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First Naval victory of WW2 remembered

First Naval victory of WW2 remembered
13 December 2019
80 YEARS ago today, the dash, verve, skill of the British sailor – and a little subterfuge – delivered the Royal Navy’s first major victory of World War 2.

After a three-month campaign against British shipping, the marauding of Hitler’s pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee came to an end when she was cornered in the South Atlantic.

Despite being outgunned by the heavily-armed German warship, the cruisers HMS Ajax, Exeter and Achilles engaged their foe off the coast of Brazil – although the clash subsequently earned the title: Battle of the River Plate.

For it was to Montevideo that the Graf Spee headed after being damaged in the encounter, which lasted little more than an hour.

Her guns badly damaged the three British cruisers, and inflicted 100 casualties (72 of them dead). In reply, however, the trio’s guns killed three dozen of Graf Spee’s crew, wounded 60 more and wrecked her fuel processing plant (among other wounds), severely limiting the commerce raider’s range.

Unable to repair his ship in the three-day limit imposed in neutral Uruguay, Graf Spee’s commander Capt Hans Langsdorff chose to scuttle the warship in the estuary – convinced by British intelligence that the Royal Navy was massing a substantial force off Uruguay to finish him off (it wasn’t…).


Langsdorff put his men ashore. They were subsequently interned in Argentina, while their captain committed suicide in a hotel room in Buenos Aires a few days later having infuriated Hitler for not fighting to the death and going down with his ship.


As for the cruiser crews, they were hailed as heroes; the victory, the First Lord of the Admiralty (one Winston Churchill) famously said, had “warmed the cockles of the British heart” in an otherwise bleak wartime winter.


In time, further honours were bestowed upon the British sailors; a new town in Ontario, Canada, was named Ajax and its streets bear the names of veterans of the battle.


And the clash made it to the big screen in 1956 in full colour featuring some of the leading actors of the day – John Gregson, Peter Finch, Bernard Lee (‘M’ in the Bond films for nearly 20 years).

The film is today receiving a fresh showing in the MOD’s Main Building in Whitehall as part of commemorations of the 80th anniversary.


Civilians and military personnel in the HQ will also be able to see artefacts from the battle, including Langsdorff’s sword, and learn more about the battle courtesy of a series of information panels provided by the RN’s official historians, the Naval Historical Branch.


In addition families of those who fought in the battle are in South America visiting some of the sites associated with the battle during an 80th anniversary pilgrimage, including Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

And you can learn more about the battle – which set out the RN’s renewed offensive spirit which would characterise its actions throughout WW 2 – at and

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