"Bigger than anything faster. Faster than anything bigger."
Admiral Graf Spee at the 1937 Fleet Review at Spithead. In the background are the battleship HMS Resolution and the battlecruiser HMS Hood.
The Admiral Graf Spee was one of the most famous German naval warships of World War II, along with the Bismarck. Her size was limited to that of a cruiser by the Treaty of Versailles, but she was as heavily armed as a small battleship due to innovative weight-saving techniques employed in her construction.
She was sent to the Atlantic Ocean as a commerce raider in 1939, where she sank nine Allied merchant ships. Numerous British hunting groups were assigned to find her, with three British ships finally tracking her down in December 1939. The Battle of the River Plate ensued, during which the Graf Spee was damaged. She docked for repairs in the neutral port of Montevideo, but was forced by international law to leave within 72 hours. Faced with what he believed to be overwhelming odds, the captain scuttled his ship rather than risk the lives of his crew.
Admiral Graf Spee was a Deutschland-class cruiser. Launched in 1934, she was named after the World War I Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee who died, along with two of his sons, in the first Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. She was the second vessel to be named after him, the first being the uncompleted World War I German battlecruiser SMS Graf Spee.
The launching took place on 30 June 1934 with Admiral Erich Raeder delivering a pre-launch speech, and the christening performed by Grafin Huberta von Spee, daughter of the late Vice Admiral von Spee.
Before Admiral Graf Spee was given her official name, she was referred to as Panzerschiff C and Ersatz Braunschweig, as she would be replacing the old battleship Braunschweig in the fleet inventory. She cost 82 million Reichsmark to build.
After World War I, replacement capital ships for the German Navy were limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 10,000 tons and 11 inch (280 mm) guns. Electric arc welding was used in her construction instead of conventional rivets, thereby saving considerable weight by not requiring overlapping steel plates. Furthermore, Graf Spee’s eight main engines used diesel fuel, an unconventional configuration at the time that also contributed to weight saving. The weight saving allowed her carry a main gun of the same calibre as a battleship, while remaining near the displacement limit of the Treaty of Versailles, hence the classification by the British of her and her two sisters, Deutschland (later renamed Lützow) and Admiral Scheer, as pocket battleships. A year after the Graf Spee’s loss, her sisters were reclassified as heavy cruisers.
Technologically, Admiral Graf Spee was ahead of her time, being the first ship in the Kriegsmarine to be equipped with Seetakt radar. Unlike steam engines, raw low-grade bunker fuel needed treatment before it could be used in her diesel engines. A separating system routinely pre-cleaned the fuel and deposited it in six ready tanks situated close to the engines. The separators used high pressure steam produced in a boiler room lying between decks, aft of the funnel and above the armoured deck.
After commissioning in 1936, Admiral Graf Spee served as fleet flagship until 1938 and performed international maritime control duties off the coast of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Graf Spee's last captain was Hans Langsdorff, a longstanding naval officer who had seen action at the Battle of Jutland, and who assumed command of the ship on 1 November 1938.
Prior to the invasion of Poland plans were made to deploy the Panzerschiffe as raiders in the Atlantic Ocean. Admiral Graf Spee sailed from Wilhelmshaven on 21 August 1939, to act as a commerce raider in the South Atlantic. Langsdorff plotted a course to cross major shipping lanes at night to avoid detection. Supported by her supply ship, the tanker Altmark, her orders were to sink British merchant ships, but to avoid combat with superior enemy forces, thus threatening vital Allied supply lines and drawing British naval units off their stations in other parts of the world. Graf Spee received orders on 26 September 1939 to "commence active participation in the trade war."
On 30 September the 5050-ton British tramp steamer Clement was stopped and sunk off Brazil with twenty thousand cases of kerosene bound from New York to Salvador, Brazil. Graf Spee radioed the location of Clement’s lifeboats and Clement’s captain and first officer were placed aboard the neutral Greek steamer Papalemos a few days later. Graf Spee stopped the 4,650-ton British tramp steamer Newton Beach on 5 October with a cargo of maize. Newton Beach served as a prison ship with a prize crew until 8 October. The 4,222-ton British steamer Ashlea with a cargo of sugar was stopped and sunk on 7 October.
The 8,196-ton British liner Huntsman with a cargo of tea was stopped on 10 October, and became a replacement prison ship. Graf Spee used Huntsman’s radio to transmit a deceptive message indicating Huntsman had been attacked by a submarine at a different location. Huntsman was sunk after transferring the prisoners to Altmark on 17 October. Graf Spee machine-gunned the bridge and upper deck of the 5,299-ton British steamer Trevanion (loaded with ore concentrates) on 22 October when that ship tried to radio a distress message.
