Golden Journal No. 43:
SWWAS: River Plate
Voyage of the Graf Spee, Part 2
21 August to 17 December 1939
By James P. Werbaneth
The Graf Spee met the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles off the Plate estuary on the morning of 13 December. Graf Spee Captain Hans Langsdorff was working under the misapprehension that the ships were escorting the convoy mentioned by the Operations Division, and at first he thought that the light cruisers' high pole masts actually belonged to destroyers. But even when it was clear the Exeter's companions were more substantial, his determination to attack did not waver.
Langsdorff was taken by surprise by Force G, but Royal Navy Commodore Henry Harwood's was even greater. The first indication of a coming engagement was the belch of black exhaust emitted by the Graf Spee's engines, and was first thought to be smoke from a merchant ship, frequently met by the cruisers. Harwood sent the Exeter to investigate. Two minutes later she identified the vessel as a pocket battleship.
The Battle of the River Plate lasted about an hour and a half. Tactically the Graf Spee prevailed over the British, reducing the Exeter to a battered mess, so badly damaged that there was thought in Britain of leaving her unrepaired in the Falklands for the duration, though Churchill would have none of that. The Exeter then had a long and arduous voyage to Port Stanley, turning down an offer of assistance from the Argentine Minister of Marine at one point.
However, she did make it back to Britain eventually, only to be sunk by the Japanese in the Java Sea on 27 February 1942.
This was a ship that the Graf Spee should have sunk, and that she survived is an indication of Langsdorff's failure to seize victory when he had it. The damage to his ship was light, so light that during the battle Harwood lamented, "We might as well be bombarding her with a lot of bloody snowballs." Nonetheless, Langsdorff emotionally concluded that her damage rendered her insufficiently seaworthy for passage through the North Atlantic in winter. It was an appraisal disputed by his navigation and gunnery officers.
Thus Langsdorff decided to make for a neutral port to make repairs, despite the danger of being shut in. He asked his navigating officer whether Buenos Aires or Montevideo was more suitable and, on his recommendation, made for Uruguay, bravely tailed by the Ajax and Achilles.
On her way the Graf Spee encountered the British merchant ship Shakespeare at 1103, ordering her crew to the lifeboats in preparation for sinking. Langsdorff magnaminously signalled the Ajax to pick up the sailors, using his ship's prewar identification code.
This was the first time the British learned they had been fighting the Graf Spee and not the Admiral Scheer. As it was Langsdorff's gesture came to nothing else, as the Shakespeare's crew defiantly refused to abandon ship and the German, concerned with the reception he might get in Montevideo, decided not to sink her after all.
The pursuing British got a bad scare at 1530 when they sighted the Delane. This was a friendly merchant ship of a novel and rakish design that made her resemble the German heavy cruiser Hipper at a distance.
Both sides periodically traded shots during the run. Though Harwood was following from a respectful distance beyond the range of the enemy's 11-inch guns, the Achilles inadvertently closed to 23,000 yards at 1010. The Graf Spee turned and loosed three salvoes, the second of which fell close by and demonstrated to Captain Parry the necessity of keeping to a more open range.
At 1852 the Graf Spee fired two more salvoes from thirteen miles at the New Zealand ship. Parry closed to eleven miles they traded three more, all missing. During the next hour Langsdorff shot three salvoes, but Parry did not respond in kind this time, believing that the twilight made the Achilles impossible to see. Also, the German gun smoke was unexpectedly black, shrouding the Graf Spee in an accidental but functional smoke screen.
Sunset came at 2048. By 2213, the Graf Spee was silhouetted against the lights of Montevideo.
