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Battle of the River Plate and the Sinking of the Graf Spee

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


First para

The seeds of the second world war can be traced to the treaty of Versailles 1919. Part V of the Treaty of Versailles dealt with all aspects of the German military, with Section II specifically dealing with Germany's navy and the restrictions put in place following the First World War. One of the restrictions imposed by the alliance was on the number of ships of the German navy could have. The Allied powers had fixed the number at 36. There were also strict limitations regarding the type, size, and tonnage for each ship. Besides the Allies asked Germany to surrender over one hundred military ships. An important point was that all the ships were to be handed over to the allies with all weapons on board, while a further 32 warships were converted for commercial use.

One of the major limitations of the Treaty of Versailles was the tonnage of the warships. A limit of 10,000 tonnes was fixed. This effectively debarred Germany from having large battleships. Germany thought to circumvent this provision and it launched three ships in what has come to be known as "pocket battleships". One of the ships launched was the Admiral Graf Spee. The ship was named after the legendary German Admiral Maxmillion Von Graf Spee who had commanded the East Asia squadron but had been killed in the battle of Falkand during World War I.In that battle both his sons were also killed.

The Graf Spee was close to 16,000 tonnes which was much above the limit of 10,000 tonnes as prescribed by the Treaty of Versailles. But with Hitler in power, the Allies were not in a position to enforce the provisions of the treaty. It is worth noting that the ship took part in the 1937 review in honor of King George. The Graf Spee had a complement of 30 officers and 900 men and had 14 guns including 6-28 inch guns. At the start of the war, the ship was commanded by Captain Langsdorff.

The German admirability had instructed the warship to move to the South Atlantic. The move was precipitated as the German Admiralty expected war with the French and English. The idea was to use the warship as a raider in the South Atlantic.

In hindsight as a military historian, I am unable to understand the German logic in sending single warships into the Atlantic because sooner than later these warships would fall prey to the superior Allied Navy. The scene in effect was a one-way mission to doom.


Battles in the Atlantic

People all over the world are aware of the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. There is also a Hollywood film titled "Sink the Bismarck". But very few people know of the exploits of the Graf Spee and the Battle of the River Plate. This battle was fought off the coast of South America and ended with the scuttling of the German pocket battleship

The Graf Spee when fully armed and loaded displaced 16,000 tonnes. In early 1939 the German admirability ordered the warship into the South Atlantic. Captain Hans Langsdorff sailed his warship from the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and there are reports that he even reached the coast of Kerala in India.

With the declaration of war, the German High Command ordered the warship to start intercepting Allied shipping in the South Atlantic. I am still amazed at the action of the German Admiralty in sending a lone raider into the South Atlantic. It made no strategic sense as the main shipping lines which needed to be intercepted were from the United States to Europe and the main battleground was in Europe. Hitler was planning Öperation Sea Lion" the invasion of England .it is inconceivable to think that he approved the foray of Graf Spee to the South Atlantic.

Despite the odds being heavily stacked against the warship, the Graf Spee went into action and in a period of two months, the cruiser inflicted heavy damage on Allied sank 9 merchants vessels before it was accosted by 3 British warships off the coast of South America. The conduct of captain of the Graf Spee was above board and whenever he attacked the merchant ships he followed the rules of the 1907 convention. The ships were duly warned and searched and the crew either taken as prisoners of war or allowed to escape in lifeboats before the ship was sunk.

The first ship attacked by the raider was the cargo ship Clement off the coast of Brazil. The cargo ship transmitted an "RRR" signal ("I am under attack by a raider") before the cruiser ordered her to stop. Admiral Graf Spee took Clement's captain and Chief engineer prisoner. The rest of her crew were told to abandon ship and escape in the lifeboats.

Once the evacuation was complete the captain ordered to fire 30 rounds from his guns and two torpedoes were also launched which broke up the ship which duly sank. He followed up by sinking 8 more ships. Captain Langsdorff maintained the rule of engagement with all ships sunk.

The Royal Navy was now searching for this lone raider. The Graf Spee was sighted on Dec. 13, 1939, off the Rio de la Plata. This is an estuary. The British search group consisting of the cruisers Exeter, Ajax, and Achilles, commanded by Commodore H. Harwood sighted the ship. On 13 December 1939, the battle of River Plate commenced. it was one German ship against 3 British ships. The accuracy of the German gunners carried the day and the British ships suffered heavy damage. But the Graf Spee was also damaged and 30 soldiers were killed and 60 wounded.

Captain Langsdorff thought it best for him to enter the neutral port of Montevideo for repairs. The injured crew also needed medical treatment and the ship entered the port of Montevideo for repairs. As per the rules concerning an enemy ship in a neutral port. the Graf Spee could remain in Montevideo for 72 hours. During this time the injured sailors and naval POWs were freed. At the end of 72 hours, Captain Hans Langsdorff was in a quandary. He wondered what to do as his ship was damaged.


Last Word

Captain Langsdorff was in touch by wireless with the Admiralty in Germany and many options were discussed. The ship would need at least six weeks of repair before it could be made seaworthy for the long voyage back to Germany. A decision was taken to scuttle the ship.

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The ship was wired with explosives and with 40 sailors came out of the Montevideo harbor. The 40 sailors were taken off the ship by an Argentine ship and the ship blew up. It settled in the shallow water. The scuttling of the ship was watched by nearly 2000 people.

Captain Langsdorff went to his hotel room and shot himself dead. the ship was salvaged in 2004 and parts of its guns and other trinkets are displayed in Montevideo

We can now understand that Hitler had never any plan to invade England and 'Operation Sea Lion' was just a red herring. Also, the German policy of sending raiders into the Atlantic had hardly any effect, and even the Bismarck was sent to the bottom.

Perhaps the German high command would have been better off to have concentrated the ships in the North Sea and the English Channel to give battle to the Royal Navy and try and break the blockade of Germany. Despite the result, the British were impressed with the accuracy of the gun crew. But all this was in vain.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 06, 2020:

Yes, Robert,

Robert Sacchi on October 05, 2020:

Just curious. The "Vikramaditya" seems a good ship to write a Hub about.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 05, 2020:

The largest warship in the Indian Navy is the 44000-tonne aircraft Vikramaditya. Generally in naval strategy cruisers and battleships are out. us is also slowly doing away with them.

Robert Sacchi on October 04, 2020:

Sorry, I meant the largest ships in the Indian Navy? The US Navy has 22 Ticonderoga Class cruisers in service.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 04, 2020:

Robert, no, the largest navy ships are aircraft carriers and battleships followed by cruisers. A destroyer is next in line and in modern naval doctrine, it remains the biggest of the operational ships because battleships and cruisers are obsolete.

Robert Sacchi on October 04, 2020:

Are destroyers the largest navy ships?

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 04, 2020:

They were the last cruisers of the Indian Navy. The cruiser and the battleship have become redundant now.

tom on October 02, 2020:

two cruisers ins delhi and mysore both scrapped

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 02, 2020:

INS Delhi was a cruiser. now the navy operates only frigates and destroyers.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 02, 2020:

INS Delhi was a 7030-ton cruiser and was the flagship till INS Mysore an 8000-ton cruiser joined. Indian Navy has not had any cruisers after these two.

tom on September 30, 2020:

three ships named graf spee ,all three not in service ,second ship named graf spee sunk in river plate

tom on September 30, 2020:

ins delhi first flagship '1997 new ins delhi destroyer class

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Yes, that is correct. In 1948 he became Chief of Naval Staff (Commander-in-Chief) of the Royal Indian Navy before retiring in 1951. He died in 1973, aged 79.

tom on September 29, 2020:

that is correct , her captain during river plate parry became cinc indian navy

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 29, 2020:

Tom, HMS Achilles was bought by the Indian Navy and christened as INS Delhi.

Robert Sacchi on September 29, 2020:

That's interesting.

tom on September 29, 2020:

captain of achilles parry became cns india

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 24, 2020:

Thanks Robert, that's a fact.

Robert Sacchi on September 23, 2020:

They also had other issues. They had no chance of matching the RN or American and Russian production.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 23, 2020:

Yes, that was because everything was so centralized with Hitler having all the say.

Robert Sacchi on September 23, 2020:

They had a lot of projects that came to nothing.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 23, 2020:

Robert, this about shows the Germans were not serious in this matter

Robert Sacchi on September 22, 2020:

They laid it down in December of '36 and laid it down in December '38. By comparison they laid down Bismarck in July '36 and launched it in February '39.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 22, 2020:

Thanks Robert, I guess it was a late attempt.

Robert Sacchi on September 22, 2020:

They were attempting to build an aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin. It was an on and off project until the Germans abandoned the project in the spring '43.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 22, 2020:

Thanks Robert, the point is that Hitler had little concept of air and naval warfare. When Germany was arming he could have concentrated on capital ships also. The second his failure to comprehend the use of air power other than tactical support for the army. He bound himself in a corner. I am sure if Germany could build the Bismarck they could also have built an aircraft carrier.

Robert Sacchi on September 22, 2020:

As I understand it the German Admiralty figured they wouldn't have a credible navy until 1943. One could argue trying to match the Royal Navy was a futile effort. An interesting question would be if they concentrated on merchant raiders and U-boats would they have gotten better results. A big problem the Germans had was relatively limited resources. A capital ship requires a lot of resources to build and maintain.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 22, 2020:

In World War II Hitler neglected the navy. At least in WWI, the Kaiser was able to challenge the Royal Navy in a surface battle at Jutland. In WWII I think the admiralty made a mistake in sending warships far away to South Atlantic or Indian oceans. They were on a doomed mission. This should have occurred to the German think tank. Even the Bismarck a formidable ship that sank the Hood in one salve was wasted away. I wonder if the planning of the German Admiralty was realistic.

Robert Sacchi on September 21, 2020:

I enjoyed reading this article. The strategy of sending out their large surface ships in 1s and 2s is the German Admiralty knew they had no chance in a head to head fight against the Royal Navy. They sent out the Graf Spee by itself to keep the Royal Navy forces busy looking for it Also they figured some merchant ship's captains would delay their departure if they believed the Graf Spee was in the area. The reason for the Graf Spee going into the Indian Ocean was to throw the Royal Navy off. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had a successful merchant raiding voyage. I believe they sank 22 ships. There was the 1956 movie Pursuit of the Graf Spee.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 16, 2020:

Yes Tom the British cruiser was rechristened as INS Delhi. As a small boy I was taken on this warship by my father just as it was to be decommissioned.

tom jose on September 16, 2020:

ins delhi de commisoned in 1978

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 18, 2020:

Thank you Tom for this interesting bit of information. You are right HMS Achilles was later bought by the Indian Navy and rechristened as INS Delhi. It was the first cruiser operated by the Indian Navy and at that time in the 50s it was the flagship of the fleet.

tom jose on July 18, 2020:

movie battle of river plate ins deli as hmnz achilles

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 17, 2020:

Anupam, I am glad you read it and commented.

Anupam Mitu from MUMBAI on July 17, 2020:

Tried reading this article as I love the narrative style of yours. I'll have to read it again. The things about war don't reach easily in my mind.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 15, 2020:

Thank you Pamela for your comment

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 15, 2020:

This is an interesting segment of history when WWII was brewing. I think this is an excellent article.

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