Sunday, July 11, 2010

Battle of the River Plate, WW-II

I am prompted to reproduce here a very informative letter along with some more scans on HMS Achilles that I received from Cdr. U.N.Acharya, IN (Retd), Secretary and Founder Member of Naval Philatelic Society of India and an ardent Naval historian himself.I have discussed with Cdr Acharya that I am publishing his letter for the benefit of all those who may be interested on the captioned subject. Cdr. Acharya also agreed to post regularly in the Society's blog , on historical and other relevant aspects of Foreign Warships acquisitioned by the Indian Navy.
I Quote;
"Dear Sekhar Chakrabarti,
It was a pleasure perusing through your blog on ships. It came as no surprise to me as you collect many themes and the very fact that you are an active member of NPS justifies your starting a blog on ships ..... Since you have posted “Battle of the River Plate” in your blog, I do not intend to post this topic in NPS Blog. I shall pass on the additional information to you ..........

 The Battle of the River Plate
The Battle of the River Plate took place on December 13th 1939. The battle in the South Atlantic was the first major naval battle of World War Two. Ships from the Royal Navy’s South American Division took on the might of Germany’s Graf Spee which was successfully attacking merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.
Great Britain's South American Naval Division was made up of four cruisers. On Saturday, December 2nd, 1939, HMS Ajax, commanded by Captain Woodhouse, was harboured at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Also at Port Stanley was HMS Exeter, commanded by Captain Bell. Two other ships made up the South American Division – HMS Cumberland, commanded by Captain Fallowfield, and HMNZS Achilles, commanded by Captain Parry. The commander of the South American Division was Commodore Harwood.
Harwood knew that the Graf Spee was in the South Atlantic somewhere but he had received no intelligence since November 15th as to her exact position. Harwood came to two conclusions:

Ø The Graf Spee would be tempted to attack the shipping using the route from Argentina/Brazil to Britain

Ø The 25th anniversary of the German defeat at the Battle of the Falkland Islands would be an appropriate date for the Graf Spee to seek revenge by attacking the British South American Division.

There were three neutral countries in South America that allowed ships to use their harbour facilities – Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Under international law, a naval ship could only use a harbour once every three months. However, Harwood had built up a number of contacts in each country and this ‘law’ was given a liberal interpretation by both parties.

On December 2nd, 1939, Harwood received a message that a merchant ship, the ‘Doric Star’ had been attacked by a large German naval vessel just off St. Helena. The next day, Harwood was informed that another ship, the ‘Tairoa’, had also been attacked 170 miles to the south-west of where the ‘Doric Star’ had been attacked. Harwood assumed that it was the 'Graf Spee'. By using the distance covered over 24 hours, Harwood estimated where this German naval ship could be. He worked off of an average speed of 15 knots an hour – in fact, the Graf Spee cruised at 22 knots; 50% faster than that estimated by the British. However, luck also assisted Harwood’s skill. The Graf Spee’s average speed was 22 knots – but it had been reduced as a result of the Graf Spee’s attacks on merchant shipping……to 15 knots, exactly what Harwood had calculated.

Harwood could not split his force of four cruisers so he decided that out of his two obvious choices, the River Plate in Argentina and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, he would place his force at the mouth of the River Plate and wait. Even so, Harwood had to assume that the Graf Spee would go to South America – what if it turned to the West Indies?

On paper, four British cruisers against one German pocket-battleship would have been no contest. In fact, the Graf Spee was potentially an awesome opponent. The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany from making what would have been considered to be classic battleships. To get round the restrictions of Versailles, Germany produced pocket battleships. The Graf Spee was commissioned in 1936. The Graf Spee was fast enough to outrun any battleship but was also armed with sufficient weapons to be a potent enemy. The Graf Spee had six 11 inch guns, numerous anti-aircraft guns and six 21 inch torpedo tubes at her stern. Her broadside range was 30,000 yards. She carried two Arado aircrafts that could be launched by catapult. Her weaponry was superior to any carried by a British heavy cruiser and her armour, at 5.5 inches, was sufficient to resist shells up to 8 inches. Her eight diesel engines gave the ship 56,000 horsepower and a top speed of 26 knots. The engines also allowed the Graf Spee to travel 12,500 miles without refueling - near enough halfway round the world.

In the Battle of the River Plate, the Graf Spee was to be pitted against British cruisers. Though faster than the Graf Spee, they were all outgunned. The Exeter had six 8 inch guns, a top speed of 31 knots but her broadside range was 27,000 yards. Ajax, seen below, and Achilles had a smaller broadside range of 25,000 yards and were equipped with eight 6 inch guns.

