The Battle of the River Plate

Yet, according to the German account of the action, the Admiral Graf Spee had sustained only two 8-inch and eighteen 6-inch hits. One officer and thirty-five ratings had been killed and sixty wounded. ‘The fighting value of the ship had not been destroyed,’ the report said. The main armament was ‘fully effective’, but there remained only 306 rounds of 11-inch ammunition, representing about 40 per cent of the original supply. The secondary armament was effective with the exception of one gun on the port side and the ammunition hoists of the forward 5·9-inch guns. In consequence, only the four ammunition hoists aft were available for use and the forward guns would have to be supplied from aft. More than 50 per cent of the ammunition supply for the secondary armament remained. The engines were available for maximum speed with the exception of defects of long standing in the auxiliary engines.

‘The survey of damage showed that all galleys were out of action with the exception of the Admiral's galley. The possibility of repairing them with the ship's own resources was doubtful. Penetration of water into the flour store made the continued supply of bread questionable, while hits in the fore part of the ship rendered her unseaworthy for the North Atlantic winter. One shell had penetrated the armour belt and the armoured deck had also been torn open in one place. There was also damage in the after part of the ship. … The ship's resources were considered inadequate for making her seaworthy, and there seemed no prospect of shaking off the shadowers.’ Captain Langsdorff therefore decided to steer for Montevideo. He signalled his account of the action and his intentions to Berlin. Before the ship had entered Montevideo harbour he had already received from Admiral Raeder the reply: ‘Your intentions understood.’

Almost exactly twenty-five years before – on 8 December 1914 – Admiral Graf Spee's four cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, and Leipzig, had fought to the last against a greatly superior British force, 1100 miles south of the area from which the powerful ship bearing the name of the German admiral was now retreating at speed from two small cruisers, one of which had only half her guns in action.

When the Ajax and Achilles turned away, the Admiral Graf Spee made no attempt to follow them, but steadied on a course almost due west and proceeded at 23 knots direct for the River Plate. Six minutes later the British cruisers hauled round and began to shadow the enemy, the Ajax to port and the Achilles to starboard, at a distance of about 15 miles. In the prevailing conditions of extreme visibility, the conspicuous control tower and bridge of the Admiral Graf Spee, as well as her continuous funnel smoke, made it an easy matter to shadow her at long range.

The irregular arc on which the Ajax and Achilles had steamed and fought had brought them by eight o'clock to a position barely 20 miles north-west from that in which they had first sighted the enemy. As the Ajax's wireless aerials were still down, the Achilles was ordered to broadcast the position, course, and speed of the Admiral Graf Spee to all British merchant ships in the River Plate area. Similar messages were subsequently broadcast hourly by the Ajax until the end of the chase.

By 8.14 a.m. the Exeter was out of sight to the south-eastward and Commodore Harwood ordered his aircraft to tell her to close. At 9.10 a.m. the aircraft reported: ‘Exeter is badly damaged, but is joining you as best she can.’ Two minutes later the Ajax recovered her aircraft, which had been in the air for two hours and 35 minutes. Captain Bell of the Exeter did his best to rejoin but, having only an inaccurate boat compass to steer by, was unable to make contact. He then decided to steer towards the nearest land, some 200 miles to the westward, and speed was reduced while bulkheads were being shored and the ship's list corrected.

Harwood's objective was the destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee in close action after nightfall and he had to be prepared to meet the situation that would arise if the enemy succeeded in eluding him. The extent to which the German ship had been damaged was not known, but it was evident that her speed was unaffected and her main armament appeared to be fully effective. It seemed evident that the Ajax and Achilles, which had expended approximately 50 per cent of their ammunition, could not, unaided, compass the destruction of the enemy in action.

Accordingly, at 9.45 a.m. Harwood ordered the Cumberland, which had been refitting at the Falkland Islands more than 1000 miles away, to proceed at full speed to the River Plate area. The signal was some time in transmission, for when the Cumberland sailed from Port Stanley at noon it was on the initiative of her commanding officer, Captain Fallowfield, who, up to that hour, had intercepted only very jumbled messages. When the Commodore's signal reached him, he at once increased to full speed.

Meanwhile, the Admiralty had taken prompt steps to close the widespread net that had been set to trap the Admiral Graf Spee. Immediately it was known that Commodore Harwood's division had intercepted the enemy, orders were given for the Ark Royal, Renown, and other ships which had been patrolling some 3000 miles away to proceed at once to the South American coast. Measures were also taken to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel and stores would be available at various strategic points.

