World War 2 History: Admiral Graf Spee Deceived into Scuttling in the River Plate Estuary
The Admiral Graf Spee
The Admiral Graf Spee (pronounced “grahf shpay”) was a German heavy cruiser built in the 1930s under the auspices of the Versailles Treaty, which forbade Germany from constructing warships greater than 10,000 tons. Despite this limitation, the Graf Spee, fully loaded, displaced 16,000 tons. With her six 11-inch (280 mm) main guns, she could outgun any cruiser capable of keeping up with her. Because of her armament, the British referred to the her and her sister ships, the Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, as “pocket battleships”. In comparison, the Bismarck, a true German battleship, displaced 55,000 tons.
Preparation For War
In August of 1939, just before the start of World War II, the Admiral Graf Spee sailed for the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff, where she would operate as a surface raider, sinking and disrupting Allied merchant traffic. She was attended by the supply ship Altmark and they would rendezvous whenever the Graf Spee needed supplies and fuel. Fully fueled, she had a range of about 9,000 miles. The Altmark would also relieved her of any captured merchant crews. At this early stage of the war, Hitler had ordered strict accordance to the laws of war at sea. This meant giving crews the chance to abandon ship before being sunk and picking up survivors. Hitler still hoped for a settlement with Great Britain and, though they were at war, did not want to antagonize her.
Hunter Becomes Hunted
On September 26, 1939, Langsdorff was authorized to attack Allied merchant shipping. From then until December 13, she sank nine ships totaling 50,000 tons. During that period, the French and British formed eight hunter-groups of various warships, including aircraft carriers and battleships to search for the raider. One of these forces was commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood who, based on distress signals from the last two of Graf Spee's victims, concluded that the raider was headed for either Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or Montevideo, Uruguay, both neutral countries and therefore, temporarily at least, safe havens-- but the Graf Spee could easily turn toward the West Indies. His force was small: the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and two light cruisers, HMS Ajax (from which he commanded) and HMS Achilles; he could not split them, since, even together, the Graf Spee was more than a match for them. He gambled that the enemy would head for Uruguay and positioned his ships in the River Plate Estuary and waited.
Battle of the River Plate
Although the British ships were faster, the Exeter only had six 8-inch guns with a range of 27,000 yards, while the Ajax and Achilles only had eight 6-inch guns with a range of 25,000 yards. The Graf Spee's six 11-inch guns had a range of 30,000 yards.
At 6:00 AM on December 13, the Graf Spee approached the River Plate Estuary and spotted the British ships. Captain Langsdorff decided to attack, thinking they were protecting a target-rich convoy of merchant ships, realizing too late that he was engaging three enemy cruisers. Harwood ordered the Ajax and Achilles to split away from Exeter, dividing his forces, but splitting the Graf Spee's firepower. The Graf Spee concentrated on the Exeter, in order to neutralize the biggest threat, and proceeded to inflict great damage on the heavy cruiser. Meanwhile, Ajax and Achilles closed in on the Graf Spee to get in range. By the time the two light cruisers got within 7500 yards, the Graf Spee broke off at 7:45 AM and headed for the harbor at Montevideo, arriving at 10:00 PM. Ajax and Achilles pursued her all day. Achilles' Captain Parry later wrote: “To this day I do not know why the Admiral Graf Spee did not dispose of us in the Ajax and the Achilles as soon as she had finished with the Exeter”.
All four ships suffered damage, but the Exeter's was severe. All her main guns were out of action and she had to make for Port Stanley in the Falklands for repairs. The Ajax and Achilles waited outside the 3 mile limit in case the raider tried to slip away, knowing full well they were no match for the Graf Spee. Their crews would call this the “death watch”.
The laws of neutrality only allowed a belligerent vessel 72 hours before being impounded by the host country. The damage to the Graf Spee was estimated to take two weeks to repair. Langsdorff made sure his wounded were taken to hospitals and the dead buried, while he decided what to do. In the meantime, the British sent reinforcements, but only the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland was close enough to lend support, arriving on December 14. Instead, the British, issuing fake communications in codes they knew the Germans had broken, deceived the Germans into believing a large armada, including aircraft carriers and battleships, awaited the Graf Spee. Captain Langsdorff was given two options by German High Command: attack or scuttle; internment was not an option. Langsdorff, thinking of his crew, chose the latter.
Scuttling and Suicide
On December 17, 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee, with Langsdorff and a skeleton crew of 40 aboard, steamed out of Montevideo as 20,000 onlookers watched. The crew set the scuttling charges and and everyone was evacuated by an Argentinian tugboat. The explosions ripped through the ship and it sank at 08:55 PM.
On December 20, Captain Langsdorff, lying on the ship's flag and wearing his full dress uniform, shot and killed himself.
During the 10 weeks the Admiral Graf Spee was loose in the Atlantic, nine British merchant ships, totalling more than 50,000 tons, were stopped and sunk. The Graf Spee's captain, Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff (1894 - 1939) adhered strictly to the Hague Conventions, making sure that no deaths resulted from any of the Spee's attacks. Not one. His humane treatment won the respect of the ships' officers detained as his prisoners.
The incident was a huge embarrassment for Hitler and a desperately-needed boost for British First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who would become Prime Minister in a few months.
HMS Exeter was refitted and returned to action but was sunk by the Japanese on March 1, 1942 in the Second Battle of the Java Sea.
HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax both survived the war.
The Altmark, while in neutral Norwegian waters headed towards Germany, was discovered by the British who, on February 16, 1940, boarded her and released the almost 300 British merchant seamen, victims of the Admiral Graf Spee.
In 2010, the German government requested that the Admiral Graf Spee's giant bronze eagle with spread wings and swastika that adorned the stern of the ship and was recovered by a salvage team in 2006 be returned to Germany to keep it from being sold on the open market. The eagle is prized by Nazi-memorabilia fanatics and could fetch more than $15 million. As of 2012, the matter has not been resolved.