80th Anniversary of River Plate
12 December 2019
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the first naval battle of the Second World War. The Battle of River Plate was fought between Royal Navy cruisers HMS Ajax, Exeter and Achilles and the German armoured cruiser KMS Admiral Graf Spee, close to the coast of Uruguay.
Graf Spee had been attacking merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of South Africa but the search for her had stepped up considerably when it was learned she was heading towards South America and, possibly, the River Plate estuary - the most congested part of the South Atlantic shipping routes where she could inflict the greatest losses.
Achilles (later to be commissioned HMNZS Achilles) had a total complement of 567 crew, of which, five officers and 316 ratings were New Zealanders.
At 0530 on December 13, smoke was sighted on the horizon and the Graf Spee was positively identified. A fierce battle ensued.
Although not seriously damaged, Graf Spee's inferior speed meant that she could not escape and later in the day it went into the neutral port of Montevideo. Four days after the battle, Captain Hans Langsdorff sailed Graf Spee out of the harbour where she was scuttled by her crew, who were then interned in Argentina. Langsdorff’s reasoning is not known, but one of his crew quotes him as saying "To me a thousand young men alive are worth more than a thousand dead heroes". Following the scuttling Captain Langsdorff laid down on the Graf Spee's battle ensign in his hotel room in Buenos Aries and shot himself.
During the battle, 61 sailors lost their lives on Exeter, seven on Ajax and four on Achilles. The deaths on Achilles were caused by shrapnel when an 11-inch shell fired from Graf Spee fell short and exploded on hitting the water. The four dead were buried at sea at 1000 the following day. In a tragic postscript, two of the bodies were washed ashore and subsequently re-interred at the Buceo British Cemetery in Montevideo.
Photo: HMS Achilles