Battle of the River Plate


grafspee1sAnother popular battle which is useful for comparing some of the available World War 2 naval rules is the Battle of the River Plate. The rule set to be used this time is General Quarters 3 – known as GQ3 for short. The battle occurred in December 1939, early in the second world war. The German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee had been sinking freighters in the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. The Royal Navy had many groups of warships seeking the Graf Spee. In search of more prey, the Graf Spee ran into one of these groups at the mouth of the River Plate in South America. The British group consisted of the heavy cruiser Exeter plus the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles.

Battle of the River Plate

grafspee1This famous battle was refought using the General Quarters 3 (GQ3) rules. Read how the game turned out – did it follow history?

Churchill called the Graf Spee a pocket battleship, but this was polititian’s license as it was really a heavy cruiser. The main difference with the typical cruiser was that it sported 11″ guns. Most heavy cruisers (like the Exeter) had 8″ guns. The two light cruisers had 6″ main guns. Following captured papers from a merchantman, the Graf Spee went to the mouth of the River Plate because that was an assembly point for convoys. Unfortunately for the Germans, the 3 British cruisers happened to be in the vicinity hunting the Graf Spee. When the Graf Spee sighted and recognised the Exeter, they thought the other ships were probably destroyers protecting a convoy. So instead of staying at a distance and using the advantage of the extra range of the 11″ guns, Langsdorff turned the Graf Spee and headed towards the Exeter, expecting to find the convoy beyond. The British were not initially aware that they were facing the Graf Spee. When they saw it, they split the Exeter from the two light cruisers to try and split the Graf Spee’s fire.

Turn 1

The Graf Spee turned gently towards Exeter – the closest and most dangerous of the Royal Navy ships. Using the superior German optics the gunnery was quickly on target and a hit at just over 17,000 yards knocked out the Exeter’s main ‘B’ turret.

The Exeter replied, but at that range could not penetrate the Graf Spee’s armour and so caused only minor hull damage.

The British light cruisers sped as quickly as they could towards the German ship, but it would be a while before they were in range of their 6″ main guns.

Turn 2

The Exeter and Graf Spee had closed to nearly 12,000 yards. The Exeter was now at a range where it could penetrate, but was not able to land any shells. The Graf Spee was shooting well, causing hull damage and knocking out ‘A’ turret. The Exeter now only had one main turret left, and that was at the rear.

Turn 3

The Graf Spee opened up with its 5.9″ guns as well. The Exeter turned so that it could engage with its rear turret. The Ajax was now just under 18,000 and opened up with her forward 6″ turrets. Despite all this shooting, no hits were registered.

Turn 4

The Graf Spee and Exeter had now closed to 7,500 yards. The British ships all missed, but the Graf Spee poured murderous fire from her main and secondary armament onto the Exeter. All her turrets were destroyed, her hull was shredded and her bulkheads were crumbling. As she settled low into the water, the ammunition in her rear magazine exploded, causing the ship to break in half and sink quickly below the waves. All that was left were a few survivors and some burning debris.


Turn 5

The Spee now turned her attention onto the Ajax at 14,500 yards, causing a hole in her hull just below the waterline. The Ajax replied but only managed to destroy the port torpedo tubes.

Turn 6

The damage control parties on the Ajax were frantically trying to contain the flooding as the ships continued to trade blows. The Graf Spee was firing on the Ajax at 13,000 yards with her 11″ main guns and on the Achilles at 14,000 yards with her 5.9″ secondary guns. Both British ships received hits to their 4″ secondary guns.

Turn 7

The Ajax finally had its flooding under control, but was only able to make 14 knots for fear of damaging the temporary repairs. The Achilles put herself at risk by overtaking the Ajax and putting herself between her sister ship and the Graf Spee. The Graf Spee had to switch her main guns to target the brave Achilles, but managed to do this quickly – knocking out the ‘Y’ turret and causing engineering damage. This slowed the Achilles to 21 knots.

Turn 8

The damage control officer reported to the captain that the engineering damage could not be repaired on the Achilles, so they would be unable to catch the Graf Spee, which was still able to make 26 knots . However, the Achilles was now within 10,000 yards. Rapid fire from her 6″ guns was not quite close enough to penetrate, but destroyed the rest of the torpedo tubes and did enough hull damage to slow the Graf Spee’s speed to 23 knots. The Graf Spee returned the complement with a penetrating hit to the hull.

Turn 9

The Graf Spee turns to starboard to stop the range closing so quickly, but the Achilles has been able to close to 8,500 yards where her main guns can penetrate. Unfortunately the Achilles could not make use of this. The Graf Spee however was well on target, causing 2 hull hits and destroying another 4″ turret on the Achilles. The Achilles was now down to 14 knots.

Turn 10

The Graf Spee continued to take toll of the Achilles. The catapult was wrecked, a fire from the aviation fuel store plus more shells damaged the hull and ‘A’ turret was knocked out of action. So far everything had been going the Germans’ way. However, this fooled the German captain into thinking he was safe from the British guns. So instead of opening the range as fast as possible, the Graf Spee merely turned gently to starboard, which would eventually open the range.


This was a mistake. Even though the Achilles missed, the Ajax didn’t. It had veered left so as to bring all guns to bear at just under 10,000 yards. Although not able to penetrate, the gun director was partially knocked out on the Graf Spee, making her fire from here on less accurate.

Turn 11

Whilst the Achilles was getting the aviation fuel fire under control, its captain decided not to fire, so that the Ajax would not be confused by its shell splashes. This paid dividends, with the Ajax at 8,500 yards putting 3 penetrating shells into the Graf Spee. ‘Y’ turret was knocked out, a fire was started and the hull was damaged twice. Under this weight of fire, the Graf Spee missed with all guns and was now only able to make 17 knots.

Turn 12

The fire on the Graf Spee was quickly put out. The German ship wanted to keep on firing, so the Graf Spee limited her turns away from the British ships. The Achilles was only just making steerage way. The Ajax again penetrated the hull of the Graf Spee, dropping its speed to 12 knots.

The Graf Spee replied, knocking out ‘Y’ turret on the Ajax as well as starting a fire and penetrating the hull. Its secondaries knocked out the ‘B’ turret on the Achilles.

Turn 13

The Graf Spee and the Ajax traded murderous fire at 7,250 yards with main guns whilst the Graf Spee also fired on the Achilles with its secondaries. At the end of this, The Ajax only had ‘Y’ turret and its port secondaries remaining, with a top speed of 4 knots. The Achilles had no main guns left, only 1 port secondary and could also only make 4 knots.

The Graf Spee had no main guns left, had lost one port secondary, both torpedo tubes and was only capable of 12 knots. But at least it was faster than both British ships. However, it would take a few dangerous rounds to get out of range of the British ships.

Turn 14 & 15

The Achilles limped towards the wreckage that had been the Exeter in order to search for survivors. Both other ships missed their targets. The Graf Spee was trying to make it past the Ajax but the range was down to 7,000 yards.

Turn 16

The Ajax hit the German ship, knocking out the other port secondary. But this was its last gasp as the incoming fire from the Graf Spee slammed into the hull of the Ajax, sinking it.

With only the starboard secondaries and no main guns remaining, Captain Langsdorff gave up on the idea of a long Atlantic voyage home. It turned around so that these remaining guns could bear on the remaining British ship. Keeping a respectful distance it soon was on target and easily sunk the badly damaged Achilles.

Captain Langsdorff, ever the gentleman, stopped to pick up survivors from all 3 British ships then with no hope of getting to Germany, steamed slowly into Montivideo.

Wrap Up

This was a close run affair. More usual when badly damaged would be for ships to make as much smoke as possible and try and get away. Wargamings, however, love fighting to the death.Typical of quite a different result to the first Battle of Denmark Strait. The early hits on the Bismarck did only a little damage, so even though the Bismarck was not hitting anything, it really did not matter at that stage. Only the Prinz Eugen was copping it, as you might expect with it up against two larger ships.

The critical hit on the forward magazine caused a lot of damage to the Bismarck, but it was still dangerous at that stage. It looked heavily in favour of the British, but with the Prince of Wales shortly to retire it was still anybody’s game.

The Bismarck appeared to hit well enough in the following turn, but the Hood did much better, and this doomed the German battleship. There was some consolation for the Germans late in the game from holding up the Hood and allowing the Prinz Eugen to escape.

This is a result that the British might have expected historically (until the point where the Hood actually blew up).

The game was again enjoyable and the action flowed well. The rules work really well so far and we will soon be trying torpedoes, submarines and aircraft.


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