It’s strange how esoteric facts – dates, numbers, names or whatever – can stay with you for years despite your best efforts to forget them. I have a notoriously bad memory for most things. I struggle to remember my own phone number, for example. However, today’s date, it seems, will be stuck in my rather chaotic mental filing system forever although it probably remains obscure for most readers of this blog. In fact, 13th December 2009 is the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate which took place on December 13th 1939.
You’re probably wondering why I remember this so well, so I have to go into confessional mode to explain. When I was a youngster, about 11 or 12, for some reason I developed a complete fascination for naval history. I don’t really know how this happened because there’s no seafaring tradition in my family and I wasn’t brought up near the sea either. The first manifestation of this interest was that I borrowed every book I could find in the local library on the subject of naval warfare. I then moved onto the idea of actually recreating famous battles using die-cast models, a very large table (or more often a floor) and printed tables of hit probabilities. I spent hours engrossed in this type of thing, after school, until the interest faded or, in other words, I grew out of it.
I think I found naval battles absorbing for a number of reasons. First was that it was easier to see them as a kind of game than with hand-to-hand combat, the thought of which always unsettled me. A battle fought at a distance of many miles, in which one never really sees one’s enemy, seemed to me a less personal and more abstract kind of thing. Another thing was that the pace was very slow: the large range and relatively slow speed of surface warships meant that an engagement would unfold over many hours, and it was possible to recreate it more or less in real time.
Since the Battle of the River Plate involved a small number of ships, it was a set piece I fought several times (as both British and German captain) against various schoolmates. The most interesting thing I learned through all these re-runs was that, whoever was in charge on whichever side, the result of all our games was always a German victory. I think it’s this that makes me remember it all so well, because what really happened way back in 1939 was remarkably different. So, with my apologies for turning back into a teenage anorak, let me give you a quick account of what happened and why it was all so fascinating to me.
The Admiral Graf Spee was a German warship that was sent to the South Atlantic at the outbreak of World War II in order to sink allied merchant shipping. The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I had forbidden Germany from building really big warships, such as battleships, but the Graf Spee packed a much more powerful punch than most ships of its relatively small size. Technically a heavy cruiser, the Graf Spee quickly acquired the more accurate nickname of pocket battleship because she was heavily armoured, fast, and with a powerful main armament of six 11-inch guns, more than a match for any of the Royal Navy’s own heavy cruisers.
Under the captaincy of Hans Langsdorff, the Graf Spee was initially very successful in sinking nine merchantships in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of South Africa. Langsdorff, however, was absolutely scrupulous in his behaviour towards the crews of the ships he sank, taking pains to rescue all the crews and ensuring that no lives were lost. Merchant seamen held on the Graf Spee were unstinting in their respect for this most chivalrous and kindly man.
The Graf Spee was enjoying such success that, back home in Blighty, the Admiralty decided to assemble ships into eight separate forces to look for her. Sensing that things might get a bit hot around the African coast, Langsdorff disappeared into the deep ocean and headed across to the other side of the Atlantic to seek rich pickings in the main shipping lane leading from the ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. One of the British hunting groups – Force G – had anticipated this move.
Commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood, Force G consisted of two light cruisers of the Leander class, HMS Ajax (Harwood was on board this ship, which was captained by Charles Woodhouse) and HMS Achilles (captained by Edward Parry, from the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy) and one heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, captained by Frederick “Hooky” Bell. Although Harwood had the numerical advantage, his ships were severely outgunned: there were only 8-inch guns on the Exeter and 6-inch guns on the Ajax and Achilles. He knew that if they came upon the Graf Spee they would certainly have a fight on their hands, but he knew he had to attack and he prepared the best plan he could think of.
Early in the morning of 13th December 1939 the Graf Spee appeared on the horizon to the North of Force G, and the British ships took to their action stations. Harwood’s battle plan was to separate his forces and engage from two sides in an attempt to split the Graf Spee‘s main armament. He also knew that Graf Spee‘s guns had much longer range than any of his ships as well as firing much larger shells. He had to close quickly in order to have any hope of scoring a hit with his lighter guns. The British ships were only lightly armoured and could not absorb heavy shells from their opponent without being seriously damaged, so this was a very risky strategy, but it was a gamble he felt he had to take.
In our childish after-school wargames, in fact, the Graf Spee always won. All you have to do as commander of the German ship is keep your distance. The British cruisers have an edge in speed, but not by an enormous factor. As long as you manoeuvre in such a way as to keep them at reasonable distance, the accuracy of your long-range gunnery will see you through. Like a boxer with a longer reach than your opponent, you keep out of trouble and score with straight jabs instead of mixing it up at close range.
However, on the bridge of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff made a couple of serious mistakes. The first was not entirely his fault. His lookouts had misidentified the British ships as one light cruiser and two destroyers. Langsdorff jumped to the conclusion that the ships he could see were actually convoy escort vessels and that, beyond the horizon behind them to the south, would be a collection of merchant ships that would be entirely at his mercy once he had disposed of their relatively light protection. He therefore gave the order to increase speed and close with the oncoming ships. A few minutes later he was told of the initial error of identification, but although these were clearly not convoy escorts he still couldn’t believe that such lightly armed ships would come charging at him the way these ones were.
This is when Langsdorff made his real blunder. Realising that these were warships that were actually looking for him, rather than just escorting unarmed merchantmen, he decided that the only reason they would engage him now – when they were clearly outgunned – was that they were trying to push him out towards the bigger ships he thought would be to the north. He had received intelligence that British battlegroup (Force H), containing the battlecruiser Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, might be sailing south to find him, as they had been spotted leaving harbour in Gibraltar some days earlier. Langsdorff therefore continued to close, his error giving the British a chance to fight at close range. It was an opportunity they did not expect to come their way, and they did their best to take advantage of it. However, the Graf Spee was still the strong favourite to win the battle because of her superior firepower and protective armour.
