30th June 1934. In the Reichsmarinewerft shipyard, Wilhelmshaven, a ships’ hull lies on the slipway. She is far larger than anything Germany has built since before the First World War, and, though not yet fitted out, her displacement will eventually be well over 10,000 long tons. Following a short ceremony, hydraulic rams slide the hull gracefully down the slipway, as she enters the water for the first time. Nazi salutes fill the air.
The new ship, Admiral Graf Spee, spends the next 2 years being fitted out with armaments, magazines and living quarters. By 6th January 1936, she is finally ready to set sail. Her main battery, six 283 mm calibre guns, fitted in 2 triple turrets, one fore, and one aft, is now ready to go to sea. In 1937, she participates in the Coronation Review at Spithead, in front of King George VI, representing Nazi Germany. She sits gracefully alongside HMS Hood and HMS Resolution.
By 21st August, 1939, she has a new captain. Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff had been inspired to join the Navy by the family of Maximilian von Spee, who went on to be a naval hero in the First World War. Hans Langsdorff would display the same bravery on this voyage.
On this day, the heavy cruiser sets sail from Wilhelmshaven, in company with her tender, the Altmark, for the South Atlantic. History records that on the 1st September, German troops crossed the border into Poland, which prompts the British to issue an ultimatum to Hitler, to withdraw them. By 11:00 on the morning of the 3rd, the ultimatum expires. Britain finds herself at war with Germany.
Graf Spee, in the South Atlantic, waits. Captain Langsdorff has not yet been given permission to attack British shipping. Hitler believes that, as Poland is rapidly overcome, the British will decide on peace. In the meantime, Langsdorff decides, wisely, to keep as far away from British ships as possible, a difficult task as he does not know where the British are.
Finally, on the 26th September, Langsdorff receives the order he has waited for – permission to target British shipping. SS Clement becomes the first victim. Graf Spee‘s floatplane is sent over, and orders the Clement to stop, which they do, all the while sending out distress signals on their radio. Langsdorff orders the crew to take to the boats, while 2 officers from Clement are taken on board for questioning. Meanwhile, the rest of Clement‘s crew are given the correct course for the nearest port, and set free. After a short spell, the 2 officers are put on board a nearby neutral ship.
Graf Spee‘s crew, realising that the ship is too easily spotted, decide to perform some modifications. The mast is repainted, to look like a French one, and a fake funnel and turret are installed. The next victim, the Newton Beach, fails to notice the ship approaching her is not a French cruiser, until Langsdorff gets within a mile of his prey. By then, it is too late, and, after a brief SOS signal from Newton Beach, the ship is seized as a prize.
Crews of further sunken ships are either sent back to port, or interned on board the Graf Spee or her tender Altmark. Due to her limited fuel storage, the 2 ships rendezvous regularly to top up Graf Spee’s tanks, and to transfer provisions, either those of the Kriegsmarine (the German Navy) or those stolen from British merchant vessels.
The Royal Navy is getting suspicious. Following a few more sinkings and captures, between the island of Ascension and St. Helena, their forces in the South Atlantic begin to close in. Unfortunately for the British, Langsdorff had thought of that, sending out a fake signal from the Newton Beach, claiming to have been torpedoed by a U-Boat, and ordering Graf Spee to proceed somewhere else, namely southwards.
Langsdorff suspects that British ships are being re-routed via the Cape of Good Hope. He manages along the way to sink another ship, and evade not one, but two Allied task forces, including 2 battleships, a cruiser and an aircraft carrier. Despite a close call, Graf Spee slips, undetected, into the Indian Ocean. After a few sinkings and holding a neutral Dutch ship up, before deciding to leave her, the British cotton on to the raider in the Indian Ocean.
However, Langsdorff is more concerned with the state of his ship than the Royal or French navies. While he has enough provisions to last until the end of February, the ship’s diesel engines are not in the best condition. With the ship frequently travelling at high speed, they are experiencing a great deal of strain, having already been overhauled once at sea. Graf Spee is several thousand miles from the nearest friendly port, prompting Langsdorff to decide on a return to Germany in the near future.
Hearing reports that a convoy would be formed in the mouth of the River Plate in Uruguay, to head across the Atlantic. Langsdorff decides to head in that direction, on Graf Spee‘s way home, thinking it a chance to sink yet more shipping. By now, it is December. Summer in the Southern hemisphere. Graf Spee had, all this time, evaded the attentions of both the Royal Navy and French Navy.
Meanwhile, to the East of Uruguay, at the Falkland islands, Commodore Henry Harwood of the Royal Navy, in charge of Force ‘G’, makes a guess. He reasons that, given the amount of shipping in the area, eventually the Graf Spee will visit the River Plate Estuary. If he sends his ships to that area, there is a possibility that they may be able to track her. Force ‘G’ consists of the 2 heavy cruisers, HMS Cumberland and HMS Exeter, and the 2 light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles. Cumberland is out of action at the Falklands, leaving 1 heavy and 2 light cruisers.
December 13th, 1939, dawns across the South Atlantic. Exeter, Ajax and Achilles are sailing North East. At 6:14 am, smoke is spotted on the horizon, and Exeter is dispatched to investigate, turning to port. 6:16 am – Exeter signals that she thinks it is a pocket battleship, the British designation for Graf Spee‘s type. Harwood realises that he is about to engage the enemy.
