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 Speaker Eric Londesbrough – The Battle of the River Plate

Eric Londesbrough is a retired Headteacher from Newton Aycliffe. He is also a retired magistrate who is a writer and has a keen interest in vintage motor cycles. He gave us a brilliant account of the Battle of the River Plate, illustrated with drawings and photographs taken before, during and after the battle.

Eric was 5 years old when his interest in the fate of merchant shipping in the war was aroused by the concerns of his father. Britain had 2500 merchant ships and everybody knew that the Germans would target these. Eric’s father was the office manager of the Bell Shipping Line which had 21 ships. By the end of the war they had none. He started to collect newspaper cuttings and as he grew older, to make models which were only half finished. He found these a few years ago and completed the one of HMS Exeter which he displayed at the meeting.

At the end of World War 1, the Germans had only a very small naval fleet and the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the new building of submarines and of ships greater than 10000 tonnes. However in 1922, they started to make plans for new submarines and in 1928 had one constructed in Spain and in 1930, one in Finland. In 1932, Hitler ordered another 16. They also built raiding ships which had been very successful in World War 1.

Britain had many lightly armoured cruisers of about 8000T with guns usually no larger than 8 inches. Destroyers were only about 3000T. These can be contrasted with a typical Fred Olsen cruise ship today of about 26000T. The Germans built so called cruisers with 11 inch guns with diesel engines and a typical range of 19000 miles. In doing so, they ignored the treaty limits. The pocket battleship Graf Spee had a displacement of about 14000T.

In August 1939, Hitler put ships in place in anticipation of the war. He sent 2 pocket battleships, the Graf Spee and the Deutschland into the Atlantic. Supply vessels filled up in US ports and then disappeared. In the South Atlantic, Britain had 3 vessels: HMS Exeter with 6 no. 8 inch guns, the Ajax of 7000T, which was not armoured, with 8 no 6 inch guns and the Cumberland with 8 no 8 inch guns. The last of these was in the Falkland Islands. The Achilles, part of the New Zealand navy was also in the area. There were 4 small ships off the coast of Africa. Together these were supposed to protect 2500 merchant ships.

In the early days of the war, aircraft were few and far between. The Graf Spee carried a float plane, the Arado, which was based on a racing seaplane with a maximum speed of 193mph. The Exeter carried 2 biplanes and the Ajax 1. These were not armoured and were used for search and spotting. The Arado landed at about 110mph and was vulnerable to engine damage by spray cracking hot cylinders. The British planes with engines behind the wings landed at 70mph and were consequently more reliable.

Shortly after war was declared, Hitler ordered raiding to start, but not to attack French or US ships. The Deutschland sank a British ship and then came across a US ship, possibly within the US declared Pan American Neutrality Zone. The Captain captured it after discovering that the cargo was for the UK. This did not please the US or Hitler. He also captured a Norwegian ship. Hitler then recalled the Deutschland, the Captain was disciplined and the ship renamed Lutzow.

The Graf Spee first sank the Clement, a merchant ship. The Arado attacked the bridge and the crew abandoned ship and took to the lifeboats. The Captain and Chief Engineer were taken on board the Graf Spee, but the rest of the crew were directed to the Brazilian coast. Thereafter the Newton Beech was captured shortly after an RRR message was sent. A prize crew was put on board and the ship was temporarily a prison ship. On the following day, the Ashlea, a 4200T freighter carrying sugar for Britain, was sunk with the crew transferred to the Newton Beech. 2 days later, the Newton Beech was scuttled because it was too slow to keep up and the prisoners were transferred to the supply ship Altmark.

In order to cause confusion, Captain Langsdorff then sailed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and up to the Mozambique Channel, where he sank an empty tanker, the Africa Shell. The Graf Spee then returned to the Atlantic where she sank the Doric star, a merchant ship carrying mutton, cheese and butter. The Captain of this vessel was able to send an RRR message before being captured. Langsdorff then ordered the Altmark to go to a neutral port and release her prisoners.

Commodore Henry Harwood was in charge of the British warships in the South Atlantic. After the Graf Spee’s encounter with the Doric Star, he had a premonition that he would meet the German ship off Montevideo at 06.00. He deployed the Exeter, Ajax and Achilles accordingly and the Exeter, which had the highest masts in the Royal Navy and Graf Spee spotted each other at a distance of 17 miles. Captain ‘Hooky’ Bell identified the pocket battleship and the battle commenced. The Exeter suffered hits very quickly and everybody on the bridge except for the Captain and two seamen was killed by splinters. It had lost its two aircraft and only one gun was able to fire. Bell was injured, but using a compass from one of the lifeboats, directed the ship by means of commands passed along a chain of men to the lower steering compartment where a team of men struggled with a wheel directly connected to the rudder. The Ajax and the Achilles continued to follow the Graf Spee. The Ajax was hit, putting the forward turret out of action, while the Achilles suffered a near miss which affected the gunnery control.

The Ajax headed south as the battle continued towards Montevideo. The Arado had a cylinder damaged and with no more spares, the plane was out of action. During the batlle the Graf Spee had lost about 40 men and the Exeter about 70. Late in the day, the German ship went into Montevideo harbour. Langsdorff requested permission to stay for 72 hours rather than the 24 permitted in a neutral port. This was granted. It suited the British who were able to summon the Cumberland from the Falkland Islands in this period. While in port the German dead were buried and Eric showed a photograph of the funeral. Langsdorff alone amongst the Germans did not give the Nazi salute.

The British Embassy in Montevideo were active in promoting rumours of the arrival of heavy ships in the area. In fact only the only ships which could have attacked the Graf Spee when it left harbour were the Cumberland, the Ajax and the Achilles. These rumours were instrumental in convincing Langsdorff that he should scuttle his ship. He had been ordered to ensure that it did not fall into British hands and he became convinced that he could not make a successful getaway.

The Tacoma took off the crew of between 700 and 800 men, before the Graf Spee left Montevideo to be blown up in the outer harbour. Tugs took the crew to Argentina where they were interned. After the war many of the prisoners settled there. Langsdorff committed suicide by shooting himself.

After the battle, the Exeter went to the Falklands for emergency repairs. The Achilles went home to Auckland.

Harwood was knighted and became a Rear Admiral. Captain Bell of the Exeter was made a Companion of the Bath. Other awards following the battle included 6 DSOs, 17 DSCs, 4 CGMs and 46 DSMs with many Mentions in Despatches.

The Altmark supply ship carrying prisoners, attempted to sail back to Germany after the Graf Spee had been sunk. She sheltered in Norwegian waters but following an encounter in which Captain Dau tried to ram HMS Cossack, she was boarded and 200 British sailors were rescued. Eric showed a photograph of two sailors after their safe return to Scotland. This was the last naval battle without radar or aircraft and the last to use cutlasses.