During the fourth month of World War II, on placid waters off South America, one New Zealand and two British cruisers intercepted the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. After they exchanged fire for 83 minutes, the British squadron disengaged. The German ship withdrew into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay, and several days later was scuttled.
The Graf Spee’s self-destruction eliminated a powerful commerce raider, giving the Royal Navy a strategic victory. It also provided an opportunity to counter murmurs regarding Admiralty wartime mismanagement and questionable decisions by the First Lord, Winston Churchill.
1. The Battle of the River Plate: An Account of Events Before, During and After the Action up to the Self-Destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1940), ADM 267/145, The National Archives, Kew, UK (hereafter NA).
2. Eric J. Grove, The Price of Disobedience: The Battle of the River Plate Reconsidered (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 165–66. Similar assessments are in Dudley Pope, The Battle of the River Plate (London: William Kimber and Co., 1956).
3. C.B.3011, War Game Rules, 1929, ADM 186/78, NA.
4. The Comparison of Fighting Strengths with Questions and Solutions, July 1931, RG 4, Box 62, file 10, Naval Historical Collection Archives, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI (hereafter NWC).
5. Bureau of Ordnance, Office of Naval Intelligence, Division of Fleet Training, and others provide updates. Theory and Purpose of Fighting Strength Calculations, July 1936, RG 4, Box 70, File 1918, NWC.
6. Discussion of Numerical factors in Fire Effect Tables 1931, RG 35, Box 3a, File 23, NWC; Construction Fire Effect Tables 1922, with revisions to March 1930, RG 35, Box 9, File 6, NWC.
7. LCDR J. V. Chase, USN, Sea Fights: A Mathematical Investigation of the Effect of Superiority of Force in 1902 (1902), RG 8, Box 109, NWC. CDR Roy C. Smith, USN, The Fighting Value of Forces in Terms of Standard Battleships and in Relation to Ammunition Supply (1908), NWC. CDR W. L. Rodgers, USN, A Mathematical Examination of Combatant Endurance of Two Hostile Forces (1908), RG 8 Box 109, Folder 7, NWC. Frederick W. Lanchester, Aircraft in Warfare: The Dawn of the Fourth Arm (London: Constable, 1916).
8. Grove, The Price of Disobedience, 55.
9. Christopher Yi-Han Choy, “British War-Gaming, 1870–1914,” unpublished master’s thesis, King’s College, London, 30 August 2013, 33, 36.
10. Grove, The Price of Disobedience, 57.
11. For battle analysis, primary sources consulted are Graf Spee 1939, The German Story, ADM 223/68; Visit to the Wreck of Graf Spee, 1940, ADM 281/86; Graf Spee Shell Damage, ADM 281/85; Graf Spee Photographs and Technical Report, ADM 281/84; German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee Battle with H. M. Cruisers Achilles, Ajax and Exeter, ADM 1/19292; Report on Admiral Graf Spee: Action off the River Plate, ADM 1/9759, all NA.
12. Flank marking was not reported as initiated.
13. Fighting Instructions 1939, ADM 239/261, NA.
14. William Jurens assesses four 6-inch hits between 0631 and 0635 (T+14 to T+18) and no definite hits likely between 0635 and 0717 (T+18 to T+60). Hits unidentified by approach or descent angle may have occurred. Letter to the author, 10 April 2017.
15. Grove, The Price of Disobedience, 106.