Graf Spee moved into the Indian Ocean on 28 October and sank the motor tanker Africa Shell (in ballast) in the Mozambique channel in 15 November. Graf Spee returned to the South Atlantic and sank the 10,086-ton Blue Star liner Doric Star on 2 December with a cargo of meat, dairy products, and wool. Doric Star radioed a distress message; and sabotaged its engines so it could not be taken as a prize. Graf Spee sank Tairoa with a cargo of meat, wool, and lead on 3 December after the 7,983-ton steamer radioed a distress call. The 3,895-ton steamer Streonshalh with a cargo of wheat was sunk on 9 December.
Captain Hans Langsdorff strictly adhered to the rules of mercantile warfare at the time and saved all of the crew members of these ships; not a life was lost in these sinkings. The captured crews were transferred to the tanker Altmark. Later, these 303 crew members were freed by force in neutral Norwegian territorial waters by the British destroyer HMS Cossack.
While deployed as a commerce raider, Graf Spee was often disguised by the ship's carpenters with a fake "B" turret superposed over the forward "A" main turret, a false funnel aft of the float plane catapult and by painting the pyramidal superstructure to appear to be a tripod mast.
Battle of the River Plate
Britain formed eight hunting groups in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean to look for Admiral Graf Spee, totalling three battleships, two battlecruisers, four aircraft carriers, and 16 cruisers (including several French ships). More groups were assembled later. On 13 December 1939, she was located by the British Hunting Group G, consisting of the 8 inch (203 mm) gunned cruiser HMS Exeter and the 6 inch (152 mm) gunned light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles (of the New Zealand Division), and the Battle of the River Plate ensued. During the battle, the Graf Spee inflicted heavy damage upon the Exeter, forcing the latter to break off the engagement. Later in the exchange, one of Graf Spee’s shells caused some casualties on the Achilles. In return, the Graf Spee was hit repeatedly by the 6-inch shells of the light cruisers, which could not penetrate her armour but nonetheless inflicted significant topside damage.
On the other hand, Exeter’s 8-inch hits ran through the armour easily. About 06:38 an 8-inch shell penetrated two decks and exploded in Graf Spee’s funnel area, causing crippling internal damage. Exeter’s early 8-inch hit wrecked the boiler room, shutting down the fuel-separating system. Chief Engineer Commander Klepp advised the captain they could not repair the damage at sea. Klepp estimated the ship had about sixteen hours of running time, using pre-cleaned fuel from the day tanks. They could not replace the rapidly depleting fuel, so the ship was denied the possibility of outrunning her pursuers on the open sea.
Admiral Graf Spee entered the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs. The exterior damage was surveyed by a British observer on 14 December 1939, who reported that the port midship 6" gun was unserviceable, the starboard anti-aircraft guns appeared out of action, rangefinders were out of action, the aircraft was wrecked, there were shell holes in the control tower and two holes below the waterline. In total, there was evidence of 30–60 hits. The most critical damage was the destruction of the desalination unit. Fresh water was essential for the running of diesels. Captain Langsdorff and the Chief Engineer carefully kept this problem secret. Although the specific details were signalled to SKL (Seekriegsleitung: Naval Warfare Command) in January 1940 this vital information lay buried from public knowledge for sixty years.
One of Langsdorff's first actions when he entered Montevideo was to release the 62 crew of the merchant ships he had sunk during her most recent voyage. Out of nine merchant ships sunk, none of the crews had been killed. All of those released spoke highly of their treatment and of Langsdorff, who spoke perfect English and lent them English books to pass the time. Captain Dove of the Africa Shell had already become friends with Langsdorff.
Under the Hague Convention of 1907, the Graf Spee was not entitled to remain in the port for more than 24 hours, without risking internment. In addition, and notwithstanding the rule already mentioned, under the same convention, the Graf Spee had to give British merchant ships 24 hours start if they left port, and the British Consul arranged for the merchant ships in port to sail at 24 hour intervals, effectively locking the Spee in the port whilst at the same time spreading propaganda about the vast fleet of British warships converging on the area. On 14 December, British Minister Millington-Drake officially requested that the Uruguayan government intern the ship if she stayed in port longer than 24 hours, on grounds that she was still seaworthy. The Uruguayan government obliged, announcing that if the Graf Spee did not sail within 72 hours of its arrival, she would be interned.
On 15 December, the ship's 36 dead were buried with full military honours in the German cemetery in Montevideo. At the funeral ceremony, Captain Hans Langsdorff used the naval salute, while all others around him used the Nazi salute. Many officers of the sunk ships attended the burial of those killed in the battle.
A ruse by the British intelligence encouraged the captain to think that he was out-numbered, with aircraft carriers and battleships on their way and that his escape route was cut off. In fact, only the Cumberland arrived in time to reinforce the existing ships. There were three possible channels that the Graf Spee could use in order to escape to the open sea, and the waiting British warships had to cover all of them. Captain Langsdorff had been in discussion with the Kriegsmarine over the various options available to him, which included fighting on, internment at Montevideo or scuttling the ship. Adolf Hitler responded personally, writing the following in his own handwriting...
