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Battle of the River Plate

One of the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was that Germany was not allowed to build warships with a displacement greater than 10,000 tons. This effectively meant that Germany was not allowed to build battleships, and so the Deutschland class of “pocket battleships” (officially known as panzershiffe – armoured ships) were built. The Admiral Graf Spee, commissioned in 1936, was the third and last ship of this class. The Germans told the rest of the world that a combination of electric welding and use of diesel engines had allowed them to keep within the 10,000 ton weight limit. In actual fact, she had a standard displacement of almost 15,000 tons.

The Admiral Graf Spee was not particularly well armed, with a main battery of six 11-inch guns in triple turrets fore and aft, and eight 5.9-inch guns in single barbettes. However, the 11-inch gun was a new model, and with a range of 26 miles, it out-ranged the French 13.4-inch gun by 10 miles. This, coupled with the Admiral Graf Spee’s faster speed, meant that she could theoretically engage a French battleship by keeping out of her foes range, whilst keeping within range of her own guns.

Because of the weight limitations, the Admiral Graf Spee’s armour was not particularly impressive. Designed to offer some protection against cruisers, her belt was three inches thick, her main turrets and conning tower had six inches of armour, and the barbettes had five inches.

The panzershiffe used diesel engines, rather than the steam engines which were the norm at the time. This choice had several advantages – diesel engines were lighter and were able to provide power without having to “raise steam”. Two other considerations that were particularly important for ships intended to be used for commerce raiding were that diesel engines gave a longer radius of operations for a given weight of fuel, and their exhaust fumes were less noticeable than the exhaust from furnaces.

Admiral Graf Spee

Britain and France feared the possibility of surface raiders, and so they intended to mount a blockade once war broke out, since tracking a ship once it has reached the open sea was no mean feat. The Admiral Graf Spee and her sister ship, Deutschland neatly side-stepped this plan, however, by the simple trick of setting sail in August 1939, not long before war broke out. The supply ship Altmark had already set sail on August 3rd, and rendezvoused with Admiral Graf Spee on August 28th. The two ships cruised independently, but met on a regular basis so that the Admiral Graf Spee could take on supplies and offload prisoners. The Altmark carried enough supplies to keep the Admiral Graf Spee at sea for four or five months.

On the 26th September 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee was released for operations against Allied merchant shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans. She had explicit instructions to avoid combat, even with inferior ships, since any damage could have brought her cruise to an end, and made the long journey home perilous. On the 30th September she found and sank her first victim, the SS Clement, a British freighter. Once it was known that there was a surface raider at work in the South Atlantic, the Allies set up hunting groups to find and sink the raider. These hunting groups included four aircraft carriers, three battlecruisers, 10 8-inch cruisers and five 6-inch cruisers. Before she was found, the Admiral Graf Spee sank nine British freighters, for a total of 50,100 tons, for no loss of life on either side – each freighter’s crew was taken off before their ship was sunk.

On December 7th, 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee sank her last victim, the SS Streonshalh. Confidential papers captured on board the Streonshalh suggested that the River Plate estuary would be a good hunting ground, and so she set sail for the estuary. Unfortunately for the Admiral Graf Spee, Commodore Harry Harwood, commanding Hunting Group G, had anticipated this move, and so the scene was set for the battle that was to be known as the Battle of the River Plate.

Hunting Group G was made up of HMS Cumberland, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles. Cumberland and Exeter were 8-inch cruisers, Ajax and Achilles were 6-inch cruisers. At the time that Admiral Graf Spee was sighted, HMS Cumberland was having her boiler repaired at Port Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. A signal was sent instructing her to join the others, but she did not arrive in time to take part in the battle.

Admiral Graf Spee and Hunting Group G crossed paths on the morning of 13th December 1939. The Admiral Graf Spee’s diesel engines made little smoke compared to steam engines, and so the Germans spotted the British ships about 30 minutes before the British spotted the pocket battleship. The Germans mistakenly believed the British to be a weak convoy escort, and Captain Langsdorff decided to engage, despite having orders to avoid any combat. By the time the Germans realised their mistake, it was too late to escape, since the British cruisers had a clear speed advantage.

Commodore Harwood had previously decided that, should the Admiral Graf Spee be sighted, battle would be joined immediately, and that his force would be split into two divisions, with the two 6-inch cruisers forming one division, and HMS Exeter forming the other. The two divisions would approach from opposite flanks, thus splitting the German fire.

