Great Sea Fights: The River Plate Part 2 – The Sinking of the Graf Spee

December 2020

Graf Spee burning after the battle of the River PLate.

This episode continues the first story in our new ‘Great Sea Fights’ series, exploring the fascinating story of the battle of the River Plate, one of the most iconic battles of the Second World War. The immensely powerful and fast German pocket battleship Graf Spee was hunted by a squadron of far smaller British cruisers and found off the River Plate in South America. She never returned home. The account continues, first gathered together by the Admiralty from the official dispatches of the Royal Naval squadron in the immediate aftermath of the battle. We have reached a crucial stage in the battle: The  Graf Spee has been found near the River Plate in South America and battle has broken out. The engagement is evolving at immense speed. The Graf Spee is damaged, zigzagging to keep out of harm and throwing up smokescreens. One of the three British ships, HMS Exeter, is disabled and has ceased firing. The two remaining British ships are operating at full speed to close the range with the German ship.

Listen to Part 1 – Introduction and The Dispatches 1

Listen to Part 3 – ‘The Analysis’


  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis
    From the Society for Nautical Research, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. This episode continues our great sea-fight series on the Battle of the River Plate and continues with our reading of the account of the battle that was first gathered together by the Admiralty, from the official dispatches of the Royal Naval Squadron in the immediate aftermath of the battle. We have reached a crucial stage. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee has been found by a hunting group of British cruisers off the River Plate in the South Atlantic and battle has broken out. The engagement is evolving at immense speed, the Graf Spee is damaged, zigzagging to keep out of harm and throwing up smokescreens. One of the three British ships HMS Exeter is disabled and has ceased firing. The two remaining British ships are operating at full speed to close the range with the German ship.

