The first major naval campaign of Word War II, took place when the British navy pursued the Graf Spee, a German battlecruiser who was on a mission to attack British merchant vessels. Between September 30 and December 7 1939 the Graf Spee, under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff sunk nine cargo ships with a total tonnage of 50,089. Not a single crewmen or passenger on any of the sunk vessels was killed.
The British navy correctly deduced that the Graf Spee would next head for the area off of Montevideo to intercept more shipping. A British task force composed of the cruisers Ajax, Achilles and Exeter converged on Graf Spree. On the morning of December 12, 1939 the found the Graf Spree. She was located at the entrance to the River Platte off Uruguay. The Graf Spee believed initially that she was about to engage two British destroyers and a merchant ship and she closed to engage. She opened fire first, damaging the Exeter. All three British troops responded. In the ensuing battle both the British ships and the Graf Spee were damaged, the Exeter so severely that she was forced to withdraw from the battle. The combined fire of three British ships damaged the Graf Spee severely crippling her fuel supply and the damage could not be fixed while engaged in the battle. The Graf Spee headed upriver for Montevideo requesting time for repairs. The Uruguayans refused, while the British rushed additional forces toward Montevideo. Captain Langsdorff convinced that he faced an overwhelming British force, decided to scuttle the Graf Spee in Montevideo harbor.