River Plate memorial unveiled

Banbury Cake: The German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, which fought an epic sea battle with the British Cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, at the mouth of the River Plate The German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, which fought an epic sea battle with the British Cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, at the mouth of the River Plate

A lasting memorial has been unveiled to the sailors on all sides who fought and died in the Battle of the River Plate during the Second World War 75 years ago.

On the landmark anniversary of what was the war's first major naval engagement, a handful of the battle's surviving veterans gathered to see a plaque unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, today.

The event was made famous by the 1956 Hollywood movie The Battle of the River Plate.

The engagement was triggered after three Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, Achilles and Ajax, crewed by British and New Zealand sailors, began hunting the much larger pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee, after the German surface raider had successfully destroyed several Allied merchant ships.

Among the surviving veterans attending today was 91-year-old John Garrard, who said: "Of course, if the Graf Spee had done its job, we wouldn't be here having this conversation. She'd have sunk us."

The memorial, costing about £14,000, was paid for by donations and commissioned by the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association - it is the 300th memorial to be unveiled at the arboretum.

Among those attending the unveiling today were the family of the man who commanded the Royal Navy's attack squadron, Commodore Henry Harwood, who was later knighted and promoted admiral for his part in the action.

His youngest son, Stephen Harwood said: "The fact this event has been attended as it has been today, with more than 250 people here, is a very good thing."

He added: "It is actually the first memorial in this country to the battle - there's one in Montevideo and one in Ajax in Ontario in Canada, so it's a very good thing we've got this one at the arboretum."

In the opening months of the war the German pocket battleship, under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff, had been a scourge of the southern Atlantic sea lanes sinking or capturing supply vessels vital to the Allies' war effort.

It was just after dawn on the morning of December 13, 1939, that the Royal Navy attack squadron commanded by Commodore Harwood first got to grips with Graf Spee near the River Plate estuary between Uruguay and Argentina, in South America.

Engaging the ship, Harwood had correctly predicted the German vessel's westward move across the south Atlantic to secure fresh provisions.

Mr Garrard, who at just 17-years-old was part of the forward turret crew on HMS Ajax, said it was the Graf Spee that spotted the Allied ships first, only advertising its presence when it dropped a salvo of shells short of the navy cruisers sending up plumes of water from the ocean.

He added German gunnery was "pretty accurate".

"We started to fire, and we seemed to be firing forever more," said Mr Garrard.

"The actual fighting and manoeuvring lasted about an hour - of course I knew nothing about that because I was manning one of the 6in guns.

"She (the Graf Spee) managed to get into Montevideo harbour and never came out again. She blew herself up - for which we were duly thankful."

While out-numbered, the Graf Spee heavily out-gunned each of the Royal Navy attackers and bearing towards them turned its main armament of six 11in (28cm) guns on HMS Exeter, badly damaging the British cruiser.

HMS Ajax and Achilles then moved in closer in an attempt to draw fire off Exeter and in turn forcing Langsdorff to flee under cover of a smoke screen - but not before it landed gun salvos on all its pursuers, including Exeter which had by then returned to the fight.

While not severely damaged, the Allied ships had mauled the German vessel and destroyed its ship's galley and food provisions, with Langsdorff also left concussed by shellfire.

The Graf Spee steamed for the neutral port of Montevideo and, bottled-up by the Royal Navy and unable to make significant repairs, the ship was later scuttled by its crew on December 18.

Captain Langsdorff, who along with more than 1,000 surviving crew had got off the ship before it was sunk, shot himself a few days later.

During the battle 36 German sailors and 72 Allied servicemen, the majority from HMS Exeter, were killed.

The result of the battle was the loss of a heavily armed capital ship of which the German surface fleet had precious few, and a morale-boosting victory for Britain.

In a speech to survivors of the Exeter and Ajax at the London Guildhall in February 1940, Winston Churchill, who would later that year become prime minister, described the battle as those "few glittering, deadly hours of action".

He added: "The brilliant sea fight, which Admiral Harwood conceived and which those who are here executed, takes its place in our naval annals, and I might add that in a dark, cold winter it warmed the cockles of the British heart."

Stephen Harwood said it was clear in hindsight that "that battle set a standard for the war" by the manner in which an out-gunned but "fighting" Royal Navy sought and won the engagement with what was on paper, a stronger foe.

"The British ships couldn't believe it - that this powerful ship had run away," he added.

"It wasn't that she was mortally damaged, but she was damaged in her galleys and elsewhere.

"The captain Langsdorff got concussed - it didn't work out."

Mr Garrard said the outcome might have been different had the roles of the battle been reversed.

"Langsdorff made the excuse that he couldn't feed his men, because we'd smashed up his galley," he said.

"I thought that was a poor excuse, actually.

"If the position had of been reversed, I am sure we'd have come out fighting - probably got sunk anyway.

"But he decided to save his men and blew the ship up."

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