Battle of the River Plate

Page 5 – The battle

Faced with a much more heavily armed German ship, Commodore Harwood's division faced the prospect of annihilation on the morning of 13 December 1939. With its longer-ranged guns, Admiral Graf Spee had the means of sinking all three British ships before they could strike back. But the Graf Spee's Captain Langsdorff made a major tactical blunder. Instead of standing off to take advantage of his guns' longer range, he closed with the enemy, perhaps mistaking the light cruisers for destroyers.

Despite the dangers, Harwood did not hesitate. Imbued with the Royal Navy's traditional aggressive spirit, he immediately put into effect his tactical plan. ‘My policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship – attack at once by day or night,’ he had advised his cruiser commanders. He intended to divide his force so that the enemy warship (still thought to be Admiral Scheer) would have to split its heavy armament or leave one group unengaged. HMS Exeter now headed towards one flank, its two consorts towards the other. 

Sixteen-year-old Seaman Boy Arthur Hunt recalled going into battle aboard Achilles:

Whistles – clanging bells – shouted orders – and the clatter of hundreds of booted sailors rushing for their stations. This was the moment all our months of dreary training had led to. The whole ship’s company moved with precision, and every man knew that this time it was real, that the day of the mock battle was over ... Read more here

Into action

Graf Spee opened fire at 6.18 a.m. at a range of just under 20,000 metres. Exeter, closing fast, replied two minutes later. At first the Germans responded to Harwood's tactic by splitting their armament, but then concentrated the fire of all six 11-inch guns on Exeter. Within six minutes, several shells had hit Exeter, causing heavy damage and loss of life. Despite having one turret knocked out, Exeter remained in action, and took more hits. At 6.32 it fired torpedoes at the enemy ship, but they missed. In all, 61 members of Exeter's crew were killed or mortally wounded during the action.

While Graf Spee concentrated on Exeter, Ajax and Achilles closed in. Achilles opened fire at 6.21 a.m. and Ajax two minutes later. Their 16 smaller guns scored numerous hits, though the damage was limited by the small weight of the shells. Even so, the fire discomfited the Germans and, at 6.30, they again split their main armament. One 11-inch gun turret fired on the light cruisers. Ajaxwas straddled by shells three times.

Achilles did not escape unscathed. At 6.40 a near miss sent shell splinters tearing through the director control tower, killing four ratings – two of them New Zealanders – and seriously wounding three more. Captain Parry and five others were slightly wounded. 

Gunnery officer Lieutenant R.E. Washbourn describes the blow suffered by Achilles:

I was only conscious of a hellish noise and a thump on the head which half stunned me. I ordered automatically: 'A.C.P. [After Control Position] take over.' Six heavy splinters had entered the D.C.T. [Director Control Tower]. The right-hand side of the upper compartment was a shambles. Both W/T ratings were down with multiple injuries ... A.B. Sherley had dropped off his platform, bleeding copiously from a gash in his face and wounds in both thighs. Sergeant Trimble, RM, the spotting observer, was also severely wounded ... A.B. Shaw slumped forward on to his instrument, dead, with multiple wounds in his chest ... Read full quote here

The enemy breaks off

Graf Spee now retired to the west at full speed. With Exeter out of the fight, the German ship could concentrate on Ajax and Achilles. The latter, carrying out what was later described as ‘beautiful shooting', continued to score hits. But the weight of the German shells presented a major threat. At 7.40 a.m. the light cruisers turned away under smoke. In the 82-minute action Achilles' sweating gun crews had fired more than 200 broadsides at the German ship.

A more aggressive German commander might have persisted with the action, or at least finished off Exeter. But Langsdorff decided to break off and head for a neutral port to effect repairs. He set course for the River Plate estuary. The battle became a pursuit, as the British light cruisers shadowed their enemy. There were occasional flurries as Graf Spee turned on its pursuers, firing salvoes to keep them back; several fell close to the British ships. Eventually, after traversing 300 miles, Graf Spee entered the Uruguayan port of Montevideo. It dropped anchor shortly after midnight.

How to cite this page

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