Dramatised documentary telling the gripping story of a deadly duel at sea and one of the best intelligence bluffs of WWII. Commodore Henry Harwood takes on Captain Hans Langsdorff and the pride of the German navy, the Graf Spee, in a battle of courage and wit. One would return home a hero, while the other would lose his reputation, his ship, and ultimately his life.

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On December 13th 1939, 200 miles off the coast of South America, 0:00:03.080:00:07.96
the first major naval battle of World War Two exploded into action. 0:00:07.960:00:12.44
Against overwhelming firepower, three British ships took on the 0:00:14.960:00:18.88
pride of the German fleet, the pocket battleship, Graf Spee. 0:00:18.880:00:22.72
It would become known as the Battle of the River Plate. 0:00:24.520:00:28.68
The battle would pit two great naval officers against each other in a deadly duel. 0:00:30.560:00:36.00
Graf Spee was commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, a decorated hero from the First World War. 0:00:36.000:00:41.60
TRANSLATION FROM GERMAN: 0:00:41.600:00:43.64
A thousand men owe their lives to Langsdorff. 0:00:43.640:00:46.88
Facing him was Commodore Henry Harwood, a brilliant naval tactician. 0:00:50.040:00:56.08
He had a happy knack of getting results by being nice. People trusted him. 0:00:56.080:01:02.76
As the world watched, the battle moved ashore in a gripping story 0:01:02.760:01:07.60
of deception, and one of the biggest bluffs of the Second World War. 0:01:07.600:01:12.76
One of the commanders would be decorated and return home a hero. 0:01:12.760:01:18.16
The other would lose his ship, his reputation, and eventually his life. 0:01:18.160:01:24.04
In this battle we have good versus evil. 0:01:26.440:01:32.24
Weak versus strong. 0:01:32.240:01:34.48
The weak triumph over the strong. 0:01:34.480:01:37.84
But the strong is represented by a good man fighting for an evil cause. 0:01:37.840:01:44.60
He pays the price of this impossible situation. 0:01:44.600:01:48.56
It's a tragedy that most playwrights could make a great deal from. 0:01:48.560:01:53.16
Tonight, Timewatch re-examines the evidence and tells the full story of the Battle of the River Plate. 0:01:53.160:02:00.08
CHEERING 0:02:17.440:02:20.40
The Admiral Graf Spee was the pride of the German navy. 0:02:24.680:02:30.48
Even before the Second World War had begun, she was central to secret 0:02:30.480:02:34.60
plans for a guerre de corse, a war against commerce at sea. 0:02:34.600:02:39.40
A special ship would need a special captain. 0:02:41.360:02:45.56
The man chosen was one of the best and most highly respected officers 0:02:45.560:02:49.40
in the German navy - Captain Hans Langsdorff. 0:02:49.400:02:54.64
The great thing about Langsdorff was that he was a very gentlemanly officer. 0:02:54.640:02:59.88
He was a very old style naval officer. 0:02:59.880:03:02.88
And he was a very attractive figure as well. 0:03:02.880:03:07.16
Langsdorff came from a family of lawyers and Lutheran pastors, 0:03:08.680:03:12.60
and had been brought up in a strict moral tradition. 0:03:12.600:03:16.40
TRANSLATION: 0:03:16.400:03:18.92
The Christian concept of the world meant a lot to him, 0:03:18.920:03:23.16
as did morality. 0:03:23.160:03:25.96
These were the things which he valued. 0:03:27.920:03:30.48
He had thought about becoming a vicar, which the family would have definitely approved of. 0:03:35.080:03:40.28
But on reflection, he decided to join the navy. 0:03:40.280:03:44.00
NEW SPEAKER 0:03:48.000:03:50.04
When I reported to Captain Hans Langsdorff, 0:03:50.040:03:52.92
he struck me as someone who'd had a humanistic education. 0:03:52.920:03:57.00
He was somewhat different from the image one has of an officer in the imperial navy. 0:04:01.080:04:06.20
Langsdorff's Graf Spee was nicknamed a pocket battleship. 0:04:13.200:04:17.56
It was boasted that she was bigger than anything faster, 0:04:17.560:04:20.96
and faster than anything bigger. 0:04:20.960:04:24.72
Her newly designed diesel engines allowed her to cruise for 16,000 miles without refuelling. 0:04:24.720:04:30.92
Bristling with huge 11 inch guns, she was capable of sinking ships 15 miles away. 0:04:30.920:04:37.52
My father must have been really proud and happy to be on such a beautiful ship. 0:04:44.200:04:48.76
Not only beautiful to look at, but great in every way. 0:04:48.760:04:52.64
On August 21st 1939, 0:04:56.880:04:59.64
Graf Spee sailed quietly away from her base in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. 0:04:59.640:05:05.12
On board were 1,134 crew. 0:05:05.120:05:10.04
Her departure was carefully timed so that she would cross 0:05:10.040:05:13.56
the main shipping lanes at night without being spotted. 0:05:13.560:05:16.92
When Britain declared war on September the 3rd, Germany already had an ace hiding in the Atlantic. 0:05:16.920:05:23.80
Her orders were to act as a lone surface raider and to wreak havoc with allied merchant shipping. 0:05:23.800:05:29.68
Langsdorff's intention was to create as much chaos as he could. 0:05:35.480:05:39.40
So he'd sink something somewhere and then motor away as fast as he could somewhere else to give the impression 0:05:39.400:05:47.68
there was more than one ship, and to create as much chaos as possible. 0:05:47.680:05:51.60
In fact, the main aim was not so much the physical damage that was involved 0:05:51.600:05:58.40
