The impact, the legacy of the 1939 South Atlantic Campaign depends largely upon perspective and what the viewer is looking for, on the whole perhaps it is more cultural, than strategic. The battle of the River Plate is definitely something with immediate consequences and that sets the tone for the war; where more often than not German naval success are followed by inglorious defeat – yes, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (named for Admiral Spee’s World War I armoured cruisers), would complete a trip and a channel dash; but when all is said and the done the German’s could never again match the range of audacity shown by Captain Langsdorff & the Admiral Graf Spee. In part that was a consequence of the Graf Spee’s loss – Hitler didn’t like losing, he didn’t really understand naval warfare and most of all once in power he was easily distracted by the next thing.
The problem for the commanders of the Kreigsmarine is that Hitler had believed the hype that they, the Reichsmarine (1919-35) which preceded, that many navies had been peddling, that of unsinkable ‘battlewagons’; a claim builders had made long before SS Titanic met an iceberg and which still exists today. The Graf Spee and the Altmark had been heading south long before World War II began, the definition of long term planning is having a surface raider in place when war has not even started – the Kreigsmarine had not one, but two such ships and the necessary supply ships in place. With Deutschland in the North Atlantic for a short time, the effect of the two Panzerschiff was dramatic – the Admiralty didn’t know how many surface raiders there were out in the Atlantic, but as reports of intercepts mounted, Task Forces were organised, resources were stretched, ships sent out to criss-cross the ocean hunting these ships.
The trouble with this picture is that there was no follow up, no task force tried to fight through the North Sea Patrol to the North Atlantic/surge to the South, nor a clandestine late night dashes under the cover of a new moon by solo ships. Yet the way HMS Ajax & HMS (HMNZS) Achilles reacted on seeing a ship the profile of which looked like another German cruiser is testimony to what might have been achieved had any of these risks paid off. They weren’t though, so instead of the River Plate really turning into a rout (potentially leading to a run of the Narvik scenario, i.e. German win first battle against light forces, Royal Navy turns up with overwhelming force for second and annihilates them), it becomes the first and greatest shock to a Commander-in-Chief unprepared for it. In many ways a lesson in the realities of the power of the nation he commanded, it was powerful regionally, but it did not have the ability to really project that power globally.
This meant that for him every loss was a shock which ‘proved the lie’ and because of the way government functioned in Nazi Germany, other competing factions were more than happy to support him in this belief in the hope for more resources/power for their own faction. This extended even to other factions within the navy, in fact arguably Gross Admiral Karl Dönitz’s biggest problems with making the case for the balanced navy he needed as the fleet commander, were the arguments he had made as commander of the U-Boats! This all meant that the Germans were never able to focus or commit the resources that would have been needed to make their strategy a success. Later when the Soviet Union was examining all the post-war analysis, they realised the problem the Germans had was largely one of reach and numbers, that their good ideas had not been supported – which lead to the Sverdlov class.1 No event like this though is ever one sided in its impact.
For the RN the South Atlantic Campaign and its conclusion were critical, it was the testimony they needed to show they could do the mission that the realities of the world had given them. The trouble was it was also as much a testimony to their weakness – the sheer amount of force that had to be used for one raider, the realities of the distances and the structural issues that had revealed all made for tough reading for the Admiralty – what was worse was it was nothing the RN hadn’t already predicted was coming, the building and rearmament plans of the 1930s had all been orientated around the feared global conflict. A war against Japan had been used as the benchmark, because to fight such a nation of capabilities and geography as they were would require a force that could fight around and across the world at the same time.
The modern discussion might be of German Surface Raiders, but the RN was far more worried by the far larger Imperial Japanese Navy – with its aircraft carriers, cruisers and impressive battle fleet. Politicians in parliament might have been focused on Germany, on Italy, on the areas that were close and loud; but the RN did not have that luxury and it helped that some of the leading lights of Britain’s governments were less sanguine about the distant East. Still though it was an uphill struggle to make the case, but it was essential they did and to an extent the Battle of the River Plate was the proof they had needed to show that any conflict would be global – the problem for the RN was this happened with a war which had already started in Europe. So their case was proved, but it was in a war that would be far more of a joint exercise than against the Japanese would have been.
