Battle of River Plate file photo [512]

Battle of the River Plate

13 Dec 1939 - 17 Dec 1939


ww2dbaseWhile German submarines stole most of the attention in the Battle of the Atlantic, the German surface fleet shared a similar success during the early days of the battle as well. Since the end of Sep 1939 the pocket battleships (later re-classified as heavy cruisers) Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland (later renamed L├╝tzow) hunted merchant traffic. Graf Spee in particular haunted the Allied merchant fleet, sinking nine British cargo ships to the bottom of the Atlantic without losing a single German life. As a response, Britain and France organized eight task forces, each known by a letter, to hunt down the German ships. That decision in itself tied up over twenty Allied warships, including the carrier Ark Royal, the battlecruiser Renown, and the battleship Strasbourg, all badly needed elsewhere, but the livelihood of Britain preceded all other demands.

ww2dbaseRoyal Navy Commodore Henry Harwood and his South Atlantic Fleet was the commander who found one of the German pocket battleships. At 0552 on 13 Dec 1939, flagship light cruiser Ajax, heavy cruiser Exeter, and light cruiser Achilles spotted Graf Spee near Rio de la Plata at the border of Argentina and Uruguay, off South America. With his heavy ships elsewhere, Harwood knew he was no match for the German capital ship, but made a dash at her nevertheless. Exeter was the first to come within range of Graf Spee's guns, and was the first to be hit by one of the German 670lb shells. Exeter returned fire, straddling the German pocket battleship without hits, meanwhile sustaining two more hits from the German ship. While Exeter drew fire, however, Ajax and Achilles were now in position. The two smaller cruisers' 6in shells punished Graf Spee for over an hour. After 90 minutes of combat, Harwood, injured by shrapnel himself, withdrew his three ships; Exeter was sent to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs. The commander of the Admiral Graf Spee, Captain Hans Langsdorff, was also injured in the battle. His damage control officer informed him that Graf Spee was hit 18 times, and 37 men were killed during the battle. Several guns were disabled, ammunitions were low, and the crew was working hard to close many holes made by British shells. Langsdorff, under direct orders from Berlin not to engage Allied surface forces, decided to let Harwood's ships withdraw, and headed for the neutral port of Montevideo. Langsdorff requested Montevideo for two weeks' time for repairs, but he was only granted 72 hours. When the time came, the ship was in no position to combat the large British fleet that must had assembled outside the port, waiting for him. After berthing the crew aboard German freighters at Montevideo, he scuttled the pocket battleship on 17 Dec. Like captains of old, he committed suicide to go down with his ship. Before pulling the trigger, he wrapped himself in the colors of Imperial German, not the Nazi swastika. "For a captain with a sense of honor," he wrote in his suicide note, "it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship."

ww2dbaseThough the battle was now over, the closure did not come until 16 Feb 1940 when the Altmark, Admiral Graf Spee's former supply ship, was found by Royal Navy Captain Philip Vian's flotilla in Norway. 299 British captives taken by Graf Spee during her hunt were freed from the Altmark when Vian's destroyers captured her.

ww2dbaseSources: the Last Lion, the Second World War, Wikipedia.

Last Major Update: Jul 2006

Battle of the River Plate Interactive Map

Battle of the River Plate Timeline

9 Dec 1939 German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee sailed toward the River Plate estuary on the border of Uruguay and Argentina to attack a reported convoy departing from Montevideo, Uruguay. Meanwhile, Royal Navy Force G (light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, soon to be joined by heavy cruiser HMS Exeter) was already en route toward the area in search of Admiral Graf Spee.
13 Dec 1939 At the Battle of the River Plate, three British cruisers damaged German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, forcing her enter the neutral port of Montevideo for repairs.
13 Dec 1939 HMS Cumberland was ordered to join Exeter, Ajax and Achilles off the Plate estuary off Uruguay after Admiral Graf Spee had sought refuge in Montevideo following her defeat in Battle of the River Plate.
14 Dec 1939 HMS Cumberland joined other ships in Plate estuary off Uruguay awaiting departure of Admiral Graf Spee.
17 Dec 1939 HMS Cumberland at Montevideo, Uruguay after Admiral Graf Spee scuttled.
23 Feb 1940 The citizens of London, England, United Kingdom cheered the officers and men of HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax as they returned from South American waters.


Admiral Graf Spee anchored off Montevideo, Uruguay, circa 13-16 Dec 1939, photo 1 of 2Admiral Graf Spee anchored off Montevideo, Uruguay, circa 13-16 Dec 1939, photo 2 of 2Admiral Graf Spee at anchor in Montevideo harbor, Uruguay, 13-16 Dec 1939Admiral Graf Spee
See all 13 photographs of Battle of the River Plate

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Alan says:
20 Jun 2008 03:39:55 AM

HMS Exeter would play a leading role in the tactical defeat of the German raider. Both of her thinly armoured forward turrets were disabled by direct hits, but only when the aft turrets lost all power did Exeter retire from the fight with the loss of 61 of her crew killed.
2. Alan says:
20 Jun 2008 03:42:47 AM

The sinking of the Admiral Graf Spey was an enormous boost to British war morale thanks mainly to the brilliant piece of deduction by Commodore Harry Harwood, commanding the hunting group, who had correctly anticipated that the German raider was heading towards the South American coast, and had led his force to a successful interception.

3. Anonymous says:
30 May 2013 05:30:50 AM

Is there a list of the names of the New Zealanders who passed away?
4. Anonymous says:
26 Sep 2013 07:25:01 PM

There is a crew listing for the Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate. It includes those killed in action.

It can be found here:
5. Anonymous says:
7 May 2014 02:02:59 AM

There is a crew listing of the Achilles at the River Plate, there are however only 4 remaining crew member alive. The list is available from the Royal NZ Navy.
6. Anonymous says:
1 Aug 2014 04:17:17 PM

Is the crew listing from the Royal NZ navy downloadable? Is there a weblink?
7. Thomas says:
20 Jun 2015 05:45:08 AM

"Ajax" and "Achilles" crew lists available at
8. Evan Williams says:
16 Apr 2016 12:42:16 PM

I would like to trace details of Captain John Owen Jones December 1939 buried Buenos Aires aged 37 years
9. Bill morris says:
15 Aug 2017 09:01:11 AM

Looking for information on a Charles e. Cant served on h.m.s Ajax at the battle of river plate he was my grandfather and I would like to know more about him
10. Jb says:
30 Jun 2018 10:19:13 PM

Factually inaccurate.

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» Langsdorff, Hans

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Battle of the River Plate Photo Gallery
Admiral Graf Spee anchored off Montevideo, Uruguay, circa 13-16 Dec 1939, photo 1 of 2
See all 13 photographs of Battle of the River Plate

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