in sinking the ships, it was the whole chaos that was inflicted on 0:05:58.400:06:03.64
shipping in this broad area, shipping that was of crucial importance to Britain's survival in the war. 0:06:03.640:06:10.12
On September 30th, Graf Spee sank the British steamship Clement. 0:06:11.920:06:16.52
But she got off a radio message warning that she was being attacked. 0:06:16.520:06:21.00
News of an unidentified German raider in the South Atlantic was met with swift action at the Admiralty. 0:06:21.000:06:27.16
With merchant shipping vital to the war effort, Churchill made the German raider his number one target. 0:06:27.160:06:34.56
20 warships were dispatched to hunt her down. 0:06:34.560:06:38.00
Three of them were under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood. 0:06:41.480:06:47.44
Henry Harwood is possibly the archetypal cruiser Commodore. 0:06:47.440:06:52.08
He knew the area perfectly. 0:06:52.080:06:54.68
He'd served there before the war. 0:06:54.680:06:56.36
He knew it like the back of his hand, and he had thought long and hard before the war about how to deal 0:06:56.360:07:03.00
with pocket battleships in general, when he'd worked at the naval college 0:07:03.000:07:06.32
at Greenwich, and how to deal with them in particular in South American waters. 0:07:06.320:07:11.20
Langsdorff could not have faced a more formidable opponent. 0:07:11.200:07:15.28
Henry Harwood was a family man who had joined the navy as a 15 year-old cadet. 0:07:18.880:07:23.72
In 1906, he passed out top of his class and went on to serve in the First World War. 0:07:23.720:07:30.20
He was quite social. 0:07:32.240:07:36.04
He enjoyed country sports. 0:07:36.040:07:38.76
He was a good golfer. 0:07:38.760:07:40.36
He had a happy knack of getting results by being nice. 0:07:42.280:07:47.80
People trusted him, 0:07:47.800:07:50.24
and his ship's company, I think, always... 0:07:50.240:07:54.24
realised that he required a high standard and they gave a high standard. 0:07:54.240:07:59.76
Serving under Commodore Harwood was 19 year-old Basil Trott. 0:08:01.680:08:07.04
He was a great skipper. 0:08:07.040:08:08.68
He was a great seaman. 0:08:08.680:08:10.88
He decided that when we left England, we were going to be an efficient ship. 0:08:10.880:08:16.12
It didn't matter what time of the day or night it was, if he was up, 0:08:16.120:08:20.16
he would think of something for us to do. 0:08:20.160:08:23.88
Action stations at midnight. 0:08:23.880:08:26.08
Lower a sea boat and try and pick up a lifebuoy which he'd thrown over the side. 0:08:26.080:08:31.08
Lower all the pulling boats and row them round the ship. 0:08:31.080:08:34.52
But he also used to stop the ship in mid-Atlantic and say, "Hands to bathe", which was great. 0:08:34.520:08:39.60
You just dropped whatever you were doing and leapt over the side. 0:08:39.600:08:43.52
Anyway, by the time we'd been in commission six months, we found he wasn't really a bad old stick. 0:08:43.520:08:51.04
Commodore Harwood and Captain Langsdorff were set on a very 0:08:51.040:08:54.80
public collision course, one which would shape both their destinies. 0:08:54.800:08:59.16
In a deadly game of cat and mouse, Langsdorff continued to hunt allied merchant shipping. 0:09:04.360:09:10.20
To cause the maximum confusion possible, he now also began to 0:09:11.840:09:16.40
disguise his ship, adding a fake gun turret and an extra funnel. 0:09:16.400:09:21.00
He played his sister ships. 0:09:22.520:09:25.84
In the South Atlantic, he was the Admiral Scheer. 0:09:25.840:09:28.24
In the Indian Ocean, he was the Admiral Graf Spee. 0:09:28.240:09:30.68
He made the allies think there were a number of German raiders around when there was only one. 0:09:30.680:09:37.76
He played this game, and I think he enjoyed it. 0:09:37.760:09:40.28
Apparently during the entire trip, he took great delight in avoiding being found by the English ships. 0:09:44.760:09:51.72
To me, doing that seems almost boyish - 0:09:51.720:09:54.68
even though he was 45 years old by then. 0:09:54.680:09:57.92
Graf Spee next intercepted the Newton Beach, 0:10:04.280:10:08.08
a British merchant ship. 0:10:08.080:10:10.28
To keep his position secret, Langsdorff ordered the merchantman 0:10:10.280:10:14.12
not to use the radio to report his presence or he'd open fire. 0:10:14.120:10:18.20
He then transferred her crew to the Graf Spee, before sinking their ship. 0:10:18.200:10:22.64
On October the 7th, the Ashley, carrying 7,300 tonnes of sugar, was sent to the bottom. 0:10:22.640:10:29.24
Again, Langsdorff transferred her crew to the Graf Spee. 0:10:29.240:10:33.04
He was worried about the fate of the crews of the ships he sank. 0:10:33.040:10:38.72
And he would compromise his own position, in fact, 0:10:38.720:10:42.96
in order to secure the lives of the crews that he'd sunk. 0:10:42.960:10:49.28
In fact, one very touching thing is the way that when ships would not obey his orders and still signal, 0:10:49.280:10:56.16
and he would shoot at them, he would congratulate the officers at the end to say, "You did the right thing." 0:10:56.160:11:02.00
Throughout October and November, Langsdorff led the British 0:11:05.560:11:09.84
a merry dance around the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. 0:11:09.840:11:13.44
He continued to sink merchant shipping, but insisted on saving lives. 0:11:13.440:11:18.60
