The World War 2 naval action, which culminated in the Battle of the River Plate, had its makings with the sailing from Wilhelmshaven, Germany on the 21 August 1939 of the Panzerschiffe or pocket battle ship Admiral Graf Spee and her subsequent sinking of nine merchant ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean between 30 September and the 7 December 1939.

 

The World War 2 naval action, which culminated in the Battle of the River Plate, had its makings with the sailing from Wilhelmshaven, Germany on the 21 August 1939 of the Panzerschiffe or pocket battle ship Admiral Graf Spee and her subsequent sinking of nine merchant ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean between 30 September and the 7 December 1939.

Graf_Spee_cruise

The Cruise of the Graff Spee

 

The Royal Navy deployed Force ‘G’, the South America Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood Royal Navy. The Squadron was ordered to seek, find and sink the German raider. Commodore Harwood’s command consisted of HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles together with HMS Cumberland - which was undergoing a self maintenance period in the Falkland Islands.

The ensuing battle off the River Plate estuary on the 13 December 1939 resulted in all of the ships being damaged with members of their crews being killed or injured. The Graf Spee put into Montevideo Harbour for repairs and to land her dead and injured. She sailed again on the 17 December 1939 and was scuttled in the River Plate estuary later the same day.

The South America Cruiser Squadron and the Graf Spee could not have been engaged at sea for such a period and travelled so many nautical miles without the support of naval auxiliaries,

This article provides details of the ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Kriegsmarine which supported the opposing sides in this battle.

 

Ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which were involved

 

RFA Olynthus

 

RFA Olwen

 

Olwen_1

 

RFA Olwen
coming alongside to refuel one of Force G
on 26 October 1939

 

RFA Orangeleaf (1)

 

 

Orangeleaf_1

 

RFA Orangeleaf (1)
approaching
HMNZS Achilles on 14 October 1939 to
replenish her

 

Orangeleaf_2

 

RFA Orangeleaf (1)
alongside
HMNZS Achilles on 14 October 1939
for replenishing her

 

Orangeleaf_3

 

RFA Orangeleaf (1)
breaking away from
HMNZS Achilles on 14 October 1939
after replenishing her

 

RFA Cherryleaf (1)

 

RFA_Cherryleaf_Malta

 

RFA Cherryleaf (1)
(General view)

 

Ships of the Kriegsmarine which were involved

 

Altmark

The German supply ship Altmark was one of a class of five tankers built between 1937 and 1939. She was engaged supporting Kriegsmarine ships during the Spanish Civil War. On 5 August 1939 she sailed from Germany to the USA to load a full cargo of oil and subsequently supported, on nine separate occasions, the Admiral Graf Spee during her raids on Allied shipping in the South Atlantic between September to December 1939.

 

Altmark_1

The bows of motor tank Schiff Altmark
under construction

 

Altmark_2

Motor tank Schiff Altmark
under construction

 

Altmark_3

Motor tank Schiff Altmark
under way

 

Tacoma

 

The 8,268 ton Tacoma was built for the Hamburg Amerika Line by the German ship builders Deutsche Werft in Germany in 1930 as a cargo passenger vessel and was in Montevideo when the Admiral Graf Spey took shelter in that City’s harbour on 13 December 1939. She sailed shortly after the Admiral Graf Spee and took onboard around 800 members of the Pocket Battle ship crew shortly before she scuttled herself.

The ship remained off Montevideo due to British Naval Forces being off the mouth of the River Plate. On 1 January 1940 the Uruguayan Government interned the vessel as it had adjudged her to have acted under the orders of the Captain of the Graft Spee and thus to be a German Naval Auxiliary which had been in a neutral port for a period in excess of that allowed. The German Government claimed that her actions in saving the crew of the Graft Spee was through humanitarian motives

 

The time line of the involvement of the supply ships in this naval operation was: -

 

In August 1939 Altmark had fully loaded in Texas, USA and sailed

13 September 1939 Graff Spee RAS’s from Altmark 240 miles N of Ascension Island

20 September Graff Spee RAS’s from Altmark 240 miles N of Ascension Island

 

graf_spee_1

Graff Spee RASing with Altmark

 

20 September 1939 HMS Exeter RAS with RFA Olwen in mouth of River Plate

25 September 1939 RFA Olna (1) was under orders from HMS Ajax when she ran aground, though no damage was sustained.

1 October 1939 RFA Olwen was in Montevideo to fix mechanical problems.

2 October 1939 HMS Exeter RAS with RFA Olwen off the English Bank in the River Plate Estuary. Exeter is then joined by HMS Ajax off the South Coast of Brazil.

