Battle of the River Plate 13/12/1939


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Battle of the River Plate from the point of view of HMS Warrior (BC) and cruisers -v- KM Graf Spee (BR)

HMS Warrior returned to service in July of 1939 with Captain Harwood in command. After two months of working up in and around the British Isles, war broke out. With the Graf Spee (GS) loose in the South Atlantic, Captain Harwood was promoted Commodore and sent with the Warrior to the South Atlantic to command the South American Division. Ships under command would be HMS's Warrior (Flagship) (8x13.5), Exeter, Cumberland (both 8x7.5" or 9x8" depending on which County class is in fashion), Manchester, Liverpool (9x6") and 3 H class (6x4") destroyers (all ships from my Fisherless RN). Commodore Harwoods brief was to protect merchant shipping and find and sink the Graf Spee. Harwood used the 6" cruisers and destroyers on the shipping lanes on close support to the major port areas (Rio de Janeiro, River Plate, Sierra Leone, Capetown) escorting multiple ships up to a days journey from the port then dispersing them to return to do it all again and again. This it was felt would force the Graf Spee more than a days sailing from the supported ports and into the wider open areas of the South Atlantic where victims would be harder to come by. The three big cruisers would act together trying to plot where the Graf Spee was heading and get ahead of the GS and using their aircraft to search for the GS. October and November passed without a sighting, just the depressing continued receipt of 'R' for raider reports from merchant ships just before they were sunk. Commodore Harwood was coming under increasing pressure for a result. A stroke of luck befell the group when the Cumberland intercepted a merchant ship on its own which turned out to be the Graf Spee's main stores ship. The Cumberland tried to board the ship but the German crew fired the scuttling charges and down it went taking the intelligence that could have helped to narrow the search for the GS. One piece of good fortune was the reclaiming of crew from some of Graf Spees previous victims.

Into December and Commodore Harwood took the gamble that once the GS knew its supply ship was gone, it would probably take one last chance to have a big result then head for home, by attacking shipping in one of the supported areas. Harwood recalled the Exeter and Cumberland from their sweep down to the Falkands in case the GS had tried for an attack to revenge the happenings of 1914. He ordered the Manchester and Liverpool to rendezvous with him off Rio and all ships would then head for a meeting off the River Plate delta.

Dawn broke on the 13th of December 1939, a day to be unlucky for the Graf Spee. Kapitan Langsdorf and the Graf Spee were headed into the River Plate Delta for one last score before heading north for home. The starboard lookout called out "Ship, bearing north." All eyes and binoculars swivelled to the north. "It looks like a destroyer Herr Kapitan." (Just as well they speak English!) "There is another ship behind it, sir." The first report from the director dispelled all hope, "Lead ship is a 6" cruiser, second ship looks like a battlecruiser with another cruiser following." Kapitan Langsdorf's order was succinct "Full speed!, Steer South-west". His only hope was to make it to neutral waters before the British ships could sink the Graf Spee.

Back aboard the Warrior, Commodore Harwood was all smiles, (he could almost feel the knighthood "arise Sir Henry"). A flurry of signals and orders ensued. The Walrus was launched and was to provide invaluable assistance in the coming hours. The Warrior was ordered into the lead with the two 6" cruisers astern, full speed was ordered and the signal 'Chase" was raised to the masthead. The Exeter and Cumberland reported in that they were 60 miles south of the Commodores position and should be in a position to intercept the Graf Spee in 30-40 minutes at the current closing speed. The jaws of the trap were about to spring. The Graf Spee was 20 miles in the lead and it would take some time for the British ships to catch up and be within effective firing range. Ten minutes later the Graf Spee opened fire with its after turrets three guns. While no hits were scored it was an uncomfortable feeling to know your enemy outranged you.

Aboard the Graf Spee, Kapitan Langsdorf thought his chances were about 50/50 to reach neutral waters when the forward lookout reduced his chances to zero. "Cruisers in sight to the south!" The main gun battle was about to begin. Kapitan Langsdorf knew his best chance was to engage the cruisers to the south and hope to blast a way through them. He ordered a change of course enough to allow his after turret to bear on the two cruisers and kept on.

The Cumberland and Exeter also turned to bring all turrets to bear, the 7.5"/8" guns opening fire at 30,000 yards and closing. While the 7.5" shells may not have been able to penetrate the Graf Spees armour, at that range, they could damage and destroy all the minor weaponry and systems. An early hit burnt out the aircraft that was being readied for launching causing a petrol fire amidships. Several of the 5.9" and 4.1" were put out of action from subsequent hits. The reason the two cruisers were able to hit the Graf Spee at the longer ranges? The Walrus launched by the Warrior was spotting for them. 30 minutes later the first shells from the Warrior arrived signalling the end. An hour later the Graf Spee was a burning wreck, all its guns out of action, but its flag still flying. Manchester was ordered to sink the hulk with torpedoes. Three torpedo hits caused more internal explosions and the mighty Graf Spee rolled over and sank. Only 144 of its crew were pulled from the water, Kapitan Langsdorf was not among the survivors.

To cries of "The Navies here!!" sailors from Captain Vians Tribal class destroyer storm aboard the Altmark in a Norwegian fjord rescuing hundreds of survivors from Graf Spees victims. The Altmark had run out of supplies for the Graf Spee and had been ordered home by Kapitan Langsdorf with all the prisoners aboard. The ship sunk in the South Atlantic was the Graf Spee's second supply ship.

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