Battle of the River Plate

Page 6 – After the battle

By the morning of 14 December 1939 the damaged Admiral Graf Spee was anchored in neutral Montevideo. Under international law, a belligerent warship entering a neutral port had only a limited time to carry out repairs before being forced to put to sea. With reinforcements steaming at full speed for the River Plate, the British were anxious to delay Graf Spee's departure as long as possible.

They used another rule that prevented an enemy warship from leaving a neutral port for 24 hours after one of the other side's merchant ships did so. Several Allied merchant ships duly put to sea, but it was unclear whether Captain Langsdorff would abide by the rule. British naval authorities were relieved when HMS Cumberland arrived to join the vulnerable Ajax and Achilles late on 14 December 1939. Langsdorff was convinced that even stronger forces had arrived off the estuary.

There was trepidation aboard the waiting British cruisers. Their adversary was still lethal, and the outcome of a new engagement was by no means assured. But Langsdorff was pessimistic about his chances of breaking through the enemy ring he now believed lay between him and the sea. Motivated by a desire to avoid useless loss of life among his crew, he decided to scuttle his ship rather than to go down fighting. Berlin agreed to his plan.

Graf Spee weighed anchor at 6.17 p.m. on 17 December. Watched by thousands of spectators on shore, it headed slowly towards the sea. The ship stopped, its crew was taken off and scuttling charges were blown. The Graf Spee settled on the shallow seabed, a smoking ruin. Its crew was landed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they were interned. Langsdorff committed suicide soon afterwards.

The battle's significance

The immediate outcome of the battle gave the Admiralty much satisfaction. A major threat to Atlantic shipping had been removed, a powerful German warship was destroyed, and many Royal Navy ships could now be released to other duties. But the psychological and moral impact was even more important than its material outcome. The British victory gave a huge boost to Commonwealth morale. It was the first bloody nose inflicted on the Germans.

Achilles' role was a special source of pride to New Zealanders. Their men had come through the test of combat with colours flying. There was huge excitement when Achilles returned to New Zealand in February 1940, the Admiralty having decided that it should be repaired at Auckland rather than Malta, as originally planned. A parade and civic reception was held in Auckland, and the crew later also paraded in Wellington.

Achilles' contribution to the victory was also a boost for the New Zealand naval forces. It seemed to justify the effort and resources put into them over the previous 25 years. The action foreshadowed the full part New Zealand would play in the naval war over the next six years. Not just New Zealand warships were involved. This country also provided many thousands of men to serve on secondment in the Royal Navy. They were deployed throughout the fleet, and found in every theatre of war in which the navy operated. At the peak of its strength, in July 1945, the Royal New Zealand Navy (as it had become in October 1941) had 10,649 men and women in its ranks.

How to cite this page

'After the battle', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/battle-of-river-plate/after-the-battle, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 2-Sep-2014