Battle of the River Plate

Last updated

Battle of the River Plate
Part of the American Theatre of Second World War
HMS Achilles (70).jpg
December 1939, HMS Achilles as seen from HMS Ajax during the Battle of the River Plate. Note the charred paint on the gun barrels.
Date13 December 1939
Off the River Plate estuary in Argentina and Uruguay, South Atlantic
Result British victory [1]
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg  Germany Flag of the United Kingdom.svg  United Kingdom
Flag of New Zealand.svg  New Zealand
Commanders and leaders
War ensign of Germany (1938-1945).svg Hans Langsdorff   [2] Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Henry Harwood
1 heavy cruiser
(28cm guns)
1 heavy cruiser
(8 inch/20.3cm guns)
2 light cruisers
(6 inch/15.2cm guns)
Casualties and losses
36 killed
60 wounded
1 heavy cruiser scuttled
72 killed
(HMS Achilles 4, HMS Ajax 7 & HMS Exeter 61)
28 wounded
1 heavy cruiser badly damaged
1 light cruisers damaged

The Battle of the River Plate was the first naval battle in the Second World War and the first one of the Battle of the Atlantic in South American waters. The German panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee had cruised into the South Atlantic a fortnight before the war began, and had been commerce raiding after receiving appropriate authorisation on 26 September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (the last from the New Zealand Division), found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Uruguay in South America.

South America A continent in the Western Hemisphere, and mostly in the Southern Hemisphere

South America is a continent in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. It may also be considered a subcontinent of the Americas, which is how it is viewed in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of the Americas. The reference to South America instead of other regions has increased in the last decades due to changing geopolitical dynamics.

<i>Kriegsmarine</i> 1935-1945 naval warfare branch of Germanys armed forces

The Kriegsmarine was the navy of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It superseded the Imperial German Navy of the German Empire (1871–1918) and the inter-war Reichsmarine (1919–1935) of the Weimar Republic. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches, along with the Heer (Army) and the Luftwaffe of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces from 1933 to 1945.

German cruiser <i>Admiral Graf Spee</i> Deutschland-class cruiser

Admiral Graf Spee was a Deutschland-class "Panzerschiff", nicknamed a "pocket battleship" by the British, which served with the Kriegsmarine of Nazi Germany during World War II. The two sister-ships of her class, Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, were reclassified as heavy cruisers in 1940. The vessel was named after Admiral Maximilian von Spee, commander of the East Asia Squadron that fought the battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands, where he was killed in action, in World War I. She was laid down at the Reichsmarinewerft shipyard in Wilhelmshaven in October 1932 and completed by January 1936. The ship was nominally under the 10,000 long tons (10,000 t) limitation on warship size imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, though with a full load displacement of 16,020 long tons (16,280 t), she significantly exceeded it. Armed with six 28 cm (11 in) guns in two triple gun turrets, Admiral Graf Spee and her sisters were designed to outgun any cruiser fast enough to catch them. Their top speed of 28 knots left only the few battlecruisers in the Anglo-French navies fast enough and powerful enough to sink them.


In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Admiral 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. [3]

Montevideo Capital city in Uruguay

Montevideo is the capital and largest city of Uruguay. According to the 2011 census, the city proper has a population of 1,319,108 in an area of 201 square kilometres (78 sq mi). The southernmost capital city in the Americas, Montevideo is situated on the southern coast of the country, on the northeastern bank of the Río de la Plata.

Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff was a German naval officer, most famous for his command of the PanzerschiffAdmiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate.

Scuttling act of deliberately sinking a ship by allowing water to flow into the hull

Scuttling is the deliberate sinking of a ship by allowing water to flow into the hull. This can be achieved in several ways—seacocks or hatches can be opened to the sea, or holes may be ripped into the hull with brute force or with explosives. Scuttling may be performed to dispose of an abandoned, old, or captured vessel; to prevent the vessel from becoming a navigation hazard; as an act of self-destruction to prevent the ship from being captured by an enemy force ; as a blockship to restrict navigation through a channel or within a harbor; to provide an artificial reef for divers and marine life; or to alter the flow of rivers.


