The early months of World War II were dark days for Britain’s Royal Navy, which was scrambling to track down German surface raiders as well as U-boats. As Alan Zimm points out in his cover story, “A Battle Badly Fought,” the Admiralty desperately needed a victory.
It came, but in strange fashion. On 13 December 1939, a squadron of three cruisers commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood fought the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee to a draw at the Battle of the River Plate. After seeking shelter in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay, the German captain scuttled his ship rather than face awaiting British warships.
That meant one less surface raider, but the Admiralty set about adding more luster to the triumph by portraying the battle as a David-vs.-Goliath contest in which the outgunned Harwood deftly played the cards he was dealt. Zimm, who was named Naval History Author of the Year for his December 2016 article, “Commander Fuchida’s Decision,” dissects the contending forces, Harwood’s battle plan, and how the contest unfolded, reaching the conclusion conveyed in his article’s title.
As Zimm points out, generations of historians have followed the Admiralty’s line in portraying the battle as the triumph of an underdog. But what about filmmakers? To find out, I watched the 1956 British epic The Battle of the River Plate.
Only a few minutes into the film, the “Graf Spee” makes her bewildering appearance—with the big peacetime hull number 139 painted on her bow. Also, she has three gun turrets instead of two. (The heavy cruiser USS Salem [CA-139] was the Graf Spee’s stand-in.) It’s soon explained that the hull number and the additional forward turret, which is wooden, are efforts to disguise the ship as a U.S. heavy cruiser.
Later, at a fictitious eve-of-battle war council with his captains, Harwood (played by Anthony Quayle) states: “My object is destruction of the enemy.” The hammering endured by the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter is portrayed well. But the depiction of the key point in the battle, when Harwood is closing in on the imperiled Graf Spee with the light cruisers HMNZS Achilles (portrayed by herself) and HMS Ajax, is superficial. Harwood soon meekly states, “We must open the range, Woody.” Most of the rest of the movie is devoted to events after the Graf Spee’s arrival at Montevideo. The viewer is left with the impression that the commodore and his squadron did their utmost against a stronger foe, but this is a film about the drama, not the tactics, of battle.
Elsewhere in this issue, a collection of Pacific war artwork by Radarman Clarence Tibado, painted from the deck of the USS Pensacola (CA-24), is featured in Frank Blazich’s article, “The ‘Grey’ Ghost's Artist.” Last year, several Naval History editors were given a behind-the-scenes tour at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. At one point, Blazich, lead military history curator, opened drawers to reveal Tibado’s original paintings. It took little coaxing for him to agree to write an article about the sailor and his artwork.
The package of Hill Goodspeed’s June article, “‘I Am a Sailor and a Seawolf,’” and a special screening of the documentary Scramble the Seawolves for Naval Institute members is a big success. So far, the film’s been viewed more than 750 times on the Institute’s website. This issue offers a similar pairing: Barrett Tillman recounts Carrier Air Group 11’s Pacific war history in “The Tale of Eleven,” and members are invited to view for a limited time the documentary Eleven. (See the member update for details.) If you’re not a Naval Institute member, please consider joining the independent forum of the Sea Services.
Richard G. Latture