The Battle of the River Plate – The First Naval Battle of the Second World War

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By Gordon Landsborough

Published by Frontline Books, and imprint of Pen & Sword Books, Ltd.

Copyright © Gordon Landsborough

Pages – 195

ISBN – 978-1-47387-895-2

MSRP – £15.99 / $21.20

London Scottish Regiment veteran of the Second World War and consummate author of a vast number of titles throughout his career, Gordon Landsborough, put pen to paper sharing an edifying accounting of the first of many naval engagements that would transpire during the Second World War with his book, The Battle of the River Plate: The First Naval Battle of the Second World War. This is a 195-page, hard cover book detailing the events surrounding the Southern Atlantic rampage of one of Hitler’s feared pocket battleships, the Admiral Graf Spee.

Table of Contents

• Forward – Long Ago
• Acknowledgments
• List of Maps and Illustrations
• Introduction by John Grehan
• The First Victim
• The Hunt Begins
• Newton Beech
• Graf Spee’s Third Victim
• The S.S. Huntsman
• The Tanker Africa Star
• The Liner Doric Star
• Tairoa
• H.M.S. Exeter Sighted
• Dawn, 13 December 1939
• Graf Spee Could No Longer Avoid Battle
• H.M.S. Exeter is Pounded
• Exeter Is Ordered Out of Battle
• The S.S. Shakespeare
• Battle in Uruguayan Territorial Waters
• The Diplomatic Battle Begins
• The Press Arrive
• The Prisoners are Freed
• A Propaganda War
• Sail For Argentina?
• Hysteria Ashore
• Graf Spee is Scuttled
• Langsdorff’s Death
• The Victors Return Home
• The ‘Altmark’ Incident
• The Altmark is Found
• The True End to the Last Cruise of Admiral Graf Spee

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Throughout the book, Gordon Landsborough does an amazing job detailing a chronological accounting of the somewhat enigmatic events surrounding the Battle of the River Plate. At the outset of the Second World War would come a  story of the short lived life for one of Germany’s newest weapons, the Deutschland-class heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee; otherwise known as one of Hitler’s pocket battleships on her maiden voyage. Her first mission which was to sail alone, remain undetected sailing about the Southern Atlantic Ocean unleashing havoc on shipping lanes and raiding British merchant ships and disrupt the supply of goods bound for the United Kingdom.

For the months leading up to what would become the first naval battle of the Second World War, Graf Spee would sail unopposed in the southern waters of the Atlantic, claiming several victories. No less than eight merchant vessels, which were obviously no match for the heavier, faster and massive firepower of these new pocket battleships, would fall prey. To the credit of Captain Hans Wilhelm Lansdorff and of course the unopposable force of a heavily gunned warship against lightly armed merchants, each of Graf Spee’s victims would fall swiftly and without any loss of life. The Graf Spee would sail unopposed and undetected for months in those early days of WWII. British Admiralty knew of a ship wreaking destruction in the Southern Atlantic, but they had no idea what ship this was, and worse, where she was.

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Virtually undetectable by the British fleet, which was now hunting two oceans for what they thought was a different ship and even at one point more than one, a series of events would soon unfold leading one of Hitler’s much feared pocket battleships into the first naval battle of the Second World War and inevitably its sinking. By all accounts, a ship of Graf Spee’s size and firepower should have decimated the smaller British surface fleet consisting of two 6 inch and one eight inch cruiser, not to mention the German raider could have turned and slipped away into the vastness of the South Atlantic once the first British warship was detected. Against orders from the German high command, Langdorff sailed Graf Spee straight into battle. The true intentions of Captain Langsdorff in the final days and hours leading up to the Battle of the River Plate will never be known as records by the German Captain would be lost, however, the Battle of the River Plate would play out on a world stage. Unprecedented world media coverage of the battle circled the globe along with the residents of Montevideo, Uruguay which located along the river’s estuary watching these events unfold on their doorsteps.

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The small cruisers that made up the British attack force led by Capt. H.H. Harwood, gallantly attacked a much larger and undeniably stronger opponent relentlessly for hours. By all accounts only H.M.S. Exeter with her 8 inch guns had a chance of inflicting any sort of damage to this heavy cruiser and it was believed that eventually the 11 inch guns of Graf Spee would shred the small British flotilla to pieces. The two smaller cruisers with 6 inch guns were definitely no match for even the pocket battleship’s secondary armament. Despite the overwhelming odds, the British cruiser force executed Capt. Harwood’s plans, attacking the much larger warship and forcing the Graf Spee’s captain to make decisions that would inevitably lead to not only the fate of his ship sinking, but his untimely death by his own hand.


Gordon Landsborough’s The Battle of the River Plate – The First Naval Battle of the Second World War is an incredibly detailed accounting of the events surrounding the sinking of the Germany’s pocket battleship, Graf Spee. The author shows us more of what transpired other than just the naval battle. He takes us step by step through Graf Spee’s raiding campaign, the fateful decision to engage British forces in battle, the political fight leading up to the ships scuttling and finally the ending chapter in this saga where months after the battle, British forces track down and recuse their captive countrymen imprisoned on the German merchant ship, Altmark, as she made a final dash for her homeland. We are given a glimpse into what the merchantmen endured as the Graf Spee plummeted their ships as well their struggles as prisoners of war at sea. Landsborough opens a window for his readers to gain a little insight into what what Capt. Langdorff might have been thinking at the time and why he might have made the decisions he chose leading up to the final result of scuttling of the Graf Spee and eventually his suicide. The author also provides a picture of the British resolve in this story through Capt. Harwood’s recorded accounts and the unprecedented media documentation. The Battle of the River Plate – The First Naval Battle of the Second World War a well-written and captivating read an is sure to please anyone with a fascination of naval history, and pertinently the events surrounding the first naval battle of WWII.


The Modelers Social Club and the MSC Review Connect would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for providing a copy of Gordon Landsborough’s The Battle of the River Plate – The First Naval Battle of the Second World War for review!


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