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.

Indian Ocean The ocean between Africa, Asia, Australia and Antarctica (or the Southern Ocean)

The Indian Ocean is the third largest of the world's oceanic divisions, covering 70,560,000 km2 (27,240,000 sq mi). It is bounded by Asia on the north, on the west by Africa, on the east by Australia, and on the south by the Southern Ocean or, depending on definition, by Antarctica.

The Admiral Graf Spee. Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee in 1936.jpg
The Admiral Graf Spee.

The Royal Navy assembled nine forces to search for the surface raider. Force G, the South American Cruiser Squadron, comprised the County-class heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland of 10,570 long tons (10,740 t) with eight 8" (203mm) guns in four turrets, the York-class heavy cruiser HMS Exeter of 8,390 long tons (8,520 t) with six 8" (203mm) guns in three turrets, and two Leander-class light cruisers, HMS Ajax and Achilles, both of 7,270 long tons (7,390 t) with eight 6" (152mm) guns. Although technically a heavy cruiser because of the calibre of her guns, Exeter was a scaled-down version of the County class. The force was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood from Ajax, which was captained by Charles Woodhouse. [4] Achilles was of the New Zealand Division (precursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy) and captained by Edward Parry. Exeter was commanded by Captain Frederick Secker Bell. During the period before and at the immediate time of the battle, Cumberland (commanded by Captain Walter Herman Gordon Fallowfield) was refitting in the Falkland Islands but was available for sea at short notice. [5] Force G was supported by the oilers RFA Olna, Olynthus, and Orangeleaf. Olynthus replenished HMS Ajax and Achilles on 22 November 1939, and HMS Exeter on 26 November, at San Borombon Bay. Olynthus was also directed to keep observation between Medanos and Cape San Antonio, off Argentina south of the River Plate estuary (see chart below).

Royal Navy Maritime warfare branch of the United Kingdoms military

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

HMS <i>Cumberland</i> (57) cruiser

HMS Cumberland was a County-class heavy cruiser of the Royal Navy that saw action during the Second World War.

<i>York</i>-class cruiser Class of Royal Navy heavy cruisers

The York class was the second and final class of 8-inch (203 mm)–gunned heavy cruisers built for the Royal Navy under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. They were essentially a reduced version of the preceding County class, scaled down to enable more cruisers to be built from the limited defence budgets of the late 1920s.

Following a raider-warning radio message from the merchantman Doric Star, which was sunk by Admiral 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, because of 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. [5] A Norwegian freighter saw Admiral Graf Spee practising the use of its searchlights and radioed that its course was toward South America.

32nd parallel south circle of latitude

The 32nd parallel south is a circle of latitude that is 32 degrees south of the Earth's equatorial plane. It crosses the Atlantic Ocean, Africa, the Indian Ocean, Australasia, the Pacific Ocean and South America.

47th meridian west

The meridian 47° west of Greenwich is a line of longitude that extends from the North Pole across the Arctic Ocean, Greenland, the Atlantic Ocean, South America, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica to the South Pole.

The route of Admiral Graf Spee's cruise from the British HMSO report. HMSO Graf Spee cruise.jpg
The route of Admiral Graf Spee's cruise from the British HMSO report.

The three available cruisers of Force G rendezvoused off the estuary on 12 December and conducted manoeuvres. The British combat instructions for engaging a pocket battleship with a cruiser squadron (which had been devised by Harwood during his period at the Royal Naval War College between 1934 and 1936) specified an attack at once, day or night. If during the day, the ships would attack as two units, in this case 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. [6] By splitting his force, Harwood would force the Germans to either split their fire, reducing its effectiveness, or keep it focused on one opponent, allowing the other vessels to attack with less fear of return fire.

Royal Naval College, Greenwich Royal Navy training establishment

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich, was a Royal Navy training establishment between 1873 and 1998, providing courses for naval officers. It was the home of the Royal Navy's staff college, which provided advanced training for officers. The equivalent in the British Army was the Staff College, Camberley and the equivalent in the Royal Air Force was the RAF Staff College, Bracknell.

Although outgunned by Admiral Graf Spee and therefore at a tactical disadvantage, the British did have the upper hand strategically since any raider returning to Germany would have to run the blockade of the North Sea and might reasonably be expected to encounter the Home Fleet. For victory, the British only had to damage the raider enough so that she was either unable to make the journey or unable to fight a subsequent battle with the Home Fleet (by contrast the Germans would have to destroy the British force without being severely damaged). Because of overwhelming numerical superiority, the loss of even all three cruisers would not have severely altered Britain's naval capabilities, whereas Admiral Graf Spee was one of the Kriegsmarine's few capital ships. The British could therefore afford to risk a tactical defeat if it brought strategic victory.


HMS Exeter. HMS Exeter off Sumatra in 1942.jpg
HMS Exeter.
HMNZS Achilles. HMNZS Achilles SLV AllanGreen.jpg
HMNZS Achilles.

On 13 December at 05:20, the British squadron was proceeding on a course of 060° at 14 knots with Ajax at 34° 34′ South 48° 17′ West, 390 nmi (720 km) east of Montevideo. At 06:10, smoke was sighted on a bearing of Red-100, or 320° (to the north-west). [7] Harwood ordered the Exeter to investigate. She swung out of line and at 06:16 she signaled by lamp: "I think it is a pocket-battleship", and Captain Bell ordered Flag N hoisted to the yard arm — "Enemy in sight". [8] 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 Admiral Graf Spee's reconnaissance aircraft was out of service, Langsdorff 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, Cumberland and Exeter were patrolling the South American coast.

Langsdorff realised too late that he was facing three cruisers. Calling on the immediate acceleration of his diesel engines, he closed with 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. [9] This strategy may seem an inexplicable blunder: Langsdorff could perhaps have manoeuvred to keep the British ships at a range where he could destroy them with his 283 mm (11.1 in) guns while remaining out of the effective range of their smaller 6" and 8" 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 Admiral 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 for reinforcements.

The British executed their battle plan: Exeter turned north-west, while Ajax and Achilles, operating together, turned north-east to spread Admiral Graf Spee′s fire. Admiral Graf Spee opened fire on Exeter at 19,000 yd (17,000 m) with her six 283 mm (11.1 in) 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, [10] 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 fucking 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". [11]

From her opening salvo, Admiral Graf Spee′s gunfire proved fairly accurate, her third salvo straddling Exeter. At 06:23, a 283 mm (11.1 in) shell burst just short of Exeter, abreast 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. [12] 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.

HMS Ajax. HMS Ajax.jpg
HMS Ajax.

Meanwhile, Ajax and Achilles closed to 13,000 yd (12,000 m) and started making in front of Admiral Graf Spee, causing her to split her main armament at 06:30 and otherwise use her 149 mm (5.9 in) guns against them. Shortly after, 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 283 mm (11.1 in) 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 instructions to those inside. [13] She also had a 7° list, was being flooded and being steered with the use of her small boat's compass. However, Exeter dealt the decisive blow; one of her 8" (203mm) 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.