3 October 1939 RFA Olwen loads stores at Montevideo

9 October HMS Cumberland joins Force ‘G; from Freetown, as the ship was short on fuel she steamed south and re-fuelled in San Borambon Bay at the Southern entrance to the River Plate Estuary.

12 October 1939 HMS Hotspur RASed with RFA Olwen followed some hours later by Exeter and Cumberland in San Borombon Bay.

15 October 1939 Graff Spee RAS’s with Altmark – position unknown

15 October 1939 RFA Orangeleaf (1) refuelled HMS Achilles off Coquimbo.

17 October 1939 Graff Spee transfers prisoners from ss Huntsman to Altmark

 

18th October 1939 Graff Spee transfers prisoners from ss Newton Beech and ss Ashlea to Altmark

26 October 1939 HMS Achilles RAS’s with RFA Olwen

26 October 1939 RFA Olwen proceeded to the West Indies – RASed with Ajax leaving 500 tons FFO for her passage to Trinidad.

28 October 1939 Graff Spee RAS’s with Altmark near Tristan da Cunha and transfers prisoners from ss Trevanion to her

 

8 November 1939 RFA Olynthus RASed with HMS Exeter at San Borombon Bay, bad weather and fuelling difficulties in the River Plate area delay force G, which did not sail until the 13 November.

 

18 November 1939 RFA Olynthus directed to keep observation between Medanos and Cape San Antonio

22 November 1939 RFA Olynthus RASed with HMS Achilles in the River Plate Estuary, where she took 900 tons of fuel and enough victualling stores to last three weeks.

26 November 1939 RFA Olynthus RASed with HMS Exeter and HMS Cumberland in the River Plate area

27 November 1939 Graff Spee RAS’s with Altmark 300 miles from Tristan da Cunha

29 November 1939 Graff Spee transferred all Merchant Navy Officers who were prisoner on the Altmark back to her.

6 December 1939 Graf Spee meets the supply ship Altmark at 24.5 degrees to refuel, re-store and transfer prisoners.

10 December 1939 RFA Cherryleaf (1) RAS’s HMS Neptune, HMS Hardy, HMS Hostile and HMS Hero off St Paul’s Rocks

13 December 1939 whilst in action against the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee, HMS Ajax has X and Y turret put out of action and sustains some structural damage, but remained off the River Plate Estuary with HMS Exeter and Achilles. HMS Exeter sustained serious damage during this action, after several hits from 11 inch shell, she sustained many casualties and fire broke out in the ship. She continued to engage the enemy until she lost power caused by flooding and withdrew from the action with a heavy list and all of her guns out of action.

HMS Achilles, Ajax and Exeter shadow Graf Spee in to Montevideo and remained off the coast of Uruguay until the German ship scuttles herself.

15 December 1939 RFA Olynthus refuelled HMS Ajax, which proved a difficult operation; the ship had to use hurricane hawsers to complete the operation, which was covered by HMS Achilles and Exeter. HMS Exeter then sails for Port Stanley, Falkland Islands after being relieved by HMS Cumberland

17 December HMS Achilles RAS’s with RFA Olynthus off Rouen Bank

17 December Graff Spee followed by the Tacoma sail from Montevideo. The Tacoma takes on board crew members from the Graff Spee after which Graff Spee scuttled herself in the mouth of the River Plate. Over 1,000 of the Pocket Battle ships crew were subsequently taken to Argentina and interned. Tacoma returned to Montevideo

31 December 1940 (at 1.30am) Tacoma given notice to sail from Montevideo within 24 hours or be interned as she was considered to be a German Naval Auxiliary.

1 January 1940 Tacoma interned by the Government of the Republic of Uruguay for failing to sail in accordance with the notice given to the ship’s Captain.

14 February 1940 Altmark was spotted by three British Lockheed Hudson aircraft on patrol from RAF Thornaby as she was proceeding south in Norwegian territorial waters.

16 February 1940 Altmark was returning to Germany with 299 British Merchant Seaman onboard as prisoners. She ran aground and was boarded by sailors from HMS Cossack in Jøssingfjord, Norway. After some fighting the German crew were overwhelmed (seven of her crew being killed) and the British sailors were discovered in the hold and freed. Due to damage she sustained when running aground the Altmark was left aground in the fjord.

 

AltmarkPrisonShip

Altmark in Jøssingfjord

 

March 1940 towed back to Germany

6 August 1940 Altmark was renamed Uckermark. She continued as a fleet auxiliary for the Kriegsmarine eventually accidentally blowing up in harbour at Yokohama, Japan on 30 November 1942 with the loss of 53 of her crew.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website, by continuing to use the site you agree to cookies being used. More info.