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Battle of the River Plate

13th December 1939

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Graf Spee - 6 x 11 in guns, max speed 28 knots, radar equipped - the ideal commerce raider
Graf Spee - 6 x 11 in guns, max speed 28 knots, radar equipped - the ideal commerce raider
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There are Video clip of the battle, excerpts from the 1955 film and the return of Exeter to the UK on the video page. The best photos section has more photos of Graf Spee.

Commerce raiding by a single ship in the South Atlantic would force the British to adopt convoying over a large area, tying up a disproportionate number of escorts which were in short supply. The mere presence of a single ship would be enough to disrupt merchant traffic. The directive to the Captain of Graf Spee, Kapitan zur See Langsdorf, was 'the disruption and destruction of enemy shipping by all means possible'; he was ordered to commence operations on 25 September.

The South Atlantic is a vast area of ocean in which to hunt, so Langsdorf made considerable use of his aircraft, an Arado Ar196, for search purposes. In addition, Graf Spee was fitted with an early form of German radar, DT-Gerat, which had a maximum range of 18 miles. Langsdorf was searching for the single, unescorted merchant ships. He wished to avoid action with any naval forces, despite his superiority in guns over most ships, as even one lucky hit on his ship could have serious implications. Graf Spee was operating a long way from any friendly bases and repair facilities. Langsdorf found his first victim off the coast of Brazil at the end of September; he then moved to the Cape of Good Hope-Freetown route where he found a further four ships. To throw the hunters off the scent, he then rounded the Cape and sank one small tanker off the south-east coast of Africa in mid-November. Doubling back on his tracks, he found two more targets on the Cape-Freetown route before deciding to head for the area off the mouth of the River Plate. Langsdorf was already thinking of returning to Germany, aiming to arrive sometime in January. Also, he knew that the efforts of the hunters would be increasing all the time. Indeed, he had avoided a British cruiser only by the fact that his aircraft spotted the British ship in time to take avoiding action.

She found one more victim en-route to the River Plate and arrived in the shipping lanes off the mouth of the river on 12 December. Meanwhile Cdre Henry Harwood had assembled Group G, consisting of the 8in cruiser Exeter and the two 6in cruisers Ajax and Achilles, off the Plate in anticipation of such a move. Harwood had given considerable thought to the problems of how to take on the German ship. His cruisers were out-ranged by the Graf Spee's 11in guns; however, with three ships he could split the fire of the enemy and, with his superior speed (Graf Spee was limited to about 24kt by her dirty bottom), he had control of the range. He rehearsed his tactics and decided that Exeter would operate alone on one side of the Graf Spee, and Ajax and Achilles would act as a pair in close company on the other side.

Early on the morning of 13 December, the British ships had just fallen out from Dawn Action Stations when smoke was sighted to the north-west. Exeter was dispatched to investigate.

1937, but the same manoeuvre - Exeter to investigate
1937, but the same manoeuvre - Exeter to investigate
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Meanwhile, in Graf Spee, Exeter had been recognised, but Ajax and Achilles were thought to be destroyers. The interesting question at this point was why did Langsdorf choose to fight when his previous tactics had been to avoid action at all costs? It is said that he appreciated that, once spotted, he could be shadowed by the cruisers whilst they called in heavier ships. It has also been suggested that he chose to fight because he believed the British ships were protecting a convoy.

The British ships implemented Harwood's tactics, Exeter remaining south-east of Graf Spee, whilst Ajax and Achilles worked round to the north-east. In this situation, Langsdorf could only effectively engage one British ship at a time. Langsdorf chose to take on Exeter with his 11in guns, hoping to keep the 6in cruisers at bay with his 5.9in guns which had almost equal the range.

Langsdorf's initial tactics were very successful. German gunnery was remarkably accurate; Exeter was soon hit heavily and, by 30 minutes into the action, had only her after-turret operating and was seriously on fire.

damage to Exeter forward turrets and bridge
damage to Exeter forward turrets and bridge
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However, Ajax and Achilles were hammering away with 6in salvoes and scoring hits, which although not penetrating Graf Spee's armour, caused significant damage to the superstructure and amongst her secondary armament. Even before Exeter was out of action, Langsdorf had turned away in the face of the 6in gun threat, and also the threat of torpedoes from the cruisers.

Ajax, a Leander class cruiser and the flagship
Ajax, a Leander class cruiser and the flagship
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Achilles, also a Leander, served with the New Zealand Navy
Achilles, also a Leander, served with the New Zealand Navy
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Despite the fact that he knocked Exeter out of the battle, Langsdorf faced considerable problems. The damage which had occurred to his ship (although on the face of it superficial inasmuch as his main armament was intact and his ship was still being propelled by her Diesels) was enough for him to believe that repairs would be necessary before a return to Germany could be possible. A number of hits on the hull, particularly one near her bows, made his ship unseaworthy for the North Atlantic in winter. Also, all his galleys, except the small Admiral's galley, were out of action; some of his food stores were flooded, his main engine luboil separators were damaged and some of his 5.9in ammunition hoists were out of action. An additional factor was that he only had 40% of 11in ammunition remaining and 50% of 5.9in, therefore he chose to seek the shelter of a port to effect repairs. There was no German base any-where in the area so he headed for the neutral port of Montevideo, shadowed all the time by Ajax and Achilles, who were in fact facing their own problems, the Captains of both ships believed they were low on ammunition, although they overestimated shell expenditure. Also, both the after-turrets of Ajax were out of action after an 11in hit.

Ajax seen from Achilles, shadowing Graf Spee after the battle - note the blistered paint on the guns
Ajax seen from Achilles, shadowing Graf Spee after the battle - note the blistered paint on the guns
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After the arrival of Graf Spee in Montevideo the lack of adequate repair facilities were an important element in the final outcome, for the Uruguay Government refused to allow Langsdorf enough time in harbour to effect repairs.

Graf Spee entering Montevideo
Graf Spee entering Montevideo
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British propaganda and mis-information had convinced the Germans they would be up against a superior force if they came out. In fact, Harwood had only been joined by the 8in cruiser Cumberland. Ark Royal and Renown were on their way, but had not arrived by the time Langsdorf sailed on the evening of the 16th to scuttle his ship within sight of the British cruisers.

the scuttling
the scuttling
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