The battle of the River Plate is one of the most famous naval battles of the Second World War, despite only involving four ships. Part of its fame came because it took place in the “phoney war” period and part because of the unjustifiably high reputation of the Admiral Graf Spee, the German pocket-battleship involved in the battle.
The Graf Spee had been designed while Germany was still publicly obeying the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. This limited her capital ships to a standard displacement of 10,000 tons, and required her to seek permission to use anything above an 11in gun. Work on the design of the Graf Spee and her two sister ships began in 1923. A large number of designers were considered, before in 1926 it was decided to build lightly armoured ships, armed with 28cm (11in) guns and with a speed of 26kts. Funding was approved in 1928, and the first member of the class was laid down soon afterwards.
The resulting ships were officially known as Panzerschiffe (armoured ships), despite being very poorly armoured - the side armour on the Graf Spee was only 3.1-2.4in thick. Their design speed was 26kts, but in trials all three ships would reach 28kts. Their six 11in guns were carried in two three-gun turrets, with another eight 5.9in guns in single turrets. She was powered by diesel engines. These gave her a much longer range than turbine powered ships, but at the cost of a decrease in reliability.
The new ships caused something of a panic in Britain and France, where their combat ability was over-rated. In Britain they were given the rather over dramatic name of “pocket battleships”, although in fact they rather more resembled the British battlecruisers of World War One, a type of ship that had proved to be very vulnerable to German gunfire.
Their top speed of 28kts did make them fast enough to escape from most battleships that were in existence when they were being built. The two British interwar battleships, Nelson and Rodney were also too slow to catch them, while France and the United States were still relying on First World War vintage ships. The only British capital ships with the speed to catch them were the battlecruisers Renown, Repulse and Hood, each of which was better armoured and armed than the Graf Spee. However, by the time the war broke out France had built two Dunkerque class ships, each faster than the Graf Spee, while the British King George V class ships were approaching completion.
A bigger threat to the Graf Spee came from the numerous 8in cruisers of the Royal Navy. The British had an existing tactic for dealing with a pocket battleship using two 8in cruisers, which involved them attacking from different directions to confuse the enemy’s fire control system. HMS Exeter had played the part of a battlecruiser in a pre-war exercise that had tested out this theory.
At the River Plate the Graf Spee would be faced by one 8in and two 6in cruisers. HMS Exeter had been launched in 1929, carried six 8in guns and was protected by a 4in armoured box. HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax had been launched in 1932 and 1934 respectively, carried eight 6in guns and were protected by a 3.5in armoured box. All three ships were capable of over 30kts. They would be outgunned, but not out-armoured.
The Admiral Graf Spee put to sea on 23 August 1939 under the command of Captain Langsdorff, and was safely in the Atlantic by the start of the war. On 26 September Hitler allowed the navy to begin commerce raiding, and the Graf Spee began a moderately successful cruise that would see her sink nine ships totalling just over 50,000 tons. The British and French responded with a massive deployment of ships – during October seven hunting groups were active in the Atlantic, although the most dangerous allied ships were operating to the north of the Graf Spee.
After sinking five ships in the South Atlantic between 30 September and 22 October, Captain Langsdorff took the Graf Spee into the Indian Ocean, sinking the Africa Shell on 15 November before returning to the Atlantic. This move successfully convinced the British that the Graf Spee had left the Atlantic, and two of the Hunting Groups spend 28 November-2 December patrolling south of the Cape of Good Hope.
By the time the British were in place, the Graf Spee was already back in the South Atlantic. Her diesel engines were now beginning to cause concern, and on 24 November Captain Langsdorff informed his officers that the Graf Spee would need to return to Germany for an overhaul. Before returning home Langsdorff wanted to achieve some final successes. He sank two ships off the west coast of Africa on 2-3 December, and then turned west, heading towards South America and the estuary of the River Plate, where he expected to find a large number of merchant ships. On 7 December the Graf Spee sank her final victim, the British ship Streonshalh.
With the end of her cruise in sight, Langsdorff decided to ignore his orders not to engage with enemy warships. The logic behind these orders was that even a successful clash with an Allied cruiser might have inflicted damage on the Graf Spee that would have forced her home for repairs, but as she was about to return to Germany anyway, that consideration was no longer relevant. On the night of 12-13 December the Graf Spee took up a position off the River Plate, searching for a four-ship convoy, escorted by an auxiliary cruiser.
At the same time as the Graf Spee was heading to the River Plate, so was the British Hunting Group G under Commodore Harwood. From his latest information Harwood had calculated that the Graf Spee could reach Rio de Janeiro on 12 December, the River Plate on 13 December or the Falkland Islands on 14 December. He decided to take his three battle-worthy cruisers (Exeter, Ajax and Achilles) to the River Plate while his fourth cruisers, HMS Cumberland underwent a refit at the Falklands.
On the morning of 13 December the British and German ships were sailing on converging courses. The Graf Spee was to the north, sailing south east, with the British cruisers to the south, sailing north east. At 5.52 am the Graf Spee’s lookout spotted two masts on the horizon. The Graf Spee’s lookout position was much higher than that on the British ships, so for some time the British were unaware that they were about to encounter the German ship.
