Timewatch: Battle of the River Plate

Updated Wednesday 18th January 2006

A deadly duel at sea and one of the best intelligence bluffs of the Second World War

Battleship gun Copyrighted image Icon Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission On December 13th 1939, the first great naval battle of World War Two exploded into action off the coast of South America. Against overwhelming firepower, three British ships took on the pride of the German fleet, the pocket battleship Graf Spee.

It would become known as the battle of the River Plate and pit two great naval officers against each other in a deadly duel. The Graf Spee was commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, a decorated hero from the First World War. Facing him was Commodore Henry Harwood, a brilliant naval tactician.

A deadly game of ‘cat and mouse’ at sea, culminated in a bloody naval fight. As the world watched, the battle moved ashore in a gripping story of deception, and one of the biggest bluffs of the Second World War.

By the end of this story, one of the two captains would be declared a hero, the other branded a coward and lose his ship, his reputation and eventually his life.

The Battle of the River Plate tells the full story of this epic battle through the families and crews of the two commanders. Exclusive access to the personal archives of the two captains and interviews with their children bring a new understanding of the men behind the uniforms. Interviewed for the first time on television, Captain Langsdorff’s daughter gives a unique insight into Langsdorff the man and reads from his poignant final letter home ("my father writes: ‘Be proud in your grief and prove yourself to be a true soldier’s wife’. It still moves me'...") Even her children have never seen this letter which she has kept hidden away for 66 years.

Commodore Harwood’s two sons bring a personal understanding of their father’s motivation and character (“He had a happy knack of getting results by being nice. People trusted him”). There are hitherto unseen home movies and footage shot by the Commodore himself whilst on patrol in the South Atlantic, and his letters home written during the battle.

Survivors from both sides give powerful personal accounts describing the terror of the battle and its bloody aftermath (“there was a body here and an arm over there, and you knew that that arm belonged to that body because he had the right buttons on his sleeve…”)

Dr Eric Grove - eminent naval historian and author of a recent definitive history of the battle, re-examines how the cat and mouse battle at sea turned into an intriguing ‘cloak and dagger’ battle of wits ashore, culminating in the first great media event of the war. (‘In this battle we have good versus evil, weak versus strong. But the strong is represented by a good man fighting for an evil cause. It’s a tragedy that most playwrights could make a great deal from…’)

This programme re-examines the evidence and tells the full story of the Battle of the River Plate.

 

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