Harwood’s problem is that the Graf Spee has the small British force outgunned. Graf Spee has six 11 inch (283 mm) guns, whereas Exeter has six 8 inch guns. Ajax and Achilles each have eight 6 inch guns, which will struggle to penetrate Graf Spee‘s armour. However, they can still do damage to the exterior of the ship, and all the ships in the engagement have torpedoes, albeit with relatively short ranges. Harwood’s solution is to split his force.
Exeter steams straight towards the Graf Spee, while Ajax and Achilles continue on their North-Easterly course, hoping to get around the other side of the German ship. This will in theory force her to divide her fire. Langsdorff doesn’t fall for it. At 6:18 am Graf Spee opens fire at Exeter. She is soon pouring fire exclusively at Exeter, who Langsdorff sees as more of a threat. By 6:23 am all 3 Royal Navy ships are returning fire at the Graf Spee. Hits are scored with both 6 and 8 inch shells.
A minute later, Graf Spee delivers the first solid punch. An 11 inch shell hits one of Exeter‘s forward turrets. It is completely destroyed, as are the internal communications. On the bridge, shrapnel from the turret kills all but 2 officers and the Captain. Captain Frederick Bell elects to keep fighting, with orders now being shouted from person to person down to the engine room. Exeter closes in, and fires torpedoes from her starboard side.
Langsdorff is forced to manoeuvre to avoid the torpedoes. He turns Graf Spee hard to port, and begins to lay smoke, to throw off the accurate British fire. Graf Spee is now steering North-West, parallel to the British light cruisers, who have also turned. Ajax and Achilles continue to fire.
Captain Bell turns Exeter around, to fire the torpedoes on the port side of the ship. Graf Spee lands 2 more 11 inch shells. One destroys the other front turret of Exeter, and the other sets a large fire. Langsdorff, seeing Exeter badly damaged, switches one of his 11 inch turrets to fire at Ajax and Achilles. They decide to back off.
Exeter, despite the lack of command, the blaze threatening to engulf her and having only one operational turret, continues to fight. Her single remaining turret, now operating independently, continues to fire 8 inch shells at the Graf Spee. 6:50 am sees Exeter in a bad way, as she takes yet another direct hit, this one causing flooding. The final remaining turret, with water gushing in, gives up the ghost. Listing badly, and now defenceless, Bell disengages Exeter. He heads, barely afloat, for the Falkland islands.
7:10 am – Harwood orders Ajax and Achilles to close in. Initially, Graf Spee appears to hesitate, turning away, before turning to shoot at both remaining British ships. The British land their first major punch – following 6 inch gunfire, a fire is started on board Langsdorff’s ship. The celebration is short lived.
7:24 am – an 11 inch shell hit disables both of Ajax‘s aft turrets. Half of her firepower, and a quarter of the total British firepower, has been disabled by this hit. Undeterred, Harwood orders Ajax even closer. At a range of just 4 nautical miles, Graf Spee and Ajax launch torpedoes. Both sides turn aggressively to avoid the metal fish. With British ammunition running low, Harwood pulls his ships back, to shadow Langsdorff, who makes for the nearby port of Montevideo, making smoke.
Aboard Graf Spee, Langsdorff assesses the damage. In the engagement, all of Graf Spee‘s galleys have been destroyed, save one. The desalination plant is out of action. Ditto the oil refinery. Water is now leaking into the ship’s flour store. Sailors lie dead. Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay, may just offer him the chance to repair. He requests two weeks to repair his ship.
The request is denied. Being a neutral port, the ship is only allowed 24 hours under international law. Initially, the British diplomats insist on this being observed. However, Harwood is in desperate need of reinforcement for his damaged force. The British then choose to exploit the Hague convention, specifically article 16, which demanded the ship not leave port until 24 hours after a hostile merchant ship had done. The Graf Spee stays put.
Langsdorff begins to hear reports that the British have brought in reinforcements. He also hears of large quantities of fuel oil being bought in Argentina by Britain, and puts 2 and 2 together. If he breaks out, he believes, Graf Spee will be sunk easily by British battleships and aircraft carriers. Equally, if he stays, the ship will be interned by Uruguay, and, given their British sympathies, British intelligence will be allowed to search his ship. December 14th, 15th and 16th pass, while British merchant ships leave.
On the morning of the 17th, he boards Graf Spee with a skeleton crew. The ship gracefully slips her moorings, and is piloted into the middle of the harbour by a tug. Petrol is poured over all parts of the ship, and a torpedo warhead suspended by a rope above each magazine. As they board the tug, the petrol is ignited. The tug steams rapidly back towards the port.
Fire engulfs the ship. An explosion then rocks Graf Spee, ironically putting out much of the fire. She will continue to burn for the next 4 days. The raider of the South Atlantic is now a smoking wreck, sinking into shallow water.
By the 20th, Langsdorff is in a hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He carefully lays out the battle ensign of the Graf Spee on the hotel bed, and lies down. As he stated in a letter written the previous evening, to the German ambassador in Buenos Aires:
“Sooner than expose my ship to the danger that after a brave fight she would fall partly or completely into enemy hands. I decided not to fight but to destroy the equipment and then scuttle the ship. It was clear to me that this decision might be consciously or unwittingly misconstrued by persons ignorant of my motives, as being attributable entirely or partly to personal considerations. Therefore I decided from the beginning to bear the consequences involved in this decision. For a captain with a sense of honour, it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship.”
Langsdorff is found later that day, having shot himself. Until the battle, not a single sailor, British or German, had died due to his actions.
He was not to know that the British reinforcements were over 2000 miles away. The reports in the media had been planted by British intelligence.
Have an excellent day.