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World War II HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax go to war: The Battle of the River Plate

Updated on September 9, 2012

Sunset at Montevideo, Uruguay

A ship leaving Montevideo, Uruguay
A ship leaving Montevideo, Uruguay | Source

The South American Theater

During World War II, the South American theater of war was centered on the important shipping lanes and ports, with a lot of activity in the vicinity of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. All four countries started as neutral states, and only Brazil broke her neutrality to become an active participator against the Axis towards the latter years of the War.

The British Navy used their facilities at the Falkland Islands as a home port and as a place to make necessary repairs. This British possession had a strategic value of great importance; it was relatively close to very active shipping lanes and also in a position to guard the southern passes that connect the two Oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic.

By the time World War II started in September, 1939, the Royal Navy had assembled the South American Cruiser Squadron, formed by the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, two light cruisers – HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles, and another heavy cruiser, the HMS Cumberland. The Cumberland however had a series of technical problems and was mostly stationed off the Falklands while the other three ships did the actual cruising. All four ships were under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood, already well known in the area for his participation in the 1939 earthquake disaster at Concepcion, Chile. (See my previous article about the presence of the Exeter and the Ajax at the disaster area).

Also at the start of the War, the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee was already in the vicinity of the Southern Cone of South America. This ship was heavily armored and was designed to outgun any cruiser that was fast enough to catch up with her. She was of a design frequently called a “pocket battleship”.

When WW II officially started, the Graf Spee moved into the merchant shipping lanes and proceeded to severely disrupt the commercial shipping that was favorable to the Allies. Between September and December, 1939, the German battleship sank nine merchant navy ships, with an impressive amount of tonnage lost to the Allied cause.

KMS Admiral Graf Spee, 1936

The pocket battleship KMS Admiral Graf Spee
The pocket battleship KMS Admiral Graf Spee | Source

The British Ships Prepare for Battle

Commodore Harwood did not have clear up-to-date intelligence on the movements of the German raider, but he did know that the 25th anniversary of the defeat of the German fleet at the Battle of the Falkland Islands during WW I, was coming up in the month of December, 1939. Therefore, he planned his strategy based on the following assumptions:

  • The Graf Spee would be interested in intercepting shipping that was using the route from Argentina to Britain.
  • The 25th anniversary of the defeat of the German fleet at the Battle of the Falkland Islands during WW I, was coming up in the month of December, 1939.
  • The commander of the modern day Admiral Graf Spee, a ship that was named after the Admiral who went down with his ship in that historical battle in December 1914, might well decide to attack the British South American Division as a gesture of revenge for that defeat. (See my previous article on the Battle of the Falkland Islands)

Harwood ordered his small fleet to patrol the mouth of the River Plate, which was closer to the Falkland Islands than Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. He gambled on the Graf Spee approaching these waters rather than turning north towards the West Indies, and his gamble was successful.

The Estuary of the River Plate

HMNZS Achilles, viewed from HMS Ajax

A photo showing the two light cruisers, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles, at action stations
A photo showing the two light cruisers, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles, at action stations | Source

The Battle of the River Plate

The Graf Spee was a formidable opponent as she out gunned all the British ships. The only advantages of the British cruisers were their speed and their maneuvering potential.

The small British Division did have an important strategic advantage: the Graf Spee would have to return to Germany for refitting sometime soon, and would therefore have to run the blockade of the North Sea and would probably have to meet the challenge of the British Home Fleet. Commodore Harwood’s Division only had to damage the German raider enough to make her unseaworthy for the North Atlantic and/or unable to fight the Home Fleet, for the result to be considered an important strategic victory.

Commodore Harwood could count on three ships only, because the Cumberland was in Port Stanley undergoing repairs. Nevertheless, the order was given to engage the Graf Spee “by day or night and at once”, if his group of ships tracked the German raider down.

On the 13th of December, the ships sighted each other, and the Graf Spee proceeded to do battle. The British ships divided into two separate divisions in order to split the Graf Spee’s fire; the Exeter forming one division and the Ajax and Achilles forming the other one.

HMS Exeter took the brunt of the attack, and after some time was so badly damaged that she was ordered to withdraw and sail for Port Stanley. She was barely seaworthy and her steering was out of order. She made it to port, received some emergency repairs and several weeks later sailed back to Britain under escort, to be refitted.