“Attempt by all means to extend time in neutral waters in order to guarantee freedom of action as long as possible. Fight your way through to Buenos Aires, using remaining ammunition. No internment at Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction of ship if scuttled. ”
Graf Spee wreck in 1940
At 6:15pm on 17 December 1939, the German warship left Montevideo harbour, with the British 6-inch (152 mm) gunned cruisers Ajax, Achilles, and the 8-inch (203 mm) gunned Cumberland waiting nearby in international waters. However, instead of trying to fight through the blockade, the German warship sailed just outside the harbour, and at 7:52, was scuttled in the estuary at 34°58′18″S 56°18′4″W by her crew in order to avoid risking the crew in what Captain Langsdorff expected to be a losing battle. Captain Langsdorff committed suicide three days later by shooting himself, possibly in order to prove he had not acted out of fear for his own life. The fact that he wrapped himself in the Imperial flag before shooting himself may have been a mute admission that he had not fought in the tradition and spirit of the proud commander whose name his ship bore.
Many German commentators considered it to have been an error of judgement to have accepted combat against an arguably equal or superior force: he made a poor showing in the battle (his medium guns scored no hits on the enemy cruisers): his attack on the Doric Star which betrayed his location to Admiral Harwood's squadron had begun from such long range that his judgment was called into question, and most of the crew wanted to attempt the breakout to Buenos Aires where "a change of flag sale" had probably been negotiated with the Argentines.
The majority of the Graf Spee crew were interned in Argentina. Langsdorff feared that the pro-British Uruguayans might hand over his men in breach of neutrality, and upon reporting this to Berlin he was ordered to get the crew out of Uruguay. A ruse was attempted in which the men were set adrift in the international waters of the River Plate and picked up by three Argentine flag vessels under local German ownership. The German naval attaché then argued that since the thousand or so men were "mariners from the wreck of the 'Admiral Graf Spee'" they should not be interned but returned by neutral steamer to Germany as "survivors". Argentina was not satisfied that they fitted into this category and interned them. Between April 1940 and the end of 1941, all but six of the officers, and about 200 technical NCOs, absconded from internment and were back in Germany where the majority served in the U-boat Arm. Argentine naval connivance was suspected but never proved.
Some of the wounded crewmen were retained at Montevideo, and together with internees from the German merchant ship Tacoma, were subsequently transferred to the Cuartel Paso del Rey (English: "Barracks Quarter of the Passage of the King") in Sarandí del Yí, Durazno where the Military District II infantry guarded them. They remained here until transferred back to Montevideo and repatriated to Germany in 1946. Numerous objects pertaining to the Graf Spee remain at the Cuartel Paso del Rey museum in Sarandí del Yí.
The Germans' behaviour during their stay in Montevideo, especially Langsdorff's action when faced with possible defeat at British hands, was held in high regard in Uruguay. Many locals feared that their city could become directly endangered during any hostilities. After the Uruguayan Government turned down the German request for the ship to be allowed two weeks in harbour for repairs, the German diplomats present suggested to Langsdorff that the ship's guns be used to demolish the port installations, the battleship then being sunk across the harbour exit. This would be in retaliation for Uruguayan "favouritism" towards the British which was not entirely without foundation (the Uruguayan Government refused to concede more than 72 hours 'under any circumstances' whereas they had given a British warship fourteen days to repair in the First World War, a clear breach of their own neutrality.)
Langsdorff was opposed to the idea of demolishing the port and his decision to seek international waters to scuttle his ship was seen as partly motivated by a desire not to cause such harm. After the war the British and US Governments insisted that all Admiral Graf Spee crewmen, irrespective of whether they had been recently married to local girls or not, should be repatriated to Germany, and the refrigerator ship Highland Monarch arrived at Buenos Aires and Montevideo on 16 February 1946 to ship them out. There now ensued a total fiasco, again possibly engineered by the Argentine Navy in collusion with the German secret service. By then the total of Admiral Graf Spee crewmen who had not escaped was 811 men at Buenos Aires and 90 or so at Montevideo.
Amongst much lamentation and distress from the women and children ashore, the men plus six wives were paraded at the gangplank five hours before sailing time. At the last moment Argentine Army officers arrived carrying a large bag containing over 900 identity books. It was thus impossible to check the identity of each man against his document as he went aboard, and the British naval attaché watching the pantomime reported his fear that "some substitutions might have occurred".
Since all the men of U-530 and U-977, the two submarines which surrendered to Argentina in 1945, had been given into United States custody and flown out for interrogation before 31 August 1945, there were officially no U-boat men in captivity anywhere in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay. During the voyage of the Highland Monarch northwards it was discovered that 86 U-boat men had been smuggled aboard amidst the Admiral Graf Spee crewmen. Neither the British, US nor Argentine Governments were able to explain subsequently how the 86 U-boat men had got to Argentina in order to be repatriated from there. The most likely explanation is that they arrived aboard U-boats which unloaded on Argentine beaches postwar.
By 1948 all former Admiral Graf Spee men who wanted to emigrate to Argentina to rejoin family there had been allowed to do so. Most of their descendants are to be found in the town of Villa General Belgrano in Córdoba province.