At this point, nearly one hour after the battle started, Admiral Graf Spee was doomed; she could not make 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, nor were any reinforcements available. She was not seaworthy and could make only the neutral port of Montevideo. [14]

HMSO chart of the engagement HMSO Graf Spee battle map.jpg
HMSO chart of the engagement

Admiral Graf Spee hauled round from an easterly course, now behind Ajax and Achilles, towards the north-west and laid smoke. This course brought Langsdorff 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 a 283 mm (11.1 in) 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 Langsdorff's attention as both ships closed the German ship. [15]

Twenty minutes later, Ajax and Achilles turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear, causing Admiral Graf Spee to turn away and lay a smoke screen. At 07:10, the two light cruisers turned to reduce the range from 8  mi (7.0  nmi ; 13  km ), even though this meant that only their forward guns could fire. At 07:16, Admiral 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 283 mm (11.1 in) 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 miles (3.9 nmi; 7.2 km), causing Admiral Graf Spee to turn away under a smoke screen. At 07:25, Ajax was hit by a 283 mm (11.1 in) 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 smoke screen. Harwood decided to shadow Admiral Graf Spee and try to attack at night, when he could attack with torpedoes and better use his advantages of speed and manoeuvrability, while minimising his deficiencies in armour. Ajax was again hit by a 283 mm (11.1 in) shell that destroyed her mast and caused more casualties; Admiral Graf Spee continued to the south-west.


Painting depicting the cruisers HMS Exeter (foreground) and HMNZS Achilles (right center background) in action with the German armored ship Admiral Graf Spee (right background) HMS Exeter River Plate.jpg
Painting depicting the cruisers HMS Exeter (foreground) and HMNZS Achilles (right center background) in action with the German armored ship Admiral Graf Spee (right background)
Damage received by Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate Exeter'sDamage1939.jpg
Damage received by Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate

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". [10] The British and New Zealand cruisers split up, keeping about 15 mi (13 nmi; 24 km) from Admiral 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. Admiral Graf Spee turned and fired two three-gun salvoes with her fore guns. Achilles turned away under a smoke screen.

According to Pope, at 11:03 a merchant ship was sighted close to Admiral Graf Spee. [10] After a few minutes, Admiral Graf Spee called Ajax on W/T, probably on the international watchkeeping frequency of 500 kHz, 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 Admiral 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. Admiral 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 Admiral Graf Spee turned and opened fire on Ajax, which turned away under a smoke screen.

It was now clear that Admiral 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 Admiral Graf Spee silhouetted against the sun. Achilles had again closed the range and Admiral 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 Admiral Graf Spee.

Admiral 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 Admiral Graf Spee. [16] Also, had Admiral Graf Spee left port at this time, the damaged Ajax and Achilles would have been the only British warships that it would encounter in the area.

Trap of Montevideo

Map of the River Plate showing possible exit channels. HMSO Graf Spee map of River Plate.jpg
Map of the River Plate showing possible exit channels.

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." [17]

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 demand openly 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 the two 6" cruisers had been joined only by Cumberland which had arrived at 22:00 on 14 December, after steaming 1,014 nautical miles from the Falkland Islands in 34 hours, at an average of over 90% of her full trials speed attained over much shorter distances. The older and larger Cumberland was more powerful than Exeter, with an additional aft turret containing two more 8" guns, but was no match on paper for Admiral Graf Spee whose guns had significantly longer range and fired much heavier shells (660lb against 256lb). Overwhelming British forces (HMS Renown, Ark Royal, Shropshire, Dorsetshire, and Neptune) were en route, but would not assemble until 19 December, although they could intercept earlier if Graf Spee headed north or north east from Montevideo shadowed by Cumberland and her smaller consorts. For the time being, the total force comprised the undamaged Cumberland with a full ammunition load, and the damaged Ajax and Achilles with depleted stocks of shells. 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.

Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo, with battle damage. Graf Spee Seetakt.jpg
Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo, with battle damage.

On 15 December 1939, RFA Olynthus refuelled HMS Ajax, which proved a difficult operation; the ship had to use hurricane hawsers to complete the replenishment. On 17 December HMS Achilles was replenished from RFA Olynthus off Rouen Bank.

