The Battle of the River Plate figures prominently in the public memory of World War II. Partly this is because there was a certain amount of inherent drama about the whole affair -- the gallant German captain who managed to ravage British shipping without killing merchantmen, and who took his own life in defeat. The apparently even nature of the fight. The fact that it's final stages played out in the glare of the international media, among other reasons.
But I think it also played an outside role in the public perception of the war because it happened to be the first major battle involving the Western powers in the war, so it got an extra amount of attention. Few had any inkling that the world was about to see nearly five years of the most intensive naval combat in the history of the world -- combat so intense that many larger, bloodier and more important battles from the war are nearly forgotten today. In the end the Battle of the River Plate was merely a cruiser action between an overgunned German heavy cruiser, an undergunned British heavy cruiser and two light cruisers of average power.
The "pocket battleships" of the pre-war German Navy got a lot of attention in the press, and had a certain amount of glamor in the public eye, but naval professionals were well aware of the type's weaknesses. It's no accident that the British hunting groups formed to find and neutralize the Graf Spee contained two cruisers each -- it being judged that two cruisers should be a match for a German raider that was far from home -- it wasn't necessary to sink or even badly damage the Graf Spee. It was only necessary to force it to use up most of its ammunition and cause an irreparable hit or two that would compromise her ability to continue.
In his ground-breaking set of naval miniatures rules The Naval War Game (1942), Fletcher Pratt remarks that "The battle off Montevideo was not too much of a surprise to some of the players who had participated in a floor game in which the Admiral Graf Spee was pulled down by lighter ships -- though at the time the result of the floor game was discounted."
In the Axis & Allies Naval Miniatures War at Sea game the Graf Spee is awarded a point value of 21, which is pretty good for a cruiser -- but the HMS Exeter at 12 and the HMS Ajax at 13 already match it -- and that's before adding in the Ajax's sister ship Achilles which is not in the game yet, but we can assume would also be worth 12 or 13 points.
In the slightly more detailed Avalanche Press Second World War at Sea series game Bismarck we see a similar disparity. While the Graf Spee is not in the game, her sister ships Lutzow and Adm. Scheer are, and they're worth 37 points each. The HMS Exeter is credited with 23 points. Neither the Ajax nor the Achilles in the game, but their sister ship the HMS Neptune is, rated at 20 points.
More detailed games don't normally try to assign point values for ships, but the same rough calculation holds, the Graf Spee is dangerously overmatched when faced by three cruisers.
I had my introduction to that state of affairs nearly 40 years ago when, as a teen attending my first wargame convention, I got to play a then-new set of rules called Victory at Sea (not to be confused with the later Mongoose Publishing game of the same same). I had the good fortune to command the British cruiser force in the second round of a 3-round tournament using the rules. My opponent was probably more experienced than I was (as I had no experience at all) but there was little he could do as I merely had to sensibly continue to close the range and roll the dice in order to win. (I had won my first round game, a refight of Denmark Straits, by repeating the Bismarck's good fortune by getting a magazine hit on the Hood! My luck ran out in the final round as I drew the luckless British side at the Battle of Coronel).
So to commemorate this battle on its 70th anniversary and relive a bit of my youth, I drafted my Stepson to help me refight this scenario from Victory at Sea.
The initial set up has the Ajax and Achilles in line ahead 24,000 yards off the port bow of the Graf Spee, while the Exeter (oddly enough mispelled 'Execter' ) in this game was 22,000 yards off the Graf Spee's starboard bow.
On turn 1 the Graf Spee turned to starboard to unmask its batteries. I decided to try to get early hits on each British ship and see if I could get a speed advantage to allow an escape. In Victory at Sea non-penetrating hits cause NO damage, which actually seems inaccurate to me. Many armored ships took important hits that didn't penetrate the armor and a more modern set of rules would take this into account. But in this 1973 rule set the British light cruiser 6-inch guns had no chance of doing damage to the Graf Spee unless they closed the range to less than 12,000 yards.
Graf Spee fired at the Ajax with two turrets at 21,00o yards, which provided "12 chances in 36" of a hit. Victory at Sea uses a very unusual system to determine hits. In the early 1970s the only sort of dice available were 6-sided. Dungeons and Dragons and the invention of polyhedral dice was a few years in the future. A modern set would use percentile dice. Victory at Sea approximates the effect of percentile dice by using a table that breaks out the "chances per 36" of achieveing a hit. In this case 12 chances per 36, doubled to 20 chances per 36 because the Graf Spee is "crossing the T" of the Ajax, about a 55.5% chance. 20 chances per 36 translates int0 die rolls of 5 through 8 being hits when rolling a pair of D6.