Hans Langsdorff conducted an outstanding cruiser war, 0:11:25.320:11:29.00
which in the form it took, was unique in naval war history. 0:11:29.000:11:32.68
Unique, because he fulfilled his task as a merchant raider. 0:11:32.680:11:36.44
And yet, during the deployment of the ship, not a single human life was lost. 0:11:42.560:11:47.80
Because Graf Spee was a lone raider, thousands of miles from home, 0:11:50.600:11:55.24
Langsdorff had strict orders from Berlin not to attack other warships. 0:11:55.240:12:00.52
Hitler did not want to risk losing his prize asset. 0:12:00.520:12:05.44
But these were orders that went against the grain for an old-school officer like Langsdorff. 0:12:05.440:12:10.96
In his heart of hearts, he considered this somehow insulting. 0:12:16.360:12:20.44
Which was clearly shown by what he said. 0:12:20.440:12:23.56
And my father also thought it dishonourable 0:12:28.400:12:31.44
to attack a much weaker opponent, who had no chance of defence at all. 0:12:31.440:12:36.16
Graf Spee had been at sea for three months and was coming to the end of her patrol. 0:12:40.000:12:46.20
Langsdorff was eager to win a significant victory over a British warship before returning to Germany. 0:12:46.200:12:52.56
It is precisely because Graf Spee is disappearing from the South Atlantic 0:12:52.560:12:57.36
and it cannot be foreseen when a second commerce raider can operate here, 0:12:57.360:13:01.28
that it must be perceived to have achieved an objectively significant success before leaving the area. 0:13:01.280:13:07.72
You can see from the war diary that Langsdorff was getting 0:13:07.720:13:12.00
very frustrated at just sinking merchant ships. 0:13:12.000:13:15.16
He wanted a victory over the British before he went home. 0:13:15.160:13:19.12
By early December, Commodore Harwood's cruiser Exeter, and his two light cruisers, 0:13:20.640:13:26.52
Ajax and Achilles, were patrolling the South American coast between Brazil and the Falkland Islands. 0:13:26.520:13:33.04
Harwood, a tactical expert, had a hunch as to where Langsdorff might eventually be found. 0:13:33.040:13:39.40
The idea had come to him on a day out with his wife. 0:13:39.400:13:43.76
At the World Trade Fair, he was transfixed by a map 0:13:43.760:13:47.48
which showed the shipping routes in the South Atlantic, 0:13:47.480:13:51.20
and how they all focused on the Plate. 0:13:51.200:13:55.36
And he was so transfixed that Mother, who was there at the time, 0:13:55.360:13:58.48
had great difficulty in getting him away from it. 0:13:58.480:14:02.96
On December the 2nd, Graf Spee sank the steamship Doric Star. 0:14:02.960:14:07.32
But not before she was able to send the emergency code signal announcing she was being attacked. 0:14:07.320:14:14.08
Excuse me, sir. We've just had a... 0:14:14.080:14:16.12
For the first time, Harwood now knew where the German raider was. 0:14:16.120:14:20.28
I've got here a rough diagram which Father made 0:14:23.240:14:26.68
in making his plans for where Graf Spee was after sinking Doric Star. 0:14:26.680:14:33.04
And various calculations of her speed and probable speeds and range, and where she'd get to. 0:14:33.040:14:38.88
And he had three options. 0:14:38.880:14:41.32
One was to go to Rio, where he'd get on the 12th, 0:14:41.320:14:44.12
one to the Plate for the 13th, or to the Falkland Islands on the 14th. 0:14:44.120:14:48.48
So, it's quite an interesting little bit of paper, which he sent home 0:14:48.480:14:52.60
to Mother, saying, "Keep it, it is of interest." 0:14:52.600:14:56.00
Harwood's thinking that Langsdorff would head for the River Plate, 0:14:56.000:15:00.32
is one of the most classic examples of inspired intuition, I think, in naval history. 0:15:00.320:15:07.48
He knew, from his experience, that the River Plate was a focal point. 0:15:07.480:15:12.64
That if there was a German raider in the area, which it looked as 0:15:12.640:15:16.40
if there was because of the sinkings, then it was more than likely he would come to the River Plate. 0:15:16.400:15:21.52
There was no code breaking, there was no intelligence, this was just inspired professional instinct. 0:15:21.520:15:27.40
And he was absolutely right. 0:15:27.400:15:30.16
On December the 7th, Graf Spee sank the another merchantman, 0:15:30.160:15:34.32
and captured secret documents that revealed allied convoys were forming off the mouth of the River Plate. 0:15:34.320:15:41.08
It was the opportunity for a major victory that Langsdorff had been looking for. 0:15:41.080:15:45.72
He presumed that these convoys were protected by one or two destroyers. 0:15:51.320:15:56.20
But he didn't reckon on finding Admiral Harwood's squadron there. 0:15:58.400:16:02.36
Graf Spee headed towards the River Plate. 0:16:09.800:16:13.16
Although neither Langsdorff nor Harwood knew it, 0:16:13.160:16:16.40
they were now just 20 miles apart. 0:16:16.400:16:19.72
There was tension building up in the ship. 0:16:19.720:16:21.88
I mean, we knew that there was a German raider and they were a modern ship. 0:16:21.880:16:27.68
And the equipment we had was the same sort of equipment that they had in the First World War. 0:16:27.680:16:34.56
It was fairly hit and miss stuff. 0:16:34.560:16:37.24
It was in the early hours of the morning, and the commander was asleep in a tower cabin. 0:16:49.600:16:55.44
And when the tops of the masts could be made out... 0:17:00.520:17:03.76
