Sketch by Jack Chalker

Battle of the River Plate


Verse by

S.Warder - HMS Exeter.

You've heard of Britton's Heroes
On Land, in Air and Sea.
But here's a tale will stir you
The fate of the "Graf Von Spee".

The 13th of December.
Twas her unlucky date
For then she met Exeter
Around the River Plate.

We met as Dawn was Breaking
She raked us with her Shell
Yet still we went in at her
Our faith in Captain Bell.

Now she scuttled by her crew
A sorryful sight to see
The Pride of the German Navy
"The Admiral Graf Von Spee".

Pocket-battleships did not fulfil their expectations, although they had extra range with their large diesel engines, kills were few and far between. Hitler though, saw them as a way to disrupt Allied shipping, he even changed their names as he saw them as predators and he did not want them named after the Fatherland,

Hans Langsdorff

The Graf Spee was in the South Atlantic at the start of WWII, on 27th September 1939, her commander, Hans Langsdorff, was ordered to start operations against Allied merchant shipping.

Captain Langsdorff was a thought full commander who put the welfare of his crew first, this did not stop him however carrying out Hitler’s orders.

In the next 77 days the Graf Spee was to sink nine merchant men, totalling 50,000 tons.

At dawn on the 13th December 1939 the Graf Spee was heading for the River Plate area on a last hunt for merchant shipping before returning to Germany.

Instead of merchant men an Allied fleet was spotted and it was this flotilla that turned predator

Graf Spee

From 13th December, 1939, the flotilla of British warships - HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and HMNZS Achilles - commanded by Commodore Henry H. Harwood, harried the Graf Spee.  This action took place near the Uraquayan port of Montevideo in South America, where the British fleet cornered the German battleship at the Battle of the River Plate.

The German battleship outgunned the Allied crew with her six 11-inch guns and eight 5.9inch guns, the British cruisers Achilles, Ajax and Exeter had only six 8-inch (Exeter) and sixteen 6-inch (Achilles and Ajax) guns between them. Further more the Graf Spee had heavier armour plating which could withstand the hits from the smaller Allied guns.

The Allied fleet had to manoeuvre to attack in strength, this gave the German warship time to concentrate her fire on the Exeter, knocking out all her guns and opening up a hole in her, which caused flooding. The Exeter’s captain kept her in action by launching torpedoes until at 0715 hours when he had to retire from the action, the Exeter left with a trail of smoke following her movements.

The Ajax and Achilles fought on trying to get close enough to give their lightweight guns the chance to damage the battleship, but the Graf Spee was causing damage with her 11-inch guns. Ajax had lost half her guns and at 0740 hours the two British cruisers called off their action. This was the  opportunity for the German commander to finish them, but Captain Langsdorff had lost 36 men killed and had 59 wounded and being thoughtful of his crew, decided to run to Montevideo for repairs.

The British put pressure on neutral Uruguay to grant the Graf Spee only 72 hours in port. Then Captain Langsdorff received reports that the Ark Royal and Renown were waiting for him to emerge and decided that he would scuttle his ship. On 17th December the Graf Spee was sunk at the approach to Montevideo harbour.


Sinking of the Graf Spee

The crew of the Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where Captain Langsdorff could not come to terms with the loss of his ship and in his hotel room he wrapped himself in the German Flag and shot himself dead.  Most  of the officers and a men made their escape from here, some settled in Argentina and the rest were repatriated in 1946.

Damage from the Battle of the River Plate

Pictured in the Falklands December 1939

During this historic battle HMS Exeter fired some 190 plus 8" inch shells three of which are recorded as having hit the German ship Graf Spee.

HMS Exeter’s damage was so extensive she had to withdraw to the Falkland Islands for temporary repairs.


The following extract is from an unknown newspaper (possibly Buenos Aires Herald), probably around 7th February 1940, of an article published anonymously, but known to be written by Angela Margaret Sadleir (1888-1970).


