Battle of the River Plate

Battle of the River Plate

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the River Plate
partof=World War II

caption=Scuttled "Admiral Graf Spee"
date=13 December 1939
place=Off the River Plate estuary, South Atlantic.
result=Allied victory
strength1=1 pocket battleship
strength2=1 heavy cruiser
2 light cruisers
casualties1=1 pocket battleship damaged
36 dead
60 wounded
casualties2=1 heavy cruiser heavily damaged
2 light cruisers damaged
72 dead
28 wounded

The Battle of the River Plate (December 13, 1939) was the first major naval battle in World War II. The German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) "Admiral Graf Spee" had been commerce raiding since the start of the war in September. It was found and engaged off the estuary of the River Plate off the coast of Argentina and Uruguay in South America by one of the hunting groups, set up be the British Admiralty to search for the Graf Spee, comprising three smaller Royal Navy (RN) cruisers: HMS "Exeter", HMS "Ajax" and HMS "Achilles", [She was HMS "Achilles" at the time of the battle. She became HMNZS "Achilles" on the formation of the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1941] which was part of the RN's New Zealand Division. HMS "Cumberland" was also part of the hunting group, but she was refitting in the Falklands. [Churchill 1948, p.519]

In the ensuing battle, "Exeter" was severely damaged and forced to retire, while all other ships received moderate damage. "Ajax" and "Achilles" then shadowed the "Graf Spee" which entered the neutral Uruguayan capital Montevideo. After Hans Langsdorff was told that the limit of his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, the captain of the "Graf Spee", Hans Langsdorff, scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe had assembled. [Churchill 1948, p.525-526]

Although the actual engagement between the German and Allied forces could be regarded as a German victory in terms of losses, the following actions resulted in the overall battle being an Allied victory.


The "Graf Spee" had been at sea at the start of the Second World War in September 1939, and she 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 9 forces to search for the surface raider. Force G, the South American Cruiser Squadron, comprised the heavy cruiser HMS "Exeter" (8,400 tonnes, six 8-inch (203 mm) guns) and two "Leander"-class light cruisers (both 7,000 tons, eight 6-inch (152 mm) guns) — HMS "Ajax" and HMS "Achilles". The force was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood from the "Ajax", which was captained by Charles Woodhouse. [Churchill 1948, p.516] The "Achilles" was of the New Zealand Division (precursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy) and captained by Edward Parry. The "Exeter" was captained by F. S. Bell. A County-class heavy cruiser, the HMS "Cumberland" (10,000 tons, with eight 8-inch (203 mm) guns), was self-refitting in the Falkland Islands at the time but available at short notice. [Churchill 1948, p.519]

Following a raider-warning radio message from the merchantman "Doric Star", which was sunk by the "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 towards the position 32 degrees South, 47 degrees West. Harwood chose this position, according to his despatch, due to its being the most congested part of the shipping routes in the area, and therefore the point where a raider could do the most damage to enemy shipping. [Churchill 1948, p.519]

The three cruisers rendezvoused off the estuary on 12 December, and they conducted manoeuvres. Harwood's combat policy of three cruisers versus one pocket battleship was to attack at once day or night. By day the ships would attack as two units, the "Exeter" separate from the "Ajax" and the "Achilles". By night the ships would remain in company 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. [Barnett, 83.]

The battle

On 13 December the ships sighted each other and closed. "Admiral Graf Spee", despite having correctly identified "Exeter," 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 "Admiral Graf Spee's" reconnaissance aircraft was out of service, Langsdorf relied on 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 realized too late that he was facing three cruisers. Calling upon the immediate acceleration of "Admiral Graf Spee"'s diesel engines, he closed the enemy squadron at 24 knots in the hope of engaging the steam-driven British ships before they could work up from cruising speed to full power. [Barnett, 84.]

The British executed their battle plan: "Exeter" turned to the north-west whilst "Ajax" and "Achilles", operating together, turned to the north-east to separate the "Graf Spee's" fire. "Admiral Graf Spee" opened fire on "Exeter" at 19,000 yards with her six 11-inch (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. From her opening salvo, "Admiral Graf Spee's" gunfire proved fairly accurate, her third salvo straddling "Exeter" At 06:23 an 11-inch (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 to be launched for gunnery spotting. Three minutes later "Exeter" suffered a direct hit. This shell struck her B-turret, putting it and its two guns out of action. [Churchill 1948, p.520] 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, and the ship had to be steered via a chain of messengers for the rest of the battle.

