Battle of the River Plate, 1939

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Henry Harwood versus Hans Langsdorff: A German pocket battleship under Langsdorff is hunting merchant shipping when he comes face to face with a British hunter cruiser squadron under Harwood. Whose force really is the hunter: Harwood’s fast cruisers or Lansdorff’s powerful pocket battleship?


In his survey of Kriegsmarine engagements during World War II, O’Hara draws two conclusions about the German navy, both of which are strongly evident in the Battle of the River Plate. O’Hara first concludes that “the record of the [German] navy’s surface fleet is one of failure and lost opportunity” (2004: 259). More importantly, he concludes that there was

a systemic problem within the navy, evident in the way these commanders displayed excessive caution in the face of the enemy and even let victory slip away. The question is, why?

The British did not hazard ships recklessly, but they were usually willing to take chances because they could afford to and this is what their tradition expected. The Germans believed they could not afford losses and their naval tradition did not approve of combat for the sake of combat. (2004: 259)

This is one of the last naval confrontations between surface ships and merely confirmed why Britain dominated the global seas for so long.


Langsdorff’s pocket battleship was superior to Harwood’s cruisers but was outnumbered. This is an engagement in which each commander wished to win but neither was willing to risk defeat in order to do so. Langsdorff turned back at a critical moment while Harwood intended to turn back simply because he did not think his ship’s guns could harm the pocket battleship. Consequently, Harwood was able to maneuver Langsdorff into a poor situation and bluff his way to victory.
river plate preview 2Notes
Because this was the first naval battle I animated, I chose to animate this one in particular because it was simple and involved few ships. I discovered that animating naval battles is completely different from land battles and requires different procedures. Nonetheless, it turned out to be very effective and was well-received so there will definitely be more naval battles to come.
– Jonathan Webb
Works Consulted
Bennett, Geoffrey. Battle of the River Plate. Surrey: Ian Allan Ltd, 1972.Howarth, David. Famous Sea Battles. Toronto: Little, Brown & Co., 1981.O’Hara, Vincent P. The German Fleet at War, 1939-1945. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 2004.Pearce, Frank. Sea War: Great Naval Battles of World War II. London: Robert Hale Ltd., 1990.Pitt, Barrie. The Battle of the Atlantic. New Jersey: Time-Life Books, 1977.

Pope, Dudley. The Battle of the River Plate. London: Kimber, 1956.

Hans Langsdorff: cruiser: Harwood: cruiser: of the South Atlantic:

Map of the world:

Pocket battleship:


If you enjoyed the Battle of the River Plate 1939 battle animation, you may also enjoy these other battle animations:

Battle of France 1940, the next battle chronologically on the site:

france preview 1

Battle of Ayacucho 1824, another battle fought in South America:

ayacucho preview 1

Battle of Lepanto 1571, another naval battle where firepower played a key role:

lepanto preview 1

Thank you for visiting The Art of Battle: Animated Battle Maps.

Readers Comments (15)

  1. A good introduction to the action at the Battle of the River Plate. Please excuse me if my point is too pedantic but HMS Exeter really does need to be pronounced correctly. Don’t want to upset the locals in that part of the world!

  2. This is a Great Animation and a Great way to Make History More Interesting Although it does contain Several Errors Some More Serious Than Others That Let the animation down.
    For a Full Account of the battle I recomend
    The Battle of The River Plate By Dudley Pope
    or The 1956 Film
    Or If You Must Wikipedia

  3. An excellent and timely animation of an important naval battle, but ditto on the Exeter comment above, you really do need to correct the pronunciation there.

    Lindsay Dempsey
    New Zealand

  4. The pronunciation will be corrected as soon as my narrator is available to ensure consistency. I advise everyone to view the PowerPoint animation as often as possible as opposed to the video animation. The PowerPoints have additional features which cannot be carried over into videos. The video animations are important for making the animations more rapidly available for those who do not have PowerPoint.

