Friday, January 08, 2010

Little-Known Aspects of Latin America: Uruguay Forces the Scuttling of a Nazi Ship

Many amateur historians can (annoyingly) rattle off the names of naval battles from World War II, both from the Pacific and the Atlantic. Yet one country is often overlooked in these lists: Uruguay, which indirectly oversaw the sinking of a German battleship.

Early in the war, the German navy had been conducting commercial raids on ships up and down the Atlantic. In September 1939, shortly after the war officially broke out, the German battleship Graf Spee had successfully sunk several merchant boats without loss of life. Still, dissatisfied with the doings of the Graf Spee, the British Navy dispatched several ships to track and stop the Graf Spee. In one of the first naval battles of the War, the German ship engaged battle near the River Plate with British ships, including the HMS Exeter, which was damaged enough to be retired from service. Although the German commander had caused more damage, he was outnumbered, and steered the Graf Spee up the River Plate, hoping to dock in neutral Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. However, Uruguay, following international treaties, said the ship could only remain in Montevideo's bay for 72 hours, and, unable to gain safe harbor in a neutral country, the captain scuttled the ship in Montevideo's bay, where it remains to this day. Thus ended the Battle of the River Plate, one of the first naval battles of World War II, and one in which Uruguay, in its own way, played a decisive role.

While the battle is not a major milestone in the British or German narratives of World War II, it is important enough to Uruguay that, in early December of last year, the government issued a stamp commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle, acknowledging that stamps may be a fading part of culture, but the battle remains relevant as a point of pride and identity to Uruguay to this date.