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 283 mm (11.1 in) ammunition and had only enough left for approximately a further 20 minutes of firing. Such a reduced ammunition stock was hardly sufficient for the ship to fight her way out of Montevideo, let alone get back to Germany, when contrasted with the previously unengaged Cumberland's ability to fight at full capacity for about 90 minutes and pursue at equal or higher speed for at least another 2,000 nautical miles before requiring replenishment at sea.

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[ by whom? ] to have infuriated Adolf Hitler. The crew of Admiral Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Captain Langsdorff committed suicide by gunshot 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.


Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate estuary Admiral Graf Spee Flames.jpg
Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate estuary

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 victory for the British, as the damage to Ajax and Achilles was not sufficient to reduce their fighting efficiency, while Exeter, as badly damaged as she was, was able to reach the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs, before returning to Devonport for a 13-month refit, thus enhancing the reputation of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

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 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. [18] 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.

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.

Admiral Graf Spee's Number Four 14.9 cm/55 gun mount (second gun in the forward port side group). Twin gun barrels at upper left are those of the ship's Number Two 10.5 cm/65 anti-aircraft gun mount Graf Spee Wreck USNphoto 3.jpg
Admiral Graf Spee′s Number Four 14.9 cm/55 gun mount (second gun in the forward port side group). Twin gun barrels at upper left are those of the ship's Number Two 10.5 cm/65 anti-aircraft gun mount
Admiral Graf Spee's salvaged rangefinder in Montevideo Graf Spee telemetro 01.jpg
Admiral Graf Spee's salvaged rangefinder in Montevideo

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. [19] 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. [20]

In 1997, one of Admiral Graf Spee′s 149 mm (5.9 in) 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 being funded in part 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. James Cameron filmed the salvage operation. After it has been raised, it was planned that the ship may be restored and put on display at the National Marine Museum.

Many German veterans did not approve of this restoration attempt, as they considered 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." [21]

On 10 February 2006, the 2 m (6 ft 7 in), 400 kg eagle and swastika crest of Admiral Graf Spee was recovered from the stern of the ship. [22] 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 prewar Nazi warships. In other cases, it was removed for a variety of practical reasons on 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. The figurehead was stored in a Uruguayan naval warehouse following German complaints about exhibiting "Nazi paraphernalia". [23]


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 and Anthony Quayle as Harwood. Finch portrays Langsdorff as a gentleman. HMNZS Achilles, which had been recommissioned in 1948 as HMIS Delhi, flagship of the Royal Indian Navy, played herself in the film. HMS Ajax (twin turrets) was "played" by HMS Sheffield (triple turrets), HMS Exeter (twin turrets) by HMS Jamaica (triple turrets) and HMS Cumberland by herself (although de-gunned as a trials platform). Graf Spee (two turrets) was portrayed by the U.S. heavy cruiser USS Salem (three turrets).

Captain Langsdorff at the funeral of crew members who were killed in the battle. Hans Langsdorff.jpg
Captain Langsdorff at the funeral of crew members who were killed in the battle.

The battle was for many years re-enacted with large-scale model boats throughout the summer season at Peasholm Park in the British 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. [24]

After the battle, the new town of Ajax, Ontario in Canada, constructed as a Second World War munitions production centre, was named after HMS Ajax. Many of its streets are named after Admiral Harwood's crewmen on Ajax, Exeter and Achilles. [25] Its main street is named after Admiral Harwood, while a small street was named (after some controversy) for Captain Langsdorff.

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). In Auckland, home port for the Royal New Zealand Navy, streets have been named for Achilles, Ajax and Exeter.

The names of the ships, 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, 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 photograph (seen left) from the funeral shows Langsdorff paying tribute with a traditional 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).

