WW2 Battle of the River Plate

The Battle of the River Plate was the first naval battle in the Second World War and the only episode of the war that developed in South America.

It was fought on 13 December 1939 between the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and an  Allied Naval task force. The location of the battle was in Uruguay on the South American River Plate.Uruguay had officially declared neutrality in the War .

The Graf Spee was a German pocket battleship of 10,000 tons launched in 1936. It was more heavily gunned than any cruiser and had a top speed of 25 knots and an endurance of 12,500 miles. It was regarded as the top gun of all WWII ships.In fact it’s giant guns had a range of 15 miles. When Britain declared war on Germany the Graf Spee was already in the Atlantic .

The Graf Spee had already sunk several merchant ships in the Atlantic before being attacked by a British search group consisting of the cruisers Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles. In the ensuing battle ,and after paralysing Exeter, the Graf Spee engaged the other two British ships.  But damage to Graf Spee forced her to seek refuge in Montevideo, Uruguay for several days to make repairs.

The German commander Langsdorf requested two weeks to repair his ship, but was legally only allowed 24hrs on neutral soil. However, the British wanted to keep the ship in port  for as long as possible, to give them time to send reinforcements.

There was a 24hr law in Uruguay in which no war ship was allowed to set off within 24hrs of a merchant ship.  The tactical British under their commander Captain Harwood arranged for one merchant ship to set off from the port each day.

However ,neutral Uruguay soon became frustrated & finally told the Germans that the Graf Spee had to leave .

Commander Langsdorf believed that the British were preparing  again for battle and believed the total destruction for the Graf Spee was the only outcome.  On 16 December, with most of the city of Montevideo watching, the Graf Spee left the port.

However Langsdorf had  already put his crew into other craft  At around 7.55 that evening he chose his own ending.  The ship exploded, sinking in deep water with all equipment on board .And General Langsdorf himself.

The conclusion of the Battle of the River Plate was the result of two great naval officers pitted against each other – and possibly the biggest bluff of WWII.

At the Naval Museum in Montevideo you can explore the Graf Spee display and various artefacts including the ship’s telephone, a stretcher used to evacuate a wounded sailor, the sword and scabbard that Captain Langsdorf surrendered to the Uruguayan navy and a large black medallion bearing Hitler’s profile.