A naval engagement on the 13th of December 1939 between the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spey (already at sea when war broke out) which had sunk eight ships in the South Atlantic, as well as one in the Indian Ocean, and a British squadron commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood consisting of the light cruisers Ajax (Captain F.S.Bell RN), Achilles (Captain W.E.Perry RN) and the Heavy cruiser Exeter (Captain C.H.L.Woodhouse RN).
Although being out-numbered the Admiral Graf Spey greatly outgunned the Royal Navy warships, and so joined battle with them. After exchanging fire for just 100 minutes, inexplicably, although only lightly damaged, the German pocket battleship broke off the action, turned and fled to seek refuge in the estuary of the River Plate. HMS Exeter would play a leading role in the tactical defeat of the German raider. Both of her thinly armoured forward turrets were disabled by direct hits, but only when the aft turrets lost all power did Exeter retire from the fight with the loss of 61 of her crew killed.
Once safely in the neutral waters of the River Plate, the Graf Spey became involved in a diplomatic intrigue. With the British warships waiting patiently outside the estuary to once again engage the cornered battleship when she would be forced to leave the sanctuary of the neutral port, there was only one course left open to the Graf Spey's captain, Langsdorff. As time ran out the Graf Spey set sail with a token crew on board. Suddenly the great ship stopped; the crew abandoned ship after setting scuttling charges which detonated; thus deciding the outcome of the battle. Captain Langsdorff committing suicide rather than risk the humiliation of capture and internment.
The sinking of the Admiral Graf Spey was an enormous boost to British war morale thanks mainly to the brilliant piece of deduction by Commodore Harry Harwood, commanding the hunting group, who had correctly anticipated that the German raider was heading towards the South American coast, and had led his force to a successful interception.
The Wordworth Dictionary of British History
Battle of the Atlantic
Warships of World War II
The War at Sea
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