The battle is also significant as it was the first time the current Flag of New Zealand was flown in battle, from HMS Achilles. [26]

Four mountain peaks in the Two Thumb Range region of the South Island of New Zealand are named to mark the battle. These are Achilles (2,544m), Exeter (2,327m), Ajax (2,319m) and Graf Spee (2,267m). [27]

Related Research Articles

HMNZS <i>Achilles</i> (70) Leander-class light cruiser

HMNZS Achilles was a Leander-class light cruiser which served with the Royal New Zealand Navy in the Second World War, the second of five in the class. Originally constructed by the Royal Navy, she was loaned to New Zealand in 1936 before formally joining the new Royal New Zealand Navy in 1941. She became famous for her part in the Battle of the River Plate, alongside HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter and notable for being the first Royal Navy cruiser to have fire control radar, with the installation of the New Zealand-made SS1 fire-control radar in June 1940.

<i>The Battle of the River Plate</i> (film) 1956 film by Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell

The Battle of the River Plate is a 1956 British war film in Technicolor and VistaVision by the writer-director-producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film stars John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, and Peter Finch. It was distributed worldwide by Rank Film Distributors Ltd.

Battle of the Falkland Islands battle of World War I

The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a naval action between the British Royal Navy and Imperial German Navy on 8 December 1914, during the First World War in the South Atlantic. The British, after the defeat at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November, sent a large force to track down and destroy the victorious German cruiser squadron. The battle is commemorated every year on 8 December in the Falkland Islands as a public holiday.

<i>Leander</i>-class cruiser (1931) UK class of light cruisers

The Leander class was a class of eight light cruisers built for the Royal Navy in the early 1930s that saw service in World War II. They were named after mythological figures, and all ships were commissioned between 1933 and 1936. The three ships of the second group were sold to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) before World War II and renamed after Australian cities.

HMS <i>Ajax</i> (22) ship that took part in WWII

HMS Ajax was a Leander-class light cruiser which served with the Royal Navy during World War II. She became famous for her part in the Battle of the River Plate, the Battle of Crete, the Battle of Malta and as a supply escort in the Siege of Tobruk. This ship was the eighth in the Royal Navy to bear the name. In February 1942, she was adopted by the civil community of Halifax.

HMS <i>Neptune</i> (20) 1934 heavy cruiser

HMS Neptune was a Leander-class light cruiser which served with the Royal Navy during World War II.

HMS <i>Defence</i> (1907) Minotaur-class armoured cruiser

HMS Defence was a Minotaur-class armoured cruiser built for the Royal Navy in the first decade of the 20th century, the last armoured cruiser built for the Royal Navy. She was stationed in the Mediterranean when the First World War began and participated in the pursuit of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau. The ship was transferred to the Grand Fleet in January 1915 and remained there for the rest of her career.

HMS <i>Exeter</i> (68) ship

HMS Exeter was the second and last York-class heavy cruiser built for the Royal Navy during the late 1920s. Aside from a temporary deployment with the Mediterranean Fleet during the Abyssinia Crisis of 1935–36, she spent the bulk of the 1930s assigned to the Atlantic Fleet or the North America and West Indies Station. When World War II began in September 1939, the cruiser was assigned to patrol South American waters against German commerce raiders. Then the Exeter was one of three British cruisers that fought the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee, later that year in the Battle of the River Plate. She was severely damaged during the battle, and she was in the shipyard for over a year.

Henry Harwood Royal Navy admiral

Admiral Sir Henry Harwood Harwood, KCB, OBE, was a British naval officer who won fame in the Battle of the River Plate.

<i>Deutschland</i>-class cruiser "pocket battleships" of the German navy, built 1929–1936

The Deutschland class was a series of three Panzerschiffe, a form of heavily armed cruiser, built by the Reichsmarine officially in accordance with restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The ships of the class, Deutschland, Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee, were all stated to displace 10,000 long tons (10,000 t) in accordance with the Treaty, though they actually displaced 10,600 to 12,340 long tons at standard displacement. Despite violating the weight limitation, the design for the ships incorporated several radical innovations to save weight. They were the first major warships to use welding and all-diesel propulsion. Due to their heavy armament of six 28 cm (11 in) guns and lighter weight, the British began referring to the vessels as "pocket battleships". The Deutschland-class ships were initially classified as Panzerschiffe or "armored ships", but the Kriegsmarine reclassified them as heavy cruisers in February 1940.