The Achilles had overestimated the speed of the enemy and by 10.5 a.m. had closed to 23,000 yards. The Admiral Graf Spee then turned and fired two three-gun salvoes of 11-inch shell at her. That the enemy altered course sufficiently to bring her forward guns to bear seemed to indicate that the after turret was out of action at the time. The first salvo was very short of its target, but the second fell close alongside the Achilles, which probably would have been hit had she not already started to turn away at full speed. She immediately resumed shadowing at longer range, zigzagging frequently to throw out the enemy's gunnery plot. The enemy ceased fire and continued on his westerly course.

At 11.04 a.m. a merchant ship, apparently stopped since she was blowing off steam, was sighted close to the Admiral Graf Spee, from whom a few minutes later the Ajax and Achilles received a wireless signal: ‘Please rescue lifeboats of English steamer.’ Neither cruiser replied to this message. When they came up with her, the ship was found to be the British steamer Shakespeare, 5029 tons. All her boats were stowed and, in response to a signal from the Ajax, she reported all well and that she did not need any assistance. The Graf Spee's signal was apparently a ruse tried out with the object of delaying and evading the shadowing cruisers.

About this time Commodore Harwood received a message from the Exeter reporting that all her turrets were out of action and that she was flooded forward but could steam at 18 knots. She was ordered to proceed to the Falkland Islands at whatever speed was possible without straining her bulkheads. The Exeter later reported that one gun of her after turret could be fired in local control and that she was making 20 knots. She arrived at Port Stanley at noon on 16 December.

The afternoon passed quietly until 3.43 p.m. when the Achilles sighted a strange vessel and made the signal: ‘Enemy in sight bearing 297 degrees.’ ‘What is it?’ asked Commodore Harwood. ‘Suspect 8-inch cruiser, am confirming,’ replied the Achilles, who at 3.59 p.m. signalled: ‘False alarm.’ She had identified the approaching ship as the British motor-vessel Delane, 6054 tons, of the Lamport and Holt Line. The peculiar appearance of this ship, whose funnel was streamlined into the bridge superstructure, gave her at long range a close resemblance to a German cruiser of the Blucher class.

Thereafter the shadowing of the Admiral Graf Spee continued without incident until 7.15 p.m. when she altered course and fired two 11-inch salvoes at the Ajax as that ship turned away under cover of a smoke screen. The Achilles also turned away on sighting the gun flashes, but quickly resumed her westerly course. These were the first shells fired by the enemy for more than nine hours.

By this time it was clear that the Admiral Graf Spee intended to enter the estuary of the River Plate, towards which she had been steering for more than twelve hours. Across the entrance to the Plate, on its northern side, there extends for some 16 miles a shallow bank known as English Bank. Harwood foresaw a possibility that the German ship might attempt to evade his cruisers and get back to the open sea by doubling round English Bank, and took steps to prevent this happening. He ordered the Achilles to follow the Admiral Graf Spee if she passed west of Lobos Island, while the Ajax was to steam to the southward of English Bank to intercept her if she attempted to come out that way. Thus, as soon as the German ship passed Lobos Island, the whole duty of shadowing her devolved upon the Achilles, by whom the Commodore's instructions were ‘perfectly carried out.’

The Admiral Graf Spee made a considerable alteration of course to the north-westward at 7.42 p.m. and, expecting her to open fire, the Achilles made rapid changes of course. As no firing took place, the latter resumed shadowing and increased speed to creep up on the enemy before dusk. The Achilles passed between Lobos Island and the mainland. About 8 p.m., being then off Lobos Island and 50 miles east of English Bank, the Ajax hauled round to the south-westward.

The sun set at 8.48 p.m., leaving the German ship clearly silhouetted against the western sky, and the Achilles altered course to north-westward to keep the full advantage of the after-glow while she remained under cover of the land. A few minutes later the Admiral Graf Spee altered course under cover of dusk and fired three 11-inch salvoes at a range of 22,000 yards. The first two fell short and the third dropped close astern, all being accurate for line. The Achilles replied with five salvoes of 6-inch shell while turning away at full speed and making smoke. The enemy ceased firing and the Achilles, which was then just clear of Punta Negra, turned west again at 30 knots to keep touch. This brief engagement was watched from Punta del Este, the seaside resort of Montevideo, by thousands of Uruguayans who had a ‘grandstand’ view and mistook it for the main action. The Uruguayan gunboat, Uruguay, which appeared to be on patrol duty, closed the Ajax about 9.15 p.m., but was soon left astern.