    Official Dispatches
    That HMS Exeter was still afloat and capable of making long sea passages is a tribute to the design and construction of British warships. For the fortitude and resolution of the personnel, no praise could be too high; in spite of severe casualties and almost complete destruction of internal communications, HMS Exeter had been kept in action so long as a gun would fire while fire and repair parties fought to minimize the effects of damage. At 7:28 am HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles hauled round to a westerly course in order to close the range still further. Three minutes later, HMS Ajax’s aircraft reported: ‘torpedoes approaching, they will pass ahead of you.’ Commodore Harwood, however, decided to take no chances and the cruisers made a large alteration of course towards the enemy in order to avoid the torpedoes. This alteration of course had the effect of closing the range very rapidly. At this time, HMS Ajax had only three guns in action, as an accident prevented one gun of B turret from being fired, while both X and Y turrets were out of action as a result of the 11-inch shell hit sustained at 7:25 am. Nevertheless, the enemy did not relish the fire of the small British cruisers. The Admiral Graf Spee turned away to the westward almost immediately, making much smoke and zigzagging in an attempted to throw out the British gunfire.
    At this stage of the action, the shooting of the 6-inch gun cruisers appeared very accurate. HMS Achilles was making excellent practice with her eight guns while HMS Ajax was making very good use of her three remaining guns. At 7:36 am, the Admiral Graf Spee turned to the south-westward in order to bring all her heavy guns to bear on the British cruisers, in an attempt to fight them off. The two small British cruisers stood on, however, and by 7:38 am, the range was down to four miles. It was then reported to Commodore Harwood that so many rounds had been expended during the continuous periods of rapid firing, that there was some danger of running short of ammunition if the action was prolonged without reaching a decision. This led Commodore Harwood to adopt an immediate change in tactics. He considered that by breaking off the day action and shadowing the enemy till nightfall, he would have a better chance of closing a range at which his lighter armament and torpedoes would have a decisive effect. Accordingly, at 7:40 am, Commodore Harwood turned HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles away to the eastward under cover of a smokescreen. Just as the ships began to turn an 11-inch shell from one of the Admiral Graf Spee’s last salvos brought down the main top master of HMS Ajax. The bursting of this shell caused some casualties and the falling of the mask destroyed the wireless aerials; spare aerials were, however, soon rigged. The Admiral Graf Spee made no attempts to follow the British cruisers but continued to steam to the westward at a speed of about 22 knots. After opening the range by steaming to the eastward under cover of a smokescreen for six minutes, Commodore Harwood again turned his ships to the westward and ordered them to take up positions for shadowing the enemy. That the two small 6-inch gun cruisers had not suffered more severely in the close action was undoubtedly due to the speed and skill with which the ships were handled. The engine and boiler room personnel played a most important part in the action, steaming the ships at full power under difficult action conditions, with the ships under almost constant use of helm. In the boiler rooms gun blast caused the flames to leak about a foot out of the front of the furnaces, yet the Stoker’s, many of them youngsters, never paused in their work or moved back from the boilers.
    The third phase: the situation at 8 am on December the 13th was that the Admiral Graf Spee was continuing her flight to the westward. HMS Ajax was shadowing on the enemy’s port quarter and HMS Achilles on the enemy starboard quarter. Both cruisers being about 15 miles from the Admiral Graf Spee; HMS Exeter was out of sight, drawing away to the south-eastward at slow speed. At 8:07 am and every hour thereafter the British cruisers broadcast the position course and speed of the German Raider so that the British merchant ships in the vicinity would keep out of danger. Just before 9:15 am HMS Ajax recovered her aircraft; the conditions were difficult, but the operation was carried out with great skill and, what was so important, without loss of time. Commodore Harwood’s objectives remained the destruction of the enemy in close action after nightfall, but he had to take steps to deal with the situation which might arise if the Admiral Graf Spee succeeded in eluding night action. He could not risk further prolonged day action with his superior adversary, owing to the weakening of his force by the departure of HMS Exeter, and the quantity of ammunition remaining in his 6-inch gun cruisers. It was necessary therefore to secure reinforcements so that nothing should be left to chance. The nearest British warship was the 10,000-ton 8-inch gun cruiser, HMS Cumberland, at the Falkland Islands. At 9:46 am Commodore Harwood ordered her to proceed to the River Plate area at full speed. HMS Cumberland had, however, picked up jumbled messages which indicated that an action was in progress to the northward, and she had already left the Falkland Islands on the initiative of her commanding officer before these orders were received. On receipt of Commodore Harwood signal, HMS Cumberland increased to full speed.
    Meanwhile, other operations were set on foot by the Admiralty: orders were given to the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS renown, and other ships all of which had been operating some 3000 miles away, to proceed at once to the South American coast, and steps were taken to ensure that adequate supplies of fuel would be available at various strategic points. By 10:05 am, HMS Achilles, who had overestimated the speed of the Admiral Graf Spee, closed the range to 11 and a half miles. The Admiral Graf Spee then altered course and fired to three-gun salvos of 11 inch at HMS Achilles. The fact that Admiral Graf Spee altered course sufficiently to bring her forward turret to bear in order to fire these salvos suggests that the enemy’s after 11-inch turret was out of action at that time. The first of the salvos from the Admiral Graf Spee fell very short, but the second fell close to HMS Achilles, which ship was already under helm. HMS Achilles turned away at full speed under cover of a smokescreen and resumed shadowing from a longer range. An hour later a merchant ship was sited fairly close to the Admiral Graf Spee, she appeared to be stopped and blowing off steam. A few minutes later, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles received a signal from the Admiral Graf Spee, it read: ‘Ajax and Achilles from Admiral Graf Spee, please pick-up lifeboats of English Seaman. On coming up with the merchant ship, HMS Ajax found that she was the British SS Shakespeare and that all her boats were hoisted. HMS Ajax signalled to her asking if she required assistance, and the SS Shakespeare replied that she was quite alright and did not require assistance. It would appear therefore that the signal of the Admiral Graf Spee to HMS Ajax was a ruse adopted by the German Raider in an attempt to shake off her tenacious pursuers. The shadowing of the Admiral Graf Spee by HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles continued without further incident until 7:15 pm. At this time, the Admiral Graf Spee altered course and reopened fire on HMS Ajax with her 11-inch guns at a range of 13 miles. HMS Ajax at once turned away under cover of a smokescreen and resumed a shadowing position out of range. By this time, it was clear that the Admiral Graf Spee intended to enter the estuary of the River Plate.
