Great Sea Fights: The River Plate Part 3 – Analysis

December 2020

Graf Spee burning after the battle of the River PLate.

This episode finishes 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. In this episode Dr Sam Willis speaks to Professor Eric Grove, author of The Price of Disobedience: The Battle of the River Plate Reconsidered  who offers an analysis of the battle. Why was the Graf Spee in South America? What were the tactical advantages of the German pocket battleship? How did the smaller, faster British ships maximise their capabilities? Why was the battle so important at the time and what was its longer-term legacy?

Listen to Part 1 – Introduction and The Dispatches

Listen to Part 2 – ‘The Dispatches Continued’

  • 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. Welcome, everybody, this is the third part of our new great sea-fight series and we’re looking at the Battle of the River Plate from December 1939. If you missed them, parts one and two told the story of the battle from an account gathered together by the Admiralty in the immediate aftermath of the battle and is based on the official Royal Naval dispatches from the captains of the ships involved. Today we have an overview and analysis of the battle from the naval historian Professor Eric Grove. Eric is one of the country’s best known naval historians: he’s a vice president and fellow of the Society for Nautical Research, a member of Council of the Navy Records Society, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, president of Maritime History North and a First Sea Lords fellow. After a seriously impressive career, Eric retired from full-time teaching in 2015, though he continues as a regular lecturer at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, as a visiting supervisor at Cambridge, and as an external examiner for PhDs. You’ll no doubt have seen him adding detail and colour to all sorts of TV documentaries. But most importantly for us today, he’s the author of numerous books, and in particular, he’s the author of ‘The Price of Disobedience: The Battle of the River Plate Reconsidered’. So, if your interest has been piqued by these podcasts, and I very much hope that it has do please check out his book. Hi, Eric, thank you so much for speaking to us today.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Hi, Sam. It’s a great pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    So, what’s the background to the battle? What do we need to know?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, Admiral Graf Spee, a German armoured ship as they officially call them, and which we call pocket battleships, in fact, they were really just super heavy cruisers, was out on a raging voyage. It had left just before the outbreak of war and was ordered to go to the South Atlantic, where it made a certain mark, it actually moved also into the Indian Ocean where it found a small tanker, and it sank another eight other ships of just over 50,000 tons. Perhaps rather more than the actual merchant shipping losses, the problem was that it tied down a huge amount of Anglo-French naval strength looking for it. Now one of the hunting groups was led by Commodore Harwood, who was the Commodore of the South American station (he knew the waters there extremely well; he served there and commanded the station before the war), he had under his command four cruisers, two heavy cruisers, Exeter and Cumberland, and two light cruisers Ajax, in which at the time he was lying his flag, and Achilles which are largely New Zealand crew, and he used his knowledge of the theatre to very good effect. He thought that in fact, the pocket battleship might (as the British call them) might be going home, and therefore it might like to make a mark before it did. And so, without any particular direct intelligence, he took his three operational cruisers (Cumberland was in the Falkland Islands for a refit) to patrol off the River Plate, working out on the back of an envelope effectively or a signal check, that in fact, she’d probably be there on the morning of December 13. And she was.

    Sam Willis

    Well, let’s talk about this commerce raiding. I mean, first of all, this is a battle in distant waters, it’s in the South Atlantic.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Yes!

     Sam Willis

    Why was there so much fear around commerce raiding and why was the location, why was the River Plate so important?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, the River Plate was important because a lot of trade to Britain, meat and other things, came out of the River Plate from Argentina, as well as Uruguay. And the shipping lanes there were actually quite important; ships coming out were quite important. And if serious losses could be inflicted on these, and if perhaps if the worst came to the worse, the flow of shipping stopped, then Britain would suffer serious economic consequences. Of course, eventually, it was the German submarines in the Atlantic that turned out to be the main commerce raiding threat. But there were serious worries that in fact, surface ships, both warships and armed merchantmen, might inflict serious damage and might seriously disrupt trade.

    Sam Willis

    I suppose the main concerns here are all learned from the experience of the First World War, which also began with a combat, you know, in the South Atlantic; how much do you think there was a hangover about what had happened in the first war?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, it’s quite significant, actually. In fact, Admiral Graf Spee named after the German Admiral who won the battle of Coronel sinking two large British cruisers, the name was actually inscribed on the foremast of the ship, so it was kind of hanging over Captain Langsdorff the Commander, that it would be good if he could possibly have some kind of victory before he came home. However, Admiral Raeder, who was the Commander of the German Navy, he had said to his commanders, for heaven’s sake, don’t engage warships because they will damage you and you won’t be able to get home, and in fact, he disobeys that order, in fact I call my own book on the battle ‘the price of disobedience’.