As has been said it lead to the RN putting far more emphasis on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, on replenishment at sea and the opportunities that would enable. The impact stretched far further than this though, it showed the need for much more aerial reconnaissance as soon as feasible – on the manpower and budget available, the easiest way to do this would be to get greater reliability from whatever aircraft they had. This meant carriers, but the RN’s rearmament plans would not be quick enough for them to fulfil this all out of conventional carriers; this combined with the need to fill the gap in air cover for convoys is what led to creation of the Escort, or ‘Woolworths’, Aircraft Carriers. They were stop gaps which were critical to the war effort and their creation can be as much linked to the South Atlantic Campaign as the pre-war exercises on trade protection the RN had poured voluminous resource into. This, along with hundreds of other little things were what the victors of the Battle of the River Plate learned from it.
It is never though just the two sides who draw lessons from a battle, for the Japanese and the Americans, for the Italians, for the nations of South America and every other watcher there were lessons to be drawn. For the major powers, it was the power of the surface raider – the navy with the most global infrastructure and one of the largest in the world had so much trouble dealing with one surface raider. What they also learnt though was that it would depend upon how that surface raider was handled how successful it could be. In simple terms if a major power was dependent upon global trade, yes that could be a strength if they could maintain it – but the fight to maintain it was their weakness. This though is all a relatively immediate impact, not a legacy – for that it is necessary to look beyond the world of defence, potentially even beyond the world of foreign policy, although not politics.
The film is of course the greatest legacy, it impact acting as a force multiplier for all the rest of the events. The film is not just though about the South Atlantic Campaign and the Battle of the River Plate, it comes out in 1956. It’s no coincidence that the movie finds funding, finds the support of the RN and other allied navies, at a time when the Soviet surface raiders, the Sverdlov class are starting to make themselves felt around the world. This movie therefore served a purpose beyond just a recounting of history for the pleasure of the paying public; it was a reassurance to the British audience, a reminder of the importance of maritime security/trade protection to the public and body politic of allied nations, finally it was a shot across the bows of the Soviet Union – a not so subtle display of the fact that the idea had been tried and failed before.
Now this is supposed to be roughly 1000 words and it’s ended up over 1500, so excuse the brevity of some of the points and that the conclusion is largely left to the reader, but there is a summary. The South Atlantic Campaign, the Battle of the River Plate, was how WWII began for the RN – there was no pacific war, no battle fleet in the North Sea, no resupply of Malta or Arctic Convoys in the beginning. There was only the Atlantic – everywhere else was deterrence, the North Atlantic was an anti-submarine battle, while the South Atlantic was a surface raider campaign. In simple terms a war began, but it wasn’t really about fighting battles for maritime supremacy – WWI had saw to that, what it was about was fighting for maritime control. The Kreigsmarine was used to wage what was in reality a maritime guerrilla war, an insurgency of the sea – it was clever, it was planned, it was calculated, and if it hadn’t been for the RN’s own planning, own calculations and far more luck than any government would ever like to admit, they would have won.
The Graf Spee, Captain Langsdorff, were undermined by orders, circumstance and infrastructure – but the strategy itself was undermined by a lack of support. A more concerted effort would have forced the RN to have to devote more efforts to countering it, with ships numbers being finite this would have inevitably weakened the posture in the Mediterranean and the Far East, far earlier. For the RN all depended upon making the North Sea blockade as strong as they could, making it look even stronger if possible – because whilst the threat was kept either surface raiders or submarines it was far easier to make the resources fit, that is why the direst times where when combinations came into play. This all leads to biggest legacy of the South Atlantic Campaign and the one that is forgotten at peril – that the ocean has no real defensive points, nowhere that flag can be planted and stand made, the only way to influence it (or more importantly the events upon its waters) is to be present and that requires money, commitment and understanding.
In 1939 the RN reaped the benefit of generations of Ambassador’s and Commodore South America’s work in building relationships with the regions governments and people; this was the critical force multiplier which enabled the force to be as effective as it was. This could not have been achieved without presence in this strategically important region. So the answer to this legacy is another legacy, forward basing, regional engagement, being present – it why ships get worn out in peace time making port visits and exercising with other nations, because these links can mean the difference between national oblivion or national survival.
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The #RiverPlate80 Sunday Updates from the entire event combined into a movie…
it’s a lot of History!
- Clarke, A., 2014. Sverdlov Class Cruisers, and the Royal Navy’s Response. [Online] Available at: https://globalmaritimehistory.com/sverdlov_class_rn_response/ [Accessed 11 February 2018].