Battle of the River Plate
By James P. Werbaneth
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.
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."
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
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.
had the advantage of the British, who had
not yet seen the German ship. However, when
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Worst was the decision to withdraw
and run for Montevideo. The Graf
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.
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.
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
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."
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