..the commander was woken and the alarm was sounded. 0:17:05.280:17:08.92
I don't think the sailors, any of them, got their breakfast from the galley, when something was sighted, 0:17:16.080:17:21.92
and they sounded off action stations on the bugle. 0:17:21.920:17:26.28
And I can feel the cold shiver now, 0:17:30.200:17:35.24
even sitting here, that I felt then. 0:17:35.240:17:40.44
What's going to happen? 0:17:40.440:17:42.72
Of course, we're all starting up, "Whose joke is this?" 0:17:42.720:17:45.76
The commander's being funny. 0:17:45.760:17:48.28
We all turned out till somebody's screaming, 0:17:48.280:17:50.92
"It's the real thing!" 0:17:50.920:17:52.32
A messenger went down to Father in his cabin and he said, "I think I've heard that one before." 0:17:52.320:17:57.60
But nevertheless, he put his uniform on over his pyjamas, went up to the bridge, and was there all day. 0:17:57.600:18:03.56
He waited for a moment, and then it became increasingly clear that these were warships. 0:18:08.080:18:13.76
To begin with, he had assumed them to be destroyers. 0:18:16.920:18:20.68
And then he said, very calmly, '"OK, let's do it." 0:18:23.040:18:27.36
The key moment is when Langsdorff sights three British warships. 0:18:31.600:18:37.52
He chooses to engage. He knows that that's going against his basic orders not to engage warships. 0:18:37.520:18:44.96
But he thinks that the time has come to do it. He could have got away. 0:18:44.960:18:48.64
His diesel engines allowed him to accelerate away in the opposite direction. 0:18:48.640:18:53.08
He chose deliberately not to. 0:18:53.080:18:55.12
Had he realised in time that he was faced with three cruisers, 0:19:03.800:19:07.80
he certainly would not have engaged in battle. 0:19:07.800:19:11.40
It sounds very unfair really, three ships versus one. 0:19:13.520:19:17.28
But yet the one ship has the advantage. 0:19:17.280:19:20.28
And you can see clearly from here why it does. 0:19:20.280:19:22.52
It has got six guns that can fire these huge 670lb shells. 0:19:22.520:19:26.76
One of these hitting you, you know about it, as Exeter particularly found out. 0:19:26.760:19:31.28
Whereas the British ships, the two smaller ones with the six-inch shells, 0:19:36.800:19:40.60
they can spew out large numbers of these, but clearly 0:19:40.600:19:43.44
the effect of 100lbs hitting you is going to be a good deal less than the effect of 670lbs hitting you. 0:19:43.440:19:48.92
All the British could hope to do is to peck their enemies to death. 0:19:48.920:19:52.60
But Harwood had a brilliantly simple plan, which now came into its own. 0:19:55.640:20:00.68
He was convinced that his smaller ships could beat a pocket battleship by using a simple strategy. 0:20:00.680:20:07.12
He would split his ships into two flanks, 0:20:07.120:20:10.08
thus forcing Graf Spee to make choices as to which side to fire at, effectively halving her firepower. 0:20:10.080:20:18.00
Poor old Graf Spee, throughout the Battle of the River Plate, is firing at one ship. 0:20:18.000:20:22.88
And then at the other two ships. 0:20:22.880:20:24.48
One ship, the other two ships. 0:20:24.480:20:26.72
Its attention is entirely split. 0:20:26.720:20:29.76
And that worked absolutely brilliantly. 0:20:29.760:20:32.56
Harwood's tactics of dividing his ships were revolutionary at the time. 0:20:35.240:20:39.92
But the plan called for the Exeter to head straight for Graf Spee. 0:20:39.920:20:44.08
This exposed her to the full fury of Langsdorff's 11-inch guns. 0:20:44.080:20:49.36
In the battle that followed, Exeter took seven direct hits. 0:20:49.360:20:53.68
Some of us were directed up to the bridge area, where a shell 0:20:55.720:20:59.32
had passed through what was known as the remote control office. 0:20:59.320:21:04.04
And the people there were cut to ribbons. 0:21:04.040:21:08.32
And we had to sort of 0:21:08.320:21:11.76
really, I suppose, put people together. 0:21:11.760:21:15.00
You know... 0:21:15.000:21:16.72
Well, it's difficult just to sort of talk about it, I suppose. 0:21:18.240:21:22.84
But there was a body here and an arm over there. 0:21:22.840:21:27.12
And you knew that that arm belonged to that body because he had the right buttons on his sleeve. 0:21:27.120:21:34.28
The Exeter was now a limping wreck. 0:21:35.840:21:39.04
Amazingly, Graf Spee did not move in to sink her and bring Langsdorff the victory he had sought. 0:21:39.040:21:45.40
But for Kurt Diggins, the answer lies in Langsdorff's character. 0:21:45.400:21:49.84
He didn't pursue the Exeter because the Exeter had been rendered unfit for combat. 0:21:56.320:22:03.24
And it's possible that his own personal attitude played a part here too. 0:22:03.240:22:08.76
Why sink a ship if it would entail 600 or 700 men losing their lives? 0:22:11.240:22:16.96
Graf Spee now turned her guns on Harwood's other two ships. 0:22:20.240:22:24.60
Seven men were killed on Ajax, four more on Achilles. 0:22:24.600:22:29.52
When you hear them land, there's an almighty percussion. 0:22:29.520:22:35.16
LOUD EXPLOSIONS 0:22:35.160:22:37.64
Because we were down below in the deck, and as you come down below, 0:22:39.120:22:43.76
there's a steel hatch, and the steel hatch there's around about 2ft 6 square, I suppose, 0:22:43.760:22:50.84
that we went down through. 0:22:50.840:22:52.40
And that's with a wired-up lid, and that clang, stop. 0:22:52.400:22:56.52