What happened thereafter is shown in the map below, taken from the official Admiralty report into the battle. You can see that Harwood attacked from the south, with Exeter initially turning to port while Ajax and Achilles turned starboard. Langsdorff realised the main threat came from Exeter so he concentrated all his main guns on her, leaving his secondary 5.9 inch guns to engage the two lighter cruisers as they used their superior speed to attack from the other side.
The accuracy of the Graf Spee‘s gunnery soon had Exeter in all sorts of trouble: three out of four main gun turrets were out of action, and the other was being aimed by a gunnery officer standing on the roof with binoculars as the control systems were all shot to pieces; the bridge had been hit, killing most of the officers and knocking out the steering controls, so that for the rest of the battle Exeter was navigated using a small compass taken from one of the ship’s boats; she was also listing about 7 degrees and taking in water. In all, Exeter took seven direct hits from 11-inch shells and 61 of her crew were killed. It was a grim situation but, in the middle of all this, she did manage to score a direct hit on the Graf Spee which didn’t appear at first to be critical but which, it later emerged, was another stroke of luck for the British.
Realising that Exeter could not go on taking such heavy punishment, and with his own ships too far away to inflict any real damage on their target, Harwood decided to throw caution to the winds, charging repeatedly with Ajax and Achilles to almost suicidally close range to fire torpedoes, and then turning side on to fire full broadsides at the Graf Spee. Although they only inflicted superficial damage, and didn’t by any means emerge unscathed themselves, they did succeed in putting Langsdorff off his stroke. While Graf Spee switched her attention to the Ajax and Achilles, Exeter used the breathing space given to her by the courageous action of her sister ships to retire, heavily damaged, under the cover of a smokescreen, southwards to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs.
Harwood knew he could not carry on the battle with only two ships, so he fell back, expecting the Graf Spee to come after him scenting victory. However, to his surprise, Langsdorff had apparently decided not to finish off the two ligher vessels – nor had he made sure of the Exeter – but instead was steaming due West towards the estuary of River Plate and the port of Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay. The British fell back and shadowed him, wondering what on earth he was up to.
The reason for Langsdorff’s strange actions seems to be the 8-inch shell hit from the Exeter, which had put the Graf Spee‘s fuel systems out of action. This meant that she only had a few hours fuel left and if she didn’t make it into harbour for repairs then she would be a sitting duck. There were no friendly ports within range, so there was no alternative but to head for the nearest neutral one, which was Montevideo.
The following morning (14th December 1939) found the Admiral Graf Spee at anchor in Montevideo. The naval battle was over, but another fascinating episode was just starting. The Hague Convention allowed warships to effect repairs in neutral harbours, but only those that improved their seaworthiness not their fighting efficiency. The British knew that if the Graf Spee came out of harbour she could brush aside force waiting outside in the Estuary. The Ajax and Achilles had been joined by HMS Cumberland, a similar ship to Exeter, but the odds were against them being able to cope. The larger warships of Force H were in fact on their way but would take days to get there.
The British therefore launched an elaborate deception scheme. Unencrypted messages were sent (accidentally on purpose) suggesting battleships were arriving, false requisitions for aviation fuel for the Ark Royal‘s aircraft were tendered. Phoney wireless traffic filled the Uruguayan airwaves and the notoriously leaky telephone system in Montevideo was used as a highly effective rumour mill. The three British ships outside the harbour busied themselves with making as much smoke as they could to give the impression that a large number of ships were gathering close to the shore.
The Germans were entirely deceived and were convinced that the Graf Spee was cornered by a huge fleet of British warships. Langsdorff took stock. He had used up most of his ammunition in the preceding battle and only had enough left for about 20 minutes action. He had to follow the obligations of international treaties and leave port by 17th December otherwise his ship would be interned. He had been ordered that the latter was not acceptable. He made his decision.
On the appointed date, the Graf Spee slipped out of harbour and proceeded slowly along the Estuary watched by a huge crowd wondering what was going to happen. It appeared that much of the crew had remained behind, suggesting that there might be a skeleton crew onboard preparing to fight one last suicidal battle. Suddenly she stopped. A small launch was seen to leave. A few minutes later a series of enormous explosions ripped the ship apart. Langsdorff had decided to avoid any further loss of life and also avoid the ship falling into enemy hands by deliberately scuttling her. The Admiral Graf Spee sank in the deepest part of the channel, where she remains to this day.
I’m aware of a growing sense of guilt at reliving my childhood fascination with this episode through this blog post. Coming back to it as an adult, however, I am painfully aware of the things I didn’t think about at all when I was much younger. The reality isn’t a game, of course. Over a hundred brave men died in the Battle of the River Plate – 36 on board the Graf Spee and 72 on the British ships (most on HMS Exeter) and one, Captain Langsdorff, committed suicide (on 19th December 1939, by shooting himself in the head while wrapped in the flag of the German Navy).
In fact the character that most exemplifies the sense of tragedy surrounding this story is Hans Langsdorff. An experienced naval officer who served at the Battle of Jutland in 1917 and, by all accounts, a decent and humane man, I see him as someone compelled to fight by a sense of duty rather than anything else. He certainly had no ill-will towards his enemies, and spoke with great admiration of the courage shown by his adversaries. He clearly had no taste for the indiscriminate sinking of defenceless merchant vessels which was what he had been called upon to do. He may not have been particulrly effective as a tactical commander during the battle, but his errors largely arose from him being supplied with incorrect information.
It should also be noted that, at the funeral of the German sailors who had died in the Battle of the River Plate, Langsdorff gave the traditional German military salute, in contrast to all other officers present who gave the Nazi straight-arm version.