Captain Frederick Secker Bell CB of the Royal Navy was the commander of HMS Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939.

Club Hotel de la Ventana Former hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Club Hotel de la Ventana was a large, luxurious hotel resort, built by the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway and opened in 1911 near Villa Ventana, 17 km from the town of Sierra de La Ventana, in the southeast of the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic

The Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic was an operational commander of the Royal Navy from 1939.

SS <i>Ussukuma</i>

The Ussukuma was a German passenger ship named after a location in the central highlands of German East Africa. She had a crew of 107, could carry 264 passengers and was powered by steam turbine. Her building number was 389 and her home port was Hamburg. Her sister ships were the Usaramo of the Deutsche Ost-Afrika Linie and the Wangoni of the Woermann-Linie.

Uruguay during World War II

Uruguay stayed neutral for most of World War II, despite internal disputes and pressure to join the Allies. Great Britain retained considerable influence with the Uruguayan government, largely through the efforts of Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, who was the British Minister in Montevideo from 1934 to 1941. In 1942, Uruguay terminated diplomatic relations with Germany and Japan. In February 1945, Uruguay declared war on the Axis powers.

The following events occurred in December 1939:

SS <i>Clement</i>

TSS Clement, was a British turbine steamship operated by the Booth Steamship Company from 1934 to 1939 until she was intercepted and sunk by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graff Spee off the east coast of Brazil becoming the first victim of Graf Spee's commerce raiding sortie.


  1. O'Hara 2004, p. 7.
  2. Suicide
  3. Churchill 1948, pp. 525–526.
  4. Churchill 1948, p. 516
  5. 1 2 Churchill 1948, p. 519
  6. Barnett, 83.
  7. "Ahoy - Mac's Web Log - The Battle of the River Plate. 13th. December 1939". Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  8. War Monthly (1977). Battle of the River Plate, by David Thomas (p. 3).
  9. Barnett, 84.
  10. 1 2 3 Dudley Pope (1956), The Battle of the River Plate, Chatham Publishing, UK, 1999, ISBN   1-86176-089-2 p. ix
  11. Arthur, Max – Forgotten Voices of The Second World War , 2004, Random House, ISBN   0091897343 p.29
  12. Churchill 1948, p. 520
  13. Arthur, pp. 29–30
  14. Maier, Rohde, Stegemann and Umbreit 1991, p. 166.
  15. Barnett, 85.
  16. 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
  17. "The Avalon Project: Text of the 13th Hague Convention".
  18. Archived 1 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  19. Johnson, Brian. The Secret War, BBC 1979, pp. 101–102 ISBN   0-563-17769-1
  20. "Anchor of the Graf Spee, Montivideo" . Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  21. Rohter, Larry (25 August 2006). "A Swastika, 60 Years Submerged, Still Inflames Debate". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 May 2008.
  22. "Graf Spee's eagle rises from deep". BBC News. 10 February 2006. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
  23. "What should Uruguay do with its Nazi eagle?". BBC News. 15 December 2014. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
  24. "Naval Warfare". Friends of Peasholm Park.
  25. Kitts, Daniel (10 November 2015). "The Second World War created Ajax. Here's how". TVO.
  26. "Captain Parry's Story of the Battle". The Auckland Star. LXXI (46). 23 February 1940. p. 9. Retrieved 3 November 2014. The "Diggers' " flag, the New Zealand Ensign, flying at the masthead of Achilles during the naval battle
  27. "New Zealand Topographic Map - NZ Topo Map". NZ Topo Map. Retrieved 5 April 2018.


Coordinates: 32°S47°W / 32°S 47°W / -32; -47