Meanwhile "Ajax" and "Achilles" had closed to 13,000 yards and started making in front of the "Admiral Graf Spee", causing "Admiral Graf Spee" to split her main armament at 06:30, and otherwise using her 5.9-inch (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 spotter aircraft from its catapult. At 06:38 "Exeter" turned so that she could fire her port torpedoes, and received two more direct hits from 11-inch 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 in action, a seven degree list, was being flooded and being steered with the use of her small boat's compass. In return, one of "Exeter's" 8-inch shell penetrated two decks then exploded 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. The ship was doomed but this was kept secret for 60 years.

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-inch near-miss short-circuited "Exeter's" electrical system for that turret. Captain Bell was forced to break off 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. [Barnett, 85.]

At 06:56, "Ajax" and "Achilles" turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear, causing at 07:10 "Admiral Graf Spee" to turn away and lay a smokescreen. At 07:10 the two light cruisers turned to reduce the range from 8 miles (13 km), even though this meant only their forward guns could fire. At 07:16 "Admiral Graf Spee" turned to port and headed straight for the heavily damaged "Exeter", but fire from "Ajax" and "Achilles" forced the Graf Spee at 07:20 to turn and fire her 11-inch guns at them, who 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 miles (7 km), causing "Admiral Graf Spee" to turn away under a smokescreen. At 07:25 "Ajax" was hit by an 11-inch 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 "Admiral 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-inch shell that destroyed her mast and caused some casualties. "Admiral Graf Spee" continued on a south-westward course.

The pursuit

The battle now turned into a pursuit. The British and New Zealander cruisers split up keeping about 15 miles (24 km) from "Graf Spee". The "Ajax" kept to the German's port and the "Achilles" to the starboard. At 0915 hours, the "Ajax" recovered her aircraft. At 0946 hours, Harwood signalled to the "Cumberland" for reinforcement, and the Admiralty also ordered ships within 3,000 miles (5,000 km) to proceed to the Rio de la Plata. At 1005 hours, the "Achilles" had overestimated the "Graf Spee's" speed, and she came into range of the German guns. The "Graf Spee" turned and fired two three-gun salvoes with her foreguns. The "Achilles" turned away under a smokescreen. The shadowing continued for the rest of the day until 1915 hours, when the "Graf Spee" turned and opened fire on the "Ajax", which turned away under a smokescreen.

It was now clear that "Graf Spee" was entering the Río de la Plata. Since the estuary had sandbanks, Harwood ordered the "Achilles" to shadow the "Graf Spee" while the "Ajax" would cover any attempt to double back through a different channel. The sun set at 2048 hours, with the "Graf Spee" silhouetted against the sun. The "Achilles" had again closed the range and the "Graf Spee" opened fire, forcing the "Achilles" to turn away. During the battle, a total of 108 men had been killed on both sides, including 36 on "Graf Spee".

The "Graf Spee" entered Montevideo in the neutral Uruguay, dropping anchor at about 0010 hurs on 14 December. This was a political error, since Uruguay, while neutral, had benefited from significant British influence during its development, and it favored the Allies. The British Hospital, for example (where the wounded from the battle were taken) was the leading hospital in Montevideo. Argentina would have been a better choice for the "Graf Spee" to have found haven in.

Also, had the "Graf Spee" left port at this time, the damaged "Ajax" and the "Achilles" would have been the only Commonwealth warships that it would have encountered in the area.

The trap of Montevideo

In Montevideo, the 13th Hague Convention came into play. Under Article 2, "...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. [*cite journal
quotes= no
year= 1939
month= December
title= We Were Prisoners On the 'Graf Spee'
journal= The War Illustrated
] 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 the "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 the "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 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 the "Exeter", with two more 8-inch (203 mm) guns. She was no match alone for "Admiral Graf Spee", whose 11-inch guns had much longer range and fired much heavier shells. The "Cumberland" arrived at 2200 hours 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 December 19. 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 three mile limit, were ordered to make smoke, which could be clearly seen from the Montevideo waterfront.

