The Battle of the River Plate: How Britain Tamed the Graf Spee

History Hit

2 mins

13 Dec 2015

The early months of the Second World War are referred to as the “Phoney War”. But there was nothing phoney about the war at sea during this period.

On 13 December 1939, a force of three Royal Navy cruisers under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood located the German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee off the coast of Uruguay.

Pocket-battleships were developed to get around the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles, which prohibited Germany’s production of conventional battleships. The Graf Spee, under Captain Hans Langsdorff, was patrolling the South Atlantic, sinking Allied merchant shipping. 

Sir Henry Harwood – ‘The hero of the River Plate’. Credit: Imperial War Museum

Initial engagement

Harwood’s ships engaged the Graf Spee at the mouth of the Río de la Plata. In the ensuing battle, one of the British cruisers, HMS Exeter, was seriously damaged.

However, this was not before she dealt a serious blow to the Graf Spee, damaging the German ship’s fuel processing system, ensuring she would not be able to make it home without finding somewhere to carry out repairs.

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The remaining two British cruisers, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, opened fire, forcing the Graf Spee to lay a smoke screen and escape. After a short pursuit, the German vessel entered Montevideo harbour in neutral Uruguay. 

Under international law, the Graf Spee was only permitted to remain in the neutral port of Montevideo for as long as it took to carry out the repairs.

The Graf Spee entering Montevideo harbour. Credit: Toronto Telegram

A masterstroke of misinformation

In the meantime, the British set about deceiving the Graf Spee into believing that a huge fleet was massing off the South American coast. The Royal Navy employed secret agents to spread gossip among workers in the Montevideo docks, and used telephone lines they knew to be tapped to spread false information.

As the deadline arrived for Graf Spee to leave Montevideo, Captain Hans Langsdorff was convinced that he would face a vast armada, including the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, just outside the harbour.

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Believing they faced annihilation, on 17 December, Langsdorff ordered his men to scuttle the ship. With the crew disembarked, Langsdorff went ashore in neighbouring Argentina, where he committed suicide three days later. 

The event was a propaganda victory for the British, as well as depriving the Germany Navy of one of its most potent warships. The success was enhanced yet further the following year, when roughly 300 prisoners taken by the Graf Spee during its harrying of the Atlantic were rescued in the Altmark Incident.