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The Battle of The River Plate was an important naval battle in the early years of World War II. It was fought by three British cruisers and a German pocket battleship by the name of Graf Spee.

Before the Battle

The Graf Spee was tasked with raiding commerce vessels in the Atlantic Ocean, commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorf. She set sail before the declaration of war, slipping her moorings on the 24th of August 1939 from Wilhelmshafen, in preparation for a possible role of denying Britain the vital supplies she needed to succeed at wartime.

She succeeded admirably in this task, sinking the steamer HMS Clement on the 26th of September 1939 in the Atlantic, and following this with the Newton Beech, the Ashlea, the Huntsman and the Trevanion without her presence being detected. She then moved to the Indian Ocean around the Cape of Africa, and sunk the Africa Shell, before returning to the South Atlantic looking for more quarry.

She intercepted the Doric Star soon after, which managed to signal the R-R-R message to the Admiralty before being boarded, her crew incarcerated and the ship scuttled. This gave the British a position for her, and the hunt began.

The Hunt for the Graf Spee

With her position known, the British scrambled as many warships as they could spare in an attempt to locate and sink the Graf Spee. These ships were organised into squadrons. A total of 4 battleships, 14 cruisers and five aircraft carriers were engaged in the hunt.

One of these squadrons, perhaps the weakest and most vulnerable to the Graf Spee's formidable armaments, was Force 'G'. Commodore Henry Harwood, the squardron commander, using a combination of common sense and strategic thinking, determined that the Graf Spee was likely heading towards the River Plate estuary. He ordered his squadron, consisting of the 8-inch cruiser HMS Exeter and the 6-inch cruisers HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax to set sail for a position 150 miles east of the River Plate estuary. The hunt was on.

Contact with the Graf Spee

At 06:13 on the 13th of December, the Exeter saw smoke, and reported a sighting of a possible pocket battleship. Harwood split his squadron into two sections, the Exeter in one and the Ajax and Achilles in the other, with the hope of dividing the fire of the vastly superior Graf Spee, the ordered both units to sail with all possible speed towards the sighting.

Meanwhile, the Graf Spee, having detected the British fleet, began to close to investigate, when it discovered it was heading towards a group of warships. Captain Langsdorf immediately ordered the Graf Spee to close on the Exeter, with the hope of engaging her before she was ready to make battle.

The Battle

Harwood's battle plan was to try to attack the Graf Spee from both sides with his divided force; he hoped to divide the fire of the Graf Spee's formidable 11-inch guns, and to make use of the superior manoeuvrability of his cruisers.

As soon as the Exeter was in range the Graf Spee opened fire, hitting the 'B' turret, and putting it out of action. She also hit the starboard torpedo launchers, and caused splinter damage to the bridge, which wounded the captain of the Exeter, Captain Bell.

Exxter returned fire, causing damage to the control tower. The Ajax and Achilles also engaged the Graf Spee, forcing her to divert her attention from the Exeter. As the Graf Spee was shelling the two smaller cruisers, the Exeter launcher torpedoes at her, causing her to manoeuver to avoid them. Harwood's strategy was working, although at great cost to the Exeter, which by this time was badly damaged and taking on water.

In defence of the Exeter the Ajax closed, and managed to damage the turrets of the enemy vessel, and causing a fire on board, but sustaining heavy damage to herself.

Harwood then received reports that the squadron was low on ammunition, so they retired to a safe distance and lay chase to the Graf Spee, while she ran for Montevideo to make repairs.

The Graf Spee entered Montevideo harbour, in the neutral country of Uruguay, at midnight. The battle was over with neither side immediately appearing as victor.

Diplomacy in Montevideo

Captain Langsdorf wanted to spend 15 days in Montevideo to make repairs, of which included the 6-foot hole in her bows. The British, however, did not want to see the Graf Spee return to her commerce raiding role, and began sending orders to divert the rest of the fleet to the mouth of the River Plate, in order to intercept her when she returned to the ocean. Unfortunately, the main battle group was still over a thousand miles away, but nevertheless they circulated rumours that a fleet was waiting to destroy the ship when she emerged from the harbour.

The British and the French (who at this point were still at war with Germany) then pursued a diplomatic route, in an attempt to force the Graf Spee to sail as soon as possible. Under the terms of the Hague Convention, the British wanted the Graf Spee to set sail in less than 24 hours after she had arrived. The German ambassador attempted to stall this effort, without much luck. The Uruguayan government, friendly to the allies, accepted this, and ordered the Graf Spee to sail once all repairs to make her seaworthy had been made.

The British argued that since the Graf Spee had sailed for 300 miles since the battle, she was already seaworthy. The Uruguayans inspected the Graf Spee and determined that this was the case. There was then a dramatic reversal of strategy.

Realising that if the Graf Spee were to sail at this point, the British would be unable to sink her, they then reversed their diplomatic strategy and invoked an old maritime law, which stated that if a mechant vessel and a warship belonging to two countries at war with each other were harboured in the same place, then the warship must give the merchantman 24 hours of grace once it has sailed. The French then sailed a merchantman, hoping to delay the Graf Spee further while reinforcements arrived. The HMS Cumberland, another 8-inch cruiser of the same class as the Exeter, had indeed sailed from the Falkland Islands, but this addition to the already battle damaged fleet was not enough to sink the Graf Spee.

Langsdorf was presented with a difficult choice. After receiving orders from Berlin not to allow the ship to be interned in Uruguay under the terms of the Hague Convention, he could either leave the harbour and fight, or scuttle his ship.

Deciding on the latter, as he believed his ship was too damaged to face the fleet he was told waited for him, he transferred most of his crew to a support vessel, and set sail for the river. The British prepared to fight, and sent up a spotter plane.

At 4 miles out, the Graf Spee dropped anchor, evacuated the remaining crew and her Captain, then was destroyed by six large explosions, which set fire to her and eventually sunk her, at 2000 hours, on the 17th of December 1939.

The Aftermath

The crew were interned in Argentina for the duration of the war, and finally released in 1946. The captive merchant crews from the Graf Spee were taken back to Britain, with not a single life lost among them, both in the sinking of their ships and during the battle that followed.

Captain Hans Langsdorf committed suicide three days after the Graf Spee was scuttled, wrapped in the German ensign in his hotel room.

The Battle of the River Plate is one of the most remarkable naval encounters of the war, if not for its size but for the public interest it generated, and for the fascinating diplomatic manoeuvers it generated.

Sources include the Graf Spee website, at http://www.grafspee.com, the Battle of the River Plate website at http://members.tripod.com/~colemangr/River_Plate.htm and the World at War website at http://www.angelfire.com/journal/worldatwar/riverplate.html.

It should be noted that a film was made of the battle in 1956, starring John Gregson and Anthony Quayle of the same name. It's a very good war film, and a must see for any naval buff.

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