740.0011 European War 1939/1283

Memorandum of Trans-Atlantic Telephone Conversation 7

Minister Edwin C. Wilson called Mr. Duggan by long distance telephone on Thursday, December 14, and stated that he would like to give [Page 92]him a little information about the naval engagement off the coast of Uruguay yesterday.8

Mr. Wilson: Briefly, as you will see from the message we are sending up, the best information which we obtained from the British Legation, the local maritime authorities here and other sources, is as follows: About six o’clock yesterday morning off the northeastern coast of Uruguay the British cruiser Achilles, the Ajax and the Exeter, the latter of which was engaged in convoying a French merchant vessel, came into contact with the German pocket battleship Graf von Spee. The Exeter was damaged and the Von Spee made off. Then late yesterday afternoon, between 7 and 9 o’clock, off the place called Punta de Este, well outside Uruguayan territorial waters, two further engagements occurred, in which both the Graf von Spee and the Ajax were damaged. The Graf von Spee came into the port of Montevideo about midnight last night and I was down to see her this morning. She is about 200 yards off shore. One of the secretaries is now out in a launch going around her to look her over. The casualties on the Von Spee are 36 dead, 48 wounded on board the ship, and one wounded man has been brought ashore into a military hospital.

The Ajax and the Achilles pursued the Von Spee up to the Uruguayan territorial waters and they are now believed to be lying about twenty-five miles off shore. It is not known whether the Exeter is also there or whether she has made off to the Falkland Islands for repairs. She was badly damaged. We have been told in confidence by the maritime authorities here that the Von Spee has received permission to remain in port forty-eight hours and that this time may be extended if necessary to make further repairs. It is of interest to note that the Uruguayan law makes no distinction between repairs on account of gunfire damages and those from natural causes.

That is the most reliable information which I have been able to get. I have asked the Naval Attaché to come over from Buenos Aires by plane, if possible, and we will try to check up and let you know more during the day.

There were rumors all day yesterday about the battle, but late yesterday afternoon the Foreign Office and the German Legation were entirely without any knowledge and it was only later in the night that the reports of what seems to have been the most serious engagement off Punta de Este came in.

Mr. Duggan: What was the first position?

Mr. Wilson: The first position was well off the coast. Some people are saying two hundred miles, and the people who perhaps would [Page 93]know the most, the British, are not saying. The first engagement was well out to sea. Whether it was within the zone or not cannot be determined until the exact position of the ship is known. We have no definite information.

The second and third engagements took place not very far off the Uruguayan coast outside territorial waters, but some reports say about twelve sea miles. I do not know whether that is exact or not. The firing could clearly be heard from the shore.

Mr. Duggan: We will be interested in having further information with regard to its stay in port.

Mr. Wilson: We shall watch that very carefully.

Mr. Duggan: I spoke with Mr. Hackworth9 a few moments ago. He told me that under international law he thought that the ship might stay there only for a short time, twenty-four hours.

Mr. Wilson: The reports are that permission has been given for the ship to stay in port forty-eight hours. The information which I just gave you is what I obtained from the Uruguayan authorities. An official here said in confidence that he had told the officer of the German vessel that the ship could remain in port 48 hours and that the time would be extended if necessary to make further repairs. There is no distinction between repairs on account of gunfire and repairs on account of natural causes. This is all pretty preliminary. We will check as we go along.

  1. Between Mr. Wilson in Montevideo and Mr. Duggan in Washington.
  2. See República Oriental del Uruguay, Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Antecedentes Relativos al Hundimiento del Acorazado “Admiral Graf Spee” y a la Internación del Barco Mercante “Tacoma” (Montevideo, Imprenta “El Siglo Ilustrado”, 1940).
  3. Green H. Hackworth, Legal Adviser.