With consular representation from New Zealand and Uruguay, survivors of the first major naval battle of the Second World War will gather at Britain's National Memorial Arboretum to unveil a memorial commemorating the event. The Battle of the River Plate took place 75 years ago and less than a dozen veterans are still alive from this, the only episode of the war to take place in South America.
The remaining River Plate veterans will come together on Saturday, April 12 to unveil the Battle of the River Plate Memorial – the 300th at the Arboretum.
Located in the Royal Naval Review Area of the National Memorial Arboretum, this new memorial will be a lasting tribute to those who lost their lives in the battle and to the ships which fought it: HMS ships Ajax, Achilles and Exeter as well the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee.
Peter Danks, chairman of the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association, said: “We are very proud to be unveiling our memorial which will ensure that all who took part in the Battle of the River Plate will be remembered always, and the fact that it’s the 300th memorial to be dedicated at this wonderful place gives our ceremony even greater significance.”
The Battle of the River Plate took place on December 13, 1939, when ships from the Royal Navy’s South American Division took on the might of Germany’s Graf Spee which had been attacking British merchant ships in the South Atlantic.
Commodore Henry Harwood, commanding Hunting Group G, ordered the cruisers HMS Ajax, Achilles and Exeter to an area east of the River Plate – an estuary between Argentina and Uruguay. On the morning 13 December Exeter investigated smoke and signalled, “I think it is a Pocket Battleship”.
The Graf Spee initially fired on Exeter while Ajax and Achilles closed in causing significant damage to the German vessel. Exeter had to retire from the battle after suffering damage while Ajax and Achilles shadowed Graf Spee into Montevideo, Uruguay. Graf Spee’s commanding officer, Captain Hans Langsdorff requested 14 days to repair her damage but (neutral) Uruguay only allowed 72 hours. Knowing that escape was no longer an option Graf Spee was scuttled in the River Plate on December 17.
HMS Exeter heavily damaged limped to Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
The battle brought the first Royal Navy victory of the Second World War and gave a much needed lift to the country’s morale. In Winston Churchill’s regular radio broadcasts to the nation, he said: “This brilliant sea fight takes its place in our naval annals and in a long, cold, dark winter it warmed the cockles of the British hearts.”
Captain Stephen Harwood, the son of Commodore Harwood, who is also patron of the Memorial Dedication, said that the dedication of this new memorial would continue “to fulfil Winston Churchill’s prediction that this Battle will long be told in song and story.”
The National Memorial Arboretum, the UK’s centre of Remembrance, honours those who have served, and continue to serve, the UK. The dedication of the Battle of the River Plate Memorial marks a milestone for the site.
Sarah Montgomery, managing director of the National Memorial Arboretum said:“Reaching the 300th memorial milestone is very exciting for us and illustrates the ever growing significance of the National Memorial Arboretum as the place where our nation remembers.
“We are delighted to be marking this landmark along with the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association, whose memorial is a very welcome addition to the Arboretum.”
The Battle of the River Plate Memorial Dedication will be held on Saturday 12 April at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas, Staffordshire. The event begins at 11:30 am and will be attended by four River Plate veterans, families of those who served, as well Captain Stephen and Commander Henry Harwood – the sons of Commodore Henry Harwood.
Also in attendance will be Consular representation from New Zealand and Uruguay as well as Sea Scouts from London.
The designer and stone mason is Keith Rackham, H.L. Perfitt Ltd from Norfolk.
The National Memorial Arboretum, which is part of The Royal British Legion family of charities, is home to an array of moving and unusual memorials, including those to the military, the civil services, charities, local organisations and overseas organisations.