    The entrance to the River Plate estuary is guarded by a sandbank 16 miles long running across the estuary, this is known as English Bank. Commodore Harwood considered that the Admiral Graf Spee might try to elude British cruisers and to break back to the open sea by doubling round this sea bank. He, therefore, disposes forces so as to prevent the enemy slipping out. As soon as the Admiral Graf Spee passed the island of Lobos and was therefore committed to entering the estuary of the River Plate. The whole duty of shadowing the enemy devolved upon HMS Achilles, while HMS Ajax proceeded to the south of English Bank so that she would meet the Admiral Graf Spee if she tried to double back towards the open sea after rounding the sandbank. The sunset at 8:48 pm and the Admiral Graf Spee was, from HMS Achilles, clearly silhouetted at a range of about 12 and a half miles. HMS Achilles altered course to the north-westward in order to take full advantage of the afterglow. She had already increased speed in order to close the enemy before dark. The enemy appeared to resent any shortening of the range by the British cruiser. At 8:55 pm the Admiral Graf Spee altered course under cover of a smokescreen and opened fire at HMS Achilles with 11-inch guns. HMS Achilles at once replied to the German fire, turning away at full speed as she did so, laying a smokescreen to throw out the enemy’s fire and cover her own movements. The Admiral Graf Spee ceased firing and HMS Achilles at once turned to the westward again at high speed in order to keep in touch. At 9:26 pm the enemy again laid a smokescreen in an attempt to throw off the pursuit. This failed and six minutes later, the Admiral Graf Spee fired an 11-inch salvo at HMS Achilles. HMS Achilles at once made a large alteration of course to port in order to throw out the enemy’s gunfire.
    On two other occasions at 9:40 pm, and at 9:43 pm, the Admiral Graf Spee fired single salvos at HMS Achilles. HMS Achilles did not reply to these salvos; the loom of the land now north-eastward to the HMS Achilles must have made it very difficult for the enemy to see her, and it was considered that the flash of her guns would give away her position. It seemed clear that these sporadic salvos from the Admiral Graf Spee were merely attempts to drive off shadowers. By 10:02 pm HMS Achilles had close to 5 miles from the Admiral Graf Spee, and it was possible to determine that the enemy was heading to pass to northward of the English Bank. HMS Achilles informed HMS Ajax accordingly. Soon after that time, HMS Achilles found the Admiral Graf Spee very difficult to see owing to low clouds and patches of smoke. The British cruiser accordingly hauled to the southward in order to get the enemy silhouetted against the lights of Montevideo; this manoeuvre was successful. At 10:48, the Admiral Graf Spee was observed to be about 7 miles east of the whistle boy at the entrance to the Montevideo channel, and it was clear that the defeated German Raider was about to seek the shelter of the neutral harbour of Montevideo. Throughout the day, in the three hours of darkness, the shadowing action of the British cruisers had been entirely successful, and every attempt of the Admiral Graf Spee to elude or drive off her pursuers had been defeated. The Admiral Graf Spee anchored in Montevideo Roads 10 minutes past midnight.
    The fourth phase: Commodore Harwood had called off the pursuit an hour before the Admiral Graf Spee anchored in Montevideo Roads, since the enemy’s intentions had been by that time clear and the British Commander was at pains to respect neutral territorial waters. New dispositions were at once taken up by the British cruisers. The Admiral Graf Spee might have taken refuge in Montevideo Harbour, there was no reason to suppose that she intended to remain there. It devolved upon the two small British cruisers to ensure that the German pocket battleship did not break out into the open sea, and it was clear that reinforcements could not reach Commodore Harwood for some time, nor were the geographical factors of the situation in Commodore Harwood’s favour. The estuary of the River Plate is 120 miles across from Cabo San Antonio in the Argentine to Punta del Este de on the Uruguayan coast. Out of the estuary, there are three widely separated deep-water channels. The northernmost of these is between the English Bank lightship and Cumberland Shoal. The second deep-water channel, the centre of which lies 30 miles further south, is between the south of the English Bank and the north end of Ruin Bank, a large shoal approximately halfway between English Bank and the Argentine coast. Between Ruin Bank and the Argentine coast is the third deep-water channel, which is nearly 30 miles wide. There were thus three widely separated routes by which the Admiral Graf Spee might break out to the open sea. Commodore Harwood had only two cruisers and he could not hope to destroy the enemy unless they were concentrated. There was a danger that the British ships might be surprised by their superior enemy in the dawn light, when the British cruisers would be silhouetted against the lightning eastern sky, while the Admiral Graf Spee would be invisible against the dark loom of the land and the offshore mists of dawn. The difficulties of the position were great, but Commodore Harwood had one vital advantage: one might expect the crews of the ships, which had undergone a fierce action in which they had suffered damage and casualties and taken part in a long and arduous chase, to be in need of rest, this was not the case. The spirit of the personnel of the British cruisers was such that they showed no fatigue. It was the same spirit which animated Commodore Harwood, commanding a greatly inferior force in a dangerous and difficult situation, to begin to signal turning his ships of his intentions with the words: ‘my object: destruction’.
    Commodore Harwood reviewed the difficulties with which he was faced and determined upon his course of action. The primary necessity was to keep to seaward of the Admiral Graf Spee if she put to sea, and at the same time, avoid being caught against the dawn light. He, therefore, ordered HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles to withdraw from the River Plate and to patrol well to seaward during the night and to move back into the estuary after dawn. The night passed without incident and as soon as the danger of being silhouetted against the dawn light had passed, the ships closed in towards Montevideo, keeping constant watch over as much of the estuary as was possible. At 10 pm on that day, Thursday 14th of December, the 8-inch gun cruiser, HMS Cumberland, arrived in the River Plate area, having made the long passage from the Falkland Islands in 34 hours. This reinforcement enabled Commodore Harwood to dispose his forces so that sectors to seaward of all three of the deep-water channels leading out of the River Plate estuary could be watched during the night. HMS Cumberland patrols the centre sector, with HMS Achilles to the north of her and HMS Ajax to the southward. Should the Admiral Graf Spee come out, she was to be shadowed, and the three British cruisers were to concentrate sufficiently far seaward to enable a concerted attack to be delivered on the enemy. Next day, Friday 15th of December, another problem faced Commodore Harwood. His ships could not keep the sea indefinitely, with boilers always ready to drive the ships at full speed, without further supplies of fuel. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Olynthus was in the vicinity and HMS Ajax was ordered to oil from her at sea, while the operation was covered by the other two cruisers. Fuelling at sea is a difficult operation in anything but a flat calm, and it was by no means calm. Securing wires and even two spans of Hurricane hoses were parted, but the fuelling was successfully accomplished. Shortly after this Commodore Harwood received news that the Admiral Graf Spee had been granted an extension of her stay in Montevideo up to 72 hours in order to make herself seaworthy. Nevertheless, Commodore Harwood dispatch states: ‘I could feel no security that she would not break out at any moment. The strain of watching and waiting in instant readiness for action could in no way be relaxed.’
    Before dawn on Saturday, December 16, HMS Cumberland, HMS Ajax, and HMS Achilles concentrated in the southern part of the River Plate estuary, and HMS Ajax flew off her aircraft to carry out a reconnaissance; the pilot was told to be careful not to fly over territorial waters. The aircraft returned at 8:30 am and reported that it had been impossible to see anything owing to bad visibility. There was danger that the Admiral Graf Spee might take advantage of the mist and try to break out. The British cruisers at once went to ‘action stations’ and stood to the northwards to intercept the enemy. Information was soon received, however, which indicated that the Admiral Graf Spee was still in Montevideo harbour, that she was repairing damage with assistance from the shore and had provisioned. It was reported as unlikely that the Admiral Graf Spee would sail that night, but Commodore Harwood did not feel able to rely upon this report. The unceasing vigilance of the British cruisers continued, and Commodore Harwood made a signal to his squadrons, informing the ships of his intentions in the event of the enemy breaking out that night.
    It was in the late afternoon of this day that Commodore Harwood received the Admiralty signal informing him of the honours bestowed by His Majesty upon him and the Captains of HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax, and HMS Achilles, and of his promotion to Rear Admiral to date December 13, the date of the action and the chase of the Admiral Graf Spee. Admiral Harwood’s dispatch states: ‘this was a most stimulating tonic to us all, and I took steps to pass it on to HM ships under my command’, emphasizing the share of all concerned to the honours which their senior officers had received.
    The British Squadron spent that night patrolling on a north and south line five miles to the east of the English Bank light buoy. On the morning of Sunday, December the 17th, HMS Achilles took in oil fuel at sea from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Olynthus, while HMS Cumberland and HMS Ajax acted as a covering force for the operation. The British Squadron then cruised off to the southeast of the English Bank, remaining concentrated and ready to take up the same night patrols of the previous night. That afternoon messages were received that the Admiral Graf Spee was preparing for sea. Admiral Harwood’s dispatch states: ‘We all expected that she would break out at any moment. I would like to place on record the fact that at this stage the most cheerful optimism pervaded all ships in spite of the fact that this was the fifth night of waiting for the enemy.’ About 5:30 pm on the afternoon of Sunday, December the 17th, news was received by Admiral Harwood stating that the Admiral Graf Spee was weighing anchor. It seemed that the British expectations of action were to be fulfilled. HMS Cumberland, HMS Ajax, and HMS Achilles at once altered course towards the entrance of the 5-mile dredged channel leading into Montevideo Roads, and the crews went into action stations. HMS Ajax’s aircraft was flown off with orders to report the position and movements of the Admiral Graf Spee and the German ship Tacoma, which ship the Admiral Graf Spee was known to have transferred a large number of men.
    The Admiral Graf Spee left harbour at 6:15 pm and proceeded slowly down the dredged channel, after leaving the end of which, she turned to the westward. The Tacoma also weighed anchor and followed the Admiral Graf Spee and the German ship Tacoma. HMS Ajax’s aircraft reported the Admiral Graf Spee in a position in shallow water about 6 miles southwest of Montevideo, and shortly afterwards, at 8:54 pm, the aircraft signalled Admiral Graf Spee has blown herself up. The British cruisers carried on towards Montevideo, proceeding north of the English Bank. HMS Ajax recovered her aircraft, and as she was doing so HMS Achilles past her, the two British cruisers, which had done such excellent service cheered the ship as they passed one another. Navigation lights were switched on and the British Squadron steamed past the whistle buoy at the entrance to the Montevideo dredged channel, passing within about 4 miles of the wreck of the Admiral Graf Spee. Admiral Harwood’s dispatch states: ‘It was now dark, and she was ablaze from end to end, flames reaching almost as high as the top of the control tower. A magnificent and most cheering sight.’ While HMS Cumberland, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles were witnessing the ignominious end of the ship, which had been the pride of the German Navy, which had represented Germany at the Coronation Review at Spithead, and which had carried herr Hitler triumphantly to Memel, HMS Exeter, who had contributed so gallantly the Admiral Graf Spee’s defeat, was at the Falkland Islands.