At first Captain Langsdorff believed that he had found his convoy, and continued to sail in the same direction. At 6.00am the Exeterwas identified, but Achilles and Ajaxwere misidentified as destroyers. At this point the British had not yet sighted the Von Spee.
Captain Langsdorff decided to attack the British force, and increased his speed. His diesels produced a cloud of dark smoke, which was spotted from the British ships. At 6.14am Commodore Harwood detached the Exeter to investigate the smoke, which he still expected to be a merchant ship. This illusion was very quickly shattered – at 6.16am the British finally realised that they had found their target.
All three British captains knew exactly what to do in this situation. By chance Harwood’s three ships were in exactly the right positions to carry out his plans – HMS Exeter was heading north west, and would be to the right of the Graf Spee, while Achilles and Ajax were cutting across her bows, and would soon be to her left. Harwood’s plan was for his ships to close with the Graf Spee at full speed to bring the shorter range guns of the two 6in cruisers into action. His divided ships would also be able to correct each others shooting.
Langsdorff now had to decide whether he should concentrate his two main turrets on a single target, or split his fire. At 6.17am he opened fire on the Exeterwith all of his 11in guns, straddling her with his third salvo at 6.23am. Meanwhile, to the north east the Ajaxand Achilles opened fire at 6.20am.
The Exetersoon suffered heavy damage. The Graf Spee’s eighth salvo knocked out B turret, while splinters hit the bridge, killing most of the officers and wounding Captain Bell. The ship was briefly out of control before the captain was able to take command from the rear of the ship.
The Ajaxand Achilles were now in a good position to launch a torpedo attack, and so Captain Langsdorff ordered a turn to the north to make the Graf Spee a harder target for torpedoes. At the same time another 11in salve hit the Exeter, causing fires all along the ship. Seeing this, the Graf Spee’s 11in guns turned on the Ajax and fired a salvo that straddled her.
Meanwhile the Exeterhad come into a good position to launch her starboard torpedoes. A first salvo of three missed because of the Graf Spee’s turn to the north, and so the Exeterbegan to turn to use her bow torpedo tubes. Seeing this, Langsdorff turned his 11in guns back onto the Exeter. At 6.39am an 11in shell hit her in the navigator’s office, followed by another hit which knocked out A turret and a third hit which knocked out most of her electrical circuits. Only the rear Y turret was still firing, aimed manually by the Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant-Commander Richard Jennings, who was standing on the roof. Eventually floodwater would reach the power supply to Y turret, knocking it out of action. At that point Commodore Harwood ordered the Exeterto leave the actions (7.30am).
The Graf Spee now turned to the Ajaxand the Achilles. At 6.40am the Achilles was damaged by a near miss, which briefly knocked her off course. The two British cruisers then suffered from a series of misunderstandings which reduced the accuracy of their fire until they were sorted out at around 7.08am (most involved the Seafox aircraft from Ajax).
At 7.16am the Graf Spee turned to the south, apparently to finish off the Exeter. Commodore Harwood ordered Ajaxand Achilles to close with the Graf Spee to protect the badly wounded Exeter. The ploy worked, and the Graf Spee turned to the north west and opened fire on the Ajaxwith her 11in guns. She soon scored telling hits. At 7.25am the Ajaxsuffered a heavy hit, losing both of her aft turrets, and at 7.38 she lost her topmast. Commodore Harwood was very badly outclassed and at 7.40am he turned away to the east, intended to renew the fight after dark. He now only had twelve 6in guns, while the Graf Spee was apparently undamaged, and was firing with all of her main armament.
Captain Langsdorff now made the most crucial decision of the battle. He had been wounded twice, and even knocked out for a short period. His judgement would appear to have been somewhat impaired by this. The Graf Spee had been hit several times, but had only lost two of her secondary guns and suffered minor damage to her galley. The only potentially serious damage was a six foot wide hole in the bow, well above the waterline. Captain Langsdorff would later make much of this hole, claiming that it made his ship unfit for the North Atlantic.
None of this damage was relevant to the decision Langsdorff now made. Instead of turning back to finish off the badly mauled British squadron, he decided to continue on to the west, and seek safety in Montevideo. It is generally agreed that he could have turned on the Exeterand sunk her with little difficulty, and that the two British light cruisers would probably have come to her rescue, at great cost to themselves. However, having decided that the Graf Spee needed repairs before she would be fit to return to Germany, it is possible to understand Langsdorff’s decision. He had already forced the Exeterout of the battle, and had badly damaged one of the remaining ships. To a certain extent they were no longer relevant. They would not have been able to prevent him leaving Montevideo if he had chose to fight his way out, but a luck shot or a torpedo hit in the last minutes of the fight could have caused critical damage. Langsdorff would almost certainly still have gone into port even if he had sunk all three British ships.