The Admiral Graf Spee opened fire at 06:18, concentrating her fire on HMS Exeter. Exeter fired her first salvo at 06:20, and the Ajax and Achilles opened fire at 06:21, with fire from both ships being directed from Ajax. The Admiral Graf Spee scored the first hit, when her third salvo straddled Exeter and scored one hit. The gunnery officer on board Admiral Graf Spee had underestimated Exeter’s armour, and so ordered high explosive, impact fused shells instead of armour piercing. HMS Exeter closed the range and made an unsuccessful torpedo attack, but after about half an hour of combat, damage forced her to withdraw. Exeter’s gunners had only managed to score a single hit on Admiral Graf Spee, damaging the main rangefinder. Exeter had suffered major damage, including damage to two main turrets (B and X) and the wheelhouse. The damage to the wheelhouse had severed communications with steering and engineering, causing Exeter to veer off course. Captain Bell set up command in the secondary conning position, using messengers to pass orders, and brought the ship back on course.

Ajax and Achilles started to close the range, but the Admiral Graf Spee turned away to avoid torpedo attack. Admiral Graf Spee’s main armament was now focused on the 6-inch cruisers, but with the main rangefinder out of action, were forced to fire under local control, reducing their accuracy.

Exeter returned to the fight, swinging around to bring her port torpedoes to bear, and managed to score another hit with her 8-inch guns. Admiral Graf Spee’s 11-inch guns inflicted more damage on Exeter, including destroying the A turret. By this time, Exeter was heavily damaged. Several fires burned, she had a 10ยบ list, and only the Y turret was still functional. However, she remained in the fight, being conned from a hand compass, since all the gyro repeaters were out of action.

The 6-inch cruisers had inflicted many hits on the Admiral Graf Spee, but in the words of Commodore Harwood, “We might as well have been throwing snowballs at her.” Although the 6-inch shells were unable to penetrate the thicker armoured sections of the German ship, they had inflicted many casualties among the crews of the secondary battery.

As the Admiral Graf Spee continued to open the range, Exeter suffered a short circuit that put her final turret out of action, and so eliminated her from the fight. At 07:20, Admiral Graf Spee came around to port, bringing her full battery to bear. Achilles was hit by a salvo which damaged the control tower, destroyed the radio, killed several officers and men, and wounded Captain Parry. Ajax fired a salvo of torpedoes, but these were spotted and evaded. Return fire from Admiral Graf Spee’s 11-inch guns disabled Ajax’s X and Y turrets.

By 07:40, Ajax had fired 80% of her main rounds, which meant that she could keep her remaining operational guns firing for about 30 minutes. Achilles still had all her guns operational, but only had sufficient ammunition for 15-20 minutes firing. They therefore made smoke and turned away, shadowing the pocket battleship with a cruiser on each quarter, intending to resume the fight after dusk.

HMS Exeter
HMS Exeter

Although the British cruisers were heavily damaged, Captain Langsdorff was not happy with his own position. Admiral Graf Spee had fired 60% of her main rounds, was at a speed disadvantage, and was still 12,000 miles from home. Despite what the British thought, Admiral Graf Spee was not in a healthy state. The electricity to the forward 11-inch turret had been cut, the ship’s galley, main rangefinder and radar had all been destroyed by shellfire. The plant to purify diesel fuel for her engines was beyond repair, the scout plane had been destroyed by fire, and there were six leaks below the waterline. Casualties stood at 36 dead and 59 wounded. Langsdorff decided that they had to run for port, since he no longer considered his ship to be seaworthy.

He decided to head for Montevideo in Uruguay, and sent an action report to the German High Command, announcing his decision. Admiral Raedar replied, agreeing to the plan. The Admiral Graf Spee had 62 prisoners from sunken merchant ships, all of whom, it was found, were unharmed from the fight.

Commodore Harwood dispatched a spotter plane to check on Exeter. Once Exeter had radio communications working, she reported “All turrets out of action. Flooded forward up to No. 14 bulkhead, but can still do 18-knots”. She was ordered to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

At 11:04, Admiral Graf Spee sighted a British merchant ship, the SS Shakespeare, and altered course to intercept, intending to claim one last victim. Langsdorff signalled the merchant ship, informing her of his intention, and requesting that they abandon ship, and sent a signal to Commodore Harwood, asking them to “Please pick up lifeboats from British steamer”. Shakespeare’s captain hove to, but did not abandon ship. Not having time to wait, Langsdorff decided to continue without firing on the merchant ship rather than sink it while the crew were still on board.

That evening, the Admiral Graf Spee laid anchor in Montevideo and claimed “havarie,” the privilege of sanctuary for damage caused at sea. The two British cruisers took up position in separate channels. Harwood stated that in the event of the Admiral Graf Spee’s exit, his policy was one of destruction, but the ships were in no state to stop her. Ajax only had half of her guns in service, and enough ammunition to keep the others in action for 30 minutes. Achilles had taken little damage, but only had sufficient ammunition for 15-20 minutes. Reinforcements were on the way, with Cumberland due the next day, and Renown (battlecruiser), Ark Royal (aircraft carrier), and Neptune (cruiser) 1,000 miles away and making for Montevideo.