    Sam Willis

    It’s worth adding here that you know, we are in these very, very distant waters there is no friendly port for anyone to go to, is there.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Absolutely. It’s the great problem for German ships. In the First World War, there was a certain infrastructure, but at this time, the only support the Graff Spee had was the tanker Altmark, which it met on various occasions, exchanged prisoners, in fact, put most of the prisoners on board Altmark, although the captains were actually kept in Admiral Graf Spee, but no, I mean, if you’re damaged, you’re in deep trouble because you haven’t got repair facilities, you have to rely on the good officers of neutrals( at best), and if you suffer significant damage, then you might not be able to get home at all.

    Sam Willis

    What were they doing for fuel?

    Professor Eric Grove

    The pocket battleships had diesel engines, and the tanker Altmark carried enough to give the Graf Spee quite a large amount of mobility; they would find each other and engage in refuelling operations.

    Sam Willis

    And in terms of the awareness of the dangers of commerce raiding, that must have come from the experiences in the First World War. What about people’s understanding of what might happen if, you know, two ships of this sort of size met?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, I think that the big fear was in fact of surface raiders, rather more than of submarines at this time. And so, the surface raider threat was probably to some extent, exaggerated, but certainly, if you found one of these ships, and you were a British warship or a small British Squadron, you obviously engaged it. And Commodore Harwood, as well as having great knowledge of South American waters, was probably the Royal Navy’s greatest expert on how you engage the pocket battleship and exploited its weaknesses.

    Sam Willis

    So, what happened when the Royal Naval Squadron found this German ship?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, the squadron came into contact with Graf Spee, and Graf Spee decided to disobey orders; Langsdorff, their Captain, decided to disobey orders and attacked; and he tried to close the British Squadron which he mistook for just a couple of destroyers and a light cruiser; in fact, it was a heavy cruiser and two light cruisers. And by closing the range, he actually gave up a lot of the advantage of the superior 11-inch guns. Another thing that didn’t help was that as Graf Spee accelerated into the attack, her diesel engines caused such bad vibration that they temporarily broke down the forward turret which was half the armament. So, in fact, she went into action with only three of her six guns fully operational. And in fact, I’m pretty sure that the middle gun of the four turrets was never actually back in action with the other two. In fact, if you look at pictures of the wreck, up after she was scuttled, it’s still dropping.

    Sam Willis

    Oh, wow! So, the, well, let’s just think a little bit more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the forces involved.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, the 11-inch guns of the pocket battleship were far more powerful in terms of weight of broadside than the six 8-inch guns of HMS Exeter and the eight 6-inch guns of the two light cruisers Ajax and Achilles. And they could cause quite serious damage, but the weakness was there were only six of them. Doctrine said you should only really fire them at one target, although they could be fired at two targets, but if there were only three guns on each target didn’t lead to a great deal of accuracy, assuming that the four turret was in fact working. So, if you split the fire of the pocket battleship, you would greatly weaken its strength. In other words, if you put your force into two squadrons as Hardwood did, the two light cruisers in one squadron and Exeter in the other, Graf Spee would have to basically concentrate on just one of these squadrons and try and sink it. He did inflict quite serious damage on it, HMS Exeter, but she survived and quite soon he had to return to engage the two light cruisers because he was suffering repeated hits from them.

    Sam Willis

    What sort of range was this happening at?

    Professor Eric Grove

    The battle started at a range of 19,700 yards. So that’s, so we’re talking about 10 nautical miles, and it closed a little bit after that. So, we’re talking about, you know, a moderate range by the standards of 20th-century naval warfare.

    Sam Willis

    Was it easy being accurate at that kind of range?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Easy is perhaps too strong a word, especially as the ships were manoeuvring. And in fact, one way you could put the enemy’s fire off was to sail away from where his shells were falling, because you could actually put the enemy’s fire off. So, naval gunnery, as usual, is as much an art and a science, even at those kinds of ranges.

