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Admiral Graf Spee and the Battle of The River Plate

written by: AMT • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 2/7/2011

The Battle of the River Plate involved the most famous German pocket battleship: Admiral Graf Spee, and three British cruisers operating in the South Atlantic. One of the first surface engagements of the Second World War, it ended in the scuttling of the Admiral Graf Spee outside Montevideo harbor

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    Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee: Raider by Necessity

    The Deutschland class German pocket battleships were designed to push the limits of the Versailles Treaty, which stipulated that the German Navy could possess no vessel with a displacement exceeding 10,000 tons. Admiral Graf Spee, the third and last of this unique class, was commissioned in January, 1936 and was the largest of her sisters - weighing at least 12,000 tons when not fully crewed, stocked, and armed.

    The Versailles Treaty's naval stipulations had been designed to prevent Germany from operating any warship larger than a cruiser, and so incapable of posing a threat to British or French fleets heavily equipped with battleships. German naval designers responded by producing a class of vessels that could threaten British and French maritime shipping while evading any ship large enough to defeat these raiders in direct combat.

    Admiral Graf Spee   Named for the commander of Germany's Far East Squadron, Admiral Maximilian von Spee (the term Graf comes from his title as a member of the German nobility, and is equivalent in meaning to "count"). This squadron was destroyed by a superior British naval force in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in the first years of World War I.

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    Admiral Graf Spee's World War II Raids

    Captained by Hans Langsdorf (spelled in German sources as Langsdorff, but often spelled without the second f), Graf Spee shipped out to raid British shipping as the Second World War erupted in September 1939, and late that month begain conducting commerce raids in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

    Admiral Graf Spee 1   Admiral Graf Spee's assaults on British and allied merchant ships threw the Royal Navy into turmoil. She sank ship after ship, and even captured a number wholly intact and sent them to Germany as prizes. In all, Graf Spee ship sinkings totalled nine vessels comprising more than fifty thousand tons of shipping capacity. The 8000 ton liner Huntsman was captured and later sunk with a cargo of tea, and the 10,000 ton liner Doric Star was sunk with a load of animal products as Hans Langsdorf brought his vessel back into the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean.

    Of particular note in this spree, aside from the fact that the Royal Navy dedicated more than two dozen capital ships and cruisers to hunt this lone raider, is that no lives were lost in any of the sinkings. Maritime law was strictly followed by the Graf Spee's crew at the behest of her captain, and though the German raider was determined in its prosecution of British shipping, every vessel attacked was halted, boarded, and its crew evacuated prior to being sunk. Some crews were interned on the Graf Spee or sent on a prison ship, the Altmark, back to Germany, and others were allowed to retreat to their life boats while their location was radioed to nearby ships so that they could be rescued. This concern for life and law was, sadly, set aside during the long years of the Second World War by both sides.

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    The Opening Moves in the Battle of the River Plate

    Unfortunately for this unique German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee's final victim, the Doric Star, was able to radio an alert to the Royal Navy before being taken and sunk. The commander of the nearest British hunting party, Commodore Henry Harwood, correctly surmised that the Graf Spee would make for the River Plate - a major shipping lane east of the border between Uruguay and Argentina. The former was quite friendly to the Allies, and a good deal of cargo transited these waters. Harwood sailed to a point near the River Plate with three cruisers - the heavy cruiser Exeter armed with 8" guns, and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles equipped with 6" guns.

    Unaware that she was to be ambushed, Graf Spee came into sight of the British cruiser force on the 13th of December, making for the River Plate area as anticipated. Upon sighting the British cruisers, the Graf Spee's spotters appear to have mistaken the light cruisers for destroyers, leading to the assumption that the vessels were guarding a British convoy. Graf Spee moved to engage.

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    The advent of radio technology made it more difficult for a powerful vessel like the Graf Spee to conduct its mission undetected, and after leaving a trail of sunken merchant vessels in her wake, Admiral Graff Spee was brought to bear by three British cruisers in The Battle of the River Plate. 1939 was a bad year for the enemies of Germany, as Poland had fallen in less than a month and U-boat attacks already threatened Britain's vital shipping lanes. The Battle of the River Plate resulted in a badly needed victory for the Royal Navy, which had already lost the battleship Royal Oak in a daring U-boat raid on the British naval base at Scapa Flow and the aircraft carrier Courageous to a U-boat in the Atlantic. Though Admiral Graf Spee badly damaged a British heavy cruiser in the engagement, she herself received significant damage to her superstructure and was scuttled by her captain, Hans Langsdorf, outside the port of Montevideo in order to spare his crew from being killed in a hopeless battle against what he believed to be a much-reinforced squadron waiting in ambush.
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    The Battle of the River Plate: Admiral Graf Spee versus the Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles

    In the early morning hours of the 13th of December, the four vessels approached one another to begin the Battle of the River Plate. The three cruisers split into two groups. One was composed of just the Exeter, whose six 8" guns had the best chance of penetrating and damaging Admiral Graf Spee's tough hide. The other comprised Ajax and Achilles working in tandem to do what damage they could with their lighter 6" guns. By splitting his forces, Harwood hoped to divert his opponent's fire between the threats.

    It is unknown when Hans Langsdorf realized that he was facing a full three cruisers, but once he had moved to engage his choices were limited. His pocket battleship could not outrun cruisers, so he had to rely on his superior firepower to carry him through the battle. Ordering Admiral Graf Spee's diesel engines to full power, the vessel accelerated towards her maximum speed of 28 knots and opened fire with her 11" guns at just under ten nautical miles, firing at the Exeter.

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    The Battle of the River Plate: German Tactical Victory

    Admiral Graf Spee bracketed the Exeter on her third salvo. Minutes later, her first shells struck home: a near miss showered Exeter's superstructure with shrapnel, killing the exposed crews manning the torpedo tubes. Within a several more minutes more of the deadly 11" shells struck one of Exeter's turrets, taking out a third of her combat power and killing most of the bridge crew and destroying most of her communications equipment.

    German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee   Ajax and Achilles accelerated to render aid to their embattled comrade. Five minutes after Exeter's turret was struck, they made a torpedo run across Admiral Graf Spee's bow at a range of about six nautical miles. Though the torpedoes missed, they drew fire away from the Exeter, allowing her to heel over in a hard turn to unmask her surviving torpedo tubes and let the crews fire at Graf Spee. Unfortunately for Exeter, this maneuver was interrupted by two more devastating strikes from 11" shells which destroyed another turret and tore a hole in her hull.

    Now listing dangerously to starboard, Exeter continued to fight. One of her 8" shells made it through some of Admiral Graf Spee's decks and damaged a vital fuel system. Recognizing the danger of prolonging combat, the German pocket battleship turned away from the attacking cruisers. But Exeter's captain did not let her go without a fight. Badly damaged and with only two of six guns operational, Exeter tried to keep pace with the Graf Spee for another forty minutes, until another near miss cascaded water across the striken heavy cruiser's sole surviving turret, short circuiting its electronics. Exeter was out of action.

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    Tactically Victorious, the Embattled Admiral Graf Spee is Scuttled Outside Montevideo

    The now defenseless Exeter would have been doomed if alone, but the Ajax and Achilles fired furiously at the Graf Spee with their 6" guns. Incapable of destroying Graf Spee, these weapons could still inflict considerable damage to less well armored portions of the ship and so they could not be ignored. And more critically, they still had torpedoes to use. Ajax fired a spread at her enemy, and in response was struck by an 11" shell that knocked out half of her primary armament. But the tenacious attack served its purpose: Admiral Graf Spee turned away from the fight and made for Montevideo at full speed.

    The Graf Spee made Montevideo in the early morning hours of the 14th of December. As it was a neutral port, Graf Spee could only remain for 72 hours, and the Germans could not hope to complete repairs in only three days. Making matters worse, the British spread rumors of massive reinforcements arriving in short order - although only the damaged Ajax, the Achilles, and another heavy cruiser, the Cumberland would be in the area for some time. Efforts to secure Uruguayan permission for Graf Spee to remain in harbor for more than 72 hours were fruitless.

    Admiral Graf Spee Wreck   Faced with the prospect of his crew dying in hopeless battle, Hans Langsdorf sailed with a skeleton crew to the mouth of the port, and had the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee scuttled. Several days later, he committed suicide to demonstrate that he chose to scuttle Graf Spee not out of cowardice or fear of personal injury, but to save the lives of his sailors.

    He is buried in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Graf Spee remains where she sank at the conclusion of The Battle of The River Plate.


    Janes Fighting Ships of World War II, 1946 Janes Publishing Company, 1994 reprint edition

    Barrie Pitt, The Battle of the Atlantic, 1977 Time Life Books

    Winston Churchill, The Second World War, 1959 Time Life

    Images courtesy of (respectively) Ferdinand Urbahns, Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), United Kingdom Government, United States Navy: all via Wiki Commons