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The Battle of the River Plate
13 December 1939
By James P. Werbaneth
September 2012

The Battle of the River Plate was the consequence of two factors: Henry Harwood's gamble that Hans Langsdorff, captain of the Admiral Graf Spee, could not resist the temptation to raid Britain's trade with Argentina and Uruguay, and Langsdorff's readiness to engage enemy warships. It was a clash of two aggressive leaders, one commanding a vessel of revolutionary design and superior firepower, and the other with a superior grasp of naval tactics.


Admiral Graf Spee after the Battle of the River Plate.

 

Harwood, commodore of the Royal Navy's South Atlantic Division and Force G, had carefully prepared his plan beforehand. Force G would attack in two elements, the Ajax and Achilles steaming together, with Exeter detached at a distance. This disposition gave the British three advantages. First, unlike a single-element attack, it prevented the enemy from firing at one, big, easy target. Second, each cruiser could spot the fall of shot from the others, a technique called "flank marking." Third, it allowed the cruisers to exploit their most pronounced technical advantage, superior speed. Harwood intended to press the attack early and aggressively, and accordingly on 12 December he issued the order that if the pocket battleship was sighted, "Attack at once by day or night."

During the night of 12 to 13 December the Graf Spee zigzagged off the River Plate, finding none of the prizes that Langsdorff had expected. Disappointed and realizing the dangers of lingering too long in one area, he decided to move toward the Bay of Lagos, West Africa the next morning if nothing was found by then.

Towards morning he took his ship eastwards, intending to switch to a westerly bearing at 0600. But at 0500 the lookout reported two masts to starboard, which were quickly identified as belonging to HMS Exeter. Although reminded by the navigation officer of the Operations Divisions' orders to avoid combat, Langsdorff believed her to be escorting a four-ship convoy, and turned toward the cruiser and cleared the Graf Spee for battle, hoping to catch the Exeter before she could work up to full steam. At 0600 the masts of the Ajax and Achilles were seen, and at first the light cruisers were taken for destroyers.

Langsdorff had the advantage of the British, who had not yet seen the German ship. However, when the Graf Spee accelerated her engines put out a cloud of black smoke, which was seen from Harwood's ships, although it was thought to be coming from one of the merchant vessels that they frequently encountered. The Exeter was sent to investigate at 0614. At 0616 Captain F. S. Bell signalled back that she was a panzerschiff.

Harwood was taken by surprise. He had counted on the first news of the enemy's presence to be an "RRR" raider report from a merchantman, and therefore had no aircraft aloft. But luckily, by chance his ships were deployed in precisely the formation he had planned for battle, so this disadvantage was largely mitigated.

The Graf Spee opened fire at 0617 at the Exeter, straddling her with her third salvo at 0623. These first rounds were base-fused shells, designed to detonate a fraction of a second after impact, and were highly effective. One killed the starboard torpedo crew, disrupted communications, started fires, and sent splinters tearing through vulnerable searchlights and aircraft. Worse, valuable fire control equipment was wrecked at the onset of the battle, crippling the Exeter's gunnery from the very beginning. A few minutes later another 11-inch shell penetrated to the sick bay and passed out of the hull without exploding.

The Graf Spee was straddled by Exeter's own third salvo. However, the German ship hit her right back again with another big round, as Langsdorff switched to impact-fused ammunition to take advantage of the thin British armor. This one ripped the front from B turret and devastated the bridge so badly with splinters that only Bell, who was wounded, and two other officers survived.

A turret and Y turret aft were still firing, but the bridge damage sent the Exeter veering out of control to starboard, threatening to take A turret out of bearing. Fortunately the torpedo officer recovered consciousness and passed the message "port 25 degrees," bringing her back on course. Then a shell from the fifth or sixth salvo hit the Graf Spee near the funnel.

Within a few minutes Bell established a new command post aft of the bridge, conning by a boat compass and communicating by a chain of messengers. The enemy ship was steering a parallel course 13,000 yards off the starboard bow, and the battle was not over for the Exeter by any means.

Ajax and Achilles opened fire at 0620 from 19,800 yards, but their first shots fell short. Langsdorff kept his main battery on the Exeter and responded to the light cruisers with his 5.9-inch secondary guns, which in fact were comparable to their primary guns.

At this point the indecision that marked Langsdorff's conduct of the battle first manifested itself. Like his opponent the German captain was a torpedoman, and he saw that the Achilles and Ajax had crossed his bow to reach an excellent launching position. He made a starboard turn to the north, making the Graf Spee a nearly impossible torpedo target. Less wisely, he switched the 11-inch guns from the Exeter, judging the stricken and burning heavy cruiser to be less of a threat, and quickly straddled the Ajax. The flagship dodged salvoes for the next two minutes, followed by the Achilles.

When Graf Spee changed targets the Exeter really was badly damaged. Two big shells had just struck her, starting fires and springing leaks that began flooding the forward compartments. Nonetheless her torpedo officer assembled whatever crew he could and, seeing that the Graf Spee was vulnerable, on his own initiative launched three from the starboard tubes at 0631. But Langsdorff had just started his slow turn to the north, and all missed.

