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Battle of the River Plate
Admiral Graf Spee burning and sinking, as seen from Montevideo harbour
|Battle of the River Plate|
|Conflict||World War II|
|Date||December 13, 1939|
|Place||Río de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay|
|Result||Marginal United Kingdom victory|
The Battle of the River Plate (13 December 1939) was the first major naval battle of World War II. The German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee which had sunk several merchant ships was engaged by three Royal Navy cruisers, ultimately leading to the Graf Spee entering neutral Montevideo where she scuttled herself.
The Royal Navy assembled forces to search for the surface raider. Force G, the South American Cruiser Squadron comprised the County class 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 1. 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. Exeter was captained by F.S. Bell. A second County class cruiser, HMS Cumberland (10,000 tons, eight 8-inch (203 mm) guns) was self-refitting in the Falkland Islands at the time, though available at short notice.
Unable to divide his force, Harwood suspected that the raider would try to strike next at the merchant shipping off the River Plate estuary between Uruguay and Argentina. The three cruisers were convened off the estuary on 12 December and conducted manoeuvres.
At about 06:14 local time (GMT -2) on the 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.
The British executed their battle plan; Exeter turned to the north-west whilst Ajax and Achilles, operating together, turned to the north-east. The Graf Spee opened fire with her six 11-inch (279 mm) guns at 06:18, eventually splitting her turrets between the two targets, as the British had hoped. Exeter opened fire at 06:20, Achilles at 06:21, Exeter's rear guns at 06:22 and Ajax at 06:23.
At 06:23 an 11-inch (279 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, and riddled the funnels and searchlights. One minute later Exeter suffered a direct hit. This shell struck 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. Wheelhouse 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 and started making in front of the 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 catapulted her spotter aircraft. At 06:38 Exeter turned so that she could fire her port torpedoes, and received two more direct hits from 11-inch (279 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 in action, a seven degree list, was being flooded and being steered with the use of her small boat's compass.
At 06:40 an 11-inch (279 mm) shell burst just short of Achilles, in line with the bridge damaging her and causing a few casualties, however gunnery continued from the secondary control position. At about this time Admiral Graf Spee turned to the west under the cover of a smokescreen. The light cruisers were now doing about 31 knots, having worked up to speed from 14 knots initially.
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 (279 mm) 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 (279 mm) shell that put X-turret out of action and jammed Y-turret, causing some casualties.
At 07:30 Exeter's remaing turret was put out of action by loss of electricity caused by flooding. Severely damaged, unable to fire and keep up with the action, Exeter broke off at about 06:40 steaming slowly towards the Falklands.
By 07:40, Ajax and Achilles were running low on ammunition 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 (279 mm) shell that destroyed her mast and caused some casualties. Admiral Graf Spee continued on a westward course.
The battle now turned into a pursuit. The British and New Zealand cruisers split up keeping about 15 miles (24 km) from Admiral Graf Spee, Ajax keeping to the German's port and Achilles to the starboard.
At 09:15 Ajax recovered her aircraft. At 09:46 Harwood signalled to Cumberland for reinforcements and the Admiralty also ordered ships within 3,000 miles (5,000 km) to proceed to the River Plate.
At 10:05 Achilles had overestimated the Graf Spee's speed and came into range of German guns. Admiral Graf Spee turned and fired two three-gun salvoes with her foreguns. Achilles turned away under a smokescreen.
The shadowing continued for the rest of the day until 19:15, when Admiral Graf Spee turned and opened fire on Ajax, who turned away under a smokescreen.
It was now clear that Admiral Graf Spee was entering the River Plate. The estuary having sand banks , Harwood ordered Achilles to shadow Admiral Graf Spee whilst Ajax would cover any attempt to double back through a different channel.
The sun set at 20:48, Admiral Graf Spee silhouetted against the sun. Achilles again had closed the range and Admiral Graf Spee opened fire, Achilles turning away.
Initially, the British tried to have Admiral Graf Spee forced to leave immediately, but this was later revised to allow the arrival of additional warships that were steaming towards the estuary. Taking advantage of a rule which prevented a belligerent warship from leaving a neutral port less than 24 hours after a merchant ship of the other side, British merchant ships strategically planned their departure times to control the Graf Spee's exit. British efforts were made 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 arrived at 22:00 on 14 December after steaming at full speed for 36 hours from the Falkland Islands. Though several warships were steaming to the location at full speed, none would have arrived for days; Cumberland, with 8-inch (203mm) guns, was no match alone for Admiral Graf Spee, with longer-range and much more powerful 11-inch (279mm) guns.
Intense negotiations were undertaken. Whilst the ship was prevented from leaving the harbour, Captain Langsdorff consulted with his command in Germany. He received orders that permitted various options, but not internment in Uruguay. Ultimately he chose to scuttle his ship in the River Plate estuary (December 17) to avoid risk to his crew, a decision that is said to have infuriated Hitler. The crew of Admiral Graf Spee was taken to Buenos Aires, where Captain Langsdorff subsequently committed suicide on 19 December. Some crew members were reported to have moved to Montevideo with the help of local people of German origin.
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 — her scuttling was therefore difficult to explain. The Battle of the River Plate was a contributory factor to Adolf Hitler's low opinion of the German surface fleet. The battle was a major propaganda victory for the British during the Phoney War, and opinion of the First Sea Lord Winston Churchill was buoyed.
Exeter, badly damaged, was taken to the Falkland Islands and later to Devonport and repaired. It has been said that she was damaged beyond economic repair; but Churchill chose to carry out repairs so that she could not be reported as having been destroyed.
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, called the Altmark Incident (February 16, 1940) — whilst in Jøssingfjord, in then 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 1000 sailors from the Admiral Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and interned. There are many stories, but little reliable information, about their later wartime activities, including escapes, 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 Argentina and Uruguay, some returning after being repatriated to Germany.
Plans to raise the wreck are discussed in the article on Admiral Graf Spee.
- In 1939 at the time of the battle, Achilles was part of the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, and had the ship prefix HMS. The Royal New Zealand Navy was not formed until 1941, after which Achilles acquired the prefix HMNZS.
- history learning site article
- The Battle of the River Plate, Capt(Retd) AA Jilani; Defence Journal, December 1999;
- Photos of Admiral Graf Spee at http://web.ukonline.co.uk/ron.greenwood/graf/graf1.html
- Official HMSO report
- The crew of the Graf Spee (in Spanish)
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