And you were shut in down there. 0:22:56.520:22:59.08
I often thought afterwards, you know, it came to you, then there's fear after. 0:22:59.080:23:03.12
"Hell, what if something had happened? How the hell were we going to get out of there?" 0:23:03.120:23:06.68
At 7.40, after 80 minutes of ferocious battle, Harwood ordered 0:23:06.680:23:12.24
the Ajax and Achilles to break off the action under a smokescreen. 0:23:12.240:23:17.28
To Harwood's surprise, Langsdorff didn't pursue, 0:23:17.280:23:20.40
but instead turned Graf Spee away. 0:23:20.400:23:24.60
Accurate British firing had taken its toll on the German ship. 0:23:24.600:23:29.28
The impact was recorded by one of Langsdorff's officers. 0:23:29.280:23:33.08
Above deck they have punished us severely. 0:23:35.440:23:37.92
What one sees there is disastrous. 0:23:37.920:23:40.72
When, from my control station, I have to go to the command post 0:23:40.720:23:44.08
or to one of the gun turrets, I have to cross the chief first aid post. 0:23:44.080:23:48.48
The floor is running with blood. 0:23:48.480:23:50.08
It made a huge impression on him. 0:23:57.360:24:00.40
There's one of those pictures of him standing there, 0:24:02.840:24:06.00
his head bare, wearing a coat, receiving the first reports. 0:24:06.000:24:10.92
He then walked through the ship and visited the hospital below deck, 0:24:12.800:24:17.28
where the injured and also some of the dead were laid. 0:24:17.280:24:21.76
And this made a profound impression on him. 0:24:21.760:24:24.92
Having finished his inspection of the damage, Langsdorff decided that his ship urgently needed repairs. 0:24:26.840:24:33.96
He headed for the nearest major port, Montevideo in neutral Uruguay. 0:24:33.960:24:39.16
It was a move that would have grave consequences. 0:24:40.840:24:44.36
Langsdorff telegraphed Berlin explaining his fateful decision. 0:24:46.920:24:51.72
36 killed, five seriously wounded, 53 slightly wounded. 0:24:51.720:24:57.12
As ship cannot be made seaworthy for breakthrough 0:24:57.120:24:59.80
to the homeland with means on board, decided to go into the River Plate, at risk of being shut in there. 0:24:59.800:25:06.16
With Graf Spee's arrival in the harbour, the Battle of the River Plate turned into the first great 0:25:08.320:25:13.76
media event of the war, as the world's press arrived to cover the story. 0:25:13.760:25:18.00
First on the scene was local reporter, 22 year-old Hugo Rocha. 0:25:19.760:25:26.12
The first assignment was to cover the arrival of the ship on Wednesday night. 0:25:26.120:25:31.40
It was tremendously impressive. We had never seen anything like that, especially 0:25:31.400:25:36.28
inside the harbour. 0:25:36.280:25:38.24
The second day, I went around the ship with my photographer. 0:25:39.760:25:43.00
And my impression was of pity. 0:25:43.000:25:46.16
Pity. I knew that 36 of them had died, that many more were wounded. 0:25:47.680:25:52.88
Most of the crew, I saw them, were boys, 18, 19 years old. 0:25:52.880:25:58.40
We were very conscious that we were suddenly part of the great world war 0:26:00.080:26:06.52
that had started three months earlier in Europe, that we were following with passionate interest. 0:26:06.520:26:12.52
And that, suddenly, the war was happening here. 0:26:12.520:26:16.32
The following morning, as the cameras rolled, Langsdorff released 0:26:19.320:26:24.12
61 British merchant sailors who had been held captive on board Graf Spee after their ships were sunk. 0:26:24.120:26:30.52
Langsdorff's next task was to bury his dead. 0:26:36.400:26:40.04
REPORTER: Hundreds of German citizens attend the ceremonies at the grave. 0:26:43.960:26:46.88
Captain Langsdorff watches in silence as the boys he once commanded find final peace. 0:26:46.880:26:53.00
This is a good photo of the Graf Spee, isn't it? 0:26:58.240:27:02.56
66 years after he first sailed the seas around the River Plate, Bob Batt and fellow veteran Roy Dickey 0:27:02.560:27:09.40
return for the first time since 1939. 0:27:09.400:27:13.08
They have come back to Montevideo for a memorial service, and to remember their fallen shipmates. 0:27:15.800:27:23.04
We actually collected together 62 bodies on that morning and laid them out on the forecastle for burial. 0:27:29.680:27:37.44
And the captain stood there with his prayer book and read the burial service. 0:27:44.520:27:49.96
Then he said, "We now commit their bodies to the sea." 0:27:52.320:27:56.28
And each one is then gently allowed to slide over the side. 0:27:56.280:28:01.56
Reality came home to you that you'd lost chaps that you knew. 0:28:05.040:28:09.20
It did come home to you, really. 0:28:11.600:28:13.72
I remember just watching those bodies slide down... 0:28:16.640:28:20.08
..a plank. 0:28:21.600:28:24.20
Pipes and what have you. No, it does come home to you. 0:28:24.200:28:26.68
It's a very moving moment. 0:28:32.920:28:35.20
I don't think you ever really sort of get over it. 0:28:35.200:28:38.52
It's something you like to try and forget. 0:28:38.520:28:42.32
The morning after the battle, it was headline news across Britain. 0:28:53.920:28:58.64
"Here is the news. 0:28:58.640:29:00.08
"There has been an important naval engagement between a German pocket battleship 0:29:00.080:29:04.40
"and three British cruisers in the South Atlantic." 0:29:04.400:29:07.32
I was at prep school in my last year, and Stephen was in his first year. 0:29:07.320:29:13.96
And we were rehearsing a play, in which fortunately I had a very minor part. 0:29:13.960:29:18.92
And I remember one of the masters coming in with the evening papers 0:29:18.920:29:23.52
and I saw them, and I was very frightened. 0:29:23.520:29:29.24
But the news was good. 0:29:29.240:29:31.32
Commodore Harwood had been knighted and promoted to Rear Admiral. 0:29:31.320:29:36.72
Churchill obviously and rightly wanted to make 0:29:36.720:29:42.68
much of what really was the first British victory in the war. 0:29:42.680:29:48.48
And he did this in spades. I mean, 0:29:48.480:29:51.56
he promoted Father immediately. 0:29:51.560:29:54.36
He had him made a Knight Commander of the Bath. 0:29:54.360:29:57.64
He made the captains Commanders of the Bath. 0:29:57.640:30:00.84
And BBC, press, full of it, etc, etc. 0:30:00.840:30:07.00
It was rather unkind, because Father said, 0:30:07.000:30:10.16
"Here we were, showered with honours and the job not completed." 0:30:10.160:30:17.64
The first half of the story is a classical naval battle. 0:30:17.640:30:20.72
The second half of the story is a story of guile and deception, 0:30:20.720:30:26.80
and perhaps one of the biggest bluffs of the Second World War. 0:30:26.800:30:30.76
In Montevideo, Langsdorff requested a meeting with the Uruguayan government. 0:30:36.600:30:41.20
Accompanied by the German minister, Langsdorff was seeking permission to 0:30:44.040:30:48.28
stay in the port for two weeks to complete repairs to his ship. 0:30:48.280:30:52.04
The Uruguayans eventually agreed to permit him to stay for a maximum of four days. 0:30:53.560:31:00.40
Outside the harbour, the British force was now reduced to two small cruisers, the Achilles and Ajax. 0:31:00.400:31:08.36
Harwood was concerned that without reinforcements he would 0:31:10.240:31:13.84
not be able to stop Graf Spee if she made a run for it. 0:31:13.840:31:17.28
A plan had to be found to ensure Langsdorff was kept in Montevideo longer. 0:31:17.280:31:23.08
The man given responsibility for this was the senior British diplomat, Eugene Millington-Drake. 0:31:23.080:31:30.60
My grandfather was a great eccentric, and a very colourful character. 0:31:30.600:31:35.60
He was known for his enthusiasm for taking exercise and he was a great sportsman. 0:31:35.600:31:43.80
And he would walk down 0:31:43.800:31:46.56
the street and possibly stop suddenly 0:31:46.560:31:49.80
on the way to the office, and do a few press-ups or a few stretches. 0:31:49.800:31:54.60
Millington-Drake quietly recruited a band of British pensioners 0:31:58.360:32:02.92
and sent them down to the harbour to spy on the new arrival. 0:32:02.920:32:06.64
He then went to meet the Uruguayan foreign minister. 0:32:06.640:32:11.44
And in a cunning move, invoked an international law, called the 24 hour rule. 0:32:11.440:32:17.84
If a merchant ship sailed, a foreign warship was not allowed to sail within 24 hours. 0:32:17.840:32:24.04
And the British used this mercilessly to try and keep Graf Spee 0:32:24.040:32:28.96
in Montevideo, much to the disgust of the Uruguayan government. 0:32:28.960:32:33.64
Millington-Drake secretly arranged for a British merchant ship to leave Montevideo every day. 0:32:35.160:32:41.72
Eventually the Uruguayans got so frustrated that they said, 0:32:41.720:32:44.56
"You aren't allowed to send any more ships to sea." 0:32:44.560:32:47.24
Because they could see how they were being manipulated by the British. 0:32:47.240:32:50.64
Undaunted, Millington-Drake and Naval Intelligence kept up the pressure on Langsdorff. 0:32:53.600:32:59.52
The British knew that their telephone line was tapped by the Germans. 0:33:02.240:33:06.32
- Well, it's a matter of some urgency.
  - A call was deliberately put in to the ambassador in Buenos Aires,
pretending to arrange for the imminent arrival of two more heavy British warships. 0:33:11.560:33:16.24
As anticipated, the call was intercepted by German intelligence and reported to Berlin. 0:33:18.960:33:24.76
The British also leaked the story to the press. 0:33:26.480:33:30.16
The Germans were convinced that Harwood had major reinforcements arriving in the River Plate. 0:33:30.160:33:36.04
Millington-Drake had been pulling the strings again. 0:33:37.760:33:41.56
He was, as I like to put it... "The man behind the curtain." 0:33:41.560:33:44.44
And he was very good at it. 0:33:46.120:33:48.00
My grandfather would have loved the cloak and dagger element of the diplomatic battle, of the drama. 0:33:49.520:33:55.80
In particular, 0:33:55.800:33:58.44
the need to create a lot of false intelligence which would cause the Germans 0:33:58.440:34:05.44
to think that there is a huge force out there waiting. 0:34:05.440:34:09.52
Langsdorff and his officers became totally of the view, that if they 0:34:09.520:34:15.56
went out of the Plate they would run into a much more powerful force. 0:34:15.560:34:20.56
The deception had worked brilliantly. 0:34:20.560:34:24.36
And now time had run out for Langsdorff. 0:34:25.880:34:29.12
Despite his appeals, the Uruguayan government insisted Graf Spee 0:34:32.160:34:37.36
had to leave Montevideo before eight o'clock, Sunday evening. 0:34:37.360:34:40.80
A second battle now seemed inevitable. 0:34:40.800:34:43.96
It was clear from the outset that whatever was to happen, 0:34:54.040:34:58.36
