The Battle of the River Plate

Columnist Capt(Retd) AA JILANI writes about a long forgotten but famous naval battle of World War II

This month marks the 60th anniversary of a historic and memorable action which earned Britain's first naval victory of World War II. This was the first encounter between the British and the German Naval Forces which was to have considerable effects on the morale of both countries. This action in which 3 British cruisers faced a vastly better armoured opponent was a timely filip to the sagging morale of a British public who until then had only disasters and inactivity to feed on. It seemed that they were at war yet not at war. They had to watch helplessly the agony of Poland and then Finland. The British Expeditionary Forces under Field-Marshal Lord Gort VC had crossed the Channel to join their French comrades who were installed so complacently behind their 'impregnable' Maginot Line. These first few months of World War II became widely known as the period of 'phoney war' due to the all-round inactivity, but the Battle of the River Plate opened the naval annals of the war with a brilliant victory for the Royal Navy which brought good cheer and boosted the morale for the British public to celebrate their first Xmas at war. The action also enhanced the prestige and the popularity of Winston Churchill who was then His Majesty's First Lord of the Admiralty, the Senior Service. The Battle of the River Plate was one of the most significant and fascinating episodes of World War II which shook the very foundations of the German High Command.

At the outbreak of World War II the pride of the German Navy consisted of 3 pocket-battleships - the DEUTSCHLAND, ADMIRAL VON SCHEER and ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE which caused deep concern to the Royal Navy as the Fuehrer boasted that 'Britannia would no longer rule the waves'.

The German Navy Chief Admiral Raeder had despatched these 3 pocket battleships into the outer oceans to serve as commerce raiders, and the GRAF SPEE had proved the most troublesome after sinking a number of vessels in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic during the early months of the war. The Fuehrer was convinced that his 3 pocket-battleships would prove to be the trump card and the decisive factor to crush the otherwise invincible Royal Navy. In moments of crisis the Fuehrer was to display an indecisiveness and lack of precision which was quite out of tune with his character, and this contributed to the devastating loss of his prized pocket-battleship GRAF SPEE.

On 13 December 1939 the majestic GRAF SPEE, the jewel of the German Navy while cruising in the South Atlantic, fell foul of 3 British cruisers just off the coast of neutral URUGUAY. During the following night a series of disjointed radio messages reached BERLIN regarding naval action with the 3 British cruisers EXETER, AJAX and ACHILLES. Then five hours later the battleship signalled her attendant supply ship ALTMARK - 'On your Own'. But it was not until the next morning that the first details reached the German Admiralty from Captain Hans Langsdorff:

'I have taken 15 hits, food stores and galleys destroyed, I am heading for MONTEVIDEO'

Commodore Harwood of the Royal Navy was commanding Force-G based on the FALKLANDS which consisted of the heavy cruisers EXETER and CUMBERLAND together with the light cruisers AJAX and ACHILLES. From the pattern of the GRAF SPEE's successful sinkings of Allied ships, Commodore Harwood rightly surmised that she would appear off the Rio de la Plata by December as that area was a potential hunting-ground for rich prizes. He therefore led his force in that direction, unfortunately minus the eight-inch gun CUMBERLAND whose presence would have provided him with a measure of parity against the 11-inch guns of the German pocket-battleship. His force consisted of the eight-inch EXETER and the six-inch AJAX and ACHILLES. Splitting his force, Commodore Harwood had EXETER steam to the west while the 2 light cruisers moved in the opposite direction.

When the GRAF SPEE opened fire just after 6 am that morning she concentrated on the EXETER which sustained severe damage. Two of her turrets were put out of action and a direct hit on the bridge killed almost all the Officers except Captain Bell. But the sacrifice of EXETER was not in vain because her eight-inch guns fired shells heavy enough to damage the well-armoured German battleship, and it was a last despairing salvo which scored a direct hit on the GRAF SPEE's control tower killing several Officers and ratings in addition to wrecking the range finder.

Captain Hans Langsdorff of the GRAF SPEE was badly shaken which led to his dashing for shelter at MONTEVIDEO harbour. Within ten minutes after the start of the battle the gallant EXETER was little more than a floating wreck with her main armament effectively out of action. She was shipping water forward and was three feet down by the bows. No less than 60 of her officers and ratings had been killed and by 7:30 am with nothing more to be achieved, Commodore Harwood ordered the EXETER to break off action and limp back to the FALKLANDS. The 2 light cruisers pursued the GRAF SPEE into MONTEVIDEO as Captain Hans Langsdorff counted the casualties - 37 killed and 50 wounded. The Battle of the River Plate on that cold December morning was Britain's first naval victory of World War II.