The battle now continued through the efforts of the two smaller ships, Ajax and Achilles. However, Exeter had dealt the decisive blow, as one of her shells had destroyed the Graf Spee’s raw fuel processing system, which meant that she would not be able to make the passage back home. In addition, the German ship was dangerously low on ammunition. In other words, the German ship was doomed.

The Graf Spee in Montevideo after the Battle

The Graf Spee in Montevideo, after tyhe battle.
The Graf Spee in Montevideo, after tyhe battle. | Source

After the Battle, a close up of the Graf Spee

The Graf Spee in Montevideo after the Battle
The Graf Spee in Montevideo after the Battle | Source

The End of the KMS Admiral Graf Spee

For reasons that have been open to controversy, the German Captain, Hans Langsdorff, decided to make for the port of Montevideo. International Law obliged warships to leave the ports of neutral states within a very short period of time, and Uruguay was at that time not only neutral, but partial to Britain.

While some essential repairs were being made to the Graf Spee, British intelligence worked to simulate the existence of a vastly superior force waiting to destroy the German ship when it attempted to leave the protection of the River Plate Estuary. This fictitious force was supposed to include the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battle cruiser HMS Renown, amongst other numerous warships. This was not at all true, as the additional British ships although steaming for the location, were too far away to be of any practical use. In fact, the only two ships guarding the mouth of the Estuary were the remaining members of Commodore Harwood’s Division, the Ajax and the Achilles.

Captain Langsdorff was deceived by the British strategy, and took the decision to scuttle his ship, which he finally did on the 18th of December. The explosive charges were placed in such a way as to destroy all the innovative technology that would have been a valuable prize for the Allies if captured intact.

Subsequently, the German Captain committed suicide, and was buried with military honors in the German section of the La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires.

The Battle of the River Plate was the first naval battle in World War II, and the only one that took place in South America.

The Graf Spee, in Flames after Scuttling

The KMS Admiral Graf Spee has been scuttled and sinks in flames
The KMS Admiral Graf Spee has been scuttled and sinks in flames | Source

The Fate of the Crew from the Admiral Graf Spee

The survivors were interned in Argentina, where they were due to remain until the end of the hostilities. However, approximately 200 of them managed to escape and to make their way back to Germany, where some of them took part in important episodes of the last years of the War.

The rest remained in Argentina until the end of the War, first as internees and finally as POW when Argentina declared war on the Axis a few weeks before the conclusion of the hostilities.

A number of them never went back to Europe; they married and formed families in South America. Many of their wives were the daughters of German immigrants who had arrived to these countries during the years of peace in Germany.

Several of the group who escaped from Argentina made the trip over the Andes into Chile, where the Nazi spy rings provided them with false documents and engineered their departure through various means. There is some reference to this fact in my previous article on spy rings in Latin America.

A View of the Wreck of the Graf Spee, 1940

The upper structure of the Graf Spee, showing above the water in 1940
The upper structure of the Graf Spee, showing above the water in 1940 | Source

Artillery of the Graf Spee, 1940

Part of the powerful artillery of the Graf Spee, still visible in 1940
Part of the powerful artillery of the Graf Spee, still visible in 1940 | Source

The wreck in 1940, still showing above the water

Part of the armament of the Graf Spee, still showing above the water in 1940
Part of the armament of the Graf Spee, still showing above the water in 1940 | Source

Interest in the Wreck of the KMS Admiral Graf Spee

The wreck of the Graf Spee remained visible for quite some time above the level of the water, as the Estuary is full of sandbanks and the channels are not too deep.

It is important to remember some elements that surrounded the construction of the Graf Spee and her two sister ships, the Deutschland and the Admiral Scheer. According to the Treaty of Versailles, drawn up at the end of WWI, Germany was not allowed to build warships of more the 10,000 tons. In order to keep within these limits without losing offensive power, German technicians used innovative alloys that were very resistant but also extremely light. They also replaced the rivets on the armor plates, by using “deep penetration soldering” Having reduced the overall weight with these and other similar technologies, they were able to provide massive gunnery installations and still keep within the limits imposed by the Treaty. The Graf Spee was the first warship to be equipped with radar and the optical instruments that were used as range finders for firing the guns also incorporated technology that was far in advance of that time.

