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The Glorious Battle of the River Plate

Discussion in 'Germany at Sea!' started by Jim, Sep 29, 2006.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Lord Chatfield was right when he expressed the opinion in the House of Lords that the Graf Spee would soon put out to sea again, for a short time. On December 17, after days of frenzied preparation, she left Montevideo, and two hours later was scuttled in the fairway by her own crew. The story of what has been well styled Ignominy to order is given below.

    It was late at night on Wednesday, December 13th, when the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee limped into the neutral harbour of Montevideo. For fourteen hours she had been engaged in a running fight with three British cruisers, Ajax, Achilles, and, Exeter. All three were small ships of their class, and against the Graf Spee's six 11inch gun's and eight 6-inch guns, the Exeter mounted only six 8 inch guns and her two consorts eight 6-inch guns apiece. A broadside fired by the Graf Spee was half as much again as the total broadside of the three British cruisers, and the disparity was still further increased by the fact that early in the action the Exeter was hit by a German Salvo which knocked out two of her four turrets, smashed three of her 8-inch guns, and inflicted nearly a hundred casualties, Though she was able to continue in the chase, the Exeter was forced to drop behind, and it was the two comparatively small British cruisers, Ajax and Achilles which finally drove the Graf Spee off the seas.

    Well might Captain Langsdorf talk of the inconceivable audacity displayed by Achilles and Ajax of that incredible manoeuvre which brought the two cruisers dashing through the smoke screen to within a mile of the Graf Spee, firing salvo after salvo into the German ship at close range.
    When the Exeter dropped out of the action, wrote Admiral Sir Howard Kelly in the Daily Telegraph, the two small cruisers had a tremendous task in front of them, and most gallantly they tackled it. They took every advantage of their superior speed, attacking the enemy from ever-changing angles. When they made their final dash, closing in at full speed from opposite directions to almost point blank range, completing their destructive work, the spirit of their naval forefathers must indeed have cried Well done! Here was no necessity to hoist Nelson's favourite signal "Engage the enemy more closely" it was a perfectly working team of gallant fellows knowing what he had to do and doing it.

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    Above is the "Exeter" an 8,000 ton Cruiser, completed in 1931 and recommisioned at the outbreak of War. At the battle of the plate she was commanded by Captain F.S Bell

    So it was that, sorely battered, with holes gaping in her superstructure, and riddled by shells just above the waterline, the much-vaunted pocket battleship just managed to limp into harbour. Close on her tracks went Ajax and Achilles ready and eager to renew the battle, while the Exeter came up through the night ready to take part in a fresh attack. Not until the Cumberland arrived did the crippled ship depart to care for her wounded and injuries.

    For three days the Graf Spee swung at anchor in Montevideo harbour for three days her men toiled desperately to repair the damage and plug the holes which had been torn by the British shells. Mr E. Millington Drake, the British Minister at Montevideo, urged that the battleship should be required to put to sea at once or be interned for the duration of the war; a battleship which could travel so fast as did the Graf Spee when seeking refuge must, he pointed out., be perfectly navigable. Captain Dietrich German Naval Attache at Buenos Aires, and a German civilian expert, also examined the battleship and, so it was believed, reported that she was navigable.

    According to international law a war ship that is seaworthy may be compelled to leave a neutral harbour, and the Uruguayan Cabinet decreed that the Graf Spee must leave Montevideo within 72 hours-by 8 p.m. on Sunday evening, December 17th (11.30 p.m. Greenwich mean time) or be interned. Afterwards it transpired that Captain Langsdorf protested strongly against the time limit. He wanted fifteen days in which to repair the damage that had been done, for, so he maintained, although the fighting capacity of his ship had been practically unaffected by the battle, certain repairs would have to be done to the hull in order to make the ship seaworthy. As the hours drew on activity on the great ship was intensified. The German cargo boat Tacoma came alongside and fuelled her with oil, and a number of steel plates and cylinders of oxygen for welding were taken aboard. Several local firms refused to have any hand in the repair work, and amongst the ship workers anti-Nazi feeling was so strong that the police had difficulty in controlling the crowds who, marching up and down the quay, shouted Down with Germany !