Admiralty reaction was swift, ordering warships to converge on the Plate even as the battle raged. Shropshire was immediately available at Cape Town, Force H having just finished a long sweep up the African coast, and was ordered to sail right away, but had over 4,000 miles to cover. As late as 17 December she and her Force H companion, Sussex, were still three and four days respectively from joining Harwood. Force K had also completed its sweep up Africa's west coast from Cape Town and on 13 December was 600 miles from Pernambuco and 2,500 from Montevideo. Still farther north the cruiser Neptune left French Force X and steamed south to join Force K. All these ships would have to fuel at Rio de Janeiro en route. To counter the threat of a German breakout to the east Force I of the cruisers Cornwall, Gloucester and the aircraft carrier Eagle, originally stationed at Ceylon, was retained at Durban under the authority of the commander-in-chief, South Africa.
All reinforcements were quite some time away from the Plate. The first reinforcement to join Harwood was his own Cumberland on the sixteenth. On the same day he also got word that the Ark Royal and Renown had reached Rio de Janeiro and were in the process of taking on fuel.
Additional welcome news came to him in the immediate wake of the battle. For his services, Commodore Henry Harwood was promoted to Rear Admiral Sir Henry Harwood.
However, even as he kept a close watch on Montevideo, control of the Graf Spee affair passed from his hands. This went to Captain Henry McCall, the British naval attache at Buenos Aires, who was also accredited to Uruguay and Brazil. Learning that the pocket battleship was headed for Montevideo, he shifted his base there on 13 December.
McCall was able to closely examine the Graf Spee and found little apparent damage. It was a reasonably accurate assessment, as the only damage to her firepower were the loss of one primary battery rangefinder and two secondary guns put out of action. Structural damage amounted to eight holes in the hull no more than six inches square and another in the bows, measuring six by six feet, but well above the waterline.
His first thought was to try to persuade the basically pro-British Uruguayan government to expel the Graf Spee from port and into the teeth of Harwood's guns. However he soon learned of Force G's damage and that the Cumberland was still on its way to take the Exeter's place, and accordingly worked instead to keep the Graf Spee in the harbor until reinforcements could arrive.
Langsdorff contacted ship repair firms and took aboard stores from the German merchant vessel Tacoma. On 15 December he buried his dead in a ceremony attended by many sympathetic Uruguayans, as well as former prisoners whom he had favorably impressed with his exemplary treatment. All of the Germans gave the dead mariners the Nazi salute, that is all except one. Before the world press and photographers, Hans Langsdorff honored them with the old naval salute.
The Graf Spee was kept under observation with the help of local British residents. One, a retired reserve captain, arranged for a 24-hour watch by sixteen observers, ashore and afloat. Another Briton helped rectify the communications advantage enjoyed by the Germans who, unlike their enemies, had a clandestine transmitter in Montevideo. This man had equipped the Uruguayan cable stations and trained their operators, and used his contacts and some judicious bribery to expedite British communications. Ultimately, McCall and his colleagues in Montevideo were able send news to Harwood via Port Stanley in under fifteen minutes.
McCall and his assistant, Captain Rex Miller, who was also head of British intelligence in South America, considered immobilizing the Graf Spee by damaging her rudder and screws. They had the means to do so, and ample volunteers, but refrained in the interest of world opinion.
They adopted strictly legal means. International law dictated that no belligerent naval vessel could leave a neutral harbor if the government there received notice that an enemy merchantman would be sailing within twenty-four hours. There were several British ships in Montevideo, and the British gave Uruguay word that one, the Ashworth, was about to sail. However, the Uruguayans did not wish to be caught in such legal maneuvering, and refused to accept the notification.
Instead, they compromised between the British and German demands. Langsdorff wanted two weeks in port to make the Graf Spee seaworthy once more, and the British wanted to keep the ship in port for as long as possible, preferably for the rest of war, and ideally interned. Uruguay gave the Graf Spee seventy-two hours in which to leave, starting after an inspection of the pocket battleship on the evening of 14 December was completed.
