I Was There! - I Saw The 'Graf Spee' Attacked

The War Illustrated, Volume 1, No. 17, Page 540-541, December 29, 1939.

The first big naval engagement of the war was the battle of the River Plate, fought on December 13 between the German pocket battleship "Graf Spee" and the British cruisers "Exeter", "Ajax", and "Achilles". The following actual eyewitness account of the action is reprinted from "The Star".

A dramatic account of the battle between the "Graf Spee" and the British cruisers was given by a director if the Havas News Agency, who was on board the French liner "Formose".

"I left Le Havre on November 11 for Rio Plata", he said.

"As we entered the last stage of the voyage the 'Formose' intercepted a message from the 'Graf Spee' warning the cruiser 'Ajax' to pick up the crew of a British cargo boat she had just sunk. The message did not give the position where the sinking had taken place."

"A few minutes later a neutral ship signalled the position of the 'Graf Spee'. The German warship was apparently then only 30 miles from the 'Formose', travelling at some 24 knots."

"Our commander, Captain Baton, immediately changed our course and sought the shelter of the coast. The danger was kept a strict secret from the passengers."

"The 'Graf Spee's' position was again signalled three hours later at 1 p.m., this time approaching the coast at a reduced speed, apparently making for Montevideo."

"At 6 p.m. we were within sight of the Uruguayan coast. Almost at the same moment we sighted the 'Graf Spee'. She was sailing parallel with us, and soon afterwards fired four shots at whom we could not see. She continued parallel with us for some 10 miles, reducing her speed and seeming to watch the 'Formose'."

"Most of the passengers were still unaware of the nationality of the ship and thought she was having gunnery practice."

"At 7.30 p.m. we saw another warship a long way out to sea, but approaching at a great speed. She was a British cruiser, and she opened fire on the German."

"The first shell missed the 'Graf Spee', but the range was then rectified, and the second shot took her fair and square in the stern. The cruiser then threw out a smoke screen to hide herself, and took up the chase at full speed."

"The 'Graf Spee', surprised by the sudden attack, increased her speed and replied with a volley of four shots, all of which fell wide. Taking advantage of her hesitation, the cruiser pressed the attack without allowing her the slightest breathing space."

"When night fell, about 8.30, the 'Graf Spee' was still firing shells, seemingly at random, and she disappeared into the darkness still pursued."

"At 10.15 a.m. on December 14 we sailed in to the quayside at Montevideo, passing within 100 yards of the damaged 'Graf Spee'."

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