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    Above is the "Ajax" which was commanded by Captain C.H.L. Woodhouse (below) when fighting the "Graf Spee"

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    Nevertheless, the work went on and as yet there were no indications of the ignominious climax which was being prepared. Sunday dawned, and crowds of Montevideans flocked to the harbour and lined the shore in the hope of catching a glimpse of the wounded ship. All day long launches went to and fro between the Graf Spee and the quay, while her sailors continued their repair work. Some of them were noticed to be busy polishing the ship's guns. Intense diplomatic activity continued, as on the one hand Mr. Millington Drake urged that the ship should be compelled to leave port at once in view of the claim that she was perfectly seaworthy, while on the other hand Dr. Otto Langman, his German opposite number, made desperate efforts to persuade the Uruguayan Government to extend the time limit. Shortly after five in the evening the Graf Spee weighed one anchor, and a quarter of an hour later the second. At six o'clock the tens of thousands of onlookers were surprised to see that the bulk of the battleship's crew were being transferred to the Tacoma, and they realised that something strange was afoot, when at 6:19 the ship left the inner harbour with only a skeleton crew. Slowly she sailed down the fairway, followed by several launches. At 6:40 she turned west as if making for Buenos Aires, and then a few minutes later turned again and moved slowly towards the open sea. At seven the ship halted in the middle of the estuary most of the onlookers thought that her captain was waiting for complete darkness before making his dash through the British line. The moment of the great drama had come, but it was a drama of defeat and ignominy, not of bravery and defiance. Precisely at 7.50 p.m. (11.20 GMT) there was a terrific explosion. A great column of smoke rose up into the darkening sky, and flames leaped and ran along the whole length of the ship. As the special correspondent of the Daily Telegraph wrote: At that moment the sun was just sinking below the horizon, flooding the sky in which small grey clouds floated lazily, a brilliant blood red. It was a perfect Wagnerian setting for this amazing Hitlerian drama.

    At first it was thought that Captain Langsdorf and his crew had gone up with the ship, but soon the amazed and terrified spectators saw boats proceeding from the scene. The captain had indeed left the ship a few minutes before the fuses fired the several tons of explosives placed in the ship's magazine. He was taken on a launch to the Tacoma; which had followed the Graf Spee down the river. There, leaning on the rail with bowed shoulders, tears streaming from his eyes, he watched his ship blaze and smoke into ruin.

    Later, reports were current that there had been insubordination among the Graf Spee's crew as soon as they learned on the Saturday evening that their vessel was to be scuttled, and there seems to be little doubt that although in his letter to Dr. Langman Captain Langsdorf said that in the circumstances there remains no solution but to sink my ship by blowing her up near the coast, this decision was dictated by the Fuehrer himself. Furious because his ship was trapped Hitler in a moment of passion issued the order to scuttle-thus revealing to the world in the plainest fashion his doubts concerning the ultimate victory. For if the ship had been interned and Germany won the war she would have been returned to the triumphant Reich....

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    Captain Perry (below) who commanded the "Achilles" (above) served as Torpedo officer on board "Birmingham" in the Great War.
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    The news said Mr. Churchill in his broadcast to the nation on December 18th , which has come from Montevideo has been received with thankfulness in our islands and with unconcealed satisfaction throughout the greater part of the world ... The German pocket battleship, in spite of her far heavier metal and commanding range, was driven to take refuge in a neutral harbour by the three British cruisers whose names are on everyones lips. Once in harbour she had the choice of submitting in the ordinary manner to internment, which would have been unfortunate for her, or of coming out to fight and going down in battle like the Rawalpindi, which would have, been honourable to her. She discovered a third alternative. She came out not to fight but to sink herself in the fairway of a neutral State from whom she had received such shelter and assistance as international law prescribes.

    At that time the pocket battleship 'Graf Spec' knew that the British heavy ships 'Renown' and 'Ark Royal' were still a thousand miles away, oiling at Rio. All that awaited her outside the harbour were the two six-inch gun cruisers 'Ajax' and 'Achilles,' who had chased her in, and the eight-inch gun cruiser 'Cumberland,' which had arrived to take the place of the ' Exeter.' The world heard the news with amazement mingled with contempt. "Incredible," said Rome; "she might, as well have fired upon the enemy first," said Japan. But, as the "Daily Telegraph" appropriately said, "When it takes orders from Hitler, the German Navy has to leave honour out of the question, when the Graf Spee was sunk by her captain in the channel of the neutral harbour of Montevideo, he wrote the last, line of an immortal epic of ignominy."
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    The battle

    The battle

    At about 06:14 local time (GMT -2) on 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.

    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 with her six 11-inch (280 mm) guns at 06:18, eventually splitting her turrets between the two targets to the detriment of accurate gunnery, as the British had planned. Exeter opened fire at 06:20, Achilles at 06:21, Exeter's aft guns at 06:22 and Ajax at 06:23.