The Uruguayan government now had to decide what to do about the battleship in their harbour. The Hague Convention of 1907 stated that a belligerent warship could only stay in a neutral port for 24 hours before that neutral power was obliged to intern it for the duration of hostilities. However, a warship could extend their stay past 24 hours if it claimed “havarie,” or the right of sanctuary, because it had suffered damage while at sea. If damage had been suffered, then the neutral power could not force the warship to go to sea until repairs were complete. The Germans wanted to be allowed to stay for 15 days to complete repairs, but the British argued that since the Admiral Graf Spee had sailed 300 miles to get to Montevideo, she was in fact seaworthy, and did not need time to complete repairs. The Uruguayan government arranged for an inspection of the damage to be completed before they made a decision.

The prisoners on the Graf Spee were released (a condition of havarie), while the crew started repairs, hampered by the refusal of the local shipyard and all the local firms to help. Meanwhile, the British minister received a message from Commodore Harwood asking him to delay the departure of Admiral Graf Spee using whatever means possible. It was arranged for the British steamer SS Ashworth to set sail from Montevideo at 18:00 on the 15th. A clause in the Hague convention intended to protect unarmed merchants meant that the Admiral Graf Spee was now not allowed to set sail until 18:00 hours on the 16th, 24 hours after the Ashworth. After receiving its report, the Uruguayan government decided that the Admiral Graf Spee was to set sail by 20:00 hours on Sunday the 17th.

A funeral for the German dead was held on the 15th. Captain Dove, one of the newly-freed British prisoners, laid a wreath which read “To the brave memory of the men of the sea from their comrades of the British Merchant Service”. Radio reports claimed that Renown, Ark Royal and Dunkerque (a French battlecruiser) had arrived off the coast, and a lookout on Admiral Graf Spee sighted a large ship off the Plate, which he incorrectly identified as Renown. In fact, the Renown and Ark Royal were still off Brazil.

Captain Langsdorff believed that, in her present condition, and with 20-30 minutes worth of ammunition, it was not possible to break out to the open sea. He therefore requested instructions whether to submit to internment or scuttle the ship. Admiral Raeder consulted with Hitler, who forbid internment. The message was sent back to either fight through to Argentina or scuttle, with instructions to “attempt effective destruction if ship scuttled”. Langsdorff was uncertain that he would be able to get to Argentina, or that the authorities there would be willing to allow Admiral Graf Spee to stay longer than 24 hours. Meanwhile, the British steamer SS Dunster Grange had set sail from Montevideo, meaning that Admiral Graf Spee could not set sail before 18:00 hours on Sunday, but she had to set sail before 20:00 hours. With only a two hour window, there was no chance of a surprise exit.

Repair work was halted on the night of the 16th, to be replaced with the destruction of equipment and the laying of scuttling charges. Secret documents were destroyed, and the ship’s bell, battle ensign, the portrait of Admiral Graf von Spee, and other historically significant items were sent ashore to be carried home in a diplomatic pouch.

At 18:30 on the 17th, Admiral Graf Spee ran up two large battle ensigns and weighed anchor. 700 of her crew had been transferred to the German tanker Tacoma, which also weighed anchor. Just outside the breakwater, Tacoma stopped and transferred the German sailors to the Argentine tugs Gigante and Coloso, which had been hired out of Buenos Aries. The Uruguayan National Navy quickly turned Tacoma back into Montevideo where she would be interned for the duration for the war, as she had sailed without proper authorization and assisted in a hostile act.

Just outside Uruguay’s three mile territorial limit, the rest of the crew abandoned ship and the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled. Langsdorff and the crew reached Argentina, where they were interned for the duration of the war. Some officers and ratings managed to escape and return to Germany, but most went to prisoner of war camps when Argentina joined the Allies in 1943.

Captain Langsdorff was attacked in the press as a coward and criticized for not going down with his ship. He met with his crew one last time to tell them that he had not lacked courage, but did not want to cause the death of many of his crew for no purpose. Later he went to his room, and wrote letters to his wife, his parents and the German Ambassador. After sealing and addressing the letters, he spread the Graf Spee’s battle flag out, laid on it, and shot himself in the head.

The next afternoon Captain Langsdorff was buried in Buenos Aries, at a funeral attended by his officers, crew, and Argentinian officials. SS Ashlea’s Captain Pottinger attended to represent the British merchant sailors once held captive on board Admiral Graf Spee.

This article was originally published in the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers‘ Journal

Published inNavalSecond World War