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Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Battle of the River Plate: 13th December, 1939

At 5.20am on 13th December 1939, a British cruiser squadron comprising HMS Ajax, HMS Achilles, and HMS Exeter was some 390 nautical miles east of Montevideo, Uruguay. Fifty minutes later HMS Ajax spotted smoke and Commodore Harwood (who was in command of the squadron) ordered HMS Exeter to investigate. At 6.16am the Exeter signalled that she thought that she had a German pocket-battleship in sight.

The Admiral Graf Spee had also sighted the British ships, but assumed that they were a single cruiser and two destroyers that were acting as a convoy escort. Her commander – Captain Hans Langsdorff – decided to engage the British ships, and what followed was a running battle between the British cruisers and the German pocket-battleship that became know as the Battle of the River Plate.

Both sides suffered casualties, and HMS Exeter had to disengage after suffering extensive damage that left her unable to fight. The Admiral Graf Spee managed to make it into Montevideo, but the Uruguayans – who were neutral – enforced the rules regarding warships of belligerent powers seeking to remain in neutral harbours, and refused permission for any damage that did not affect the Admiral Graf Spee's seaworthiness to be repaired.

The British engineered the situation so that they were able to rush reinforcements towards Montevideo, and rumours were spread that Force H (the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown) had arrived off the River Plate and was preparing to engage the Admiral Graf Spee when she left harbour. The ruse worked, and on 17th December Captain Langsdorff and a skeleton crew sailed the Admiral Graf Spee out to sea and scuttled her. Two days after his return to shore, Captain Langsdorff shot himself.

Could the Admiral Graf Spee have fought her way out to the open sea and escaped? This is a possibility, but with the damage she had already sustained and her already depleted ammunition supply, it is doubtful that she would have made it back to German without being intercepted and sunk.

The Historic Dockyard Chatham has models of the four ships that took part in the Battle of the River Plate.

HMS Ajax


HMS Achilles


HMS Exeter


Admiral Graf Spee

14 comments:

  1. Hi Bob,

    One of the great 'What ifs' for sure. I like the ship models and will make a point of looking them up when I am next in Chatham.

    All the best,

    DC

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    1. David Crook,

      The models were in the building that houses the rope works. I haven't been there for some time, but I assume that they are still on display.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. I've seen these models at Chatham, I think they are all to the same scale so can be compared. If I remember correctly the label said "built by Ken Jones" and I always wondered if he was the same chap that edited Military Modelling for a number of years.

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    1. Joppy,

      I suspect that they are one and the same Ken Jones.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. I served on the most recent HMS EXETER - we had a book of photographs taken when her predecessor returned to UK after the battle. It's a tribute to magnificent seamanship that she stayed afloat, let alone made it home. GRAF SPEE, like BISMARCK, demonstrated the fundamental flaw in the German's naval policy of a handful of "super ships" - even if she had left Montevideo, she would have been hunted down and destroyed by the RN's global resources.

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    1. Jeremy Ramsey,

      Sorry for the tardy reply to your comment, but for some reason it was placed in the spam folder.

      I have seen some of the photographs of the damage suffered by HMS Exeter during the battle, and it is a tribute to her crew and her builders that she survived to be repaired and see further action.

      When one begins to examine the design of the German warships that were used during the Second World War, it becomes very apparent that they were designed to fulfil roles that were no longer valid and to designs that were less than perfect.

      The so-called 'pocket battleships' could have been a major headache for the Allies to deal with if there had been six of them (as originally planned), and they had been deployed before war broke out. As it was, once the war had started they were destined to hunted down or to be confined to Norway and the Baltic. At least in the latter case they were able to perform a useful role supporting coastal operations by the German Army.

      The design of the Bismarck and Tirpitz was based on that of the last battleships built for the German Grand Fleet, and was not as up-to-date as those being built by the USA and UK during that period. For example, the lack of a dual-purpose secondary armament meant that - as designed - they were never going to be able to protect themselves that well against air attack, and the armour protection scheme had weaknesses that were exposed in combat. It would have been far better if the German Navy had been able to build smaller ships that could have still fulfilled the 'fleet in being' and coastal defence roles ... which was what had been originally planned in the early 1920s.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. One point: although Ajax and Achilles were the same class, the latter was an HMNZS (along with HMNZS Leander).

    I don't think Graf Spee could have escaped. Her fuel systems had taken a damaging hit from Exeter, which left her with less than a day's sailing left.

    I have just looked at an article on the battle, that suggests that had Graf Spee made for an Argentine sea port (one was just 20 miles away), she could still have held off the British cruisers and got a better reception. But I reckon the Allies would have established some kind of blockade before Graf Spee could escape.

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    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      I know that Achilles was mainly crewed by New Zealanders at the time of the battle, but I was not sure if she was called HMNZS at the time.

      Graf Spee was never going to make it home, even if the Argentines had given her a safe haven in order to get repaired. I am sure that Winston Churchill would have ensured that a British task force would have been ready to intercept and sink her if they had.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. If the Graf Spee had made it to and was blockaded in an Argentine port it could have put a considerable strain on an already taxed RN to maintain a task force in the South Atlantic "just in case". Sort of a fleet in being?

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    3. William Stewart,

      Unless the Germans 'sold' Graf Spee to Argentina and repatriated her crew, I doubt if Winston Churchill would have stood by and just let her sit in an Argentine port. If the Argentines had not enforced the international rules of strict neutrality they were bound by as a non-combatant, the Royal Navy would have been legally entitled to enter harbour and disable her. There would have been a mighty diplomatic row if they had, but British finance and economic power in Argentina was still very strong and it is doubtful that the Argentine Government would have done much more that expel the British Ambassador, claim compensation, and restrict British interests.

      It's an interesting 'what if?', and one that I have looked at in some detail in the past.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. In the marvellous 1956 movie many RN ships were used and the Achilles got to play herself as did the Cumberland.

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    1. Ross Mac,

      It is one of my favourite war films, and was the reason for my unfulfilled ambition to join the Royal Navy.

      All the best,

      Bob

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