According to Uruguayan newspaper reports written in Spanish, during the month of February, 1940, the German Ambassador in Montevideo at that time sold the wreck to an Uruguayan businessman, a Señor Julio Vega, for the sum of 14,000 pounds. This transaction was made in the name of Germany’s III Reich.

The sale was brought to a successful conclusion on the 11th of March of that same year. Subsequent events tend to show that this Señor Julio Vega was secretly acting in representation of the British Government, and that the money for the acquisition of the wreck was provided by the British Ambassador in Montevideo.

The British experts needed to find out how the guns could fire so rapidly, how the shots were aimed so accurately, what was the secret of the protective plating that was highly resistant to gunfire, how the radar worked, and any other secret the wreck could yield, including the huge telemeters used for as range finders.

Unfortunately, around the 13th and 14 of April, a terrific storm caused the wreck to collapse sideways and bury itself even deeper in the muddy bottom, so that the salvage teams had a very disappointing experience when they tried to recuperate the strategic elements that were of such interest to the British experts. On the one hand, the Captain of the Graf Spee had placed several of the explosive charges in such a way as to ensure the destruction of these elements, turning them into unrecognizable pieces of twisted metal. And where the explosive charges had not done their work, the storm and the mud had done the rest.

As a result, the salvage crews, working in coordination with the British Ambassador, dispatched crates that contained the following: a 10.5 double barrel anti-aircraft gun, a 44 inch reflector, some of the controlling tower equipment, an artifact that raised the periscope sighting mechanism, some pieces that could be studied to clarify how the major structures were bolted down, samples of soldering, of nonferrous metals and of the armor plating.

All in all, a cargo of 40 tons, placed in 9 boxes, was dispatched to Europe with these elements. It was impossible to raise the huge telemeter, a prize piece which had radar equipment attached to it.

A Relic from the Graf Spee, a Modern Historic and Touristic Attraction

A gun from the Graf Spee, rescued from the wreck in present times, on view in Montevideo
A gun from the Graf Spee, rescued from the wreck in present times, on view in Montevideo | Source

The Telemeter from the Graf Spee, a Majestic View of the Relic

Tha famous telemeter that caused so much interest in 1940. It is now on view in Montevideo
Tha famous telemeter that caused so much interest in 1940. It is now on view in Montevideo | Source

The Telemeter, a Range Finder from the Graf Spee

Part of the huge telemeter, used for range finding
Part of the huge telemeter, used for range finding | Source

The Odyssey of the Graf Spee Continues into the Present

At a more recent date, the situation of the wreck has changed somewhat. In the first place, it has now been determined that she rests in Uruguayan territorial waters, fixed at the seven mile limit, and has therefore been claimed as the property of the Uruguayan Government. In the second place, the shifting sands and marine currents have turned her into a navigation hazard. In the third place, the wreck has now acquired a historical and touristic value, and is therefore considered worth salvaging.

The rights to the wreck are now owned by a Señor Alfredo Etchegaray, a Uruguayan citizen. These rights were sold to him by the Uruguayan government. The leader of the team of salvage divers is a Señor Hector Bado, who has already raised one of the big guns, which is now installed at the Maritime Museum in Montevideo.

In February 2004, the 27 ton telemeter was finally raised successfully. It is 6 meters high and about 10meters wide and was used to as a range finder for long distance shots with the big guns. It is now placed opposite the Ministry of Tourism, in Montevideo, a big tourist attraction.

In 2006, the huge bronze imperial eagle that was bolted to the stern of the Graf Spee, was also raised. It weighs about 300 kg. and the wingspan measures nearly 3 meters. It is perched on the Nazi swastika, a symbol that is still hated by many.

A few weeks after the eagle was raised, a controversy started up with the present German Government, as they refuse to allow the eagle to be taken out of Uruguay. They claim the object belongs to them and as a big concession, are willing to “lend” it to Uruguay on a permanent basis.

It would seem that the controversy over the ownership of the wreck still continues into the immediate present, and the salvage operation appears to have been stopped by the Uruguayan Government as the arguments rage back and forth in the courts of justice.

The whole situation is now as cloudy as the mud that shrouds this noble shipwreck.