    As for additional errors: it must always be remembered that no matter how reputable the source for a battle, its account will always have slight differences from equally reputable sources. Pope’s account was actually consulted for this animation. For future clarification on which sources I’ve consultec check out my Works Consulted page:

  5. my uncle stanley was a stoker on the hms exeter and was hit by shapnel and died at the battle of the river plate i never met him but think about him a lot my granny recieved a medal from the queen at buck house and the plaque ended up in america.he was just 21 and it broke his mothers heart. this video is thenearest i have come to the horror of my young uncle.linda smith

  6. I can’t believe someone actually recommended the 1956 movie as a reference for a full account of the battle. LOL epic fail

  7. Check that your narrator can pronounce German words too. Spee is pronounced as in “Sh-pay”. Also in the Battle a British officer complained that hitting Graf Spee with 6 inch shells was like throwing snowballs at the thing. He was wrong about that – the 6 inch shells did important damage – but he did say snowballs, not marshmallows.

  8. As my dad was a gunnary royal marine on the Exeter I found the artical facinating and interesting. I often wondered as a young man why my Farther Arther Wilde RM Color Sargent DSM never attended any of the reunions. Any one who took part in this battle will now probably no longer with us but any sons and daugterss may remember what it was like as Christmas rolled around.

    John Wilde
    Perth Australia
    PS- Nelson Bay, a small town in New South Wales, Australia, has street names of the cruisers and also had a modle of the battle, I was unable to link it up.

  9. Dawn O'Sullivan August 18, 2011 @ 3:10 am

    Your data base will not allow me to email this to myself. I am really upset as my father was an officer on board the Achilles at the time of battle and I would really like to view this Power point.

  10. The animation does explain in simple terms how the battle proceeded.

    However, the true reason why Langsdorff broke off the engagement has been omitted. One of Exeter’s final salvos before breaking off destroyed the Graf Spee’s fuel cleaning. Running on Diesel engines, it was essential that the fuel was cleaned before it could be used. The Graf Spee only had 16 hours of fuel left and was compelled to make it to port as soon as possible.

    Furthermore, having expended two thirds of her ammunition, as well as running critically low on fuel, it is doubtful that the ship would have been able to fend off another British attack whilst crossing the estuary channel to Argentina.

    Langsdorff could not remain in Uruguay and possibly allow the ship to be captured by the British later in the war. On the other hand, if he attempted to cross the estuary, he believed that a superior British naval force outside the channel would attack and sink his ship, killing most or all of his crew.

    Rather than face the loss of his men, he decided the only honourable course of action was to deny the ship to the enemy by scuttling her and ‘go down with the ship’. He was persuaded not to die with his ship, to protect his men’s interests ashore, but as soon as this was settled, he committed suicide to maintain his honour.

  11. my father was a c p o on the ajax this was good to see but we must not glorify this battle . I asked him once what he thought of the film he grunted and said yes but you did not see them washing bits of body of the side off the ship affter the battle did they .this is what they had to live with not the victory

  12. Overall not a bad effort, however i believe you have some serious inaccuracies. I admit that it is hard to put all the relevant facts into 5 mins. However, I wonder how you came to these deductions? There are some wild ones in there. I strongly recommend The Battle of The River Plate By Dudley Pope for a more accurate version.
    Despite the lack of Action Reports from the Graf Spee (destroyed after the battle) , the battle can still be told relatively accurately from the accounts from the allied warships.

  13. Excellent, really excellent presentation. I’m from Uruguay. My parents always have told the history of Graff Spee. Part of the battleship is still underwater, but some cannons are here in a naval museum. Some years ago Graf Spee eagle was recoveref from the bottom of the sea.
    Congratulations Mr. Woods, and I really like to watch more battle presentations. Go on!!

  14. la trampa de montevideo, fue la no neutralidad de uruguay, por favor investiguen y no tomen partido.

  15. Good presentation, my father served on Ajax as a gunner, told many stories about the war and this particular action. Sadly he died in 2002 at the age of 81, he would have loved to see history like this brought to life.

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