Bell began his own turn to bring the port tubes to bear. The German recognized his attention, and resumed firing on the Exeter. This inflicted still more heavy damage. By then the Exeter was burning so badly that the Germans believed she was deliberately laying a smoke screen.

Only Y turret was still in operation, and that was under local control, with A and B completely wrecked, as were the Exeter's director control tower [DCT] and transmitting station. Communications were as bad off as gunnery, with all telephones out of order and the radio link with Ajax broken down. Numerous fires continued to rage, and fighting them was difficult, as splinters had cut most of the hoses. Bad leaks under the waterline were letting in water, with 350 tons in the bows, bringing the ship down three feet forward and causing a list of seven to ten degrees to port.

Even so, Exeter was still capable of making full speed, as the engine room was undamaged. Moreover, Bell was not ready to give up the fight, and was actually thinking of ramming the Graf Spee. Then electricity failed to Y turret and took it out of action; Harwood ordered Bell to break off.

By 0637 Ajax and Achilles had matched Graf Spee's turn and were moving west, closing the range. Langsdorff started zigzagging, but disrupted his own vessel's shooting more than that of the enemy.

At this point the pilot of the Ajax's seaplane was permitted to finally take off, just as long as this did not interrupt firing from X and Y turrets. British fire soon took a turn for the worse anyway, despite having a spotter in the air. The DCT's of both light cruisers were damaged, and the Ajax's plane was not able to communicate immediately. Then the benefits of the aerial spotting became illusory, as the observer mistook one ship's fire for another's, giving "corrections" that did no good for anybody's aim.

The first phase of the battle ended at 0700, with Graf Spee headed northwest at 24 knots, and the Exeter, Y turret still firing, on her port beam. The Ajax and Achilles followed the Graf Spee on her starboard quarter, closing the range by steaming at 30 knots.

At this time Langsdorff was besting the enemy. However, he decided to break off the action, and the Graf Spee started making smoke.

Equally surprising, Harwood pressed the issue with his light cruisers. The spotting problems were resolved, and the Ajax and Achilles were firing rapidly and accurately with the seaplane reporting hits, one of which destroyed its German counterpart, still on the catapult.

Langsdorff turned to present his broadside. The Ajax launched torpedoes at 0724 from 9,000 yards away, but they broke the surface and the Graf Spee was able to dodge them easily.

Langsdorff resumed his old course and promptly took out both of the Ajax's after turrets with a single shell. He then launched his own torpedoes, which were seen from the air, and passed the cruisers to stern.

The range continued to close. At 0738 it was down to four miles, the gap so narrow that the German 3.5-inch antiaircraft guns, firing time-delayed shells, joined in.

A minute or two later, Harwood received two pieces of news that convinced him to disengage. The first was that the flagship was down to a single operational gun turret. The second was a wildly inflated estimate of ammunition expenditures. At 0830, the Ajax and Achilles dropped back to follow the Graf Spee from the less dangerous distance of fifteen miles. Except for some sporadic fire on the way to Montevideo, the Battle of the River Plate was over.


Admiral Graf Spee in Motevideo. Damage from the Battle of the River Plate can be seen on her side.

 

Langsdorff's judgment that day was questionable. First, he pressed his attack even after learning, fifteen minutes after first sighting the enemy, that he was facing a heavy cruiser and two light cruisers, and not just the Exeter and a pair of destroyers. Part of his motivation was an excessive fear of being shadowed. This danger could have been alleviated by withdrawing and daring the thin-skinned cruisers to risk pursuit against his heavier, longer-ranged main battery.

Second, there was his indecision over whether to shoot the big guns at the reeling Exeter or the light cruisers. This question was posed by Harwood's rushes at the Graf Spee, and in retrospect Langsdorff seems to have answered it wrong. The German rate of fire was reduced badly by switching targets and, at one point, dividing fire between the fore and aft turrets. The Graf Spee's rate of fire was reduced in the first place by the practice of firing from one turret, correcting, and then firing the guns of the other. Langsdorff made this situation worse and allowed Harwood to determine the course of battle, also allowing the Exeter to escape from further and probably fatal damage.

Worst was the decision to withdraw and run for Montevideo. The Graf Spee was seaworthy, her firepower almost completely intact, and of her crew of 1,100 only 37 were killed and 47 wounded. On the other side, Exeter was on the verge of destruction and Force G was persevering with little else than courage and determination.

Langsdorff was winning, and yet fled from the battle just when he should have been forcing Harwood to do so.

One possible factor in these mistakes was that Langsdorff was wounded twice before 0700, in once instance being knocked unconscious. This trauma may well have affected his reasoning.

It must also be noted that in no way did his withdrawal, precipitous as it was, represent cowardice. Throughout his cruise he acted with daring and a willingness to take risks, such as coming to the River Plate for the convoy when combat was highly probable, although he had expected to fight an auxiliary cruiser and not Force G. Furthermore, his audacity is readily apparent in his attack on one heavy and two light cruisers. Indeed, if anything the gallant captain is open to the charge of recklessness. Langsdorff lost because his opponent was more resolute and tactically astute.

Concluded Captain Parry of HMNZS Achilles: "I ... feel that Harwood won the battle because he knew exactly what he wanted to do, whereas Captain Langsdorff did not."