THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE

 

  ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE

 

 

 

 

Under the conditions imposed on Germany by the treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War, the German navy was forbidden to construct surface warships in excess of 10,000 tons.

The Germans addressed these limitations with profound thought and masterly skill in producing the Deutschland and Graf Spee. Both armed with two triple 11" turrets and numerous smaller caliber guns, their 26 knot speed and compressed armor meant that on the open seas, no single British cruiser could match them. This class of destroyer would later be referred to as a pocket battleship. 

On August 21st 1939 the Graf Spee slipped her moorings at Wilhelmshafen and proceeded deep into the Atlantic Ocean. Her mission was that in the event of war she was to act as a commerce raider on transports carrying vital supplies to any enemy belligerent hostile to Germany.

On September 3rd 1939 when hostilities between Great Britain, France and Germany had been declared the GrafSpee's commander, Captain Hans Langsdorff, implemented his daring and imaginative plan for attacking the enemy convoys.

Captain Langsdorff's strategy was to make a brief appearance claim a victim, and then vanish undetected into the trackless ocean. This tactic was to prove extremely effective against British shipping, for after sinking her first vessel on September 26th, she quickly followed this up with four other kills.

After receiving reports that numerous British hunting groups were now searching for her Captain Langsdorff decided to momentarily withdrawal from the Atlantic. Sailing south, the Graf Spee navigated around the southern tip of Africa and escaped undetected into the Indian Ocean.

During her hiatus the Graf Spee skillfully eluded all contact with other ships for nearly a month until Captain Langsdorff decided that his trail was now cold enough to implement yet another brilliant maneuver.

On November 15th, while sailing down the Mozambique Channel between the island of Madagascar and the continent of Africa, Captain Langsdorff ordered the destruction of the British tanker Africa shell.

This attack was merely a feint, a tactic to register her position and draw the British hunting groups towards the Indian Ocean. Once Langsdorff knew his presence had been detected, he promptly steamed with all speed well south of the cape and re - entered the South Atlantic.

It wasn't until the week of December 2nd - 7th that the British had realized the Graf Spee had slipped back into the Atlantic when she registered three more kills, one of which being the Doric Star which managed to get off a signal to indicate the position of the raider. 

Langsdorff now had two options before him, he could head north to the safety of a German port and return to a hero's triumph or have the Graf Spee continue on her present course until she reached the River Plate estuary where the richest prizes in enemy shipping would be offered to her.

While the rest of the British Admiralty were at a loss as to the Graf Spee's next move, it was one Commodore Harwood who figured correctly that Captain Langsdorff would choose the latter of his two options.

Harwood's assignment at the time was to protect the shipping lanes in and around the River Plate and South America. Harwood ordered three of his four cruisers, the 8 inch HMS Exeter and the two 6 inch cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles to meet 150 miles east of the River Plate and await their foe.

 

 

HMS EXETER

        

          

    HMS AJAX                                                               HMS ACHILLES

 

 

 

 

At 6:15am on the morning of December 13th, Exeter sighted smoke off to the east. Aboard the Ajax Harwood ordered his forces to split up into two attack groups with the larger Exeter in one and the two smaller cruisers forming the other.

At first Captain Langsdorff believed that only one light cruiser and two destroyers stood before him. When Langsdorff realized the quality of his opponents, the correct course of action would have been to turn away and keep the British ships under the superior range and weight of his 11" inch guns, but much to Harwood's surprise, the German Captain continued boldly forward towards his ships at full speed.

The Graf Spee first made for the larger Exeter and began to open fire. The Exeter soon received her first hit which besides knocking out 'B' turret, destroyed the bridge killing nearly all upon it. Although the Exeter did manage to return fire and score a hit damaging the Graf Spee's control tower, the lack of communication and command structure aboard the Exeter temporarily put the British ship out of action.

With the Graf Spee's attention completely focused on the Exeter, Harwood now ordered his two smaller cruisers to close in and attack. The assault proved very effective as the cruisers forced the Graf Spee to take her main guns off the heavily damaged Exeter at a critical moment in the battle. 

The smaller faster cruisers quickly raced in and hit the preoccupied German warship hard with both British ships putting up a persistent and effective barrage from their rapid firing '6' inch guns. 

The swift cruiser attack had inflicted damage to the bow and much of the Graf Spee's superstructure, but now the German guns were trained upon her smaller adversaries and released a thunderous salvo which knocked out the two aft turrets on Ajax and inflicted severe damage to the Achilles. Harwood knew his two light cruisers were no match for the big guns of the larger German ship, he therefore laid smoke and ordered his cruisers to fall back.

