On this day in 1939, the German Kriegsmarine (Navy) heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spree was on a “commercial raiding mission” off the coast of Uruguay and Argentina. Before WWII‘s start, the Graf Spee had been authorized to sail around the South Atlantic performing what can only be described as state-sanctioned piracy – holding up merchant vessels and disrupting Allied supply routes. German Captain Hans Langsdorff had already sunk several ships in the region (after bringing their surrendered crews onto his own vessel); no one had actually been killed during the Graf Spee’s “reign of terror”, but it definitely posed a threat to Allied logistical operations, not to mention the commercial livelihood of South America.
In the early hours of December 13th, 3 Royal Navy boats – the HMS Achilles, Exeter and Ajax – ambushed the German heavy cruiser in the River Plate estuary at close range. Commanded by Admiral Henry Harwood (using a plan he’d devised while in school), the three tiny ships surrounded the Graf Spee and began banging away with their smaller naval guns. The massive Graf Spee could have picked them off with her much-larger guns at range, but Langsdorff had been surprised and was unable to counter an attack from both sides at close range. The British suffered many casualties, but after two hours the Graf Spee was damaged beyond repair. Several thousand German sailors were captured, and many commercial sailors were freed from captivity. The battle – which was the very first naval battle of WWII, and the opening shots of the Battle of the Atlantic – was a resounding victory for the Brits and an embarrassing incident for Nazi Germany.
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