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Henry Harwood; Hero of the River Plate

Peter Hore

Henry Harwood is best known for his destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee at the battle of the River Plate in December 1939 about which Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, said: ‘This brilliant sea fight takes its place in our naval annals and in a long, cold, dark winter it warmed the cockles of the British hearts’.

The author has been given exclusive and unique access to the Harwood family archives and, in the light of these previously unpublished papers, has set about rehabilitating the character, career and achievements of this great British admiral. For all historians and enthusiasts of the Royal Navy in the Second World War, this will be essential reading.

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Henry Harwood is best known for his destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee at the battle of the River Plate in December 1939 about which Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, said: ‘This brilliant sea fight takes its place in our naval annals and in a long, cold, dark winter it warmed the cockles of the British hearts’. Despite that great victory Harwood remains, until now, one of three great British naval commanders of the Second World War who is without a biography. Admiral Sir Henry Harwood’s wider naval career was remarkable and epitomised the Royal Navy in the first half of the twentieth century. He became a naval cadet in 1903, specialised as a torpedo officer in 1911, and for his services in the First World War was awarded the OBE in 1919. He was one of the Navy’s intellectuals, gaining first class passes in all his examinations and, during his interwar service on the South American station, learning Spanish. During his service in important staff appointments and at the Imperial Defence College, he made a particular study of international relations and, in the light of perceived fallings at sea in the First World War, of tactics and command. He was thus well-qualified when in 1936 he became commodore in command of the South American division of the America and West Indies station, and well prepared to meet and defeat the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee with his inferior force of cruisers in 1939. He was promoted assistant chief of the naval staff at the Admiralty, and, in 1942, appointed Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, in succession to Sir Andrew Cunningham. Then, commanding a fleet too enfeebled for its tasks, he found Montgomery plotting against him and Churchill loosing confidence in him before being relieved of his command. Invalided out of the Navy in 1945, he was wrongly blamed by some for the Navy’s perceived failings in the Mediterranean; he died at a relatively young age in 1950. The author has been given exclusive and unique access to the Harwood family archives and, in the light of these previously unpublished papers, has set about rehabilitating the character, career and achievements of this great British admiral. For all historians and enthusiasts of the Royal Navy in the Second World War, this will be essential reading.

ISBN: 9781526725295
Format: Hardback
Author(s): Peter Hore
Publisher: Seaforth Publishing
First Publishment Date: 31 May 2018

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  1. Harwood‘s masterly handling of the destruction of the Graf Spee can be seen as the pinnacle of his career, the picture that emerges from this highly readable book is of a dedicated naval officer who led his forces with courage and skill. review by Warship World - PB on 07/03/2019

    The film ‘Battle of the River Plate’ brought the battle of three smaller British cruisers and the more powerful German pocket battleship Graf Spee to a whole post-war generation, with its Nelsonic flavour of winning against the odds. In Churchill’s words, the first major naval success of WWII, ‘warmed the cockles of the Nation’s heart’. The hero of the battle, Commodore Henry Harwood, was rightly feted with immediate promotion and a knighthood. Whilst the story of the battle has often been meticulously analysed, the hero has not had the same attention - until now. Peter Hore’s biography shows how Harwood’s early career and appointments played a significant part in his success at River Plate. An experienced cruiser man and a Spanish linguist, he demonstrated his considerable diplomatic skills in command of the Exeter before WWII, and forged contacts in both the British diplomatic service and local military authorities. He had also served on the directing staff of the War College where he gave a series of prescient lectures on dealing with surface raiders. But it was not just his service career that contributed to his success; he had a clear strategy to tackle a surface raider, concentrating his light forces at points where singleton merchant ships presented the greatest draw for the raider as opposed to lengthy patrols. The account of the battle shows how Harwood’s tactical skill and contacts came to the fore, but nothing can detract from the bravery and determination of the Royal Navy forces. Following the River Plate action, newly-promoted Rear Admiral Harwood first served on the staff in London before being appointed, at Churchill’s insistence, as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean to replace Cunningham. Harwood arrived at a time when the Mediterranean fleet had been reduced to a handful of cruisers and destroyers with the Valiant and Queen Elizabeth under repair. With the need to replenish Malta, and with Rommel advancing on Egypt, and more vitally, Alexandria, Harwood’s problems were exacerbated by a lack of RAF co-operation and support from Montgomery. The situation worsened as Montgomery stated that he had little sympathy for the Navy. There was inevitably a personal element with the aesthetic Montgomery disliking Harwood who he saw as overweight and the epitome of all he despised. With the onset of ill-health, Harwood was relieved of his command. Peter Hore has, in the words of Admiral Slater in his Foreword, put Harwood’s “character and achievements” into perspective. Whilst Harwood‘s masterly handling of the destruction of the Graf Spee can be seen as the pinnacle of his career, the picture that emerges from this highly readable book is of a dedicated naval officer who led his forces with courage and skill. “Nothing can take this triumph from Harwood” says it all. Very highly recommended.

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