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Tuesday, 18 June, 2024
13December 1939

German warship Graf Spee battles Royal Navy in Battle of River Plate

The Kriegsmarine heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee fought an intensive battle with three Royal Navy warships in the South Atlantic on this day. The Graf Spee had been hunted for weeks by nine Royal Navy squadrons.

Early in the morning of this day, Royal Navy Squadron G sighted smoke on the horizon, possibly emanating from ship funnels. Squadron G was made up of light cruisers HMS AjaxHMS Achilles and the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter. The Graf Spee, just beyond the horizon, had already spotted the masts of the squadron’s three ships. With the German warship’s reconnaissance plane out of service, the captain was relying on his lookouts. They mistakenly believed the masts of the squadron belonged to smaller warships escorting merchant ships, and therefore turned and headed towards the British ships. With all four ships heading towards each other, they all opened fire.

The Graf Spee targeted HMS Exeter first, firing a shell which exploded beside the ship, killing the torpedo tube crews, damaging the communication systems, damaging the reconnaissance plane and spraying the funnels and entire ship with shrapnel. A few minutes later, another shell hit the Exeter, knocking out one of its gun turrets, and spraying the ship with more shrapnel. The Exeter’s bridge was struck with shrapnel, killing the entire bridge crew except for the captain and two other officers. Onboard communications were now down, meaning the Exeter crew had to relay messages verbally.

HMS Ajax and Achilles moved in closer to the Graf Spee, attempting to divert fire away from the Exeter. Exeter then fired torpedos, which missed. Exeter then turned to fire torpedos from her other tubes, but was hit twice more by the Graf Spee. Exeter lost another turret, and shells landed inside the ship, causing fires. Exeter now only had one turret working, was severely damaged, and was listing by 7 degrees. Exeter fired a shell at the Graf Spee, which hit the German warship and destroyed its fuel processing system, reducing it’s fuel supply to less than would be needed to get back to Germany.

By now the Graf Spee was also severely damaged. The captain decided to retreat, and headed away, producing a smoke cloud to mask its movements. Exeter, still listing, followed and fired with its only remaining turret. More fire from the Graf Spee caused the captain of Exeter to withdraw from the fight. Graf Spee could have destroyed the Exeter, but the Ajax and Achilles closed in and drew the German ship’s fire.

The Graf Spee continued to escape, and the two remaining British ships, running low on resources and both damaged, decided to shadow the German ship rather than fight it. For the rest of the day, HMS Ajax and Achilles shadowed the Graf Spee, occasionally coming under fire from the German ship when they got too close. The Graf Spee eventually limped into the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo, where she dropped anchor.

The Admiral Graf Spee, one of the jewels of the German navy, had been at sea since the start of the war. The warship had sunk several Allied ships since September 1939, mainly in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean. The Royal Navy, desperate to stop the sinking of merchant ships, dispatched nine squadrons to hunt and destroy the German heavy cruiser.

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