The Battle of the River Plate (1956)



Director:  Michael Powell,  Emeric Pressburger.

Starring:  John Gregson (Capt. Bell, HMS Exeter), Anthony Quayle (Cdre. Harwood, HMS Ajax), Ian Hunter (Capt. Woodhouse, HMS Ajax), Jack Gwillim (Capt. Parry, HMNZS Achilles), Bernard Lee (Capt. Dove, MS Africa Shell), Lionel Murton (Mike Fowler, Montevideo), Anthony Bushell (Millington Drake, British Minister, Uruguay), Peter Illing (Dr. Guani, Uruguayan Foreign Minister), Michael Goodliffe (Capt. McCall, R.N., British Naval Attache, Buenos Aires), Patrick Macnee (Lt. Cmdr. Medley, HMS Ajax), John Chandos (Dr. Langmann, German Minister, Uruguay), Douglas Wilmer (M. Desmoulins, French Minister, Uruguay), William Squire (Ray Martin, Montevideo), Roger Delgado (Capt. Varela, Uruguyan Navy), Andrew Cruickshank (Capt. Stubbs, Doric Star).

destruction of  the Graf Spee, Montevideo, Uruguay, December 1939


Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

This is a story of sea power. November 1939. The war was two months old. Germany could feed herself, but England could not. If the Germans could block shipments to Britain then the population would starve. In pursuit of this goal Germany had three powerful weapons: magnetic mines; U-boats; and surface raiders.

The surface raiders were a big problem. These pocket battleships were strong and swift. They were the tigers of the sea.

1939. Ten days before war was declared, one of these surface raiders sailed with secret orders to the south Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Months passed by and nobody suspected there was a killer lurking there. That is, until ship after ship failed to make it to its home port.

Wednesday, November 15, 1939. The Graf Spee destroys a British merchant ship the M.S. Africa Shell captained by Captain Dove. As Dove is transported to the German ship, he tells the officer on the skiff that he was well inside Portuguese territorial waters. He points and sayse they can see the coast of Portuguese East Africa right there. Pirates, that’s what you are, says Dove.

Captain Dove is brought aboard the Graf Spee to be held as a prisoner. When he gets on board ship, he is taken to meet Captain Langsdorff. The German captain is very hospitable to Dove. But Dove insists he was well within Portuguese territorial waters. Langsdorff gets Dove his chart and Dove shows him exactly where he was. Langsdorff says Dove would like to argue that the spot was within the territorial waters and he, Langsdorff, would like to argue that he was outside these waters. The German tells Dove to write out his protest and he will give him a receipt. Dove thanks him for his cooperation.

Langsdorff offers Dove some Scotch whiskey that was taken from the steamship Clement and cigarettes from the Huntsman. Dove says the captain of the latter ship was a pal of his. Another ship sunk by Langsdorff was the SS Trevanion. Landsdorff says his orders are to sink merchant ships and avoid a battle. He adds that the big British battleships aren’t fast enough to catch his ship. And he is regularly able to get supplies and fuel oil because he always knows where his supply ship is because it has been pre-arranged. Now the pocket battleship is heading south east past South Africa.

Captain Langsdorff gives Captain Dove a tour of his ship. The Graf Spee reaches its supply ship, which was formally a ship named the Altmark. Dove watches as supplies pass from ship to ship. Langsdorff shows Dove that he has different names signs. One day he’s the Deutchland and then the Admiral Scheer. He says that five minutes at twenty-eight knots means the difference between being within range and out of range. Now they are almost finished with their three months of duty. They will be relieved by another ship.

A number of captured British officers come aboard ship as prisoners. Dove meets them all. They ask him when he was sunk? He says November 15 in the Indian Ocean. Among the ship captains are those of the Huntsman, Newton Beach, Ashley, Tirora, and Trevanion. Dove wonder who’s next?

The Graf Spee sinks another British ship, the SS Doric Star. Captain Stubbs comes in and meets his now fellow prisoners. He says his ship didn’t sink, they scuttled it.

The Germans sing the German version of the Christmas tune "Holy Night". They bring Christmas decorations for the men, but don’t have an extra tree for them. The men are pleased with the decorations.

Stubbs brought a Spanish newspaper and the guys look the pages over. They think they have the racing news with the English equivalent of the names: Ajax, Achilles, Exeter and Cumberland. Some of the captains recognize the names as names of ships from the British South American Fleet. One of the captains realizes that they are not looking at the racing news at all, but the shipping news used by British intelligence.

Commodore Harwood of H.M.S. Ajax sends a message to Captain Bell of the ship H.M.S. Exeter, the first ship behind him, which says that he would like to see the captains of the two other ships on the flagship at 11:00 hours. Captain Bell relays the message to Captain Parry of the H.M.S. Achilles.

The three captains and some other naval officers meet onboard the H.M.S. Ajax. Harwood explains that they are off the River Platte (between Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay). They are looking for the surface raider for which they have three names: Deutchland, Admiral Scheer and Graf Spee. The ship sank the Clement in the Indian Ocean on September 30. Harwood tracks the ship by the locations of the British ships it sank. The surface raider sank the African Shell in the Mozambique Channel. It doubled-back and sunk the Doric Star, but not before the it got off a signal. The ship could double-back again to the Indian Ocean; try to slip back to Germany; or come to South America where they can pick off the grain and meat cargo ships.

If they are making for South America, the surface raider should be off Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, today, December 12. If, as he believes, she’s coming to the River Platte, she will be here tomorrow, December 13. The pocket battleship can both outgun and outrange the British ships. Therefore, as soon as they sight the surface raider, they will attack her on separate flanks. The Cumberland is not available for a fortnight.

