Most of us are familiar with the vicious battles that occurred in Europe and Asia during World War II. However, not many people know about the one battle that took place in South America, right off the coast of Buenos Aires. What started out as a small conflict between the German and British navies ended up changing the outcome of the war in the South Atlantic. With numerous casualties and heavy damage on both sides, the decision of one general helped to spare the lives of hundreds of young men, while also driving him to take his own life in shame. Today these men are buried on the German side of Chacarita Cemetery, waiting for visitors to come and hear their story about the Battle of the River Plate.
The final weeks of December 1939 were tense ones on the waters of the Atlantic. For months, the German ship Graf Spee had been causing chaos and sinking the merchant ships carrying supplies to aid the Allies in Europe. While there was no official news and no actual sighting, British intelligence reports hinted at the fact that there may have been a fleet of German ships or a submarine crawling along the coast of South America. After receiving distress calls from various ships, the British navy decided it needed to find out what was going on. A squadron composed of four cruisers - the Ajax, Achilles, Exeter, and Cumberland - was quickly dispatched to hunt down the menace that had been ravaging the seas.
At around 6am on December 13th, the fates of both navies met when three of the British ships spotted the lone wolf that was the German Graf Spee. Cannons were fired off immediately from both sides, damaging ships left and right. The British ships were outgunned, but they could maneuver faster. The three-to-one ratio also gave the British a sizable advantage, allowing them to split from their formation. They attacked the Graf Spee on both sides, pummelling it with cannon shells until it could take no more. They had been at battle for no more than two hours when German captain Langsdorff decided his ship was in no condition to continue the fight, and quickly darted away to the closest neutral port. In the end, 108 men were killed on both sides, with the British Exeter out of commission and the Ajax and Achilles badly damaged. Cannon blasts were fired by the British while in pursuit of the Graf Spee, but it was too late to catch up with the German ship. Just after midnight on December 14th the Graf Spee anchored in the port of Montevideo, dropping off wounded sailors at the nearest hospital and making repairs. The surviving British cruisers were close by, waiting for their opportunity to sink what was left of their formidable enemy.
The following 72 hours were even more exciting than the battle itself. While The Graf Spee lay still in the port of Montevideo, Captain Langsdorff pleaded with Uruguayan officials to let him stay in the port for at least 2 weeks to make repairs. Under The Hague Convention, a damaged ship could only remain in a neutral port for a maximum of 24 hours. In addition, a belligerent warship could not leave a neutral port or road stead until 24 hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary. While this haggling between the Germans and Uruguayans continued, the British began to hatch their own plan to capture the Graf Spee. Behind the scenes they cleverly prepared false intelligence reports stating that a large fleet of British ships was heading towards Montevideo to engage with the German ship once it left the port. The captain read these reports and somehow believed them to be true. Langsdorff had a difficult decision to make: should he go out into the Atlantic and risk a full onslaught from the Royal Navy, or could he outsmart his opponents and quickly scurry away to try to reach the Axis friendly ports of Europe? The damage to the ship was extensive and there were not enough cannon shells left to wage another offensive attack.
What was going through Captain Langsdorff’s mind during this time was anybody’s guess, but most historians point out that the captain was an old school navy man who took his battles seriously without ever intending to annihilate his adversaries. In previous battles he had been known to damage ships enough to put them out of commission, but avoided sinking them in order to prevent unnecessary deaths. His crew was made up of over 1,000 young men, aged between 18 and 20. The captain knew that if he sailed from the port and faced the British navy, most of his crew could be wounded or killed.
In the early evening of December 17th the Graf Spee finally pulled out of the port of Montevideo. Having front row seats to the spectacle that was World War II, thousands of spectators filled the coastline, watching with anticipation. As the ship sailed into the distance, loud booms and bangs could be heard. Was this the British navy already attacking? No, in fact these noises came from the Graf Spee itself. Before the final launch, all of the sailors had been removed from the boat and quietly escorted to Buenos Aires by tugboat. The ship was actually empty as it left Montevideo, and with the loud explosions ripping the hull in half it became apparent that the captain had decided to sink his own ship rather than face the uncertainty of the Atlantic. This decision would infuriate his superiors. To deal with the shame there was only one possible solution left for the captain - two days later, Langsdorff wrote a farewell letter to his family and then shot himself in the head, putting the final seal on this epic battle.
Some of the outcomes of that battle can still be felt today. Although anxiety against the Nazi regime is common, most navy officials from both sides of the war hold captain Langsdorff in the highest esteem in terms of him being a competent commander and a great leader of men. The sailors who survived and took shelter in Buenos Aires either went back to Germany or stayed behind to start new lives in South America. There has been much talk about raising the Graf Spee and putting it in a museum in Montevideo, but some veteran sailors have said that there still may be explosives on board that weren’t detonated when it was sunk. The Graf Spee anchor and cannon, however, are on display at the Montevideo Naval Museum. Here the public can see and even touch some of these artifacts, reminding them of the ravenous nature of war and the testament of one captain’s courageous decision.