At this time the intelligence advantage heretofore benefiting the Germans was negated, or rather turned against them. First, the Germans were unable to conduct aerial reconnaissance off the Plate as the Graf Spee's troublesome airplane had been destroyed in the battle, and they could not find private aircraft available for charter. They did get one report on 15 December from Buenos Aires that an observer in a private plane had seen four cruisers lying off the River Plate. Langsdorff's gunnery officer also was convinced that he had seen the Ark Royal and Renown with several destroyers through the gun director sights. Langsdorff had every reason to mortally fear these ships, as either one was capable of sinking or disabling his with impunity.
On the same day Langsdorff requested instructions from Germany, proposing that he proceed to Buenos Aires. This risked fouling the Graf Spee's engine cooling system with mud from the channel, immobilizing the ship, but Argentina was appreciably less anti-German than Uruguay. Raeder approved of this, most emphatically ruling out internment as an option.
But in the process the Grand Admiral committed a grave error of omission on the fifteenth. Although he did not believe that the Ark Royal and Renown were in the vicinity, a correct belief, he did not send this intelligence to Langsdorff, believing that the captain, as the man at the scene, was better able to decide what to do with his ship.
Declining to exercise remote command from Germany was wise. Abdicating an important responsibility such as this was not. Raeder had to responsibility to keep that man at the scene as fully informed as possible, and while Langsdorff might have had better access to firsthand information and a better grasp of the immediate situation, he lacked direct access to the very effective German naval intelligence apparatus. One of Raeder's duties in this instance was to act as a conduit between Langsdorff and this system.
Quite possibly, Raeder was sensitive to charges of meddling in seagoing commanders' authority in the wake of his dispute with Marschall. If so he took his concern much too far, and must bear a large share of the blame for the loss of the Graf Spee. He left Langsdorff and his officers alone at a critical juncture with their fears of Force K, fears ultimately based in reason, but that were escalating to the level of phobia.
This was unknown to the British. However, on 16 December Rex Miller thought of a way to deceive the Germans that played exactly on their Force K-phobia. The Ark Royal and Renown were to be off the Plate, in the German mind if not in reality. Combat could not have been more decisive in sealing the fate of the Graf Spee.
Knowing full well that the line was tapped, Henry McCall phoned the British Ambassador to Argentina, Sir Esmond Ovey, with a request unusual for transmission on such an unsecured line. McCall asked him to have the Argentines supply 2,000 tons of fuel oil for two capital ships arriving that evening at Mar del Plata, the Argentine naval base. Ovey caught on quickly.
At 1815 16 December the British sailed a merchant ship out of Montevideo, effectively invoking the twenty-four-hour rule. Rather than make a surprise dash for the open, the rule and the Uruguayan deadline mandated that the Graf Spee leave between 1815 and 2000 17 December, when the British would be fully alerted.
Sunday, 17 December 1939 was a beautiful summer day in Montevideo. Broadcasts announced that the Graf Spee would be sailing that day, and huge crowds gathered to watch the naval battle they expected to take place within sight of Montevideo.
In the afternoon about 800 German sailors left the raider by boats from the Tacoma, unsuccessfully concealed behind canvas screens and awnings. Then at 1815 the Graf Spee, battle flags aloft on both masts, made her way past the breakwater, accompanied by the Tacoma. The British felt that Langsdorff was on his way to Argentina, but three miles out she turned west, stopped, and more boat activity took place between the Graf Spee and Tacoma. Two large German-owned tugs from Argentina approached, and there was still more boat traffic. McCall remembered:
"Something extraordinary was about to take place. The great crowd immediately below us, denied their sight of a battle, was quite hushed. What was going to happen? Time passed in considerable speculation and suspense, but the truth, unlikely though it appeared, was beginning to dawn on some of us."
Exactly as the sun set, the Graf Spee exploded, her magazines blown up with torpedo heads and gasoline. She burned for four days.
A rumor spread soon after that Langsdorff had been aboard at the time, and that some of his crew were trapped on the ship. But Langsdorff, to the relief of his British enemies, escaped with all of his men to Argentina. The sailors were interred there under conditions that were far from difficult, and some managed to make their way back to Germany by way of tortuous and dangerous routes.
