Battle of River Plate(December 13, 1939)

Battle of River Plate Graf Spee on fire
The Battle of the River Plate was the first major naval battle in World War II and the only military engagement between the Allies and the Axis in South America. The battle was fought between the German pocket battleship named Admiral Graf Spee and Force G consisting of the York class heavy cruiser HMS Exeter (68), Leander class light cruiser Ajax (22) and another Leader class light cruiser Achilles (70). The confrontation of the Allied and Axis battleships took place on December 13, 1939, off the River Plate estuary between Uruguay and Argentina.

Force G that engaged the German pocket battleship was one of the group that was sent out by the British Admiralty to find and destroy the German pocket battleship which has been raging the sea from the beginning of World War II in September 1939 and sunk several Allied merchant ships in South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Although as many as 8 groups have been formed by the British and French navies to track down the German raider on October 5, 1939, the ship that was commanded by Hans Langsdorff successfully avoided the Allied warships until the sinking of the merchant ship Doric Star off South Africa. Commander of Force G, Henry Harwood suspected that the German commander is highly likely to strike next off the River Plate estuary in the South Atlantic as it was the most busy part of the shipping route in South America, allowing him to inflict severe damage to the Allied shipping.

The British goal was to put the Admiral Graf Spee out of service. Unlike the Germans who could not afford losing one of the very few capital ships, the British would not suffer any major setback even if they would lost all three cruisers. To achieve success, they only had to damage the German pocket battleship to the extent to prevent it from continuing to raid the sea, while the Germans would have to destroy their enemy without suffering severe damage themselves. The British therefore had a greater chance to achieve their goal than the Germans from the very start. They would achieve a major success even in case of defeat if it would bring them a strategic victory.

Force G that was sailing to the position 32 degrees south and 47 degrees west, directly to the River Plate estuary spotted their target on December 13, 1939. Harwood was right and Admiral Graf Spee indeed headed to the busy sea route between Uruguay and Argentina. The German commander spotted the British cruisers as well but he thought that the two light cruisers were destroyers accompanying a merchant convoy. In this case, he could achieve another major success by sinking the convoy. Although he had information about the British cruisers patrolling the South American coast and identified Exeter, Langsdorff decided to attack rather than to flee the British cruisers. When he realized that he was facing three cruisers, it was already too late.

The Battle of the River Plate soon doomed the fate of the German pocket battleship. Although Langsdorff severely damaged Exeter and forced it to retreat from the battle, the British heavy cruiser destroyed Graf Spee's raw fuel processing system which in turn left the Germans without sufficient fuel to be able to return home. Since they could not repair the fuel systems under fire, the German commander decided to sail to the port of Montevideo in neutral Uruguay as there were no friendly bases nearby. The British cruisers shadowed the Admiral Graf Spee but it managed to reach the port of Montevideo shortly after midnight on December 14. This, however, turned out to be a mistake.

Uruguay was not only neutral in the war between the Axis and the Allies but it also favored the Allies. The country was pro-British oriented which gave Britain a lot of maneuvering space. At the same time, the Germans had to be careful with Uruguay's authorities to avoid provoking the country's entry into the war on the side of the Allies which meant that they had to adhere to the articles of the Hague Convention. According to the Hague convention, battleships are not allowed to remain in ports or territorial waters of a neutral country for more than 24 hours except in case of damage. But the Convention also prohibits warships from leaving a neutral port for 24 hours after the departure of a merchant ship that is sailing under the flag of the enemy. The Uruguayan government, influenced by the British demanded immediate departure, however, the German pocket battleship and its crew remained in port for several days as the British and French merchant ships were leaving Montevideo at intervals of 24 hours preventing the Germans to departure. This was probably arranged in order to buy time and allow the British to bring reinforcement to the area.

In addition to putting pressure on the Uruguayan government, the British also send false intelligence to the Germans about an overwhelming British force waiting in the area. In reality, only heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland arrived. It was more powerful than Exeter but it was no match for the Admiral Graf Spee. To make the false intelligence more credible, Ajax, Achilles (both of which were damaged in the Battle of the River Plate) and Cumberland were waiting just outside the allowed distance from the territorial waters of Uruguay and made smoke which could have been seen from the port. The British deception worked and Langsdorff was convinced that he is facing an overwhelming British force when departing from the port of Montevideo. On December 17, the German commander decided to scuttle the Admiral Graf Spee in order to avoid casualties in a seemingly hopeless engagement with the Royal Navy.

After Langsdorff scuttled his ship which allegedly infuriated Hitler, he and his crew were taken to Buenos Aires in Argentina. The German commander committed suicide on December 19 and was buried with full military honors. The British victory in the Battle of River Plato was a major military success which increased the popularity and reputation of Winston Churchill who was at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty but it was also a major success of the British intelligence and diplomacy which played an important role in the outcome of the battle. In addition to losing the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and its commander, the Germans also suffered 36 dead and 60 wounded. The British, on the other hand, suffered 72 dead and 28 wounded. All three cruisers were damaged in the battle but none was damaged beyond repair.