    Sam Willis
    This great Sea Fight Special will continue with an analysis of the battle from Eric Grove, and then with a detailed look at the Graf Spee from Dr Phil Wier, who will explain how she was one of the 20th century’s most iconic warships.
    We’ve had more fascinating contributions on the Society for Nautical Research’s free forum. So, thank you everyone for being interested and getting involved in that and do please check it out

    This is from Peter Leech in response to a query about the history of hats in the Royal Navy: ‘I’ve personally done some amount of research into period uniforms with the intention of reproducing things for re-enactment. Headgear is rarely mentioned in the text of the Uniform Regulations, and where it is, it’s only mentioned in terms of gold-laced hat or plain hat. It appears to have become received knowledge that they were therefore completely non-regulation. Having perhaps spent a little too long staring at the minutiae of period portraits, I’m not entirely convinced by this; I have yet to see a portrait from 1748 to 1787 with the subject wearing anything but a tricorn, where a hat is worn or in the portrait sitting somewhere, and then from 1774. everybody without exception is wearing a bicorn. I find it hard to believe that this is just due to a change of fashion given that you can see 3 distinctly different cuts of the 1795 uniform; some people outright flaunt the quality of their uniforms in their portraits, some are not really in compliance with the uniform regulations as they couldn’t afford to comply with them, and everything in between, but I do not recall ever seeing someone with the ‘wrong’ hat in a portrait. Notices published in the Gazette do refer to pattern suits being available for viewing, and I would speculate (though this is pure speculation) that the pattern suits may have included a hat, and this was just common knowledge at the time that nobody bothered writing down. Certainly, the 1825 booklet specifies the headgear and sizes thereof exactingly. To be fair, the other argument would probably be that a felt hat does not last well when exposed to water, and a ship is perhaps not the driest environment so it could well be that people simply bought a new hat frequently and that the hatters’ shops didn’t sell old fashions. Peter then goes off and suggests heading to the collections of the National Maritime Museum online to look at their hat collection. You can find that
    Well, that’s it for now. How can you help? Please do follow the Society for Nautical Research on social media. You can find us on Twitter and Facebook, and the Mariner’s Mirror Pod itself has its own Instagram and YouTube pages. So do please check those out. But most of all, please join the Society for Nautical Research your subscription goes towards helping to share the latest of scholarship in maritime history and to preserving our maritime past.

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