Wednesday morning, December 13. 04:50 hours. A search plane readies for launching. All three British ships have numerous sailors looking for the German ship. When it becomes very light and nothing is spotted, the bugler sound the disperse order and they all start to relax a bit. Each of the captains goes below on his own ship. The time is 06:10 hours.

Not long aterwards the smoke of a ship is sighted on the horizon bearing red 100. Captain Harwood tells the Exeter to investigate the smoke. A little later the sailors with binoculars identify it as a pocket battleship. Some of the other sailors don’t believe it. But then a signal from the Exeter arrives: Enemy in sight! The order goes out: Battle stations!

Harwood has a message sent to the Admiralty: Engaging the pocket battleship. The order is given for the guns to open fire as soon as they are ready to fire.

The prisoners on the Graf Spee realize that something big is up. The ship shakes and some believe they have been hit, but another captain says it’s the first eleven inch salvo from the Graf Spee.

Shells start landing around the British ships. The British ships start returning fire. The search plane is sent out to direct the fire onto the Graf Spee.

Langsdorff has his ship head straight for the Exeter. The British ship is hit. Then the Germans land a direct hit forward turret. Captain Parry is shook up but quite a few of the men around him are dead. First aid men are rushed onto the bridge. The padre comes up to help the wounded with any spiritual matters. The Exeter completely disappears from the sight of the other two British ships because of all the smoke and flames. And yet the Exeter starts firing again. The Achilles is hit. The German ship is heading straight for the Exeter. All communications on the Exeter are out so the sailors have to play the "telephone game" to relay messages to the engine room.

The search plane sends a message to Achilles that their salvos are falling short. The enemy is closing in rapidly. The Exeter is listing to starboard. Captain Parry says he is going to try to ram the German ship if he gets a shot at it. The Ajax hits the superstructure of the Graf Spee. Now the German ship alters course and the Ajax is hit hard by explosions. It’s 07:40 hours.

Captain Harwood gets a message from the Exeter that all guns are out of action, but the vessel is still seaworthy. Harwood asks Parry if his ship could make it to the Falkland Islands? Parry replies that he can reach Plymouth, England, if ordered. He starts for the Falklands.

The British prisoners note that everything is quiet. They think the Graf Spee is running from the battle. But then a salvo blows a big hole in the deck. The prisoners are shook up. One fellow sticks his head out of the hole in the deck to see what’s going on.

The two remaining British ships follow the Graf Spee.

The prisoners realize that the pocket battleship has stopped. A German comes down to them to tell them that they are now in Montevideo Harbor, which is a neutral port. So all the prisoners will be set free tomorrow. The prisoners, of course, are very happy to hear this.

On shore the news spreads fast that the Graf Spee is in the harbor and there’s been a battle. An American named Mike Fowler rushes to call the New York media.

Langsdorff goes to see the Uruguayan foreign minister. Large crowds come out to see the ship. Ray Martin of the British ministry starts a twenty-four hour surveillance of the Graff Spee. Martin can see a lot of coffins on the deck of the German ship. Then he sees British naval officers come on the quarterdeck. Langsdorff asks to speak with Captain Dove. The two captains shake hands.

The two British ships are joined by the Cumberland. Everyone marvels that the ship made the 1,000 mile trip in 35 hours. They ask how they made the voyage so fast and the message comes back: Anticipation. Everyone gets a chuckle over the reply. 

The German minister asks the Uruguayan foreign minister for two to three weeks to make repairs. But the foreign minister will only given them seventy-two hours. They must be out by 8 p.m., the 17th of December. The foreign minister informs the German that no repairs are allowed to increase the fighting strength of the vessel. The German minister says that he must strongly protest.  The Uruguayan minister says his protest is noted. 

Harwood calls in the naval attaché to tell him that he must delay the leaving of the German ship as much as possible. The captain explains that his three ships are not enough to make the outcome certain. Other British ships are coming.

Harwood gets promoted from commodore to Rear Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, Ninth Commander of the Bath. The captains of the two other ships in the battle are promoted to companions of the Bath.

The British embassy wants it leaked that two British capital ships will be coming to Via Blanca for 2,000 tons of fuel oil.

The Uruguayan foreign minister wants to know from the British minister why are the British now trying to delay the departure of the Graf Spee? The British minister says the ship can leave.

Mike Fowler gives minute by minute commentary on the departure of the Graf Spee. There are thirteen Allied warships waiting for the Graf Spee. One of them is the battleship Renown and the carrier Ark Royal.  Sir Henry Harwood says that if he were the German captain, he would weigh anchor in the next fifteen minutes. On the radio Mike Fowler says the German ship should be out of Montevideo Harbor by 8 p.m. which is ten minutes away.

Mike reports that the German ship is moving out of the harbor under its own power. The transmission goes over the loud speakers aboard the British ships and the men stop working to listen. Then he broadcasts that the German ship has stopped. Another German ship receives passengers off the Graf Spee. All of a sudden the German ship repeatedly explodes and burns. The ship is being scuttled.

When Harwood’s ship appears the Montevideo crowds cheer them wildly. The Uruguayans put the German supply ship under arrest, but the Uruguayan captain says they will not detain Captain Langsdorff and the crew. Captain Dove came with the Uruguayan captain. He tells Langsdorff that everyone respects him very much for the way he behaved through all of this. Langsdorff tells him goodbye and thank you.


Good action movie.  It kept my interest and kept me wondering what was going to happen. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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