At the outbreak of the Second World War the British cruisers HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax were sent to the South Atlantic where they were joined by HMNZS Achilles and began to patrol the seas around the River Plate.
On December 13th 1939 the British squadron, under the command of Commodore Harwood, sighted a German ship which had been causing havoc with shipping in the area. Exeter was sent to investigate. The vessel was Graf Spee - a German pocket battleship named after Admiral Graf von Spee of Battle of the Falklands fame.
Graf Spee immediately opened fire on Exeter, crippling the British vessel with its massive guns. Ajax and Achilles were firing on Graf Spee’s port bow, but their salvoes were falling short and when Ajax began to take damage the three British ships turned away. Exeter was unable to continue and began to limp back to Stanley. Commodore Harwood decided to close on the German ship and bring all guns of Ajax and Achilles to bear. After a rapid and successful exchange, he again withdrew and shadowed Graf Spee at a distance of 15 miles.
The German ship had taken a battering, but her engines were undamaged and the main guns intact. Langsdorff decided the vessel was no longer seaworthy and headed to Montevideo, Uruguay. The British squadron waited outside territorial waters.
On December 17th, Graf Spee weighed anchor and headed out of Montevideo harbour. Late in the evening, watched by thousands of people gathered around the harbour, Graf Spee was rent by a series of explosions. The ship keeled over and sank. Unable to escape the waiting British squadron, Langsdorff had scuttled the ship as ordered by Hitler. Reportedly heart-broken by the loss of his ship, Langsdorff wrote a letter taking full responsibility for the scuttling of Graf Spee and shot himself.
The British fleet returned to Stanley to lick their wounds. 64 were killed in the battle, with 45 wounded. Exeter had suffered particularly and while she was being repaired her crew were billeted with families in Stanley. The hospital was full with injured from the battle. Camp residents also rallied to help, sending eggs, meat and other supplies to Stanley - including 96 packets of cigarettes!
A funeral service was held at the Cathedral on December 18th and two of the crew buried at Stanley.
Two Islanders, Stewart Berntsen and Stoker Gleadell, were part of Exeter’s ships company.
The Battle of the River Plate
13th December 1939
Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust
The historic heart of Stanley