World War Two

Naval Warfare:

The Battle of the River Plate

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Graf Spee

Naval Warfare:
The Battle of the River Plate


The Battle of the River Plate (Rio de Plata), was the first major naval battle of World War Two.


In the early morning of December 13, 1939 the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee, was cruising toward South America's Rio de la Plata (River Plate) in search of enemy merchant ships, where, it spotted ship masts in the distance. The Graf Spee had been operating in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean since the beginning of the war three months earlier on a successful campaign of disrupting allied shipping and to tie up British and French Naval forces. Twenty-three major Allied warships actively huntied for the Graf Spee. The long hunt for the German raider was nearly over, because the masts sighted by the Graff Spee on the morning of December 13 belonged not to defenseless merchant ships, but to three British cruisers, H.M.S. Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (the Achilles was actually part of the Royal New Zealand Navy). Mistakenly believing these ships were merchant vessels, Admiral Graf Spee's Captain Hans Langsdorf steamed for them. Langsdorf headed onward toward his enemy, even after properly identifying them as Allied warships.


British Commodore Henry Harwood, on board H.M.S.Ajax, also steamed toward the German ship. The four ships approached each other rapidly and entered into gunfire range. The shooting beginning at just under 20,000 yards. Harwood split his force, making things complicated for the German gunners aboard the Graf Spee, but the guns from both sides quickly began scoring hits. Exeter was hit and seriously damaged by the pocket battleship's eleven-inch guns. both of Exeter's forward eight-inch gun turrets were knocked out, most of the bridge crew was killed or wounded and fires ravaged the Exeter amidships. The wounded British ship remained in action against the German Raider until the remaining turret would no longer function. Exeter's guns had also scored hits on the Admiral Graf Spee, and by the six-inch guns from the other two Allied cruisers. The Admiral Graf Spee laid down a smoke screen and turned away, firing on the Ajax and the Achilles, disabling two of the Ajax's gun turrets.


After an hour and twenty minutes of intense combat between the four ships, a long pursuit played out, as Admiral Graf Spee headed for Montevideo, the capital and major port of the South American nation of Uruguay. With Ajax and Achilles in hot pusuit of the German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee arrived in port just after midnight on December 14, requesting time to make repairs, and reporting to the Uruguayans that she had been hit by enemy shells nearly seventy times. Upon docking in Montevideo, Captain Langsdorf released the British sailors he had captured from the merchant ships he had sunk on his battle tour. The British, now with two ships outside Montevideo, wanted to keep the German warship bottled up in port as long as possible and buy time, so that more Allied reinforcements could arrive on the scene. While the Graf Spee was in port, the HMS Cumberland did manage to join Ajax and Achilles. To this end they resorted to diplomatic tactics misinformation; broadcasting fake reports that the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battle cruiser Renown were nearby.The Uruguayan government, under pressure from the Allied nations, as well as the Americans, announced that the Graf Spee must leave Uruguayan waters withing 72 hours, whether needed repairs were completed or not. Captain Langsdorf, with much of his ammunition expended and his ship badly damaged, decided that escape was impossible. Langsdorf consulted with the German Government, and decided the only course of action was to scuttle his own ship, rather than let it fall into enemy hands. Early in the evening of December 17, Captain Langsdorf and a skeleton crew steamed out into the broad river, abandoned ship and blew up the Graf Spee.

 The majority of the Graf Spee's crew had embarked onto a German merchant ship, the Tacoma, and then steamed to nearby Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Langdorff and his small demolition crew joined them. Then, on the night of December 19 and 20, 1939, Captain Langsdorf killed himself with his service revolver, wrapped in the German national flag, not the flag of the Nazi government.

The Battle of the River Plate, the first of World War II's many naval battles, greatly boosted British prestige and morale, but at considerable cost. The badly injured Exeter, initially thought not worth repairing, was out of the war for fifteen months. Repairs to Ajax lasted until mid-1940.  



 Links and Resources:


Battle of the River Plate, December 1939--From the U.S. Navy Website

The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 B.C. to the Present--By Ernest and Trevor Dupuy

The Battle of the River Plate: A Grand Delusion (Campaign Chronicles)

Admiral Graf Spee

The Graf Spee in Montevideo

Langsdorff of the Graf Spee

Timeline 1939