Here’s what you need to know: The Battle of River Plate was a battle that should never have happened.
Just before pointing the gun to his head and pulling the trigger, the German officer wrote a final note.
“For a captain who has a sense of honor, it goes without saying that his personal destiny cannot be separated from that of his ship”, wrote Hans Langsdorff on December 19, 1939, in a hotel room in Buenos Aires. Langsdorff finished his letter to the Nazi ambassador to Argentina, lay down on a German battle flag, and committed suicide.
Langsdorff had been the commander of the Admiral Graf Spee, which had been prowling the South Atlantic the previous week and now lay at the bottom of the port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Many captains chose to atone for the loss of their ship by sinking with it. Langsdorff committed suicide with a pistol two days after ordering his ship scuttled.
“I can now only prove by my death that the combat services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honor of the flag,” he wrote.
But what had driven Langsdorff to commit suicide? Why meet death in a hotel room rather than at sea? This is where one of the most remarkable naval battles of all time takes place: how the Royal Navy bluffed a German battleship into sinking.
Of course the Graf Spee was born in deceit. It was built in the early 1930s, when Hitler claimed to honor the Treaty of Versailles, which limited Germany to warships under 10,000 tons. With the Graf Spee weighing 16,000 tons, the Germans first gave it the innocuous name “panzerschiff” (armoured ship).
The British had a more ominous and accurate name for the Graf Spee and her sisters Germany and Admiral Scheer: “pocket battleships”. Although one-third the size of a real battle wagon like the Bismarck, Deutschland-class ships carried battleship-class eleven-inch guns, rather than the eight-inch guns of a heavy cruiser. The first all-diesel warships, their combination of speed, long range and heavy armament made them ideal raiders for hunting merchant ships.
When war broke out in September 1939, the Graf Spee was sent south in search of easy prey in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, a vast area made for the long-legged pocket battleship. the Graf SpeeThe career was short but productive, representing nine ships totaling 50,000 tons.
Yet the noose was closing as Allied task forces scoured the oceans for the elusive German raider, whose location was marked by distress calls transmitted by its victims. One of these task forces consisted of the British heavy cruiser Exeter and light cruisers Achille and Ajaxall under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood.
According to a message from graf Speethe last victim, the merchant ship doric star which was sunk off South Africa, Harwood astutely guessed that the raider would sail west towards the River Plate estuary between Argentina and Uruguay. At 06:10 on December 13, 1939, Harwood’s forces sighted smoke on the horizon, which turned out to be the Graf Spee. Langsdorff had also spotted the British cruisers, but considered them to be destroyers guarding a convoy. There would be easy choices for a battleship here, he thought until it was too late.
The Battle of River Plate was a battle that should never have happened. The British cruisers with their eight-inch and six-inch guns were hurtling at full speed towards a battleship whose eleven-inch guns passed them, like a boxer with longer arms than his opponent. Yet the Graf Spee also had a glass jaw. With no Axis ports in the South Atlantic, there was nowhere to take refuge or repair: if the ship was damaged, she would have to travel 8,000 miles, past the Allied naval blockade of the Germany, to reach a German port. In fact, the Graf Spee had been instructed not to engage heavy enemy warships.
Nevertheless, in the best naval tradition, Langsdorff ordered at full speed and sailed towards the British. Maybe he had no choice. With his ship and engines badly in need of maintenance after months at sea, he could not count on escaping the cruisers, who would follow him as they called in reinforcements.
It was three sharks against a killer whale in a maelstrom of spattering shells, gun smoke and writhing ships. As with the hunting packs, British ships attacked from different directions to force the Graf Spee to divide his fire. When the Graf Spee focused on the Exeterthe Achille and Ajax would close and fire a salvo to pull the battleship off their sister (both the German and British ships launched torpedoes, neither of which hit).
Nevertheless, within the first thirty minutes of the fight, the British were losing. the Exeter had been badly damaged, the heavy cruiser losing two eight-inch gun turrets and her deck broken. the Achille and Ajax were also affected. With her bigger guns and a speed almost as fast as cruisers, the German battleship could have finished off her opponents and continued her journey.
But as so often in combat, the enemy sees a less rosy picture. The battleship had been hit by an eight-inch shell which damaged her fuel system so badly that it only had sixteen hours of range. Getting back to Germany was impossible, and Langsdorff was well aware that other Allied warships were on the way. With no Axis ports in the South Atlantic, the only refuge is in a neutral port. the Graf Spee limped towards Montevideo, Uruguay, shadowed by the beaten but still spirited British task force.
Yet when the German battleship sailed into the Rio de la Plata estuary in Montevideo, Langsdorff realized that instead of taking refuge, he had locked himself in a trap. Under the Hague Convention, warships of a belligerent were only allowed to remain in a port belonging to a neutral nation for twenty-four hours. And he could see the British warships waiting outside the harbour.
And here come subterfuge worthy of a spy novel. International law also stipulated that before a warship of a belligerent could leave a neutral port, it had to wait at least twenty-four hours after an enemy merchant ship had left that port (thus giving the victim potential time to get free). Thus, Britain and France arranged for their merchant ships to leave Montevideo at regular intervals to keep the Graf Spee of sail, while Harwood’s ships smoked outside the three-mile limit of Uruguayan waters to give the impression of a larger force. With a skill in deceiving that they would frequently display during World War II, the British spread rumors that an aircraft carrier and a battlecruiser were waiting outside the harbour. In truth, these ships took several days to arrive from Gibraltar: the only reinforcements the British received were the old, ramshackle heavy cruiser cumberland. Even now, with Harwood’s force out of ammunition, the Graf Spee could have escaped to a neutral but sympathetic to the Nazis Argentina.
Yet Langsdorff was crushed by conflicting pressures that would have strained any captain. The pro-British Uruguayan government had ordered him to leave or be interned. Berlin ordered that the battleship not be interned. Seeing no point in sacrificing his crew in what he believed to be a suicidal battle against a superior British force, on December 17, 1939, Langsdorff ordered the Graf Spee to be scuttled. Uruguayan authorities allowed the captain and crew to travel to Buenos Aires, where they discovered that the Argentine press had called them cowards and that the government intended to intern them rather than repatriate them to Germany. Two days later, Langsdorff committed suicide.
The loss of the Graf Spee was a blow to the prestige of Hitler’s small but expensive navy, for which even the loss of a single heavy warship was significant. Within six months, the Bismarck would join the Graf Spee on the Atlantic seabed. In eight months, HMS Exeter would be sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of the Java Sea.
In the Battle of the River Plate, psychology mattered as much – and perhaps more – than firepower. The British cruisers had been beaten, but the Royal Navy’s proud tradition of being aggressive in the face of formidable odds had once again paid off. It didn’t matter who had the bigger guns, in the end the Germans thought they were beaten – and the British didn’t.
And the Graf Spee? She still rests at the bottom of the port of Montevideo. Last year, the Uruguayan government announced it would auction off an artifact salvaged from the ship: a bronze eagle clutching a swastika in its claws. It will be a sordid end to an epic battle and a tragic fate.
For further : River Plate 1939: The sinking of the Graf Spee by Angus Konstam.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the national interest. It can be found on Twitter and Facebook.