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The Battle of the River Plate was the first major naval battle in World War II. The German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Speemarker had been commerce raiding since the start of the war in September. It was found and engaged off the estuary of the River Platemarker off the coast of Argentinamarker and Uruguaymarker in South America by one of the hunting groups set up by the British Admiralty to search for the Graf Spee, comprising three smaller Royal Navy (RN) cruisers: HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, 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 Falklandsmarker.

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 Montevideomarker. After Hans Langsdorff, the captain of the Graf Spee, was told that the limit of his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours he scuttled his damaged ship - rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British led him to believe had been assembled.

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.

Background

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 Oceanmarker and South Atlantic Oceanmarker 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. The Achilles was of the New Zealandmarker 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 Islandsmarker at the time but available at short notice.

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


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 Platemarker estuary between Uruguaymarker and Argentinamarker. 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.

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.

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. This strategy was an inexplicable blunder. Langsdorf could have manouvered to keep the British ships at a range where he could destroy them with his 11 inch shells while remaining out of the effective range of their smaller 6-inch and 8-inch guns.

HMSO chart of the engagement


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. 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.

December 1939, HMS Achilles as seen from HMS Ajax during the Battle of the River Plate
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 shells 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.

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. 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. The British and New Zealander cruisers split up keeping about from Graf Spee. The Ajax kept to the German's port and the Achilles to the starboard. At 09:15, the Ajax recovered her aircraft. At 09:46, Harwood signalled to the Cumberland for reinforcement, and the Admiralty also ordered ships within to proceed to the River Plate. At 10:05, 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 19:15, 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 River Plate Estuarymarker. 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 20:48, 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 Montevideomarker in the neutral Uruguaymarker, dropping anchor at about 00:10 on 14 December. This was a political error, since Uruguaymarker, 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 Montevideomarker. The port of Mar del Platamarker, on the Argentine coast, 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 Montevideomarker, 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. Langsdorff then asked the Uruguayan government for two weeks to make repairs. Initially, the British diplomats in Uruguaymarker, 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 Montevideomarker 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 Force H (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 guns. She was no match alone for Admiral Graf Spee, whose guns had much longer range and fired much heavier shells. The Cumberland arrived at 22:00 on 14 December, after steaming at full speed for 36 hours from the Falkland Islandsmarker. Overwhelming British forces (HMS Renown, Ark Royal, Shropshire, Dorsetshire, and Neptune) were en route, but would not assemble until 19 December. 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 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 Montevideomarker, let alone get back to Germany.

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 Uruguaymarker. 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 to have infuriated Adolf Hitler. The crew of Admiral Graf Spee was taken to Buenos Aires, Argentinamarker, where Captain Langsdorff committed suicide 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" in Montevideo.

Aftermath

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. 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.

Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate Estuary off Montevideo, Uruguay.
Exeter limped to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs and later to Devonportmarker 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 Incidentmarker (February 16, 1940) — whilst in Jøssingfjordmarker, at the time neutral Norwegianmarker waters. Prisoners who had not been transferred to Altmark had remained aboard Graf Spee during the battle, and were released on arrival in Montevideomarker.

On 22 December 1939 over 1,000 sailors from the Admiral Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Airesmarker, Argentina, and interned there; at least 92 were transferred during 1940 to a camp in Rosariomarker, some were transferred to Club Hotel de la Ventanamarker in Buenos Aires Provincemarker and another group to Villa General Belgranomarker, 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 Uruguaymarker, some returning after being repatriated to Germanymarker. 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 Montevideomarker, while those who died on the Exeter were buried at sea. .

Plans to raise the wreck are discussed in the article on Admiral Graf Speemarker.

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.

first salvage from the ship was most likely carried out by Royal Navy intelligence teams which recovered the highly advanced Seetakt radar not destroyed in the scuttling. In any event, 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 cms. In February 1940, the wreck was boarded by US Navy sailors from the light cruiser USS Helena.

In 1997, one of Admiral Graf Spee's 15 cm secondary gun mounts was raised and restored; it can now be seen outside Montevideomarker'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 Uruguaymarker, 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."

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 at the base of the figurehead was covered as it was pulled from the water.

Legacy

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.HMS Ajax was "played" by HMS Sheffield, HMS Exeter by HMS Jamaica and HMS Cumberland by herself.The Graf Spee was actually the US heavy cruiser Salem.

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

After the battle, the new town of Ajax, Ontariomarker in Canadamarker, 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, and the commander of Force G, 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 (NLWC) Lady Exeter (now disbanded) and the camp shared by all three corps, called Camp Cumberland. RCSCC Harwood #244 and NLCC Exeter #173 are situated in Ajax, Ontario.

According to an article in the German language paper "Albertaner" on October 6, 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)

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