Book Review: The Battle of the River Plate: A Grand Delusion


by Richard Woodman

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008 . Pp. x, 164. Illus., maps, append., biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN:1591140404

Among the most famous sea fights of World War II, the Plate, in which three British Commonwealth cruisers fought Germany's "pocket battleship" Graf Spee, opened the naval war in the grand old style, with the Royal Navy defeating a superior foe. 

This work, by naval historian Woodman, challenges that image. It is revisionist, in the best sense of the term, i.e., it is a reasoned critique based on sound research and analysis. 

The book opens with the political and military background to the battle, followed by a detailed account of naval operations in the South Atlantic that led to the confrontation off the River Plate on December 13, 1939 , switching back and forth from the German to the British perspective as necessary. A very detailed tactical account follows, against changing perspective as events unfolded. There follows a short look at the circumstances after the battle that led to the scutting of Graf Spee by her crew and her captain's subsequent suicide.  The work concludes with a critical review of the policies, personalities, and decisions that shaped the battle. 

Woodman has two major conclusions.  First that raiders like the Graf Spee were a wasted effort; the average U-boat early in the war accounted for more allied shipping than almost any raider.  The second is that the British squadron was by no means as out-classed as has generally been claimed, a matter that wargames, both professional and amateur, had demonstrated even before the war, though he seems oddly unaware of this. 

A valuable contribution to the history of war at sea.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi ([email protected])   

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