Between 9.30 and 9.45 p.m. the Admiral Graf Spee fired three more 11-inch salvoes, all of which fell short, the second and third considerably so. The Achilles did not return the fire since the flashes of her guns in the twilight would have given away her position. The loom of the land must have made it extremely difficult for the enemy to have seen the Achilles, if at all, and these Parthian shots must have been merely intended to keep the shadowing cruiser at a distance.

They were the last shells fired by the Admiral Graf Spee. Since 7.40 a.m., when she headed for the River Plate, she had fired ten 11-inch salvoes, five of them from one turret only. They did not deter the Achilles which, by ten o'clock, had closed in to 10,000 yards. She could now estimate the enemy's course as taking him north of English Bank and reported accordingly to Commodore Harwood. It was becoming increasingly difficult to see the enemy, owing not only to low clouds northward of the after-glow but also to patches of funnel smoke. Course was altered at 10.13 p.m. to get the Admiral Graf Spee silhouetted against the lights of Montevideo. At 11.17 p.m. the Achilles received a signal from the Commodore to withdraw from shadowing and the Admiral Graf Spee anchored in Montevideo roads shortly after midnight.

Thus ended the day-long pursuit of the pocket battleship which, after putting the Exeter out of action and partly disabling the main armament of the Ajax during the early morning engagement, had avoided further close action and covered some 350 miles in sixteen hours to gain shelter in a neutral harbour, later referred to by her captain as ‘the trap of Montevideo’. Throughout the day and three hours of darkness, the shadowing action of the Ajax and Achilles had been entirely successful and they had foiled every effort of the Graf Spee to elude or drive them off. By their discipline, their fighting energy, their readiness to take risk and punishment, the competence and team-play of their captains, their self-assurance and confidence, the Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles had gained the day in one of the most brilliant cruiser actions in the long annals of the Royal Navy.

From the tactical point of view, one 8-inch and two 6-inch cruisers did not make an ideal force for dealing with a ship such as the Admiral Graf Spee, but the main principles of sea warfare hold good through all ages and the Royal Navy can find precedent or parallel for any situation that may arise. It was Admiral Kempenfelt who wrote to Admiral Charles Middleton (afterwards Lord Barham), Comptroller of the Navy, in July 1779: ‘Much, I may say almost all, depends upon this fleet; ‘tis an inferior against a superior fleet; therefore the greatest skill and address is requisite to counter the designs of the enemy, to watch and seize the favourable opportunity for action…, to hover near the enemy, keep him at bay, and prevent his attempting to execute anything but at risk and hazard, to command his attention and oblige him to think of nothing but being on his guard against your attack….’

Such was the manner in which the British cruisers fought the Battle of the River Plate. The result of the action was completely satisfactory in the final outcome, but, as was stressed in an Admiralty survey, ‘only a tactical blunder of the first magnitude by the enemy and the superiority of our personnel prevented the destruction of one of our ships and our being forced to abandon the action.’ The result of that tactical blunder was underlined in Commodore Harwood's despatch. The most salient point of the enemy's tactics, he said, was that the Admiral Graf Spee closed on sighting the British ships and split her main armament, firing one turret at the First Division (Ajax and Achilles) and the other at the Exeter. This initial closing of the range had the effect of bringing all three ships into effective gun range at once and so avoided for them the most difficult problem of gaining range in the face of 11-inch gunfire.

It appeared that the Admiral Graf Spee was heavily handled by the gunfire both of the First Division's concentration and that of the Exeter in the first phase, the culminating point perhaps being the firing of torpedoes by the latter ship. At this point the German ship turned away under smoke and ‘from then onwards her commanding officer displayed little offensive spirit and did not take advantage of the opportunity that was always present either to close the First Division or the Exeter, the latter – and he must have known it – only having one turret in action. Instead, the Graf Spee retired between the two and allowed herself to be fired at from both flanks. Only at one period, at 7.20 a.m., did she again concentrate on the First Division and she immediately abandoned this when the Ajax fired torpedoes.’ The Admiral Graf Spee's frequent alterations of course were, from an avoiding point of view, well carried out and undoubtedly threw out much of the gunfire of the British cruisers. She had an exceptionally high degree of manoeuvrability and apparently used full helm for her turns. On many occasions this gave her an apparent list ‘which raised our hopes’, but she always came upright again on steadying. At no time did she ‘steam’ at a higher speed than 24 knots, and generally her speed was between 19 and 22 knots.1

The casualties in the British cruisers during the action were as follows:

  Killed Wounded Killed Wounded
Exeter 5 3 56 20
Ajax   1 7 14
Achilles   2 4 7
TOTAL 5 6 67 41
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