The German ship's results were as expected, 1 hit on the Ajax. Taking into account rate of fire, number of guns firing and the armor of the target, all computations normally done by the game scenario designer ahead of time, but in this case published for us in the rules, the Graf Spee normally would do 6,120 points of damage. to the Ajax. Due to the range, however, only 50% of that damage is inflicted, so the Ajxa takes 3,060 points of damage. This is enough to knock out one 6-inch turret and reduce its speed to 24 knots, slower than the Graf Spee. The Graf Spee's 11-inch gun was also entitled to draw a card from a standard deck of cards to see if it inflicted a critical hit - needing a spade. None was drawn this time and, as a matter of fact, the Graf Spee didn't cause any critical hits in this battle at all.
Meanwhile the Exeter fired her two front turrets on the Graf Spee at 16,000 yards and managed to land a hit on the Spee's deck armor. For the Graf Spee's shots on the British ships the armor hit was of no import because all the British ships had identical 2-inch thick armor on decks and belts. But the Graf Spee's belt armor was much thicker at 4 inches than its deck at 2.5 inches, so it was fortunate for Exeter to hit the deck, a 50/50 shot at 16.000 yards. This did 1,935 points of damage to the Graf Spee, which wasn't enough to affect the ship's fighting ability. All damage is cumulative, however, so this hit was important.
On Turn 2 the British ships continued to close as best they could, although they angled away to bring guns to bear and avoid the "Crossing the T" penalty. Graf Spee changed targets for its main guns to the Achilles and got one hit on the Achilles, reducing that ship by the same 3,060 points as its sister for the same loss of speed and destroyed turret. The Graf Spee's 5.9-inch guns fired on the Exeter, getting three hits for 1,620 points. This also had no effect on the Exeter fighting power. Unfortunately for the British, the Exeter rolled very poorly, much to the frustration of my young commodore., getting no hits despite having a 47% chance per turret. The battle would undoubtedly have unfolded differently if the Exeter had even average luck this turn.
On Turn 3 the Graf Spee turned its attention to the Exeter, now that it had achieved a speed advantage ouver the two light cruisers. This time it was the German ship's turn to shoot badly., missing with both 11" turrets, although three of the 5.9-inch turrets scored. The Exeter's return fire again landed a penetrating shell on the Graf Spee's deck. This brought the Graf Spee's cumulative damage to 4,837, reducing the German ship's speed to just 20 knots and knocking out two 5.9-inch guns. The British light cruisers could again catch the Graf Spee and would have to be dealt with! The German 5.9-inch hits did reduce the Exeter a bit, though. The British cruiser's cumulative damage dropped its speed to 24 knots and it lost one turret.
Turn 4 was a brutal turn as the Exeter and Graf Spee slugged it out at 12,000 yards. The Graf Spee landed another 11-inch hit on the Exeter and both remaining 5.9-inch guns also hit, bringing Exeter's cumulative damage over 8,000 and leaving the heavy cruiser dead in the water and weaponless. The Exeter's two remaining turrets also fired true, slamming into the Graf Spee's belt and causing another 5,130 points of damage, bringing the pocket battleship's total to 9,967. This was a serious level of damage, disabling the rear 11-inch turret and reducing speed to 14 knots. The Graf Spee would have no choice but to turn about and face the light cruisers.
The next three turns saw the British lights try to get close enough to penetrate the Graf Spee's armor. They were too close to run away from the Graf Spee's 11-inch guns and had little choice. Both ended up being sunk, with their only hit bouncing off the Graf Spee's belt armor.
So the battle ended with the Graf Spee afloat and all three British ships sunk or dead in the water, so at first glance that might appear to be a German victory. As was pretty common in 1970s rules sets, there was no attempt to define victory provided by the scenario. You were supposed to argue about it afterward, just like real admirals!. Still, knowing the Graf Spee's strategic situation, losing a main gun turret and, especially, half the ship's speed would have to be considered fatal damage. While the Graf Spee succeeded in mauling the British, she didn't succeed in escaping.
Still, the outcome suggest that there's at least some chance for the Graf Spee under these set of rules, so long as the German has decent luck while rolling dice and the British don't.