    Jan 6th 1936 Admiral Graf Spee is commissioned in Wilhelmshaven.

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    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, and riddled the funnels and searchlights. One minute 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 and started making in front of the 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.

    At 06:40 an 11-inch shell burst just short of Achilles, in line with the bridge, damaging her and causing a few casualties, However, gunnery continued from the secondary control position. At about this time Admiral Graf Spee turned to the west under the cover of a smokescreen. The light cruisers were now doing about 31 knots, having worked up to speed from 14 knots initially.

    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.

    Admiral Graf Spee used a much bigger naval ensign than usual

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    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.

    At 07:30 Exeter's remaining turret was put out of action by loss of electrical power caused by flooding. Severely damaged, unable to fire and keep up with the action, Exeter broke off at about 07:40 and steamed slowly towards the Falklands.

    By 07:40, Ajax and Achilles were running low on ammunition 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 westward course.
     
  3. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    The pursuit


    The 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 keeping 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.

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    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, Achilles turning away. During the battle a total of 108 men had been killed on the two sides, including 36 on Admiral Graf Spee.

    The Graf Spee entered Montevideo in neutral Uruguay and dropped anchor at about 00:10 on the 14 December. This was a political error, as Uruguay, while neutral, favoured the Allies. Buenos Aires in Argentina was on the other side of the wide estuary, and Argentina, while neutral, favoured Germany.

    If the Graf Spee should leave port again, the damaged Ajax and the Achilles were the only Commonwealth warships in the area.
     
  4. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    In Montevideo

    In Montevideo the Germans released 61 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, but managed it so that she could not. They secretly arranged for British merchant ships to sail from Montevideo at intervals of 24 hours, whether they had originally intended to or not. There was a rule in force at the port whose terms blocked a belligerent warship from leaving a neutral port less than 24 hours after a merchant ship of the other side. This kept the Graf Spee in port and allowed more time for British forces to reach the area.

    Damage to the hull was caused by a penetration of a 152 mm shell..

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    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. Though several other warships were steaming to the location at full speed, none would have arrived for days; the total force comprised intact Cumberland and damaged Ajax and Achilles.

    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 2/3's of her 11" ammunition and only had enough left for approximately a further 20 minutes of firing. Hardly enough to fight her way out of Montevideo, let alone get back to Germany.


    Captain Langsdorff

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    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. Some crew members were reported to have moved to Montevideo with the help of local people of German origin.
     
  5. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    The German propaganda machine had reported that Admiral Graf Spee had sunk a heavy cruiser and heavily damaged two light cruisers while only being lightly damaged herself. (This had a degree of truth in it - Exeter had been seriously damaged and was practically a hulk, while Admiral Graf Spee's damage was superficial rather than structural). Admiral Graf Spee's scuttling however was a severe embarrassment and difficult to explain. The Battle of the River Plate was a contributory factor to Adolf Hitler's low opinion of the German surface fleet. The battle was a major propaganda victory for the British during the Phony War, and the reputation of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was enhanced.

    Exeter limped to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs and later to Devonport for a 13-month refit.

    Prisoners taken from merchant ships by Admiral Graf Spee who had been transferred to her supply ship Altmark were freed by a boarding party from the British destroyer HMS Cossack, in the Altmark Incident (February 16, 1940) whilst in Jøssingfjord, at the time neutral Norwegian waters. Prisoners who had not been transferred to Altmark had remained aboard Graf Spee during the battle, and were released on arrival in Montevideo.

    Port side view of the still burning wreck.

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    On 22 December 1939 over 1,000 sailors from the Admiral Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and interned there; at least 92 were transferred during 1940 to a camp in Rosario, and another group to Capilla Vieja, near Villa General Belgrano, a small town founded by German immigrants in 1932. Some of these sailors later settled there. There are many stories, but little reliable information, about their later wartime activities, including escapees illegally returning to the German armed forces, espionage, and clandestine German submarine landings in Argentina. After the war many German sailors settled permanently in various parts of Argentina and Uruguay, some returning after being repatriated to Germany.

    Air photo of the burning Admiral Graf Spee.

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  6. Kelly War44

    Kelly War44 New Member

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    It's a remarkable read that, and made even more remarkable by the fact that Hitler endorsed the actions of the Captain, thus revealing his lack of confidence , as it says above, in the ultimate victory.
     
  7. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    Yeah, an excellent read, and the photos are simply stunning :)
     

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