Historical NotesThe Admiral Graf Spee had been at sea at the start of the Second World War in September 1939 and had sunk several merchantmen in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean without loss of life due to her captain's policy of taking all crews on board before sinking the victim.
The Royal Navy assembled forces to search for the surface raider. Force G, the South American Cruiser Squadron, comprised the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (8,400 tonnes, six 8-inch (203 mm) guns) and two Leander-class light cruisers (both 7,000 tons, eight 6-inch (152 mm) guns) — HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles. The force was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood from Ajax, which was captained by Charles Woodhouse. Achilles was of the New Zealand Division (precursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy) and captained by Edward Parry. Exeter was captained by F. S. Bell. A County-class heavy cruiser, HMS Cumberland (10,000 tons, eight 8-inch (203 mm) guns), was self-refitting in the Falkland Islands at the time but available at short notice.
Harwood suspected that the raider would try to strike next at the merchant shipping off the River Plate estuary between Uruguay and Argentina. He ordered his squadron to steam towards the position 32 degrees South, 47 degrees West. Harwood chose this position, according to his despatch, due to its being the most congested part of the shipping routes in the area, and therefore the point where a raider could do the most damage to enemy shipping.
The three cruisers were convened off the estuary on 12 December and conducted manoeuvres. Harwood's combat policy of three cruisers versus one pocket battleship was to attack at once day or night. By day the ships would attack as two units, Exeter separate from Ajax and Achilles. By night the ships would remain in company in open order. By attacking from two sides, Harwood hoped to give his lighter ships a chance of overcoming the German advantage of greater range and heavier broadside by dividing the enemy's fire.
The BattleOn 13 December the ships sighted each other and closed. Admiral Graf Spee, despite having correctly identified Exeter, initially suspected that the two light cruisers were smaller destroyers and that the British ships were protecting a merchant convoy, the destruction of which would be a major prize. Since Admiral Graf Spee's reconnaissance aircraft was out of service, Langsdorf relied on lookouts for this information. He decided to engage despite having received a broadly accurate report from the German naval staff on 4 December outlining British activity in the River Plate area. This report included information that Ajax, Achilles, Exeter and Cumberland were patrolling the South American coast. Langsdorf realized too late that he was facing three cruisers. Falling back on the immediate acceleration of Admiral Graf Spee's diesel engines, he closed at 24 knots in the hope of engaging the steam-driven British ships before they could work up from cruising speed to full power.
The British executed their battle plan: Exeter turned to the north-west whilst Ajax and Achilles, operating together, turned to the north-east. Admiral Graf Spee opened fire on Exeter at 19,000 yards with her six 11-inch (280 mm) guns at 06:18. Exeter opened fire at 06:20, Achilles at 06:21, Exeter's aft guns at 06:22 and Ajax at 06:23. From her opening salvo, Admiral Graf Spee's gunfire proved rather accurate, her third salvo straddling Exeter At 06:23 an 11-inch (280 mm) shell burst just short of Exeter, abreast the middle of the ship. Splinters from this shell killed the torpedo tubes' crews, damaged the ship's communications, riddled the ship's funnels and searchlights and wrecked the ship's Walrus aircraft just as it was to be launched for gunnery spotting. Three minutes later Exeter suffered a direct hit. This shell struck her B-turret, putting it and its two guns out of action. Shrapnel swept the bridge, killing or wounding all bridge personnel except the captain and two others. Captain Bell's communications were wrecked. Communications from the aft conning position were also destroyed, and the ship had to be steered via a chain of messengers for the rest of the battle.
Meanwhile Ajax and Achilles had closed to 13,000 yards and started making in front of the Admiral Graf Spee, causing Admiral Graf Spee to split her main armament at 06:30, and otherwise using her 5.9-inch (150 mm) guns against them. At 06:32 Exeter fired two torpedoes from her starboard tubes but both missed. At 06:37 Ajax launched her spotter aircraft from its catapult. At 06:38 Exeter turned so that she could fire her port torpedoes, and received two more direct hits from 11-inch shells. One hit A-turret and put it out of action, the other entered the hull and started fires. At this point Exeter was severely damaged, having only Y-turret in action, a seven degree list, was being flooded and being steered with the use of her small boat's compass. In return, one of Exeter's 8-inch shell penetrated two decks then exploded in Graf Spee’s funnel area — destroying her raw fuel processing system and leaving her with just 16 hours fuel, insufficient to allow her to return home. The ship was doomed but this was kept secret for 60 years.
At approximately 06:36, Admiral Graf Spee hauled around from an easterly course, now behind Ajax and Achilles, toward the northwest and laid smoke. This position brought Langsdorf roughly parallel to Exeter. By 06:50 Exeter listed heavily to starboard, taking water forward. Nevertheless, she still steamed at full speed and fired with her one remaining turret. Forty minutes later, water splashed in by an 11-inch near-miss short-circuited Exeter's electrical system for that turret. Captain Bell was forced to break off action. This would have been the opportunity to finish off Exeter. Instead, the combined fire of Ajax and Achilles drew Langsdorf's attention as both ships closed.