The Germans, however, were entirely deceived, and expected to face a far-superior force on leaving the River Plate. The "Graf Spee" had also used two-thirds of her 11" ammunition and only had enough left for approximately a further 20 minutes of firing, which was hardly enough to fight her way out of Montevideo, let alone get back to Germany.

While the ship was prevented from leaving the harbor, Captain Langsdorff consulted with his command in Germany. He received orders that permitted some options, but not internment in Uruguay. Ultimately he chose to scuttle his ship in the Río de la Plata 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 honors, 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" in 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. (This had a degree of truth in it - "Exeter" had been seriously damaged and was practically a hulk, while "Admiral Graf Spee's" damage appeared superficial rather than structural). "Admiral Graf Spee's" scuttling however was a severe embarrassment and difficult to explain on the basis of publicly available facts. The Battle of the River Plate was a contributory factor to Adolf Hitler's low opinion of the German surface fleet.Fact|date=June 2008 The battle was a major propaganda victory for the British during the Phony War, and the reputation of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was enhanced.

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 (February 16, 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, and were released on arrival in Montevideo.

On 22 December 1939 over 1,000 sailors from the "Admiral 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 the Achilles are buried in the British Cemetery, in Montevideo, while those who died on the 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 the Admiral Graf Spee rested in shallow water with much of the ship's superstructure remaining above water level, but over the years the wreck subsided into the muddy bottom and today only the tip of the mast remains above the surface.


In 1997, one of Admiral Graf Spee's 15 cm 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 of the Admiral Graf Spee. 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-ton heavy gunnery control station, was raised on 25 February 2004. It is expected to take several years to raise the entire wreck. Film 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 in Montevideo.

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, 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." [cite web |url= |title=A Swastika, 60 Years Submerged, Still Inflames Debate |last=Rohter |first=Larry |date=2006-08-25 |publisher="The New York Times" |accessdate=2008-05-19]

On 10 February 2006, the eagle figurehead of the Admiral Graf Spee was recovered. To protect the feelings of those with painful memories of Nazi Germany, the swastika a the base of the figurehead was covered as it was pulled from the water.


In 1956 the film "The Battle of the River Plate" (U.S. title: "Pursuit of the Graf Spee") was made of the battle and "Admiral Graf Spee"’s end. "HMS Achilles", which had been recommissioned in 1948 as "HMIS Delhi", flagship of the Royal Indian Navy, played herself in the movie.

The battle is re-enacted with large-scale model boats throughout the summer season at Peasholm Park in the UK seaside resort of Scarborough.

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".

The names of each ship have also been used for Cadet Corps. The Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC) Ajax #89 in Guelph, Ontario; the Navy League Cadet Corps (NLCC) Achilles #34 in Guelph, Ontario; the Navy League Wrenette Corps Lady Exeter (now disbanded) and the camp shared by all three corps, called Camp Cumberland. Similarly, the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet corps in Ajax, Ontario, has taken the name RCSCC Harwood.

According to an article in the German language paper "Albertaner" on October 6th, 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 has not been a typical Nazi-Officer. An accompanying picture shows Captain Langsdorff at the funeral of his crew members who were killed in the battle. He is saluting with a military salute while people beside and behind him, some clergy even, are giving the Roman/Fascist salute. The picture is credited to Diego Lascano (Gilby Collection)



*cite book|last=Churchill|first=Winston|title=The Second World War: The Gathering Storm|publisher=Houghton Mifflin Company|date=1948|edition=1st|volume=I

External links

* [ 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]
* [ Official HMSO report]
* [ Royal New Zealand Navy (official history)]
* [ Achilles at the River Plate (official history)]
* [ "The crew of the "Graf Spee"] — Largely anecdotal information on activities of the interned crew after the battle.
* cite book | last = Laurence | first = Ricardo E. | year = 2000 | title = Tripulantes del Graf Spee en tres atrapantes historias | location = Rosario | id = ISBN 987-43-1754-X
* [ Ex Club Hotel de la Ventana]
* [ 13th Hague Convention (Convention Concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War)]

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