Henry Harwood won his place in British naval history with his victory at the Battle of the River Plate, “one of the most brilliant cruiser actions in the long annals of the Royal Navy.” In December 1939, Harwood’s inferior force of three cruisers (Ajax, Achilles, Exeter) attacked the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. With superior leadership, discipline, and “fighting energy,” the British ships outfought the German battleship and chased it into the neutral port of Montevideo. Graf Spee emerged from port on December 17, 1939 to scuttle itself. Henry Harwood: Hero of the River Plate by Peter Hore (retired Royal Navy Captain) provides an overdue study of the officer who won the first major sea battle of the Second World War.
The victory over the Graf Spee was a refreshing change from the opening months of the First World War when the British war at sea was marred by the discouraging escape of Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean through Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge’s bungled pursuit. First Lord of the Admiralty in the opening months of both wars, Winston Churchill was thrilled with the victory at the River Plate, a battle won in the best traditions of the Royal Navy. He immediately proposed recognition for Harwood and his three ship captains. Harwood was promoted to Rear-Admiral and received a knighthood and the victorious sailors made a triumphant return to England (although Harwood remained on station in the South Atlantic).
After the dramatic victory over the Graf Spee and his promotion to Rear-Admiral, Churchill as Prime Minister, A.V. Alexander as First Lord the Admiralty, and Dudley Pound as First Sea Lord were unsure what to do next with Harwood. The dilemma of Harwood’s next appointment was probably made more difficult as Pound had worked with Harwood for several years between the wars and seems to have been unimpressed with him. Eventually Harwood was appointed Assistant Chief of Naval Staff and in May 1942 took over as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean in succession to Admiral Andrew Cunningham. British naval fortunes in the Mediterranean were at low ebb and historians Correlli Barnett and Stephen Roskill have been critical of Harwood’s performance in the theatre. The admiral has been faulted for indecisive leadership during Operation Vigorous (an attempt to run a convoy to Malta), the failure of Operation Agreement (a costly naval raid on Tobruk), and the slow clearance of Tripoli harbour. Hore refutes the criticisms of Harwood, blaming the lack of air support for the failures of Vigorous and Agreement, along with Admiral Philip Vian’s poor health in the former operation. Churchill soon lost confidence in Harwood and Pound designated Harwood for reassignment as second-in-command of the Eastern Fleet. A heart attack intervened and when Harwood went on medical leave in early 1943 his career was largely over. Hore’s attempts to redeem Harwood’s reputation in the Mediterranean are somewhat unsuccessful. While Harwood may have been treated unfairly, he was not the best the Royal Navy could do and his replacement was overdue. Likewise the heart attack would indicate Harwood’s health was not sufficient at that point for the strain of high command in the war.
Hore speculates that Pound felt “remorse” over his treatment of Harwood as the important correspondence involving Harwood were missing from the files and presumably destroyed when Cunningham became First Sea Lord later in 1943. Robin Brodhurst, however, claims in Churchill’s Anchor that it was Cunningham and Admiral Geoffrey Blake who were responsible for destroying Pound’s papers. Also, Hore makes allusions in the biography to Churchill’s interference in the internal affairs of the army, navy, and air force. The question of Churchill’s role in such matters is considered in-depth by Allen Packwood in the chapter “Leadership or Interference” in How Churchill Waged War, also from Pen & Sword.
A well-researched and thorough study, Henry Harwood: Hero of the River Plate will well-serve readers interested in the battle and the Royal Navy in the Second World War.
Two other titles available from Pen & Sword related to Winston Churchill and Second World War commanders are Dowding & Churchill: The Dark Side of the Battle of Britain by Jack Dixon and Churchill’s Anchor: The Biography of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound by Robin Brodhurst. Dixon’s book studies the maneuvering by senior figures in the RAF, notably Sholto Douglas and Trafford Leigh-Mallory, to remove Dowding as head of Fighter Command despite his having just won the Battle of Britain. Churchill, who had earlier blocked repeated attempts to remove Dowding from his post, finally relented in November 1940. In his book Brodhurst provides a fine biography of Pound who served as First Sea Lord until forced to resign in September 1943 due to ill-health. He died a month later on Trafalgar Day. Pound’s performance as First Sea Lord, especially for his dealing with Churchill, has been heavily criticized by several historians. Brodhurst provides a fair treatment of his subject and concludes, that Pound is “not a Roosevelt figure; rather he is like Truman, and like Truman he stayed in the kitchen and he took the heat.”