yards but the 6" guns though hitting were still not seriously damaging the Graf Spee. [The Graf Spee's gunnery officer's post-action report stated that he '..had seen three 6" shells bounce off the armour of our control tower.'] About this time Harwood became concerned about the amount of 6" ammunition consumed by his two ships and he ordered a turn to the East under smoke effectively breaking off the action. Moments after this order was issued Ajax was straddled by an 11" salvo one of which brought down her mast and with it all her radio aerials. The Graf Spee did not persue any of the three British warships but turned on to a westward course at a fairly high speed.
By 0830 the two cruisers had turned back and were maintaining a shadowing position about 15 miles from the Graf Spee. Ajax on the port quarter and Achilles on the starboard quarter. Harwood became aware, through the report from his spotter plane, of the condition of Exeter. He ordered Bell to make for the Falklands.
At the Falklands base H.M.S. Cumberland had been listening to the wireless traffic, had ceased her refit and was making ready for sea when Harwood's order 'to sail with best speed to join me' came. Cumberland would take about 36 hours to reach the mouth of the Plate.
Langsdorff continued westerly and the two cruisers shadowed him. At 1010hrs the Graf Spee swung round and fired two salvoes at Ajax who inadvertently had reduced the range down to 23,000 yards. The ship then returned to her former course. Harwood was puzzled by Langsdorff's moves. He had expected him to go after Exeter, now only able to sail at 18 knots, or to come after Ajax and Achilles. What Harwood now considered as the probable intention was that the Graf Spee would sail into the estuary and, later under the cover of darkness, make a break for the open sea. The estuary had three navigable channels the southernmost one being nearly 30 miles wide and Harwood could not cover more than a quarter of the sea room available to Langsdorff. At 1400 hrs Harwood radioed the British Naval Attaché in Buenos Aires telling him of the Graf Spee's approach and requesting a watch on the navigable channels.
At 1852 hrs Graf Spee fired two salvoes at Ajax which was then 13 miles astern. With dusk fast approaching and sunset at about 2050 hrs Harwood closed to 11 miles. In the course of the next hour or so Graf Spee fired six more salvoes but Harwood was sure that his ships were being lost to the Graf Spee in the darkness he ceased replying after the third salvo. GrafSpee although partly shillouetted against the sunset was then lost to the British until just after ten pm when she could be made out against the lights of Montevideo.
At 0050 hrs on the 14th December 1939 Graf Spee dropped anchor in Montvideo harbour. Ajax and Achilles began 'the death watch' but, although Harwood did not know it, the Battle of the River Plate was over.

On the morning of the 14th December 1939 the sea battle, though neither side knew this at the time, was over. The diplomatic and propaganda battle was beginning. Harwood was desperate for reinforcements before Graf Spee came out and the initial diplomatic effort to get her expelled quickly was put into reverse. Present in Montevideo were the British Naval Attaché, Captain Henry McCall, and the head of British Intelligence in South America, Captain Rex Miller. The British Resident Minister, Mr Millington-Drake, was also fully involved. The extent of Graf Spee's injuries was ascertained, useful information coming from the British prisoners who had been kept aboard the Graf Spee. Their reports also informed the Admiralty of the plight of Britsh prisoners aboard the Altmark, this was the first information of this kind.
The German side were also very active their Resident Minister, Otto Langmann and the Naval Attaché, Captain Neibur conferred with Captain Langsdorff. Arrangements were made for the Uruguayan authorities to inspect the ship, for ship-repair firms to work on the ship and for the funeral ashore for the men killed in action.
To prevent the Graf Spee from leaving the British invoked the 24 hour rule whereby a warship of a belligerent nation taking shelter in a neutral port could not sail within 24 hours of a merchant ship of the opposite side leaving the port. Millington-Drake handed the Uruguayans a note which reminded them of this rule and informed them that the SS Ashworth was sailing in the evening of the 15th December. Somewhat inadequately the Uruguayans had a small tug with a petty officer and four ratings on board to ensure the Graf Spee did not leave harbour. The Petty Officer had a pistol.
On the morning of Saturday 16th December the Naval Attaché conferred with Commodore Harwood on board Ajax. H.M.S Cumberland had arrived from the Falklands. The Admiralty had despatched Battle-cruiser Renown and Aircraft-carrier Ark Royal but they were still a few days steaming away. A further merchantman, the Dunster Grange, was sailed that evening but the Uruguayan government stated that it would not accept any more notes as Graf Spee had indicated its intention to sail the next day. The Uruguayans may have been influenced by the 11" guns of the Graf Spee pointing towards their city.
On that Saturday there was much activity on the pocket-battleship, stores being moved and repairs being done. Sailors were busy painting and tidying the ship.
Rex Miller had the brilliant idea of asking the Argentinians for fuel to be available urgently at Mar del Plata, Argentinian Naval base, for two of our capital ships. He telephoned Sir Esmond Ovey, Ambassador to Argentine, over an open telephone line he knew to be tapped explaning the lack of security on the urgency of the request. Sir Esmond quickly understood the import and told his naval assistant, Commander Lloyd Hirst, to get on to it right away. Lloyd Hirst rang the Argentine Admiralty and, so leaky was this form of communication, that the news of the request was in the evening newspapers in Buenos Aries.
Sunday morning showed more activity on the Graf Spee but it was not until nearly midday that the British observers became aware that large numbers of sailors were leaving the Graf Spee and going aboard the German merchant ship Tacoma. By mid afternoon 800 men had been counted off the ship. At 1815hrs Battle ensigns were hoisted and Graf Spee began to move out of her berth followed by the Tacoma. About three miles out she turned into shallow water at the edge of the channel. Langsdorff ordered the sea-cocks opened and the pre-arranged destruction of his ship began. Massive explosions shook the warship and fires burned for four days.
All the crew had been taken off including the captain who committed suicide the following night in Buenos Aires.
The British Admiralty bought the wreck from the Uruguayan Government for £14,000.
The Graf Spee's support ship, Altmark, was caught on the 17th February 1940 by the destroyer H.M.S. Cossack while sheltering in Joessing fjord, Norway. Nearly three hundred prisoners, taken from merchant ships sunk by the Graf Spee, were taken off.
In the final analysis the battle had been a very close run thing. Langsdorff did not make the most of his advantages of range and weight of shot. He did not know how near winning he was but resignedly blamed his opponents. As Captain Langsdorff said after the battle, 'You English are hard. You do not know when you are beaten.' Harwood and his men did more than could be expected and came very close to losing all three ships. The conflict was summarised by Captain Parry of H.M.S. Achilles '... Harwood won the battle because he knew exactly what he intended to do, whereas Captain Langsdorff did not.'
The wider consequence was the boost to the morale of the British people; the more so by the press and propaganda handling of the battle. The Nelsonian tradition was alive and well and we could beat the Nazis anytime anywhere. This was of course shown not to be the case when the 'phony war' ended in May 1940.

Casualty figures

Admiral Graf Spee

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British Royal Navy Force G

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