Seventy-five years on, the Battle of the River Plate still captures the imagination

The Battle of the River Plate - Pursuit of the Graf SpeeThe story of the Battle of the River Plate has entered into folklore, not only for the bravery of those who took part, but for the honourable way in which they behaved, despite facing what seemed like impossible odds. This remarkable story was immortalised in the 1956 film The Battle of the River Plate, which starred Anthony Quayle, Peter Finch and John Gregson.

The story that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger brought to the silver screen was remarkably accurate as war films go. It tells the story of the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Graf Spee, commanded by the maverick Hans Langsdorff and how the Royal Navy, out-gunned and out-paced, took her on and forced an improbable victory.

On 13 December 1939 HMS Exeter, accompanied by the Leander class cruisers HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax sighted and decided to engage the Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic, setting in motion one of the most remarkable sea battles of the twentieth century. The German ship could have left the scene at speed, but her commander, Captain Langsdorff, made his fateful decision to stay and fight.

Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, Admiral Graf Spee

The British force was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood, RN. At 06.20 Langsdorff opened fire and over the next thirty minutes the Exeter was hit three times. Her bridge was destroyed along with her forward gun turrets. The Ajax and Achilles manoeuvred nearer to the Admiral Graf Spee, which drew her fire away from the Exeter. By 07.25 the Ajax’s after turrets had been put out of action and both sides withdrew. The Admiral Graf Spee had been hit more than 70 times by the British, with 36 German servicemen killed and 60 wounded. Langsdorff, who himself had received two wounds during the engagement, withdrew to Montevideo, where he thought that he would be able to make repairs.

Admiral Graf Spee, Sinking, 18 December 1939

Once they had reached port the wounded were taken to hospital and the Allied prisoners on board were released. British naval intelligence then launched a propaganda campaign that convinced Langsdorff that a small armada was gathering to attack his ship the moment it left port. In fact, the nearest heavy ships were the aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal and battlecruiser, HMS Renown over 2,500 nautical miles away. International law regarding neutrality only allowed Langsdorff 72 hours in port before his ship would be interned, which was nowhere near the two weeks that he felt he needed to complete his repairs. Believing his fate to be hopeless, and after discussions with Berlin, Langsdorff decided to scuttle his ship.

On 17 December, Langsdorff had all vital equipment on the ship destroyed and all ammunition distributed about the vessel in preparation for the scuttling. The following day, 18 December, Langsdorff set sail with only 40 men on board, and with a crowd of 20,000 watching from the port side, the charges were set at 20.55 and the ship was sunk. Two days later Langsdorff put on his full dress uniform, laid down on the Admiral Graf Spee’s battle ensign and shot himself.