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BBC news report on Battle of River Plate

Audio file

BBC report on the Battle of the River Plate on 14 December 1939, the day after the engagement (and before Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled). At this stage there was still some uncertainty over the identity of the German warship involved, and many of the other details reported were inaccurate. The British strongly refuted (false) claims that gas shells had been fired at the German ship.


One of Germany's famous pocket battleships, designed as the most powerful 10,000 ton vessels afloat, is now lying in Montevideo harbour with three gaping holes in her hull after the engagement with three smaller British ships. The vessel is either the Admiral Scheer or the Graf Spee - these are sister ships.

The first official news of the engagement was contained in a British Admiralty communiqué early this morning. This stated that, according to the latest information then available, a British force consisting of the 8-inch gun cruiser Exeter and the small 6-inch gun cruisers Ajax and Achilles had made contact with an enemy ‘pocket battleship' carrying 11-inch guns. A heavy running-fight took place between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., at which time the Exeter received damage which reduced her speed and forced her to drop out of action. The Ajax and Achilles, with their six-inch guns, took up the chase and the pocket battleship was hit repeatedly.

Here the Admiralty communiqué ends, and the story is taken up by cables from Montevideo.

It appears that the German ship attacked the Ajax when the small British cruiser was convoying a French liner. The Exeter and Achilles responded to a call for help and they came up at full speed. They opened fire on the German vessel and the Exeter [took?] fire repeatedly.

The battle apparently lasted all day. Earlier, because the Exeter was forced to pull out, the two other cruisers used every endeavour to place the German vessel in as difficult a position as possible. A cable to the New York Times says that they forced her to change her course disadvantageously to the south-east. They then renewed their firing, although so heavily outgunned, and the battle continued until well after dark.

Under cover of darkness, says the New York Times, the German battleship again changed course and finally reached Montevideo. Here she claimed sanctuary as the German minister went aboard to find her with 36 men dead and 60 wounded. The commander is among the injured.

The British losses are not yet known. Montevideo cables say that the Exeter has a slight list and the Ajax and Achilles, which are now waiting outside the harbour, show signs of the battle.

High praise of the British warships is given by naval circles in Montevideo. Eye-witnesses declare that, although so much less powerful, the British cruisers showed definite superiority in tactics.

Uruguayan officials who have boarded the German ship say that a German officer has described how they hit the Exeter but failed to stop her attack.

A British Admiralty announcement this morning says that press reports quote the German legation in Montevideo as stating that casualties aboard the German ship were mostly caused because the British used mustard gas grenades. This allegation is entirely without foundation. No mustard gas grenades or shells have ever been made for, or used by, the Royal Navy.


Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision - Radio New Zealand collection
Reference: 'Battle of River Plate - BBC Anniversary Programme', D5585a sa-d-05585-so1-pm
Any re-use of this audio is a breach of copyright. To request a copy of the recording, contact Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

How to cite this page

BBC news report on Battle of River Plate, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated