Battle of the River Plate
The Battle of the River Plate was the first naval battle in the Second World War and the only episode of the war to take place in South America.
At the outbreak of World War Two, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, was patrolling in the Atlantic. As a surface raider she represented a grave threat to Allied shipping, sinking six merchant ships between September and December 1939.
Seven Allied ‘hunting groups', totalling 23 major warships, were sent to look for the Graf Spee. After sinking three more ships, Langsdorff made for the busy shipping lanes off the River Plate. Commodore Henry Harwood of Hunting Group G correctly guessed Langsdorff’s intentions, and on 13th December he closed in with the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.
Langsdorff concentrated his fire on the heavier HMS Exeter, setting her alight, destroying most of her guns and forcing her to leave for the Falkland Islands. Shifting fire to HMS Ajax, Langsdorff disabled two of her four turrets before breaking away for the port of Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay. Harwood kept watch outside while other Allied ships rushed to the area.
The damage to Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical; her fuel system was crippled. But according to international law, a warship could only remain in a neutral port for 24 hours, and British diplomats tried to have Graf Spee interned or forced to leave. Langsdorff extended his stay by 72 hours but finally had to leave on 17 December. Only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had arrived to reinforce Harwood.
Langsdorff preferred to scuttle his damaged ship rather than face what he perceived to be an overwhelmingly superior British force that was awaiting his departure