The battle now developed into a long stern chase. Ajaxand Achilles attempted to follow the Graf Spee at a safe different, to make sure she was indeed heading into port. This section of the battle was not without incident. At 10.10 the Achilles came dangerously close to the Graf Spee, and was nearly hit by an 11in salvo, while at 3.30pm the British sighted a strange ship that was briefly taken to be a German Hipper class cruiser. She was eventually recognised as a modern streamlined British merchant ship. The three ships exchanged salvoes on a number of further occasions, although the only effect was to hide the Graf Spee behind smoke for some time. Finally, at 11.17pm the Achilles was recalled when it was clear that the Graf Spee was about to enter Montevideo. The two British cruisers took up a position off the River Plate, and began a nervous watch over the estuary.
The scene of the action now moved from the open sea to the port of Montevideo. The most important figures over the next few days would be Sir Henry McCall, the British Naval Attaché to Uruguay, Argentine and Brazil, and the head of British Intelligence in the area, Captain Rex Miller, whose office overlooked the harbour at Montevideo. On 14 December they rowed around the German ship looking for damage. All they found was the hole in the bows and some superficial damage to the superstructure. They assumed that she must have suffered some serious hidden damage, perhaps to her fire-control system, or was very short on ammunition. Believing this, they spent the rest of the first day attempting to make sure that the Graf Spee was only allowed the 24 hours in port she was allowed under international law.
On the next day they were in contact with Commodore Harwood, and discovered that the Graf Spee was in fact still intact. They now had to change tack completely, and find ways to keep her in port. One method they used was to take advantage of the 24 hour rule. This stated that if a merchant ship from one belligerent nation left a neutral port, any hostile warship in that port would have to wait for 24 hours before leaving. A number of British merchant ships that were in Montevideo at the time were sent to sea at regular intervals. They also considered sabotaging the Graf Spee but dismissed the idea because of the impact it would have on neutral opinion.
Somewhat ironically Langsdorff was attempting the exact same thing. He convinced the Uruguayan authorities to allow him to stay for another 72 hours and would have liked longer to carry out the repairs he believed to be needed. The deadline for his departure would eventually be 8.00pm on 17 December.
While Miller and McCall were doing their best to keep the Graf Spee in port, British reinforcements were rushing towards the River Plate. Harwood’s last ship, the Cumberland, arrived from the Falklands on 14 December. She carried eight 8in guns, making her 25% more powerful than the Exeter. This more than made up for the damaged guns on Ajax, and gave Commodore Harwood a slightly more squadron than he had had during the battle.
Cumberland, Ajaxand Achilles were the only ships that Harwood could expect to have by 17 December. The battlecruiser Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal were on their way via Rio, but couldn’t arrive before 19 December. Three more cruisers - Dorsetshire, Shropshire and Neptune were also on their way, as was the 3rd Destroyer Division, but none of these ships could arrive in time in the Graf Spee chose to fight her way out.
It is normally stated that the Graf Spee would have been able to overwhelm the British squadron outside the River Plate. This is not an entirely convincing argument. The Graf Spee had used 57.5% of her 11in ammunition, most of it presumably during the battle on 13 December. She had crippled Exeterbut both of the light cruisers had survived the battle. It would seem likely that a fight with an equally strong cruiser squadron on 17 December would have exhausted the Graf Spee’s ammunition.
This was certainly one of Langsdorff’s chief concerns. On 15 one of his artillery officers believed that he had sighted the Renown’s fighting top through the ship’s range finders, although by 1939 that fighting top had been removed. If Renown was present, then the Ark Royal was probably with her. Langsdorff even received instructions from Berlin to photograph the Ark Royal, as the Germans believed they had already sunk her! Miller and McCall helped to reinforce this belief by leaking a request for refuelling facilities at a nearby Argentine naval base.
Langsdorff now believed that he was faced with a battlecruiser, an aircraft carrier, three or four cruisers and a destroyer flotilla. If this had been true then the Graf Spee would have been very badly outclassed. He asked Berlin for advice – if he could not fight his way out, should the Graf Spee be scuttled or interned? He was told that the best option was for him to fight his way out, but if he had no other choice to scuttle the ship rather than risk internment.
On 6.61pm on 17 December the Graf Spee set sail, heading out into the estuary. At least 800 of her crew had been transferred to the German steamship Tacoma, which then followed the Graf Spee out to sea. At 7.56pm smoke was seen coming from the Graf Spee, followed by an enormous explosion. Rather than risk the Graf Spee falling into British hands after she ran out of ammunition after a battle with the ghost fleet outside the River Plate, Captain Langsdorff had decided to destroy his ship in the shallow water of the River Plate. The explosions were designed to prevent the British from examining the design of his ship. The crew of the Graf Spee were soon interned in Argentina and on 20 December, after writing a letter to Hitler, Captain Langsdorff committed suicide.
The destruction of the Graf Spee was treated as a great triumph in Britain. It was the first real Allied success of the war, which had begun with the defeat of Poland and then the start of the “phoney war”. Hitler was predictably furious with Langsdorff’s decision to destroy his own ship, while the fate of the Graf Spee put the entire concept of commerce raiding by warships in doubt. Admiral Raeder issued new orders to the navy, which stated that “The German warship and her crew are to fight with all their strength to the last shell; until they win or go down with their flag flying”. This order would certainly be obeyed by the captain and crew of the Bismarck, at the end of their sortie into the Atlantic in 1941.