    Sam Willis

    And the speed and manoeuvrability of the ships is a key aspect to what happened in this battle.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Oh, they’re speeding along – yes. I mean they’re doing; I think Graf Spee could do about 24 knots and the British cruisers slightly more. I mean what you have – imagine a largish ship being pursued by three others at a range of about 20 miles or slightly less, and travelling at what? About, in land terms, about 30 miles an hour.

    Sam Willis

    I’m sure easy was not the right word to describe the experience! Do we have a good understanding of battle, it’s often fascinating how naval battles like this or for any period are actually historians can recreate them. Have we got a good variety of sources to help us understand this battle?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, there are basically two maps; one is the British map and the other is the German map. And they’re not entirely compatible.

    Sam Willis

    That’s interesting. That’s interesting.

    Professor Eric Grove

    And it’s quite interesting to see, you know, how they’re, you know, what their differences are. But, yeah, fundamentally, it was a pursuit action. Exeter had to give up the chase because she was quite seriously damaged and effectively knocked out as a fighting unit. But the two light cruisers continued the action: if you think of sort of two terriers, if you like, chasing a rather large animal, but inflicting some bites. Because a large number of 6-inch hits were caused on the ship and these, in fact, did inflict some quite significant damage. Another thing that shocked the Germans considerably was that one of the 8-inch shells that Exeter managed to get away at Graf Spee penetrated her armour belt. It shouldn’t have done that, in theory.

    Sam Willis

    So, was that surprising for both sides?

    Professor Eric Grove

    I think if we’d known it had happened, I think we’d have been surprised, but it was a shock for the Germans. Also, Langsdorff who directed the battle from the top of the sort of rather solid war-master Graf Spee, he suffered some wounds, which might well have damaged his morale somewhat.

    Sam Willis

    So, we’ve got this situation where the Graf Spee’s damaged and is limping. What happens next?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, she decides to put into the nearest port, so she could repair her damage. She also had a rather nasty hole in her focsle, which was low anyway. In fact, the seakeeping of the pocket battleships was not that good, in fact, as remarked upon by Captain Dove, who’d been captured in the Africa Shell in the Mozambique channel, and went around the cape in her and said that she was not a good sea boat at all. And to make matters worse, the British had put a hole in her focsle.

    Sam Willis

    So where did she go?

    Professor Eric Grove

    She went into Montevideo. And now we come to the whole diplomatic and deception part of the exercise. Uruguay was quite pro-British. Some people say that she should have gone into Buenos Aires, but I’m not so sure about that because I think the Argentines would have acted rather as the Uruguayans did. The Uruguayan said she could only stay for a very limited period of time, which the German said was too little to do the necessary repairs, for example, she’d lost her galley and Langsdorff couldn’t feed his men. But then the British decided it would be better if they kept to there as long as possible, and pressure was put on the Uruguayan government, who tried to actually keep a pretty neutral middle course between the two sides, who were worried that in fact, the German ship might actually use its guns to coerce things out of the Uruguayans. But our minister in Montevideo, the great gentlemen Millington Drake, of the F. O., you might say, he and the naval attaché from across the Plate, and in fact, (this was a factor that the Germans didn’t know) the Head of MI6 for the South American area, they engaged in what can only be called a brilliant deception operation. They made the Germans think that heavy British units, capital ships, aircraft carrier battleship, etc. battle cruiser, were actually quite close by – they weren’t – but they made the Germans think they were and behold, the Germans observing what was going on out in the Plate thought they began to see British capital ships there.

    Sam Willis

    That’s amazing. Visions!

    Professor Eric Grove

    That’s right visions. So, they looked, I’ve actually stood there myself and I must admit, a Minesweeper looks remarkably like, you know, like a frigate if you didn’t get the distance, right. And so, the Germans began to be convinced that in fact, there were British heavy units waiting for them. Also, Graf Spee had shot off a lot of her ammunition; so, her fighting capacity was somewhat limited. And Langsdorff decided in the end that the only thing he could do, rather than have the ship interned, that would be a disgrace, was to sink her himself; scuttle her.

    Sam Willis

    How do you scuttle a pocket battleship? I wonder how he did that.

    Professor Eric Grove

    You put torpedo warheads under the turrets and explode them. And if you look at pictures of the wreck, you will see that the torpedo under the four turret didn’t go off. But the one under the after-turret did and caused a huge great bang. And also, there were scuttling charges in other parts of the ship. Of course, the Germans had a tradition of scuttling, if you think of the high Sea Fleet being scuttled at Scapa Flow.