were the ship to leave the harbour and engage in battle, one way or another it meant destruction. 0:34:58.360:35:04.48
Langsdorff signalled Berlin, explaining his predicament and asking for instructions. 0:35:07.560:35:13.96
Inside Montevideo, we have Langsdorff, 0:35:13.960:35:17.60
who is increasingly worried about the presence of allied capital ships. 0:35:17.600:35:22.04
Outside the harbour, we have Harwood, who is only too aware that those capital ships have not turned up and 0:35:22.040:35:28.56
are miles away, and is very, very concerned that if Langsdorff does 0:35:28.560:35:32.24
come out he'll be able to get by him, out into the open ocean, and he'll be lost, and he might even get home. 0:35:32.240:35:38.76
On board HMS Ajax, Harwood wrote of his fears in a letter to his family. 0:35:41.840:35:47.44
"I have a most difficult problem to catch him again. 0:35:48.720:35:52.16
"And if he escapes, all the good we have done will be upset. Not all, but a lot of it. 0:35:52.160:35:58.36
"The mouth of the Plate is wide and there are so many ways out that it's very difficult. 0:35:58.360:36:03.32
"Probably another battle, and who knows? 0:36:03.320:36:06.36
"I hope for the best. 0:36:06.360:36:08.16
"You'll know by the time you get this." 0:36:08.160:36:10.60
If the worst happens, bring my sons up to be men. 0:36:12.400:36:17.72
Everybody was waiting for the battle to continue, naturally. 0:36:17.720:36:21.28
That was the assumption. 0:36:21.280:36:24.12
It's an unfinished battle. 0:36:24.120:36:26.00
The Graf Spee cannot remain 0:36:27.520:36:30.92
in Montevideo. The British are waiting outside, 0:36:30.920:36:33.96
the German has to leave the port, naturally a clash has to occur. 0:36:33.960:36:37.96
To begin with, nobody knew what was going to happen. 0:36:42.720:36:46.00
Is the Graf Spee going to set sail again? 0:36:46.000:36:48.72
Will the Graf Spee try to reach another harbour? 0:36:48.720:36:52.36
Will the ship engage in battle with the English ships anchored off the River Plate estuary? 0:36:52.360:36:58.64
What is going to happen? 0:36:58.640:37:01.56
The pressure on Langsdorff was becoming intolerable. 0:37:01.560:37:05.84
Again, he signalled Berlin for instructions. 0:37:05.840:37:08.40
The reply was not helpful. 0:37:08.400:37:11.00
He was ordered not to let the ship fall into enemy hands, 0:37:11.000:37:14.80
but was given no direct orders as to what action to take. 0:37:14.800:37:18.32
Why Langsdorff did what he did next is one of the enduring mysteries of the Second World War. 0:37:24.920:37:31.40
But Timewatch has, for the first time, been given access to Langsdorff's personal archive. 0:37:33.680:37:39.96
For 66 years, his daughter has kept his last letter home hidden away, secret even from her own children. 0:37:46.760:37:55.60
"I am writing this letter on my last day as commander of this proud ship. 0:37:55.600:38:00.28
"My decision was not an easy one, but two rules served as guiding principles. 0:38:00.280:38:06.00
"Firstly, being prepared to take on any responsibility 0:38:06.000:38:09.84
"as long as there was the slightest chance of harming the enemy. 0:38:09.840:38:13.36
"Secondly, the dispassionate consideration not to send my men 0:38:13.360:38:17.48
"to their deaths unnecessarily, but to maintain the ship's honour and the flag's honour to the last." 0:38:17.480:38:25.04
The Graf Spee slowly started moving, just at sunset. 0:38:35.920:38:41.88
It was very theatrical, you know. 0:38:43.600:38:45.68
It was a beautiful summer day. 0:38:45.680:38:47.84
Half the population of Montevideo, 0:38:47.840:38:50.60
hundreds of thousands of people, was concentrated along the Ramblas. 0:38:50.600:38:54.84
Langsdorff's final showdown with Harwood now seemed inevitable. 0:38:56.360:39:00.56
But as the crowds watched, most of her crew was transferred 0:39:02.880:39:05.88
to tugboats before the pocket battleship slowly left the harbour. 0:39:05.880:39:10.92
I remember this precisely. 0:39:16.920:39:18.76
19.55, 7.55. 0:39:18.760:39:21.48
The disc of the sun was slowly sinking on 0:39:21.480:39:26.44
the ocean. 0:39:26.440:39:28.88
And then 0:39:28.880:39:31.88
the sound, 0:39:31.880:39:33.68
an explosion, which at first it seemed like a cannon. 0:39:33.680:39:39.28
People thought the battle had started. 0:39:39.280:39:42.44
Others said, "No, that's only a smokescreen." 0:39:42.440:39:46.92
No, actually it was a suicide. 0:39:46.920:39:50.44
It was a suicide. 0:39:50.440:39:52.04
The German ship was committing suicide. 0:39:53.840:39:57.52
Langsdorff, outmanoeuvred, believed all was lost. 0:40:00.920:40:06.08
With no clear orders forthcoming from Berlin, he disembarked the rest of his crew 0:40:06.080:40:11.84
and scuttled the Graf Spee. 0:40:11.840:40:14.24
The English have managed to surround us in such a way that leaving to engage in battle with an opponent 0:40:17.960:40:23.32
overwhelmingly superior to us would lead to our certain demise. 0:40:23.320:40:28.72
I think this was the deciding factor for Langsdorff. 0:40:36.720:40:40.36
His conscience told him that it was pointless to sacrifice the lives 0:40:43.840:40:47.88
of 1,000 young men in pursuit of a task that could not succeed. 0:40:47.880:40:52.72
If he sailed, he was facing certain death. 0:40:55.120:40:58.20
And a death that would mean dishonour, because the ship might well sink in shallow water. 0:40:58.200:41:02.72
and a lot of his secret equipment, especially his radar, be captured. 0:41:02.720:41:07.16