Not killed, Captain Bell miraculously survived and awoke to find the Exeter in bad shape, she was burning amid ship and was listing heavily. He could also see through the smoke and flames that both the Achilles and Ajax were heavily engaged against the larger Graf Spee and were taking the worst of it.

Captain Bell immediately gathered what officers were left to him and proceeded to take over the aft control station, bringing the Exeter's sole remaining turret back into the fight. As the Graf Spee was training her guns on the fleeing British cruisers ,Captain Langsdorff  was astonished and in complete disbelief as shells began to rain down on his position from the direction of the Exeter.

Regardless of the heavy damage the Exeter had sustained during the fight, Captain Langsdorff could not afford to allow the crippled ship to remain in the battle and immediately directed his ships main armament on the stubborn British warship thus allowing the two smaller British cruisers to escape out of range.

The Graf Spee's first salvos quickly hit their mark knocking out the Exeter's last remaining turret. At 7:40am, Captain Bell radioed Commodore Harwood that his ship was now completely out of action and in danger of sinking, Exeter could do no more she turned and slowly limped away from the battle. 

With the Exeter now out of the fight and the two smaller cruisers out of effective range, Captain Langsdorff could now asses the damage to his ship. 

Although the Graf Spee was not to badly hurt she was however very low on ammunition and did suffer enough damage not to chance a rough and lengthy voyage back to Germany which would take her through hostile waters swarming with larger enemy warships bent on her destruction. Langsdorff Therefore ordered the Graf Spee to make for the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo for repairs and re supply.

 

Admiral Graf Spee Montevideo

GRAF SPEE ARRIVES IN MONTEVIDEO

 

 

 

 

Commodore Harwood's task force had been badly mauled, Naval doctrine dictated that he disengage from the battle and return to port for repairs. But Harwood could not afford to give Langsdorff the option of doubling back and sailing for Germany. His only recourse was to order both his damaged light cruisers to turn and follow. 

On or about midnight of the 13th of December, the Graf Spee entered the safe haven of Montevideo, while the Ajax and Achilles lay outside determined to prevent her escape should she attempt to do so.

Steaming at full speed from the Falklands Harwood's last cruiser, the HMS Cumberland now arrived on the scene and took the place of the utterly crippled Exeter. The arrival of this 8 inch gun cruiser narrowly restored the firepower balance to a doubtful situation.

As the Graf Spee lay docked a diplomatic battle now ensued between the British, German and Uruguayan governments. The British contested that under international law the Graf Spee be made to leave port twenty four hours after its arrival. The Germans argued the ship needed two weeks of repair and was by no means sea worthy to make the perilous journey back to Germany should she escape. 

Under intense pressure from all sides the Uruguayan government decided on a deadline of December 17th, allotting the German warship a mere seventy two hours for repairs.

During this time the British began circulating rumors that a British attack force lead by the battleship HMS Renown along with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal were lying in wait for the Graf Spee just outside of Uruguayan waters. Although there was no truth to story Langsdorff believed the reports to be accurate.

On December 16th, Captain Langsdorff telegraphed the German Admiralty that his situation was dire and escape hopeless. After an emergency conference, Hitler approved the following cable.

" Attempt by all means to extend the time in neutral waters... Fight your way through to Buones Aires if possible... No internment in Uruguay... Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled".

Given this list of  options, Langsdorff chose the latter and made the proper arrangements to save his crew. On December 17th the Graf Spee's entire compliment of over seven hundred men transferred to the German tanker Tacoma.

At 6:15 pm that same day Langsdorff and a skeleton crew weighed anchor in witness of immense crowds and steamed slowly seawards. Four miles out of harbor the Graf Spee suddenly stopped, soon after she was rocked by six large explosions which tore the ship apart, sinking her soon after.

  

                                                           

                         

  

                          

                                                         

                          

  

DESTRUCTION OF THE ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE

  

At 8:45pm Ajax reported to Harwood that the Graf Spee had blown herself up, thus bringing to a conclusion the first surface challenge by the German navy to British trade on the open Oceans.

Faced with the loss of his command and the total destruction of the Graf Spee, Captain Langsdorff retired to his hotel room, wrapped himself  within his ships ensign and shot himself.

Langsdorf was later buried in Buenos Aires Argentina with full military honors. The remaining crew of the Graf Spee were interned in Argentina until the end of the war when in 1946 they were repatriated back to Germany.

 

 CAPTAIN LANGSDORFF

 

 

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