Battle of the River Plate

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The Battle of the River Plate was the first major naval battle in the Second World War. The German pocket battleship (heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee had been commerce raiding since the start of the war in September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for the Graf Spee, comprising three smaller Royal Navy (RN) cruisers, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate off the coast of Argentina and Uruguay in South America. HMS Cumberland was also part of the hunting group, but she was refitting in the Falkland Islands.[1]

In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire, while all other ships sustained moderate damage. Ajax and Achilles then shadowed the Graf Spee, which entered the neutral capital city of Uruguay, Montevideo, to effect repairs. After Hans Langsdorff, the captain of the Graf Spee, was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship — rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British led him to believe had been assembled.[2]

Although the actual engagement between the German and Allied forces could be regarded as a tactical German victory, the subsequent actions resulted in a strategic victory for the Royal Navy.

Contents

Background

The Graf Spee had been at sea at the start of the Second World War in September 1939, and had sunk several merchantmen in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean without loss of life, due to her captain's policy of taking all crews on board before sinking the victim.

The Royal Navy assembled nine forces to search for the surface raider. Force G, the South American Cruiser Squadron, comprised the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter of 8,390 long tons (8,520 t) with six 8-inch (200 mm) guns, and two Leander-class light cruisers, both of 7,270 long tons (7,390 t) with eight 6-inch (150 mm) guns — HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles. The force was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood from the Ajax, which was captained by Charles Woodhouse.[3] The Achilles was of the New Zealand Division (precursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy) and captained by Edward Parry. The Exeter was captained by F. S. Bell. A County-class heavy cruiser, the HMS Cumberland of 10,000 long tons (10,000 t) with eight 8-inch (200 mm) guns, was refitting in the Falkland Islands at the time, but was available at short notice.[1]

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