The Government at MONTEVIDEO being neutral territory granted shelter to the GRAF SPEE for only 3 days to carry out the necessary repair work, but the damage was so extensive that it would require many more days to make her sea-worthy. Meanwhile British naval forces were concentrating at the mouth of the River Plate, waiting for the lame and crippled warship to leave neutral waters.

On 16 December 1939 the German Navy Chief Admiral Raedar arrived at the Chancellery with the latest cable from the ship's captain:

(a) Apart from the British cruisers and destroyers, the aircraft-carrier ARK ROYAL and the Battle-cruiser RENOWN (later on to be sunk by the Japs off the coast of MALAYA) have joined the naval forces to tightly block our escape route. No prospect of breaking out into the open sea or reaching home.

(b) Propose emerging as far as neutral waters limit and attempt to fight through to BUENOS AIRES using remaining ammunition.

(c) Breakout would result in certain destruction of GRAF SPEE with no chance of damaging enemy ships. Request decision whether to scuttle despite inadequate depth of water or accept internment.

This desperate signal from the doomed GRAF SPEE breathed despair at the Chancellery.

To those familiar with the political stance of URUGUAY it was clear that the GRAF SPEE's fighting days were probably coming to an ignominious end: the country had a pro-British President, a pro-French Foreign Minister and a powerful British Embassy. MONTEVIDEO was a known hotbed of the British secret service activity and the GRAF SPEE could hardly have selected a more hostile haven. Even before reading this alarming signal, the Fuehrer had already instructed Admiral Raedar that the GRAF SPEE must attempt to break out to the open sea; if she must go down at least she could take some of the enemy ships with her. Putting his hand on the tearful Admiral's shoulder he confided:

'Herr Grossadmiral, I can well understand how you feel. Believe me, the fate of this ship and her crew is as painful to me as to you.

But this is war, and when the need is there one must know how to be harsh'

Admiral Raedar then produced his draft reply to Captain Hans Langsdorff: The GRAF SPEE was to stay at MONTEVIDEO for as long as the authorities would allow; a breakout to BUENOS AIRES would be approved but internment in URUGUAY would not. In the event of having to scuttle the ship everything must be thoroughly destroyed beforehand. Although this reply was wholly out of keeping with Hitler's heroic demand, he nonetheless allowed Admiral Raedar to transmit it to MONTEVIDEO immediately. The Fuehrer's naval Adjutant was perplexed.

Hitler had been eagerly awaiting news about the GRAF SPEE's last battle. After the expiry of the 3-day period granted by the URUGUAY Government, Captain Hans Langsdorff sailed the GRAF SPEE out of MONTEVIDEO harbour and reluctantly scuttled the pride of the German Navy which gently settled down on to the shallow bed of the river's estuary. The crew including their Captain were all discharged on to a waiting steamer which had borne them safely to a friendly BUENOS AIRES. In a savage mood that evening the Fuehrer pondered the damage which Langsdorff had caused to GERMANY's fighting image, especially he was dismayed that the Captain did not have the courage to go down with his ship according to the ethics of naval honour. That same night he ordered the official announcement of the loss of GRAF SPEE to be altered as follows:

'Under these circumstances the Fuehrer ordered Captain Langsdorff to destroy the ship by blowing her up'

The neutral Press appraised the episode with reserve and even respect, although this distortion of the truth exposed the Fuehrer's inability to accept misfortune with equanimity. He developed an aversion to cruiser warfare with its doctrine of hit-and-run which grew into hostility towards the maturer Officers of the German Navy, contrasting with his admiration for the dashing submarine commanders. The Fuehrer fumed as to how Captain Hans Langsdorff had previously served on Jodl's staff and had been given command of the prestigious GRAF SPEE almost as a cure for his chairbound attitudes.

Shortly after arrival at BUENOS AIRES, remorse assailed Captain Hans Langsdorff for not having gone down with his ship and also for the heavy casualties of German manhood. Rather than face the ignominy of his deeds he took his own life. The GRAF SPEE's supply ship AL TMARK, laden with prisoners plucked from the decks of the battleship's victims, was ordered to return home to GERMANY. The invincible GRAF SPEE, the pride of the German Navy, had met a pathetic fate just into the start of World War II. Meanwhile in the FALKLANDS the gallant EXETER was once again made seaworthy after tremendous repair effort, and on a cold February morning in 1940 the citizens of PLYMOUTH woke to see the cruiser steaming quietly into harbour. As she sailed past Mount Wise, the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill took the salute. Later, addressing the ship's company on the 'A' gun deck, he paid glowing tributes to the role of EXETER in the River Plate - 'this great action will long be told in song and story'. The Battle of the River Plate was amongst the most memorable and fascinating episodes of World War II.