Honour - River Plate 1939

Date - 13-December
Type - Fleet or Squadron Actions
Conflict - World war 2; 1939-45

Description This the first naval battle of world war 2 took place in the estuary of the river plate, off the east coast of South America.

Three cruisers under Commodore Harwood intercepted the German battleship 'Admiral Graff Spee', which was on a commerce raiding cruise, having left Germany on 23-Aug.

She had sunk nine ships in the outh Atlantic and Indian Ocean having been re-supplied several times by German merchantmen. Her engines needed an overhaul and she was on her way home to Germany. Harwood thought the shipping area off the River Plate was an attractive target and was correct.

When the Graf Spee was sighted the three cruisers attacked at full speed. In accordance with the pre-decided plan, Exeter moved to one side, leaving the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles moving the other way, to split the German's fire. Within 30 minutes, Exeter was badly damaged with all but one of her main guns out of action. Ajax was then severely damaged and had to retire behind a smoke screen. Harwood then stopped the action and retired behind a smoke screen.

However, Graf Spee had been hit several times by 6" shells and suffered minor damage. She set course for the neutral port of Montevideo, being shadowed by Exeter and Achilles. While other ships were ordered to the area, only HMS Cumberland, also of Harwood's squadron was able to reach the River Plate by the time Graf Spee had to leave Montevideo to comply with neutrality laws.

On 17-Dec Graf Spee left harbour and was scuttled in shallow water outside the three mile limit. With the wreck later bought by the Admiralty for 14,000.


HM Ships
Achilles  Ajax  Exeter     
FAA Squadrons
700 Sqn        
This page last edited - 20 March, 2013.

Copyright Ian M King, except where otherwise indicated.