The commander of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff, knew that he had range on his side and he could effectively engage the enemy while they could not engage him - as long as the Graf Spee kept its distance. The only threat in terms of distance was the Exeter - if the Graf Spee took the Exeter out of any battle, Langsdorff knew that he was relatively free of trouble. For Harwood, he knew that he had speed on his side and that he could keep out of the range of the Graf Spee but keep up with her, trailing her, until bigger reinforcements arrived.

On December 13th, 1939, the Graf Spee was targeting the route used by merchant ships near the River Plate in Argentina. Harwood had given the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter orders to engage the Graf Spee "at once by night or day" if the ships came across her.

At 05.52, look outs on the Graf Spee saw two tall masts on the horizon. By 06.00, Langsdorff had identified one of the ships seen as being the Exeter. He decided that the ships trailing the were protecting an important merchant convoy and he decided to attack. The engines of the Graf Spee  were put onto a battle footing - their power was greatly increased. This gave out a plume of highly visible black smoke from the funnels of the Graf Spee and the following British cruisers could clearly see her position. The Graf Spee turned to attack and at 06.17 opened fire on the Exeter. The Exeter was hit amidships and the ship sustained damage. A salvo from the Graf Spee did a great deal of damage to the wheelhouse and killed all but three of the officers in it. The captain, Bell, survived and he ordered that the remaining turrets should fire on the Graf Spee. One salvo hit the Graf Spee near its turrets.

The Achilles and Ajax were also involved in this battle but they had stayed away from the Exeter in an attempt to split the fire power. It proved to be a successful ploy. More shells from the Graf Spee'sGraf Spee's 11 inch guns hit the Exeter that continued to take massive damage. However, some of the Exeter's torpedo tubes were undamaged and at 06.31, three torpedoes were fired at the Graf Spee from the Exeter. At that moment, Langsdorff had decided to turn and the three torpedoes missed. His attack on the continued and 11 inch shells hit the cruiser. However, the engine room was not damaged but electricity in the ship was lost and it was this that forced the Exeter out of the battle. Bell planned to ram the Graf Spee but he was ordered out of the battle by Harwood.

Now the Achilles and Ajax took up the battle. They were against a ship that had been hit but had suffered minimal damage at this stage even though Langsdorff had been knocked unconscious in one attack. Both ships were ordered by Harwood to approach the Graf Spee "at the utmost speed". Langsdorff, a torpedo specialist, kept both ships astern to give them the smallest possible target with regards to a torpedo attack.

"My own feelings were that the enemy could do anything he wanted to. He showed no sign of being damaged; his main armament was firing accurately; the Exeter evidently was out of it, and so he had only two small cruisers to prevent him attacking the very valuable River Plate trade."
Captain Parry - commander of the Achilles

What happened next is open to interpretation. Langsdorff went around the Graf Spee to assess the damage. He then told his navigator:

"We must run into port, the ship is not now seaworthy for the North Atlantic."

This decision, according to the Graf Spee's gunnery officer was not well received. The ship had been hit by seventeen shells but junior officers of the Graf Spee later stated that the damage done to the ship was insufficient to cause it to run to a port. At this stage in the battle, the Graf Spee had suffered 37 dead and 57 wounded out of a total complement of 1,100. In comparison, the Exeter was three feet down in the waterline and had lost 61 men killed and could only use a ship's compass for navigation with shouted orders to ensure that those orders were carried out. Harwood ordered her to return to the Falkland Islands.

All the indications pointed to the Graf Spee heading towards the River Plate and Montevideo. In fact the ship's action report states clearly that it was the navigating officer that recommended Montevideo. Langsdorff sent a telegram to Berlin that stated:

"Inspection of direct hits reveals that all galleys except for the Admiral's galley have been badly damaged. Water entering flour store endangers bread supply while a direct hit on the forecastle makes the ship unseaworthy for the North Atlantic in the the ship cannot be made seaworthy for the breakthrough to the homeland with means on board, decided to go into the River Plate at risk of being shut in there."

Whether the Graf Spee was so badly damaged is open to question. The ship had been hit by seventeen shells but one gunnery officer recorded that three of these hits had simply bounced off of the armour and that the others had hit the ship "without causing damage". The authorities in Uruguay, on inspecting the Graf Spee when it reached the River Plate, commented that the largest hit was six feet by six feet but was well above the waterline - as was all of the damage to the ship.

The Graf Spee made for the River Plate - the Plate estuary is a huge bay 120 miles across. The two remaining cruisers, Ajax and Achilles, patrolled the estuary to ensure that the Graf Spee could not slip out back into the Atlantic under the cover of dark. The crews later called this the 'death watch'.

The Graf Spee in Montevideo
The Graf Spee had been forced into Montevideo after the British success at the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939 - the first major naval action of World War Two.