The Battle of the River Plate 0:41:08.680:41:10.92
was over. 0:41:10.920:41:13.04
Harwood and his men would return home as heroes. 0:41:19.360:41:22.92
Everyone wants to see these men who gave the Graf Spee such a beating. 0:41:28.120:41:32.28
A memorable day for Londoners able to watch the sailors march past. 0:41:32.280:41:36.44
The sinking of the Graf Spee was hugely important. 0:41:36.440:41:39.44
It was the first major naval victory of the war, and was 0:41:39.440:41:43.28
immediately used to full effect by the allied propaganda machine. 0:41:43.280:41:47.92
And I may add, 0:41:47.920:41:49.92
that in a dark, cold winter, 0:41:49.920:41:53.24
it warmed the cockles of the British heart. 0:41:53.240:41:58.20
Langsdorff took his crew across the River Plate to Buenos Aires. 0:42:03.520:42:07.36
On arrival, he was branded a coward by the press for not taking the 0:42:10.640:42:14.68
fight back to the British, even though the odds were against him. 0:42:14.680:42:18.80
When he landed in Buenos Aires, he came under great pressure 0:42:18.800:42:21.92
from the press as to why had he come to Buenos Aires. 0:42:21.920:42:25.32
And the pressures on the man must have been absolutely unbearable. 0:42:25.320:42:28.84
He knew, that on his personal decision, he had thrown away one of the Germany navy's greatest assets. 0:42:28.840:42:35.56
That instead of a victory, he'd suffered a defeat. 0:42:35.560:42:39.92
And it was understandable, therefore, that he would decide that there was only one way out. 0:42:39.920:42:45.44
Saying goodbye to me in Montevideo when I was transferred, he said, "Say hello to Germany for me. 0:42:49.840:42:56.68
"Say hello to my family." 0:42:56.680:42:59.00
There's a lot in that sentence. 0:43:02.440:43:05.84
That was a truly moving moment for me when he said this, and said goodbye. 0:43:11.520:43:17.76
On December the 19th, Langsdorff gathered his crew together in Buenos Aires and assured them 0:43:21.520:43:26.04
they were now safe and would be looked after. 0:43:26.040:43:31.00
That evening, he joined fellow officers in the senior ratings mess 0:43:33.480:43:36.92
of the arsenal building where they had been stationed. 0:43:36.920:43:40.36
He was said to have been at ease and in good spirits. 0:43:43.080:43:47.36
He then retired to his room and wrote a letter home to his family. 0:43:47.360:43:52.04
It would be his last. 0:43:52.040:43:54.28
"Now, deep down inside me I am happy and content. 0:43:54.280:43:57.64
"Everything is being prepared and I have the peace and quiet 0:43:57.640:44:00.72
"in which to write you this letter, to bid you farewell and thank you." 0:44:00.720:44:05.40
"If this is God's will, then I shall cheerfully meet my death, despite life having been so dear to me. 0:44:08.400:44:15.56
"Because it gave me all that it had to offer." 0:44:15.560:44:18.32
Then there are some very personal lines, and then in conclusion my father writes, "Be proud in your 0:44:20.520:44:27.16
"grief, and prove yourself to be a true soldier's wife. 0:44:27.160:44:30.96
"Give my love to Jochan and Inge." 0:44:30.960:44:34.64
And then his signature. 0:44:34.640:44:36.96
It still moves me. 0:44:38.800:44:40.60
Some time in the early hours of the morning, Captain Hans Langsdorff shot himself. 0:44:48.440:44:54.32
The captain of the pocket battleship Graf Spee was buried with full naval honours in Buenos Aires. 0:45:01.600:45:08.88
His officers and crew were joined by Argentine armed forces in forming a guard of honour through the streets. 0:45:08.880:45:16.36
German and Argentine dignitaries stood next to representatives 0:45:16.360:45:20.64
of the British merchant sailors whose lives Langsdorff had spared. 0:45:20.640:45:24.12
The Battle of the River Plate was the first great media event of the Second World War. 0:45:27.600:45:34.76
The world looked on as Langsdorff made his fateful decisions. 0:45:34.760:45:39.48
Many branded him a coward for not leaving Montevideo with all guns blazing. 0:45:39.480:45:44.24
I think, in a way, 0:45:44.240:45:46.64
Langsdorff was more heroic doing what he did 0:45:46.640:45:50.60
than going out and immolating himself at the hands of the British. 0:45:50.600:45:55.20
Because Langsdorff was very conscious that the young men in his crew should 0:45:55.200:46:01.32
not pay the price for his error, for his disobedience, for his mistake. 0:46:01.320:46:07.00
I maintain that Langsdorff's decision was the correct one at the time, that it was the 0:46:11.640:46:17.00
correct one later on, and that it remains the correct one today. 0:46:17.000:46:22.04
A thousand men owe their life to Langsdorff. 0:46:24.880:46:29.08
But Langsdorff was only one of many victims. 0:46:30.640:46:33.92
A total of 108 men lost their lives that day. 0:46:33.920:46:38.00
66 years later, survivors from both sides joined together in a cemetery in Montevideo 0:46:38.000:46:43.28
to remember those who fell in the Battle of the River Plate. 0:46:43.280:46:48.20
They shall grow not old, as we are that are left grow old. 0:46:48.200:46:53.20
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 0:46:53.200:46:57.80
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. 0:46:57.800:47:03.96
We will remember them. 0:47:03.960:47:06.12
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd 0:47:41.760:47:43.80
E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk 0:47:43.800:47:45.84