Langsdorff did not. On 19 December he wrapped himself in the Imperial ensign under which he had fought at Jutland and shot himself.
If the aftermath of the Battle of the River Plate is ignored, the cruise of the Graf Spee was a resounding success. Langsdorff sunk some 5,000 tons of merchant shipping, mauled a heavy cruiser, and tied down half the Royal Navy, thus denying the strategic initiative to the Allies. Together with a nascent u-boat campaign and effective minelaying around Britain, the surface raiders in general and the Graf Spee in particular gave the Kriegsmarine an auspicious start in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Even when a pocket battleship was not actively sweeping up merchant vessels, she could deny the enemy the opportunity to concentrate naval units, strain its resources, and consign it to a reactive rather than an active strategy. Winston Churchill wrote of the Deutschland's 1939 cruise, which was neither aggressive nor, in terms of merchant ships taken, very successful: "The mere presence of this powerful warship upon our trade route had, however, imposed, as intended, a serious strain on our escorts and hunting groups in the North Atlantic. We should in fact have preferred her activity to the vague menace she embodied." Perpetuating that "vague menace" was one of the most important accomplishments of the pocket battleships, something which the Graf Spee did especially well, as her menace was less vague than her location and intentions.
Once battle was joined, Langsdorff's record changes. Off the River Plate he allowed Harwood to pick the terms of the engagement, then conceded victory in the strategic sense when it had been tactically won. Langsdorff should not have ended the battle by retreating to a neutral haven. Instead, he should have attempted to plunge back into the wide expanses of the South Atlantic, perhaps finishing off the Exeter. A little of the aggressiveness he exhibited strategically would have substantially reduced Harwood's option to pursue and shadow by forcing the British commander to pay closer attention to keeping his ships above the waves.
At Montevideo Langsdorff was defeated psychologically. He and his officers were afflicted with overriding fears of shadowing and of the Renown. His flight to Uruguay was motivated in part by the first, and the Graf Spee's destruction by the second, despite an excellent intelligence situation.
Ironically, it was just this advantage that was turned around by the British with devastating effect. A less keen intelligence apparatus would not have compromised the South American telephone lines, nor would have been so attuned to McCall's apparently stupid mistake.
Yet the situation was by no means irretrievable. Erich Raeder made a noble effort to ensure Langsdorff's latitude in command, but in doing so deprived him of vitally needed intelligence. He neither usurped Langsdorff"s authority nor adequately supported it. Thus the pyschological initiative, as important in Montevideo as it was on the high seas, was allowed to go to the British.
With that the Graf Spee was truly doomed. In the end she was scuttled and Hans Langsdorff committed suicide, losers in a war of information and disinformation.
Bidlingmaier, Kapitan zur See. "Raider at Large," History of the Second World War Part 2 (1973), 34-44.
Brown, Anthony Cave. Bodyguard of Lies. New York: Bantam, 1975.
Churchill, Winston S. The Gathering Storm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948.
Hough, Richard. Dreadnought. New York: MacMillan, 1975.
Hughes, Terry and Costello, John. The Battle of the Atlantic. New York, Dial Press, 1977.
Jane's Fighting Ships of World War II. New York: Military Press, 1989.
Lewin, Ronald. Ultra Goes to War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
McCall, Admiral Sir Henry. "The Trap," History of the Second World War Part 3 (1973), 57-62.
Pope, Dudley. "The Battle of the River Plate," History of the Second World War Part 2 (1973), 45-55.
Preston, Antony. Cruisers. London: Bison, 1982.
Tarnstrom, Ronald L. The Wehrmacht Strikes 1920-1942. Lindsborg, Kansas: Trogen Books, 1989.
Von der Porten, Edward. The German Navy in World War II. New York: Ballantine, 1969.
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