River Plate Naval Battle of World War II – On December 13, 1939, German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and an Allied naval task force fought off the south Atlantic coast of Uruguay and Argentina during the River Plate Naval Battle of World War II.
One of the most modern ships in the German navy was the Admiral Graf Spee (Captain Hans Langsdorff). It was equipped with six 11-inch guns. Nine Allied ships had been sunk by the Graf Spee by the time of the battle.
A problem with its engine forced the ship back to Germany, but Langsdorff decided to intercept an Allied convoy on the River Plate by returning by an indirect route. The British cruiser Exeter, as well as the British cruiser Cumberland, arrived after the battle.
River Plate Naval Battle of World War II - Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate estuary
River Plate Naval Battle of World War II – Admiral Graf Spee in flames after being scuttled in the River Plate estuary. Photo Credit – Wikipedia
As Commodore Henry Harwood, commanding British Force G (the British light cruisers Ajax and Achilles, the British cruiser Exeter) anticipated Langsdorff’s intentions, he set up an ambush. Harwood’s ships had come into view when Langsdorff thought they were the convoy, and so he headed for them when he saw them. Consequently, there was a battle that went on for one hour and twenty minutes.
Instead of defending against both attacks, Langsdorff poured his formidable fire on Exeter, forcing it to withdraw to save itself. Harwood attacked from both directions, but Langsdorff did not try to defend against either attack.
In addition to Ajax and Achilles, the attack on Harwood also received a heavy fire that damaged them, which prompted Harwood to cease the attack. The malfunctioning engines could not be repaired in time, so Langsdorff chose to enter the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo instead of continuing the fight.
The route of Admiral Graf Spee's cruise, from the British HMSO report.
River Plate Naval Battle of World War II – The route of Admiral Graf Spee’s cruise, from the British HMSO report. Photo Credit – Wikipedia
A 72-hour deadline was given to him by the Uruguayan government, otherwise, he would be interned for the duration. Graf Spee would have had an opportunity to escape after British reinforcements were dispatched on December 19, which should have allowed him to escape. A false signal from the British, however, deceived Langsdorff.
He was also sighted by his gunnery officer as the battle cruiser Renown was approaching. Langsdorff scuttled his ship as he had been instructed to do in case he could not fight his way to Buenos Aires if the British reinforcements had already arrived and he was forbidden to accept internment.
Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled on December 17, 1939, and then the captain committed suicide. At the time, it was one of the British’s most significant victories, which they badly needed.
The German heavy cruiser ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE.
River Plate Naval Battle of World War II – The German heavy cruiser ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE. Photo Credit – wikipedia

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