    Sam Willis

    They were experts!

    Professor Eric Grove

    Yes, that is quite, and as far as the German Navy is concerned, it’s quite an honourable end. It is better than surrender, you know, better than hauling down the flag. And so, she sails out of Montevideo flying a large German Naval Ensign. Her men are transferred during the day to other vessels, the final crew gets off, including Langsdorff, and the ship blows up in quite shallow water and stays there burning.

    Sam Willis

    And there’s footage of that, isn’t it? It’s quite remarkable footage. Who created that footage? Where did that come from, do we know?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, film news companies, basically. I mean, it was, all this was filmed, Graf Spee going out being observed by crowds and crowds of interested Uruguayans going out. And indeed, there was a commentary, there was an American journalist who was commentating, this is shown quite accurately in the feature film of the Battle of the River Plate. And so, this was a public event. And I think one reason that the River Plate got the sort of notoriety it did was because this had become a media event of the first order.

    Sam Willis

    It’s so unusual for these kinds of beasts of sea power to play out their drama in full view of sort of watching spectators. The only one I can think of at the moment is the Spanish Armada, where people are watching the Spanish come past from the cliffs of Plymouth.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Yes. That’s right, absolutely, yes.

    Sam Willis

    You know, kind of really brings it home actually what’s going on. How was it interpreted in Germany?

    Professor Eric Grove

    I think it was considered to be something of a disgrace. And it certainly did nothing to improve the prestige of the German Navy, I mean, the two major operational units of the German Navy at this time, one of them had been brought to book and scuttled a sister ship Deutschland, later renamed Lutzow because Hitler didn’t want a ship called Germany sunk, she wasn’t very successful in the North Atlantic because of the convoy system. And she made it back home and served for several years yet of the war. But it didn’t do the prestige of the German Navy any good at all. It did the prestige of the Royal Navy, a huge amount of good. I think Churchill put it in a long dark winter it warmed the cockles of the British Heart, and, and much was made of the victory. There was a victory parade in London, Achilles was greeted with great enthusiasm in New Zealand. And so it was much, in fact, it was the first British victory, the first allied victory even, of the war. So much so that the Southern Railway decided it was going to name its new class of Express locomotives ‘The Victory Class’, and they actually had some plates cast ‘The Plate’, but as there were precious few victories after that it was decided to rename the class ‘The Merchant Navy Class’ and name them after shipping lines.

    Sam Willis

    Probably quite wise. So, you raise an interesting point there. So, there’s the immediate response to it, but then things changed because of the course of the war, and I suspect that the way that this battle was viewed that, you know, not necessarily tarnished, but it certainly changes in the British mind, isn’t it?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, it does. Yes, although I noticed that my parents when the film came out, they knew quite a lot about the battle. It was seen as, the show, rather iconic actually, in many ways. I mean, it was a, it was a classic British victory of the old style, but also, it’s very old-style battle. An aircraft was launched by Ajax and it helped to some extent, at least when, you know, when they got the frequencies right in the gunnery, but it’s very much an old-fashioned early 20th-century battle, fought out with guns and torpedoes, although no torpedo hits were actually scored. And so it’s a classic sea-fight. And it’s a classic sea-fight that the Royal Navy won.

    Sam Willis

    Why do you think it’s important that we study this battle, that we go back, and we look at what happened and how it is remembered?

    Professor Eric Grove

    Well, I think it’s a very dramatic event. I mean, the chase of the Graf Spee, bringing her to book, the three smaller ships defeating a larger one, which is very much a British legend in itself, it’s like Spanish Armada legend. And so, in a range of ways it plays to the British conception of the nature of sea power, what British sea power is all about, and the role of the Royal Navy, in protecting sea lines of communication.

    Sam Willis

    And in terms of what happens, you know, with the Royal Navy through the rest of the Second World War, it does, it really does stand out as an unusual event, doesn’t it?

    Professor Eric Grove

    I suppose so; yes. I mean, there are other surface actions which involve capital ships: the sinking of the Scharnhorst, of course, in 1943, which is carried out in very different waters in Arctic Twilight, off the North Cape; the pursuit of the Bismarck, which is eventually successful. So, in a sense, it sets the scene for what happens to German ships if they fall into the hands of the Royal Navy. So, at that level, it’s a precursor of what comes later.

