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Collegio Nazionale Capitani Lungo Corso e Macchina
Daniele Alletto
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Battle of River Plate
Battle of River Plate
In Montevideo, the 13th Hague Convention came into play. Under Article 12, "...belligerent war-ships are not permitted to remain in the ports, roadsteads or territorial waters of the said Power for more than twenty-four hours...", modified by Article 14 "A belligerent war-ship may not prolong its stay in a neutral port beyond the permissible time except on account of damage..." British diplomats duly pressed for the speedy departure of the Graf Spee. Also relevant was Article 16, of which part reads, "A belligerent war-ship may not leave a neutral port or roadstead until twenty-four hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary."

The Germans released 61 captive British merchant seamen who had been on board in accordance with their obligations. Langsdorff then asked the Uruguayan government for two weeks to make repairs. Initially, the British diplomats in Uruguay?principally Eugen Millington-Drake?tried to have Admiral Graf Spee forced to leave port immediately. After consultation with London, which was aware that there were no significant British naval forces in the area, Millington-Drake continued to demand openly that Graf Spee leave. At the same time, the British secretly arranged for British and French merchant ships to steam from Montevideo at intervals of 24 hours, whether they had originally intended to do so or not, thus invoking Article 16. This kept Graf Spee in port and allowed more time for British forces to reach the area.

At the same time, efforts were made by the British to feed false intelligence to the Germans that an overwhelming British force was being assembled, including Force H (the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown), when in fact the two 6" cruisers had only been joined by Cumberland which had arrived at 22:00 on 14 December, after steaming 1,014 nautical miles from the Falkland Islands in 34 hours, at an average of over 90% of her full trials speed attained over much shorter distances. The older and larger Cumberland was more powerful than Exeter, with an additional aft turret containing two more 8" guns, but was no match on paper for Admiral Graf Spee whose guns had significantly longer range and fired much heavier shells (660lb against 256lb). Overwhelming British forces (HMS Renown, Ark Royal, Shropshire, Dorsetshire, and Neptune) were en route, but would not assemble until 19 December, although they could intercept earlier if Graf Spee headed north or north east from Montevideo shadowed by Cumberland and her smaller consorts. For the time being, the total force comprised the undamaged Cumberland with a full ammunition load, and the damaged Ajax and Achilles with depleted stocks of shells. To reinforce the propaganda effect, these ships ? which were waiting just outside the three-mile limit ? were ordered to make smoke, which could be clearly seen from the Montevideo waterfront.

On 15 December 1939, RFA Olynthus refuelled HMS Ajax, which proved a difficult operation; the ship had to use hurricane hawsers to complete the replenishment. On 17 December HMS Achilles was replenished from RFA Olynthus off Rouen Bank.

The Germans were entirely deceived, and expected to face a far superior force on leaving the River Plate. Graf Spee had also used two-thirds of her 283 mm (11.1 in) ammunition and had only enough left for approximately a further 20 minutes of firing. Such a reduced ammunition stock was hardly sufficient for the ship to fight her way out of Montevideo, let alone get back to Germany, when contrasted with the previously unengaged Cumberland's ability to fight at full capacity for about 90 minutes and pursue at equal or higher speed for at least another 2,000 nautical miles before requiring replenishment at sea.

While the ship was prevented from leaving the harbour, Captain Langsdorff consulted with his command in Germany. He received orders that permitted some options, but not internment in Uruguay. The Germans feared that Uruguay could be persuaded to join the Allied cause. Ultimately, he chose to scuttle his ship in the River Plate estuary on 17 December, to avoid unnecessary loss of life for no particular military advantage, a decision that is said to have infuriated Adolf Hitler. The crew of Admiral Graf Spee were taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Captain Langsdorff committed suicide by gunshot on 19 December. He was buried there with full military honours, and several British officers who were present attended. Many of the crew members were reported to have moved to Montevideo with the help of local people of German origin. The German dead were buried in the Cementerio del Norte, Montevideo.

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Aggiunta il 23/06/2018
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