HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association


FAQ 35

What were the attitudes of the British and German Captains?


During the battle, with all his guns disabled but his engines intact Captain Bell (HMS Exeter) said that he intended to “ram the bugger” (Graf Spee) if he had the chance.  He admitted later that “It would have meant the end of us but also of the Graf Spee as a raider”.


Bell was working to Commodore Harwood's orders "Attack at once by day or night". From December 1936 Harwood had been captain of Exeter as well as Division Commodore until she sailed from UK in September 1939 with Bell as Captain of the ship which would allow the Commodore to command the squadron from any of his ships as occasion required.  


Harwood had trained them as a fighting unit. He later said “Our ships had exercised a possible action against a pocket battleship and they knew what to do”; “We were all in action together”


In a letter home in January 1940 to his wife, Joan, Harwood said, “It is the old story, the offensive, he expected us to run away and when we attacked and chased him instead he lost the initiative….”


In contrast, Captain Langsdorff (Graf Spee) had no pre-formed battle plan and as he went into action had to make rapid decisions under pressure.  After the scuttling he has been quoted as saying, “Better a thousand live heroes that a thousand dead men”