    Sam Willis

    One of the interesting things about this battle, of course, is that the wreck still survives.

    Professor Eric Grove

    It does; yes. Although it’s sunk into the mud and because of the corrosive nature of the Plate bed a lot of the ship has corroded away. However, for a time the ship belonged to the British, they used local agents to buy the wreck, so that we could inspect it. One major reason being that it was clear that Graf Spee had radar and we wanted to know how good the radar was. So we bought the wreck so that we could take bits of the radar off it and take it back, and in fact, some of it is apparently still in the HMS Collingwood museum. So, we did in fact, buy the wreck, and it was British. It’s an extraordinary story. And if people want to know more, get ‘The Price of Disobedience’, my book.

    Sam Willis

    You say that you went there, and you saw the view out to the Plate; do you think that going to locations is helpful as a historical researcher?

    Professor Eric Grove

    I think it is actually; yes, because one could quite see what the perspective, quite literally the perspective the Germans had looking out over the River Plate. And you could see where the wreck actually was, it’s marked obviously by a buoy. And also, it was interesting, but it was very hard to judge the size of warships in the distance. And that I think, played a significant role in the outcome of the battle, well, the outcome of the whole campaign in fact.

    Sam Willis

    Well, absolutely fascinating for talking to us today, Eric, I’ve really really appreciated it. Thank you for your time.

    Professor Eric Grove

    Great questions.

    Sam Willis

    Fascinating stuff, but we’re not even finished yet; we have one further treat coming for you to offer more background to the River Plate, and that is the first of a new series on iconic ships. And yes, we will be focusing on the Graf Spee, that will be presented by Dr Phil Weir, the man with a serious Twitter presence @navalhistorian, and it will be coming up in the next few days.

    As ever we have some updates from the free forum on the Society for Nautical Research website @snr.org.uk. This is from Tony Fuller regarding the repatriation of bodies in the 1980s. Good evening’, says Tony, ‘during the 1980s a number of the Protestant cemeteries in Spain were closed and the remains of people interred there were repatriated to the UK. I have the details of the actual disinterment, the reasons why and a lot of local history but we know that the bodies from the cemetery at Cartagena, in Murcia, were carried back to the UK on a Royal Navy ship. But tracing the ship, which remains were taken and where the remains were finally placed, is proven very elusive. Does anybody have any idea of how I might find that information, please? That’s Tony Fuller writing from Spain. If you want to reply, please do so on the forum @snr.org.uk.

    Tony has also written a post about the Battle of Cabo de Palos, the 5th or 6th of March 1938: ‘Good evening. During the night of the 5th/6th of March 1938, the largest sea battle of the Spanish Civil War took place 60 miles off the coast of Cabo de Palos, near Cartagena, one of Spain’s major ports and naval establishment. A Nationalist battle cruiser, Baleares, was sunk with a loss of many lives. Although part of the blockade of the Spanish coast, two destroyers, HMS Kampenfeld and HMS Boreas, were dispatched to the area to render assistance and whilst doing so they were bombed by Republican planes who mistook the British ships for Nationalist ships. As a result, a British seaman, A/B Long of HMS Boreas was hit in the chest by shell fragment and subsequently died. I have a four-page typewritten account by A/B Ivan E B D’Arcy, who was on the island of Palma Majorca at the time, who gave an almost contemporaneous account of the whole event. I have all the technical details of the two RN ships involved, but have nothing else, especially where A/B long is buried. Does anybody have any further information about the battle, please? I have the complete account from Spanish records, but there may be something else lurking somewhere. Again, if anyone can help, please respond on the forum.

    Well, I hope you very much enjoyed listening today. How can you help? If you’re listening on iTunes, please leave a rating or a review. It’s very easy to do and it does make an enormous difference. Otherwise, please join the Society for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk; your subscription fee goes towards sharing the latest and best maritime and naval history and to preserving maritime heritage. And you can even get to come to the annual general meeting on board HMS Victory if you’re a member. It’s an exceptional privilege that’s worth the price of membership on its own. Apart from that, please just spread the word about the podcast: tell us on social media how much fun you’re having listening to it, and generally tell everyone you know, including strangers. But that’s it for now. Thanks, guys. Bye.

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