Battle of the River Plate – December 13th 1939

In the early morning of December 13, 1939 one of the most powerful and dangerous German battleships afloat, the Admiral Graf Spee cut majestically through the grey waters of the South Atlantic on course to intercept what was thought to be a small merchant convoy, easy prey for this powerful maritime predator which had already cut havoc through the Allied merchant fleet in the Atlantic.

On the horizon, the merchant vessels turned from easy prey into deadly adversaries, three British cruisers: HMS Exeter, Ajax and HMNZS Achilles under the command of Commodore Sir Henry Harwood.

As the British ships raced to engage the pocket battleship, Graf Spee brought her massive armament to bear and opened fire before turning away.

Exeter, the Devonport built cruiser captained by Captain FS Bell, sped off to the south effectively splitting the British force and leaving the two lighter ships to manoeuvre north. This strategy effectively split the enemy fire giving the much lighter-armed British ships the shade of a chance.

As the ships engaged shells from the Graf Spee’s 11-inch turrets began to take their toll. Exeter was pummelled. Eventually she would have all her guns put out of action, 61 crewmen killed and 40 injured. Belching smoke and flames and listing heavily she was effectively out of the battle, but, by bravely racing to attack the much stronger ship she had given the other cruisers a fighting chance.

Fearing a much larger force was ranged against him the German commander, Captain Hans Langsdorf, fled into the mouth of the River Plate, Uruguayan national waters.

Doggedly following the enemy, Ajax and Achilles, both damaged with dead and wounded aboard, could only watch as Exeter sailed slowly away, heading for sanctuary on the Falkland Islands.

By attacking the much stronger ship the British cruisers had convinced Langsdorf a much stronger British force was in the area. News from the port of Montevideo where he finally dropped anchor seemed to support this. In fact, a very clever game of cat and mouse enable the British to keep the German battleship bottled up until their widespread ships could muster outside the three-mile limit. The heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland joined its two smaller charges.

The German ship cut a sad figure, damaged by the guns of the three British ships. The crew had suffered 36 dead and more than 60 wounded who were landed ashore for treatment and in all probability internment. Uruguay was neutral and although this allowed Graf Spee to seek shelter, the ship could not stay longer than 36 hours.

Massive diplomatic pressure was brought to bear and three days later, having buried their dead, Langsdorf and his crew, or at least a small percentage of them, set sail into what could only be a one-sided battle.

After crossing the three-mile limit into international waters the ship suddenly dropped anchor and an Argentine tug came alongside to collect the crew. Within minutes the ship was aflame and settling onto the sea bed. Ignominiously scuttled rather than be sunk in battle.

In Berlin, Hitler was said to be apoplectic with rage at the decision, preferring the ship to go down fighting.

Exeter’s gallant solo attack in the opening minutes of the battle, which would become famous as the Battle of the River Plate, had proven decisive. The dogged pursuit of the mighty Graf Spee had paid off.

Nazi prestige took a huge international blow, news services carrying the story worldwide while the Royal Navy and especially the crews of Exeter, Achilles and Ajax were feted as the heroes of the hour.

After nearly three months’ repair in the Falkland Islands HMS Exeter, battered and still bruised from the terrible battle on the River Plate, finally returned her home port of Plymouth to be met by crowds of well-wishers and the Prime Minister in person, Winston Churchill, who noted in his diary he had “travelled to the Port of Plymouth to congratulate the brave men of HMS Exeter from her own shattered deck”.

Guy Channing

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.