The Controversial Eagle, Standing on the Swastika Symbol

This is the object of the controversy, as the present German Government claims ownership of the eagle
This is the object of the controversy, as the present German Government claims ownership of the eagle | Source

The Bronze Imperial Eagle from the Stern of the Graf Spee

The Eagle, showing a bullet mark on its chest!
The Eagle, showing a bullet mark on its chest! | Source

Final Words

I have learnt so much more than I ever knew about the Graf Spee, through researching for this article. The whole story can still fire my imagination and capture my attention and interest, as I hope it has captured yours!

I plan to follow the fate of the HMS Exeter and the HMS Ajax, my favorite ships, in future articles, so stay connected, this could continue to be interesting!


© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)


Fortaleza del Cerro, in Montevideo, Built in the 19th Century

A fortress built by the Spaniards at the start of the 19th century. It is now a museum outside Montevideo
A fortress built by the Spaniards at the start of the 19th century. It is now a museum outside Montevideo | Source

Lighthouse at Punta Brava, Montevideo

The Punta Brava Lihjthouse, Montevideo
The Punta Brava Lihjthouse, Montevideo | Source

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    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi stacistathos! So glad you enjoyed this Hub! Your visit and comment are much appreciated. And there are several more Hubs like this one on my profile if you are interested in these topics, as I am! I enjoyed reading up the information and writing them, I must admit. Be happy, and I hope to see you around. Have a good day (or night, I never know!)!

    • stacistathos profile image

      Staci Stathos 4 years ago from Charleston, SC

      One of my hobbies is the study of military battles and strategies -- especially ship battles. This is a wonderful hub that has greatly piqued my interest in these ships. The Graf Spee was so impressive and is only one example of how the limitations placed upon the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles actually backfired on the Allies. I look forward to reading your other hubs concerning the Great Wars. Thank you so much for writing these!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Mg, thank you very much for your visit and your comment, they are much appreciated! Have a happy New Year!

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Extremely interesting and very well presented

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Debbie, lovely to have you visit and comment on my article! This particular one is the last in a longer chain, they are all linked together backwards. You might enjoy some of the other ones? Have a good day! And thanks for the follow!

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      this is so interesting.. I love history.. thank you

      I am sharing this on Facebook

      Debbie

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi tillson, how lovely to read your comment after a hard morning spent teaching! Thank you so much, I now feel energized again, and almost ready to attempt another article. Be happy and have a good day!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Talk about "fire my imagination and capture my attention and interest"...this was a great article (and I'm no history buff). You really researched this one and provided so much information from then till now. This is a hub to be proud of Joan!

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Gypsy, it's lovely to have you read my article, and leave such a motivating comment! Some of the pictures are really eye-catching, aren't they! I found the ones with the imperial eagly fascinating! Thank you once again and have a good day!

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. I love these hubs of yours. They're so informative and tell me information about history I didn't know. Thanks for sharing and passing this on. Love the fantastic pics.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Integriry, it's nice to have you visit and read your so spontaneous comments! I really appreciate it, thank you! All the best of luck to you and I hope to see you soon on another article!

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      IntegrityYes 5 years ago

      That totally rocks, Joan. You definitely informed us. Many need to read it often.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi teaches, lovely to have you read my article and leave such a nice comment! When I was a student, I hated history, so arid! But since I have discovered that history can activate your imagination, I have found it so much more interesting, and I hope to portray this when I write. Thanks again for providing the motivation to continue trying to improve my writing! Have a good day!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Wow, Joan this is awesome facts and history. You are bringing a new level of interest to the World War II history. Thanks for the share.

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, Photoshark, nice of you to visit and comment on my article. I'm glad you liked it! Have a good day!

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      Leroy Brown 5 years ago from Lafayette Orgon

      Interesting. Very interesting

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi billybuc, I'm delighted to have you back again on my articles! This one was a tough one too, the information is all over the place, partly English and some of it in Spanish. Well I finally got it all together. So glad you liked it. Thanks agaon for the visit and the comment, and a good day to you!

    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, UH, it's always a pleasure to have you visit my articles! I've only just discovered that you also had one on this Battle, but the focus is not quite the same, luckily! I'm so glad you liked it! Thank you again for the visit and the comment. Have a good day!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You always do such a great job with these hubs, Joan. At least I had heard of this naval battle so I didn't feel like a complete dunce while I read it. Great photos and wonderfully detailed account of the battle and its aftermath.

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      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Very nice, joan. Since I've been following your earlier hubs about South America, this fits in nicely. Also, those are great images!