At 06:56, Ajax and Achilles turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear, causing at 07:10 Admiral Graf Spee to turn away and lay a smokescreen. At 07:10 the two light cruisers turned to reduce the range from 8 miles (13 km), even though this meant only their forward guns could fire. At 07:16 Admiral Graf Spee turned to port and headed straight for the heavily damaged Exeter, but fire from Ajax and Achilles forced the Graf Spee at 07:20 to turn and fire her 11-inch guns at them, who turned to starboard to bring all their guns to bear. Ajax turned to starboard at 07:24 and fired her torpedoes at a range of 4.5 miles (7 km), causing Admiral Graf Spee to turn away under a smokescreen. At 07:25 Ajax was hit by an 11-inch shell that put X-turret out of action and jammed Y-turret, causing some casualties. By 07:40, Ajax and Achilles were running low on resources and the British decided to change tactics, moving to the east under a smokescreen. Harwood decided to shadow Admiral Graf Spee and try to attack at night when he could attack with torpedoes and better utilise his advantage of speed and manoeuvrability while minimising his deficiencies in armour. Ajax was again hit by an 11-inch shell that destroyed her mast and caused some casualties. Admiral Graf Spee continued on a south-westward course.
The PursuitThe battle now turned into a pursuit. The British and New Zealand cruisers split up keeping about 15 miles (24 km) from Admiral Graf Spee. Ajax kept to the German's port and Achilles to the starboard. At 09:15 Ajax recovered her aircraft. At 09:46 Harwood signalled to Cumberland for reinforcements and the Admiralty also ordered ships within 3,000 miles (5,000 km) to proceed to the River Plate. At 10:05 Achilles had overestimated the Graf Spee's speed and came into range of German guns. Admiral Graf Spee turned and fired two three-gun salvoes with her foreguns. Achilles turned away under a smokescreen. The shadowing continued for the rest of the day until 19:15, when Admiral Graf Spee turned and opened fire on Ajax, who turned away under a smokescreen.
It was now clear that Admiral Graf Spee was entering the River Plate. As the estuary had sandbanks, Harwood ordered Achilles to shadow Admiral Graf Spee while Ajax would cover any attempt to double back through a different channel. The sun set at 20:48 with the Admiral Graf Spee silhouetted against the sun. Achilles had again closed the range and Admiral Graf Spee opened fire, while Achilles turned away. During the battle, a total of 108 men had been killed on the two sides, including 36 on Admiral Graf Spee.
Admiral Graf Spee entered Montevideo in neutral Uruguay, dropping anchor at about 00:10 on 14 December. This was a political error, as Uruguay, while neutral, had benefited from significant British influence during its development and favoured the Allies. The British Hospital, for example (where the wounded from the battle were taken) was the leading hospital in Montevideo. Had the Admiral Graf Spee left port at this time, the damaged Ajax and the Achilles would have been the only Commonwealth warships it would have encountered in the area.
In Montevideo, the 13th Hague Convention came into play. Under Article 2, "...belligerent war-ships are not permitted to remain in the ports, roadsteads, or territorial waters of the said Power for more than twenty-four hours...", modified by Article 14 "A belligerent war-ship may not prolong its stay in a neutral port beyond the permissible time except on account of damage..." British diplomats duly pressed for the speedy departure of the Graf Spee. Also relevant was Article 16, of which part reads, "A belligerent war-ship may not leave a neutral port or roadstead until twenty-four hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary."
The Germans released 61 captive British merchant seamen who had been on board. Langsdorff then asked the Uruguayan government for two weeks to make repairs. Initially, the British diplomats in Uruguay, principally Eugen Millington-Drake, tried to have Admiral Graf Spee forced to leave port immediately. After consultation with London, which was aware that there were no significant British naval forces in the area, they continued to openly demand that the Graf Spee leave. At the same time, they secretly arranged for British and French merchant ships to sail from Montevideo at intervals of 24 hours, whether they had originally intended to or not, thus invoking Article 16. This kept the Graf Spee in port and allowed more time for British forces to reach the area.
At the same time, efforts were made by the British to feed false intelligence to the Germans that an overwhelming British force was being assembled, including the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, when in fact only the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland was nearby. Cumberland, one of the earlier County class, was only a little more powerful than Exeter, with two more 8-inch (203 mm) guns; she was no match alone for Admiral Graf Spee, whose 11-inch guns had longer range and fired much heavier shells. Cumberland arrived at 22:00 on 14 December after steaming at full speed for 36 hours from the Falkland Islands. Overwhelming British forces (HMS Renown, Ark Royal, Shropshire, Dorsetshire and Neptune) were en route, but would not assemble until December 19. For the time being, the total force comprised the undamaged Cumberland and damaged Ajax and Achilles. To reinforce the propaganda effect, these ships, which were waiting just outside the three mile limit, were ordered to make smoke, which could be clearly seen from the Montevideo waterfront.
The Germans, however, were entirely deceived, and expected to face a far superior force on leaving the River Plate. The Graf Spee had also used two-thirds of her 11" ammunition and only had enough left for approximately a further 20 minutes of firing, which was hardly enough to fight her way out of Montevideo, let alone get back to Germany. Intense negotiations were undertaken. While the ship was prevented from leaving the harbour, Captain Langsdorff consulted with his command in Germany. He received orders that permitted various options, but not internment in Uruguay. Ultimately he chose to scuttle his ship in the River Plate estuary (December 17) to avoid unnecessary loss of life for no military advantage, a decision that is said to have infuriated Hitler. The crew of Admiral Graf Spee was taken to Buenos Aires, where Captain Langsdorff subsequently committed suicide on 19 December. He was buried there with full military honours and several British officers attended. Many of the crew members were reported to have moved to Montevideo with the help of local people of German origin. The German dead were buried in the "Cementerio del Norte" in Montevideo.
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