Agonising end for the German warship whose honourable captain shot himself

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It was short, sharp and bloody. And although it might not have been one of history's greatest naval engagements - it was three ships against one - the battle of the river Plate in December 1939 mattered enough at the time, not least as a morale booster for Britain in the early months of the Second World War.

It put an end to a damaging three-month campaign against British merchant ships by the pride of Hitler's Kriegsmarine, the "pocket battleship" Graf Spee. Limited by international treaty to building vessels which displaced no more than 10,000 tons the German navy had given the cruiser-sized Graf Spee warship-sized armament, notably six 11-inch guns.

They were used to enormous advantage when, after sinking nine British merchantmen, Graf Spee was finally tracked down on 13 December off the mouth of the river Plate, separating Uruguay from Argentina, by a force consisting of the cruiser HMS Exeter, mounting six eight-inch guns, and the light cruisers HMS Ajax and New Zealand's HMS Achilles each with eight six-inch guns.

Graf Speeoutgunned them all, and her 11-inch shells caused serious damage to HMSExeter, scoring 100 hits in 20 minutes at a range of 11 miles and killing 64 of her crew. She also scored direct hits on HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.

But the allied ships had managed 50 hits on Graf Spee, killing 37 of her crew and wounding nearly 50 more, and her captain, Hans Langsdorff, turned for the neutral port of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, for vital repairs.

There he ran into more trouble. The Uruguayan authorities, at the prompting of British diplomats, allowed him just 72 hours to make his dispositions before putting back to sea. It was not enough time to refit the ship.

Furthermore, Capt Langsdorff became convinced by British disinformation that the three ships outside the estuary were being reinforced by the warship HMS Renown and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and that to sail out would mean certain death for his 1,100-strong crew.

Capt Langsdorff was proud that no one had been killed when he sunk the British merchantmen (they had all been taken prisoner). He took what must have been the agonising decision - not least for a German career officer in 1939 - to put the lives of his crew before naval glory, and opted to scuttle his ship.

His men were secretly taken off by tender and on 16 DecemberGraf Spee, manned by a skeleton crew, pulled out of Montevideo harbour, bound once again, it seemed, for battle, with hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans watching from the shore. But three miles out, after the remaining crew had been taken off by tugs, Graf Spee was rocked by explosions, and settled into the water.

Capt Langsdorff and his men were taken across the river Plate to Buenos Aires in Argentina, but Capt Langsdorff's sense of honour meant that for him there could be only one ending, and three days later he wrapped himself in the German Imperial Navy flag - not the swastika - and shot himself.

Of all the hundreds of shells fired in the battle of the river Plate it is that last one, from Capt Langsdorff's service revolver, which is the most moving, symbolising the 1,100 men of his crew to whom he gave life in his final naval decision.