The first significant naval battle of World War II took place not in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, but in the Rio de la Plata that separates Argentina from Uruguay. The battle featured one of the more usual events of the entire war, the scuttling by a German captain of his own ship.
In the late summer of 1939, the German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee left home waters on a mission to disrupt British commerce in the South Atlantic. The big ship was very fast and very well armed and over the course of several months preyed on shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, eventually sinking nine merchant ships. Before long the Royal Navy put its own squadrons on the hunt for Graf Spee and when the German ship turned into the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in December 1939 the battle was engaged. Graf Spee was damaged and one British ship badly damaged during the engagement.
The German Captain Hans Langsdorff put into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs, while the British squadron waited off shore for his next move. Forced to depart Montevideo under international maritime law after only 24 hours, Langsdorff put off most of his 1,000 man crew, piloted the big ship about three miles off shore and detonated a series of explosive charges that scuttled the ship. The captain and a small contingent of sailors made for Buenos Aires in the ship´s launch where they arrived two days later.
The Graf Spee burned for four days before settling, not entirely submerged, in the huge estuary of the River Plate. The German crew was eventually detained in Buenos Aires.
Under circumstances that are still disputed, three days after he arrived in Argentina, Captain Langsdorff wrapped himself in a German naval ensign and shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel room. He is buried in the Argentine capitol. One explanation for the captain´s suicide might be that Langsdorff felt that he was honorably taking responsibility for the loss of his ship. Other speculation centers on whether the Captain disregarded orders or whether the Graf Spee was really seriously damaged and might have fought through the British squadron to the open sea.
Remnants of the German ship scuttled in the Rio de la Plata are displayed today in the harbor at Montevideo. It is claimed that descendants of some of the German sailors still live in the area.
The battle in the River Plate is a fascinating detail of the role South America played in the war. Both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as the trade and political centers of neutral countries, must have seen a great deal of intrigue and espionage. Both countries remained neutral, in part, to further their extensive trade with both sides. Later in the war, for example, Argentina thwarted U.S. efforts to create formal Latin American support for the Allied war effort. The move deeply angered Secretary of State Cordell Hull and likely moved the already pro-German Argentine military more in the direction of the Nazis.
It makes me think of the great film Casablanca and its timeless take on the intrigue and chaos in an exotic city during wartime. I wonder about the Rick´s and Inspector Renault´s of Latin America and how that awful piece of 20th Century history played out for them.