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Battle of the River Plate Timeline

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 5/5/2014

The containment and capture of the German pocket battleship KMS Admiral Graf Spee proved a critical early war victory for the struggling Allies.

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Map of the Graf Spee voyage in Battle of the River Plate

The Who
Captain Hans Langsdorff, Commanding Officer of the KMS Admiral Graf Spee
Commodore Henry Harwood, British Royal Navy


The When and Where
The pocket battleship KMS Admiral Graf Spee set sail with official orders on August 21st, 1939 to the North Atlantic. Before Christmas of that year, the battleship would be scuttled in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay in the South Atlantic with Captain Langsdorff committing suicide rather than surrendering to the enemy.


The What
For the Germans, control of the Atlantic shipping lanes was always part of neutralizing (and ultimately containing) the British Empire from involving itself heavily in the German conquest of Europe. Prior to the war, the German Navy commissioned three "pocket" battleships to be designed around speed, range, firepower and protection. Their primary mission would be to assail all manner of British commerce crossing the ocean from the Americas and Africa, ultimately subduing her potential enemy across the English Channel. The KMS Graf Spee served the German Navy under the "cruiser" classification and proved a formidable foe to lesser vessels.


The KMS Deutschland and KMS Graf Spee was called to the Atlantic at the end of August 1939, just prior to the German invasion of Poland on September 1st to officially begin World War 2. The Deutschland would be charged with containment of the North Atlantic with the Graf Spee controlling the South Atlantic.


The "Battle of River Plate", as the Graf Spee engagement came to be known, became the first naval battle of World War 2 and the only battle of the war to take place in South America.


The Numbers
The KMS Admiral Graf Spee was one of three pocket battleships laid down, joining the KMS Deutschland (later renamed to KMS Lutzow) and the KMS Admiral Scheer. Graf Spee saw her keel forged in 1932, was launched in 1934 and commissioned in 1936. She was crewed by over 1,000 men and armed primarily through her impressive six 11" main gun battery and eight 6" support guns with eight 21" torpedo tubes. Armor totaled 5.5" along the turrets and 3" at the belt. For the Battle of River Plate, she sailed alone without escort. However, she was also only one of two German fleet warships to be outfitted with radar and this assisted her gun ranging.


After a month of sailing, the Graf Spee had already done considerable enough damage that no fewer than eight joint French-British parties were formed to hunt her down. This continued into early december when a pair of British vessels managed to relay the Graf Spee's position prior to being sunk. This stroke of fortune allowed the Royal Navy vital information as to the Graf Spee's sailing course which set it heading towards Brazilian waters. The Royal Navy further estimated the vessel was directing towards the River Plate region - just south of Rio de Janeiro - and readied three nearby cruisers for the vital engagement, the HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.


What Happened?
Expecting their enemy, the Royal Navy prepared. However, Langsdorff surprised the British positions by arriving from from the Northwest on December 13th, the Graf Spee already having settled itself into an advantageous position to engage an outgoing convoy suspected in the area. The Graf Spee had already sighted the HMS Ajax as dawn arose from the East and moved in to strike - assuming she formed part of the convoy in question.


The Graf Spee held the advantage of armor and firepower against the three British vessels who could counter with speed and agility. The HMS Exeter plotted a course to meet the Graf Spee from a southerly position while HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles rounded the battlefield to approach from the East. This "split approach" would force the Graf Spee to commit her guns either to a single vessel or target all three at once through diluted fire.


Once in range, the Graf Spee engaged the greatest perceived threat first - the HMS Exeter. The Exeter took a lethal hit to her bridge and lost her two frontal turrets. Listing to starboard, Exeter could only mount an attack with her stern turret and torpedoes and managed two direct hits against the Graf Spee in turn.


HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles entered the fray and managed to strike the German vessel over a dozen times which forced the German ship to take evasive action. The HMS Exeter steered clear of the battle and sped to the Falkland Islands for repair. Herself damaged, Graf Spee broke engagement and set sail for neutral Uruguay and the port city of Montevideo with the two remaining British cruisers in pursuit. Graf Spee arrived on December 14th.


The neutrality of Uruguay in the war allowed the Graf Spee entry into port under the consideration that she leave within 24 hours lest she be confiscated. The Germans were granted an extended stay to enact repairs and treat to their wounded. During this lull, the Royal Navy reinforced its firepower and worked its deception channels to allow Langsdorff to think a greater force awaited him outside of the safety of the port.


On December 17th, the Graf Spee was readied and sailed out to meet her expected fate. Langsdorff altered the British plans when the German ship was abandoned and scuttled to prevent her becoming a war prize or worse. With the loss of the ship and the humiliation of defeat, Captain Langsdorff committed suicide on December 20th, ending the reign of the KMS Admiral Graf Spee. The loss of the KMS Graf Spee was gained the Allies a much needed early victory in the war.


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There are a total of 17 Battle of the River Plate Timeline Events. Entries are listed below by date of occurrence.

1939
Monday
August 21st

The German battleship Graf Spee leaves Wilhelmshaven for the North Atlantic. She is commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff. Her supply ship is the Altmark, which also leaves Wilhelmshaven.

1939
Wednesday
September 27th

The German battleships Deutschland and Graf Spee are let loose on Allied shipping convoys in the North Atlantic.

1939
Saturday
September 30th

The Graf Spee claims her first merchant vessel, the British freighter Clement, in the waters of the South Atlantic.

1939
Sunday
October 1st

The Graf Spee goes on to sink four more Allied merchant vessels during the month of October.

1939
Wednesday
November 15th

The Graf Spee sinks the oil tanker Africa Shell off the coast of Madagascar.

1939
Monday
November 20th

The Graf Spee begins her return to a pre-designated waiting area in the South Atlantic. British cruisers Ajax, Achilles, Exeter and Cumberland begin pursuit.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

The Graf Spee adds three more vessels - the Doric Star, Tairoa, Streonshalh - to its list of sunken Allied targets. She begins her voyage towards River Plate near Uruguay for a final combat patrol.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

The Graf Spee is spotted in the early morning hours by Commodore H. H. Harwood's British cruiser squadron.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

At 6:14 AM, the Graf Spee opens fire on the British heavy cruisers Ajaz and Exeter.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

At 6:40 AM, the British cruiser Achilles is damaged by shell splinters from the Graf Spee's guns.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

At 6:50 AM, the British cruiser Exeter is heavily damaged by the Graf Spee, leaving only one turret functional and in flames.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

At 7:25 AM, the British cruiser Ajax loses two of her turrets to the Graf Spee.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

By 7:40 AM, the British cruisers Ajax and Achilles break battle and trail out of range of the Graf Spee's guns, though still in pursuit.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

At 8:00 AM, Captain Langsdorff orders his lightly damaged Graf Spee towards the port at Montevideo in Uruguay with British ships in close pursuit.

1939
Wednesday
December 13th

At approximately 12:00 PM, Graf Spee enters the harbor at Montevideo, Uruguay, with the intention on having her damaged repaired. With political pressure from Britain, the Uruguayan government offers the Graff Spee only 72 hours rest.

1939
Sunday
December 17th

Graf Spee Captain Hans Langsdorff mistakenly believes there to be a large Royal Navy contingent waiting for his exit out of Montevideo harbor. As such, he orders the Graff Spee scuttled. The German vessel is effectively eliminated from the war.

1939
Wednesday
December 20th

Choosing honor over justice, Captain Hans Langsdorff commits suicide, officially ending the reign of the Graf Spee.