River Plate, 1939 – The Sinking of the Graf Spee

Published: September 20th, 2016     
Product Image
Book cover
Author: Angus Konstam, Illustrations by Tony Bryan
Reviewed by: 
Jim Pearsall, IPMS# 2209
Company: Osprey Publishing
ISBN #: 978-1-4728-1795-2
Other Publication Information: 96 pages, Publication Date: August 23, 2016, 7.3 x 0.3 x 9.9 inches
Price: $24.00
Product / Stock #: Campaign 171

I was somewhat aware of the happenings at Montevideo, Uruguay some time in early WW2, but this book gave me a clear picture of what happened, and why it happened like it did. Mr. Konstam has put together a thoroughly researched book, with all of those details that make the history come alive. But the book is also very well written, to the point where I looked up and it was well past my bedtime, but the book held my interest so very well that I couldn't put it down.

The Ship

The Admiral Graf Spee was one of three "Pocket Battleships" of the Kriegsmarine at the beginning of the war. The ship was limited by treaty to no more than 10,000 tons. There was no limit to the armament, so the Graf Spee carried six 11 inch (28cm.) guns in two turrets. In order to meet the 10K ton weight limit, the armor was pared back from the original design, leaving the ship well armed, but not heavily protected. I have heard the class characterized as "eggshells carrying hammers". The ship was also different from the usual in having diesel engines instead of steam. This had the advantage of far better fuel efficiency.

The Operation

The Graf Spee sailed from Wilhalmshaven on August 21, 1939. The mission was to intercept and sink British merchant vessels in the South Atlantic when World War 2 began. The Nazis were pretty certain that the war would begin in early September, as they were planning to invade Poland on September 1, and they were pretty sure the British would take umbrage and proceed with alacrity to undertake hostilities. (How's that for big words?)

The Spee was supported by the tanker Altmark. The Germans had developed a method for refueling their ships while under way, something the British and Americans didn't develop until 1941. It gave the Spee a huge advantage, in that they didn't have to go into port to refuel. The Altmark also carried ammunition and provisions, again allowing the Spee to avoid ports.

The Spee did not attack shipping immediately, waiting for permission from HQ, which didn't come until September 25th. The Spee then sank or captured 5 ships between September 30 and October 22. The map below shows that Kapitan Langsdorff sank the first ship off the coast of South America, then went across and sank two more off the coast of Africa, then went to mid-Atlantic, refueled, sank another ship in mid-ocean, then went back to Africa for the next one.

One of the big advantages the Graf Spee held was that they had an Arado 196 seaplane on board. The Arado (marked T6+AH) was used to scout ships when smoke was seen on the horizon, but the ship was still out of visual and gun range. This allowed the Spee to pick up merchant ships and avoid warships. I have read that the underwing markings on the Arado were French roundels, just to confuse the ships it was checking out.

After refueling again, the Spee then went around the south tip of Africa, into the Indian Ocean. Hunting was poor, and they sank only one ship. This was within sight of a lighthouse, and Kapitan Langsdorff left the Indian Ocean, back to the South Atlantic. They refueled, and it was getting to be time to go back home, as the Altmark was almost out of fuel, with about enough for both ships to get back to Germany.

Langsdorff took a chance, and sank two more ships off the African coast, then headed west and sank another in the Western Atlantic. And here his luck ran out. The Graf Spee was intercepted by a force of three British cruisers, The Exeter, the Achilles, and the Ajax.

The Battle of the River Plate actually took place about 180 miles off the coast of Uruguay. As dawn broke on December 13, 1939, the British ships and the Spee found themselves in sight and gun range. The book gives a wonderful play-by play (or shot by shot) description of the battle. The British got the worst of it, but the Spee was also hit and damaged, so they made smoke and headed for Montevideo, Uruguay, on the River Plate. The British pursued, but not too closely, as all three ships were pretty beaten up.

The Spee was told they had 24 hours to repair their ship and leave. The German representative objected. The British representative said they had no objection to the Spee staying longer. So the Uruguayans gave them three days. And the next day the British started a rumor that a carrier and battleship were joining the three cruisers.

Kapitan Langsdorff radioed Berlin for advice. His choices were to surrender his ship to the Uruguayans, leave port and fight his way out, or scuttle the Graf Spee. Berlin's decision was to scuttle.


Highly recommended. This is a great book on a naval battle. The events are well presented, and the details are very interesting. The book doesn't get bogged down in the small stuff, but does present interesting details, and keeps the story moving. I learned a lot from this book, and I think you would too.

Many thanks to Osprey Publishing for the review book, and to IPMS USA for the chance to review it.

  • Front cover
    Front cover
  • Graf Spee refueling while underway
    Graf Spee refueling while underway
  • Photo of the Graf Spee
    Photo of the Graf Spee
  • Graf Spee pre-war prep cruise
    Graf Spee pre-war prep cruise
  • Graf Spee commences raiding
    Graf Spee commences raiding
  • Graf Spee continues raiding
    Graf Spee continues raiding
  • Graf Spee before and after
    Graf Spee before and after
  • Back Cover
    Back Cover

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