The Graf Spee harboured in Montevideo – much to the surprise of the British naval attaché’s office based there. The damage done to the Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate did not appear to be great. Even those on board, according to the ship’s records, were surprised at Langsdorff’s decision to sail to the neutral harbour in Uruguay. The British naval attaché in Montevideo, Henry McCall, and an Intelligence officer, Captain Rex Miller, got into a boat and sailed around the pocket battleship. They both saw little wrong with the ship’s structure and the crew seemed to be working normally as if nothing was wrong. Both British naval officers assumed that the engines were in working order as the ship had sailed at speed to Montevideo to escape the Ajax and Achilles.

“It was all something of a puzzle, and in the circumstances, we concluded that either serious damage to her fire-control system or lack of ammunition could have forced Captain Langsdorff to bring the ship into harbour.”
Admiral Sir Henry McCall.

With so little obvious damage, the British asked the Uruguayans to invoke the rule used internationally for an undamaged warship in a neutral port – that it had 24-hours to leave. Either this, or the crew would be interned. This decision McCall quickly regretted as Commodore Harwood had contacted him from the Ajax to inform him that the Graf Spee was still a formidable fighting ship. However, here was McCall trying to get the Uruguayans to get the ship back into the Atlantic again – a number of days before any British reinforcements could get to the area. With only HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles in the immediate vicinity, such a move would pose a serious threat to them.

One of Langsdorff’s first acts in Montevideo was to release the crews of the merchant ships he had sunk during her most recent voyage. Out of nine merchant ships sunk, none of the crews had been killed. All of those released spoke highly of their treatment and of Langsdorff, who spoke perfect English and lent them English books to pass the time.

Langsdorff had also been busy while the Graf Spee was harboured. He had arranged for the burial of those Germans killed in battle and he had also got the Uruguayan authorities to inspect the damage to the ship so that they might not invoke the 24-hour rule.

On December 16th, the British in Montevideo got a message from Commodore Harwood asking them to do all they could to stop the Graf Spee from sailing. International law again helped the British. If a merchant ship sailed from a neutral harbour, any warship from a combatant nation (in this case the Germans and the British) could not sail for 24 hours – effectively giving a merchant ship a 24-hour start ahead of a warship. The Uruguayans were informed that the ‘SS Ashworth’, a British merchant ship in Montevideo, was sailing on the evening of December 16th and the Uruguayans accepted this. However, a ship like the Graf Spee would easily catch up with any merchant ship even with a 24 hours start. McCall and Miller even contemplated some sort of sabotage to the Graf Spee's rudder (“the means were available”) but decided against it as a great deal of the world’s media was reporting what was happening. Any negative press release would have been damaging to the Royal Navy and would give the Germans an excellent propaganda opportunity.

On December 17th, McCall visited the Ajax and met Harwood. He again told McCall about the importance of keeping the Graf Spee in harbour even though HMS Cumberland had joined the Ajax and Achilles. Reinforcements in the shape of HMS Renown, a battle cruiser, and HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier, were refuelling in Rio de Janeiro – one thousand miles away. Hence there was only Ajax, Achilles and Cumberland between the Graf Spee and the Atlantic, and Harwood was understandably wary after the damage done to the Exeter.

On the same day, the Graf Spee was seen taking on board a great deal of stores from the 'Tacoma', a German merchant vessel in Montevideo. The Uruguayan authorities informed McCall that the ship had announced its intention to sail the following day.

It was then that Miller came up with a plan to convince the Germans that reinforcements had arrived and that even the Graf Spee could not take on three cruisers, one battle cruiser and one aircraft carrier. Extra fuel for the ships was ordered in Argentina and the information was leaked to the Germans via the Argentinean press as the fuel was due to be acquired from the Argentinean naval base at Mar del Plata. The Germans fell for this. The communication below clearly shows that Langsdorff believed that the British force now number five ships including an air craft carrier. Langsdorff had two choices; he could fight the British or scuttle the ship so that it did not fall into the hands of the British.

On the Sunday, crew from the Graf Spee were seen leaving the ship and by midday an estimated 800 men had left. Then the sailed but only with a skeleton crew on board. Just three miles out of Montevideo harbour, the Graf Spee stopped. In the evening a large explosion was seen on board the Graf Spee. The ship was still burning four days later. Langsdorff had scuttled the ship and placed explosives in such a manner that the sinking would set them off after the skeleton crew had got off. A communication between Langsdorff and Berlin shows exactly why the captain of the Graf Spee had taken this decision.

"Strategic position off Montevideo. Besides the cruisers and destroyers, Ark Royal and Renown. Close blockade at night; escape into open sea and break-through to home waters is hopeless....request decision on whether the ship should be scuttled in spite of insufficient depth in the estuary of the Plate, or whether interment is preferred." Langsdorff "
No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled." Berlin

On December 20th Langsdorff shot himself in his hotel room. The rest of the Graf Spee’s crew was interned and many stayed in Uruguay or Argentina even after 1945. Commodore Harwood was promoted to Rear-Admiral almost immediately.© 2000-2009


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.