How I Went To the Falklands

By a Nurse

(Angela Margaret Sadleir)

The following article dealing with the errand of mercy carried out by the small band of nurses from the British Hospital in Buenos Aires has been written by one of the brave women who did such wonderful work in the Falkland Islands. It does not deal with the part played by the nurses. True heroism and sacrifice does not need self-advertisement, but it is instead a tribute to those courageous sailors from the British warships who fought in the battle of Punta del Este; those who lost their lives and those whose wounds and sufferings were tended to by the ( a few words missing here)

Suddenly on a Friday afternoon the call came – Can you go to the Falklands to-morrow? I am sure 99 per cent of the sisters and nurses gave an affirmative answer.

 So, on Saturday night, off  we went – down the River Plate, carrying with us a wonderful example of the British Patriotic Association’s generosity; Doctors, nurses, masseuses, 270 packages containing equipment for a 100-bed hospital, a complete new X Ray manned by an expert radiologist. It would be far easier to name the things we did not take than those we did.

 On our arrival at Montevideo we transhipped to the tiny SS Lafonia. How bravely her Red Duster floated in the breeze; then for the first time we realised how near we were to war. We saw the procession of wounded being carried ashore from the Graf Spee (How big she looked – how tiny we were ). Slowly, the day dragged on. President Ortiz – God Bless him – placed the Military Hospital in Bahia Blanca at the disposal of the battle-scarred Exeter. Then the question arose “Where is the Exeter?”. Hitler said, at the bottom of the sea, but the Embassy reported already she had passed too far along the coast to take advantage of (fragment missing)

 At 17 o’clock we watched the Spee leave, full steam ahead for sea, her time having expired under international law; our hearts were heavy – still bravely on she went to meet the British tars outside ? Suddenly the cry went up “She’s turned” Why, she is coming back – Yes, no, she goes ahead again – what tricks they are planning. Then came the most sickening boom, followed by another, the Radio working feverishly announced that the Graf Spee had blown up, but that all officers and men were safe.

 So we slipped out of the harbour in complete darkness, passing the pocket battleship’s funeral pyre in silence, and we heard the B.B.C. announce that a hospital ship had left Montevideo for the Falklands.

 Meanwhile, with the grim determination of the British, The Exeter with her sides pierced, her decks awash, entered into another battle – against time, her surgeons must have been superhuman. I can add nothing to this. However, our tiny craft followed at full speed. I wondered if she had the signal flags up – D. C. (we are coming to your assistance). Frankly, I never looked, as the temperature dropped and the deck became too cold for promenading. Argentina’s sunshine seemed far away, and already a vague memory.

 When we entered Port Stanley we found the place in deepest mourning. The “Exeter” was their ship – the boys had danced with them, shared their homes and hearts, and now so many had passed on.

  The day before Christmas proved a dull gray day, cold wind sweeping down, the sun making feeble attempts to break through, then finally giving up the attempt and retiring gracefully.

  Hitler’s last victim had died. Slowly the Church bells tolled, the muffled roll of the drums, the sombre but beautiful music of the Marché Funéraille, the measured solemn tread of officers and men as they escorted their brother along the harbour front – then came the order “Quick March” and up the hill to the wee “God’s Acre” – each victim had passed along that route, as they had lived, and died, Magnificent. So there they sleep, facing the ships, the sea they loved so well – and HOME.

  Christmas Day – For once the climate of the Falklands excelled itself, the sun worked overtime, (extract ends here).

Angela Sadleir was born in Tasmania and went to Argentina along with two of her brothers. She served in France as a staff nurse with QAIMNSR from 1915. Her uncle, John Sadleir, served in the Victoria police for 44 years from 1852, and was in command of the final stages of the capture of Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, Victoria, in June 1880. She  was a second cousin of Admiral of the Fleet David Beatty (1871-1936).She died in Adelaide.

Angela Sadleir was given a silver salver or similar by the officers, which is now the proud possession of one of her nieces who lives in Adelaide. She was of course Australian, but served voluntarily in British forces with three of her brothers in WWI, one of them died as a result of war service.

This extract was prepared in 2002 by her grandnephew, Ronald Land, of Glasgow, who is Scottish but whose mother was Argentinian by birth and Australian/South African by descent.


The arrival of HMS Exeter is remembered in the Falklands to this day with the issue of a special stamp.

HMS Exeter with her guns firing during the Battle of the River



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