At dawn on 13 December 1939, smoke was seen on the horizon; HMS Exeter was told to close in and investigate. Two minutes later a dramatic signal was sent from the British cruiser I think it is a pocket battleship. It was. The Deutschland-class heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee, marauder of the South Atlantic shipping, had sailed into a trap. Three smaller British cruisers closed in on a German warship which, so Hitler had boasted, could out-sail any ship powerful enough to damage her, and out-gun any ship able to keep up with her an invincible ship. So began the Battle of the River Plate, story which has its duplicates in British naval history, but which nevertheless brought pride and inspiration into the hearts of a nation unwillingly at war once again. A terrible battle was fought that day off the coast of South America, a naval encounter in the finest Nelson tradition and true to that tradition, victory went to the men with the finest armament of all, courage. This edition will be presented with an Appendix containing the official despatch detailing the Battle of the River Plate.
BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE The First Naval Battle of the Second World War
The German Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee had cruised into the South Atlantic a fortnight before the war began, and had been commerce raiding. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Uruguay in South America.
In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Admiral Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical. Ajax and Achilles shadowed the German ship until she entered the port of Montevideo to effect urgent repairs. After Graf Spee’s captain Hans Langsdorff was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure.