Sinking of the Graf Spee, The
DESCRIPTION: The Admiral Graf Spee, "built in Nazi Germany ... looted merchant men of every nationality." It lost a battle with three British "little cruisers" and "went to cover." The pocket battleship was scuttled "in Davy Jones's pocket"
EARLIEST DATE: 1970 (Morton-Ulster)
KEYWORDS: battle navy sea ship England Germany humorous
December 13, 1939 - Three British cruisers battle the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Platte.
December 17, 1939 - The Admiral Graf Spee is scuttled outside Montevideo harbor to avoid another battle (source: "German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee" from Wikipedia).
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Morton-Ulster 31, "The Sinking of the Graf Spee" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "The Golden Vanity" (tune)
NOTES: One of the many, many causes of World War I was the great expansion of the German navy prior to the war, the result of the peculiar desires of Wilhelm II. Imperial Germany didn't need a big navy -- it had very few overseas colonies -- but even Wilhelm's mother admitted "Wilhelm's one idea is to have a Navy which shall be larger and stronger than the Royal Navy" (Keegan-Admiralty, pp. 112-113).
The Germans never quite managed to build a fleet to match the Royal Navy, but they came close enough to scare the British badly, and to win a tactical victory (though a complete strategic defeat) at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
After the war, the British determined there would be no more of that. One of the conditions of the Armistice was that the major units of the German fleet (which by then was mutinous and hardly capable of fighting) be placed under guard in Britain. Half a year later, knowing that the ships would be surrendered, the German crews scuttled the entire fleet at Scapa Flow (Keegan-First, p. 420). And the German fleet from then on was to be restricted to a small, lightly-armed force, with no ability to fight a surface battle with the British.
The Germans, in the years after the Great War, did their best to figure out ways around the restrictions. The time eventually came when they started laying down new ships, and after a few small craft, they wanted something bigger. But they were trying it to do it on 10,000 tons, the upper bounds under the treaty. Starting in 1923, they looked at many ideas, most of which were simply not workable (Bennett, pp. 73-74; Grove, pp. 4-6). Eventually they came out with the concept of the panzerschiff, known in Britain as the "pocket battleship." (It's worth noting that these were not Nazi ships; they were designed and laid down before Hitler took power; even non-Nazis disliked the restrictions on them.) The first ship of this type, the Deutschland (later renamed Lutzow) caused "a sensation... for she was an expression of Germany's will to outflank the conditions of Versailles" (Preston, p. 133). Two more ships of the class, the Admiral Graf Spee (named after an admiral who had died in World War I) and the Admiral Scheer, followed. There might have been more, but Jackson, p. 9, says that the rise of the Nazis caused the navy to change plans.
The pocket battleships didn't really deserve either the name or the hype. They had six 11" guns (the bare minimum size to be considered a battleship, though a real battleship would have had at least eight of them), and the guns could be elevated very high to give the shells exceptional range -- although the guns had to be lowered back to rest position to re-load (Grove, p. 9), so her rate of fire at long range was low (based on the table on p. 41 of Worth, she needed 24 seconds between rounds; it was 11 seconds or less for the British ships). And although her fire control system was excellent, there was really only one of them for the main armament, so she could only fight one enemy at the time (Grove, pp. 10-11). And the first ship in particular had vibration problems so severe as to render the optics initially unusable (Koop/Schmolke, p. 218).
The secondary armament was much more problematic. There were eight 5.9" guns in four single turrets on each side, and far too few anti-aircraft guns, which weren't much good at their task anyway (Koop/Schmolke, p. 11). The 5.9" guns had a maximum elevation of 35 degrees (Koop/Schmolke, p. 26), giving them good range, but they couldn't be used against aircraft, and their single turrets (with open backs!) made them somewhat hard to aim and easy to damage. Far better would have been a battery of 12 or 16 true dual-purpose (i.e. anti-ship and anti-aircraft) guns in double turrets, such as the American 5" that was used in everything from destroyers to aircraft carriers, but such does not seem to have been contemplated.
Although her guns were battleship-grade, her armor did not exceed three and a half inches (a battleship should have had at least three times that). Her designers had wanted somewhat more (Woodman, p. 4), but the goal was to hold the ships to 10,000 tons (the treaty limit for cruisers at the time), so they had to cut back. This meant that Graf Spee's armor was actually lighter, at some points, than her future adversary Exeter (Grove, p. 60), although Graf Spee had better armor on her turrets and some other vital spots.
In fact, even with the cutbacks to the armor, the three ships were certainly much heavier than their nominal displacement (Bruce/Cogar, p. 2, estimates roughly 12,000 tons; Paine comes up with over 15,000; Von der Porten, p. 5, says 11,700; Woodman, p. 4-5, comes up with 11,700 for the Deutschland, the first of the class, with the Graf Spee, which had heavier armor, being 12,500; Worth, p. 51, says 12,100; Showell, p. 128, offers 12,000 standard, 16,000 full load; Koop/Schmolke, p. 14, give a "standard" displacement of 14,890 and an "operational maximum" of 16,320; Bennett, p. 72 -- who is probably trying to make the British look good -- says 12,100 tons standard, 16.200 full load, and Grove, p. 8, accepts this figure, which would make her nearly as heavy as the first modern battleship, Dreadnought, which was less than 18,000 tons).
She also had problems in heavy seas, being very "wet" and not handling well (Koop/Schmolke, p. 36, says that the problems were so bad that there were plans for a year-long refit, but she never got it); on one occasion, she had to simply sit for two days in the southern ocean (Woodman, p. 44). This may have contributed to problems with the accuracy of her guns (Grove, p. 26). What's more, she had vibration problems, particularly at high speeds, which could make the problems worse when fighting at high speed (Grove, p. 67).
The only really unusual feature of the Panzerschiff seems to have been that they could stay at sea for a very long time without touching a supply base due to their (experimental and cranky) diesel engines -- the Germans of course had no overseas bases after 1918. Their range was further extended by having special supply tankers -- the Graf Spee in 1939 would operate with the Altmark, which was unusual for a tanker in having a high top speed of 21 knots (22 knots according to Bennett, p. 73).
Even so, the "pocket battleship" design was basically an overgunned heavy cruiser. (Indeed, Grove, p. 11, calls her "fundamentally a 'light cruiser'!). Theoretically, she could "outrun what she could not outgun" -- overwhelming cruisers with her heavy guns and using her speed to get away from battleships. Except that she wasn't all that fast. There is dispute over her top speed -- Paine, p. 3, Bennett, p. 72, and Jackson, p. 9, say 26 knots; Worth, p. 51, believes it was 27 knots; Von der Porten, p. 5, Grove, p. 9, and Showell, p. 128, say 28 knots; Draminsky, p. i, claims 28.5 knots; Woodman, p. 6, also says 28.5 knots on her trials. But that was in early 1936, before she had gone to sea. It seems that, by the end of her voyage, her engines needed a refit (Pope, p. 76, Woodman, p. 41; Grove, pp. 34-35); so that her best speed at the end was a mere 24 knots (Pope, p. 118) or perhaps 25 knots (Von der Porten, p. 49, although he blames it on hull encrustations rather than the engines). Her cooling system was also failing due to lack of refrigerant; the ship that was supposed to supply it had been captured (Bennett, p. 32), and this increased the odds of fire or a magazine explosion.
In any case, the British had three battle cruisers (Hood, Repulse, and Renown) which could outrun *and* outgun the pocket battleships, and the battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class were only two to three knots slower than the pocket battleships (assuming the 26 knot speed is correct). The French also had ships capable of dealing with them. And the battleships of the King George V class, which started to come off the stocks at the beginning of World War II, were also faster than the pocket battleships. Had the panzerschiff existed in World War I, they would have been revolutionary and been good leaders for cruiser squadrons. In World War II, they were pests, but hardly technological miracles.
(This was a constant problem for the German navy: they thought too much in World War I terms. Their alleged super-battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz, were slightly improved versions of the World War I Baden class, relatively under-armed and with inefficient machinery that took too much space and weight for the power they produced. It has been claimed that the Bismarck was the strongest battleship in the world at the time of her maiden voyage. But vessels of the American North Carolina and South Dakota classes, and the Japanese Yamato, were all stronger, and all were in service by the end of 1942. Perhaps biggest advantage of the German ships was that -- unlike the major British ships -- they were still new. The Graf Spee had been commissioned January 6, 1936, and her only real action had been sailing near Spain during the Civil War there, according to Draminsky, p. i)
Still, even a cruiser could do major damage if it came across unprotected merchant ships (the Admiral Scheer once single-handedly knocked off six ships from an Atlantic convoy; Paine, pp. 4, 273-274), and could also disrupt shipping schedules just by their presence in the area (the "fleet in being" concept). So the Germans meant to use every vessel they could lay their hands on to attack British commerce (Humble, p. 140). When World War II began, the Germans sent out the pocket battleships to see what they could find. Their long range made them ideal for this duty, assuming one was prepared to accept that they were likely to eventually be run down and destroyed. They could be sent to out-of-the-way places like the South Atlantic, where they could sink a merchantman and disappear before a naval unit could find them (Pope, p. 9). These regions were better hunting grounds anyway; in the North Atlantic, the British turned to convoys when the war started, but ships still sailed individually in the more remote areas (Woodman, p. 14-15).
To help the Graf Spee in her task, she was also given a unit of intelligence specialists to decrypt and interpret British radio chatter (Woodman, p. 13). She left Germany on August 21, 1939 (Pope, pp. 11-12).
In one of history's little ironies, the Graf Spee headed for South America (Becker, p. 37), where the fleet of her namesake, Graf von Spee, had died when his small fleet of cruisers was destroyed at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914.
It was some time after the declaration of war before she was given the all clear to start fighting -- and almost ran across a British cruiser while she waited (Pope, pp. 32-35; Grove, p. 23). But on September 26, 1939, the order came to begin attacking British shipping (Pope, p. 37), painting a false name on the ship to aid in deception (Pope, p. 39). At first, it seemed the Germans had found the Happy Hunting Grounds; Graf Spee took nine prizes (Paine, p. 4) totalling about 50,000 tons, for the most part stopping them, sending off the crews, and then sinking them; many of the British sailors were put on the supply ship Altmark, while some were put on neutral ships that the Graf Spee encountered (Pope, p. 45).
The planning to catch the pocket battleship began on September 30, after the Graf Spee found her first victim, the steamer Clement (Pope, pp. 40-44. The sinking did bring the Graf Spee's crew a notice that they still had training to do; they had a very hard time hitting even a stationary target that was not resisting (although part of the problem may have been her poor seakeeping; Grove, p. 26). It is rather funny to learn that the Graf Spee disguised herself as the Admiral Scheer; what was the point of having one pocket battleship pretend to be an identical ship? A better trick was one she used when she sank the Newton Beach, sending false signals designed to make it appear she had been sunk by a submarine; Pope, p. 56. And, later on, Captain Langsdorff rigged a dummy funnel and even a dummy turret to look more like a British ship; Pope, p. 77; Woodman has a photo of this mock turret, which looks surprisingly real. Unfortunately, it interfered with the ship's fire control, so eventually it was dismantled; Grove, p. 52).
It took many hours for the British to get the message about the Clement through a long series of relays, but when they did, they reacted with vigor, just as they had in 1914 in chasing Admiral Spee. A total of twenty ships (a few of them French) were formed into eight task groups to hunt the lone German ship (Humble, p. 140). The reinforcements sent to the South Atlantic included two old battleships, an ancient aircraft carrier, and five cruisers; they joined a force of four cruisers and some destroyers already there. Later, even more ships, including Britain's only new aircraft carrier, were assigned.
(Their net caused the Graf Spee at one point to head for the Indian Ocean, and seek prizes off southern Africa; Pope, pp. 70. She sank the Africa Shell there, and hoped it would cause the British to think she was heading for the Indian Ocean; Pope, p. 74. But she then headed back west.)
The British goal was to have at least two heavy cruisers, or the equivalent, in each task group (Pope, p. 56), since this (it was felt) would supply enough strength to deal with one pocket battleship -- or, at minimum, damage her enough that she could be run down by a stronger force (Grove, p. 50). But not all the groups were actually that strong. In the end, it was one of the weaker task forces that found her: The heavy cruiser Exeter and light cruisers Ajax and Achilles, commanded by Commodore Harry Harwood, who had correctly guessed where the Germans would head. It was a scratch force (they had first come together just one day earlier; Pope, p. 110), and there were no reinforcements within 2000 miles (Pope, p. 114), but they caught up with the German on December 13, 1939.
This force was not even as strong as it looked on paper;Graf Spee had a big edge in weight of shell and range of guns. Exeter was an under-armed ship for a heavy cruiser, with just six 8" guns (Paine, p. 178; Exeter was such a weak ship that Pope, p. 21, mentions a canard that the British designed her to be sold to a potentially hostile nation! The truth, according to Bennett, p. 70, was that the British government was so strapped in the late 1920s that it couldn't afford to build enough strong cruisers to meet all its needs, so it started building weaker, cheaper ships likeExeter; Worth, p. 102, says that Exeter was envisioned as being a commerce protector and so didn't need to be as strong, and notes defects in her armor protection as well as her armament). The two light cruisers had nothing heavier than a 6" gun.
Thus the Germans had a big advantage in firepower. Pope, p. 126, calculates the Germans as having a broadside weight of 4140 pounds plus their secondary armaments (although Bennett, p. 77, claims the German secondary armaments scored no hits at all), while the British had about 3400 tons. The figures on p. 76 of Bennett are 4164 pounds for the Germans plus secondary armaments, to 3136 for the British. Plus the British had more total guns to fire (a total of 22, to six big guns or 14 primary and secondary for the Germans) and so could perhaps expect more hits, plus they had more tonnage to absorb the hits. And the British could fire much faster, so that Grove, pp. 62-63, claims that the British could put 22,000 pounds of shells in the air in the space of a minute, to about 16,000 for Graf Spee. Similarly, Koop/Schmolke calculate the total broadside weight of Graf Spee (counting primary and secondary guns) as 2164 kg=about 4750 points; he works out the British broadsides as 1509 kg or about 3325 pounds -- but then notes that the British could fire faster, determining that the British could put 7663 kg of shells in the air per minute compared to 5056 kg for the Germans (interestingly, these figures are about a third less than Grove's figure). Still, all seem to agree that the Graf Spee should have won a pure slugging contest.
(To put this in perspective, though, that 4140 pound broadside of the Graf Spee shows how short of being a battleship she was. Worth, p. 178, says that Japan's Kongo class, the weakest dreadnoughts to serve in World War II, had a broadside of 11,880 pounds; the typical American pre-war battleship had a broadside around 18,000 pounds, and Britain's new King George V class had a broadside of 15,900 pounds. Thus Graf Spee had barely more than a third the weight of broadside of the weakest true battleship!)
And while some have argued that the Graf Spee should have run away, Grove, p. 166, quotes a calculation by one of the British officers observing that, if the Germans had run, their big guns would not have helped them much; Exeter's guns had a range only about 3000 yards less than Graf Spee's, and with a five knot speed advantage, could probably have brought Graf Spee into range before Exeter could have suffered much damage. The light cruisers would have needed longer to close the range, but Graf Spee would have had no way to fight them if she concentrated her rear turret on Exeter!
But the Graf Spee played into the British hands. Her scout plane was out of commission (the design had a tendency to destroy the engine cylinders when it landed; Bennett, p. 79), and although the British had a few planes, they were somewhat short (the Achilles had lost hers, and one of Ajax's was out of commission, according to Bennett, p. 69; Grove, p. 63, adds that Exeter's flight crews were still learning to use their planes), so they were not used on the morning of the battle (Bennett, p. 33), so all contacts were from the ships themselves. When the Germans spotted the enemy, they identified the force as consisting of the Exeter and two destroyers -- a force that could not defeat the Graf Spee but could shadow her until stronger units could come up. And it would be hard to defeat them while running away, because long-range gunnery wasn't especially accurate (Bennett, p. 35). And it was just daybreak, so it would be many hours before the German raider could hope to vanish in the dark. So, rather than flee and run the risk of being overtaken by ships he could not fight, Captain Langsdorff decided to attack in order to try to defeat the British and again disappear -- after finishing off the convoy Langsdorff guessed they were covering (Pope, p. 118; Woodman, p. 76, considers his decision to be a clear violation of his orders, and Grove, pp. 37-39, describes how he reinterpreted those orders now that his worn-out engines meant that it was time to end his patrol; since the cruise had to end anyway, he would allow himself to be more aggressive).
But Harwood had a trick of his sleeve. He had been thinking about the problem for many years (Grove, p. 55), and his consideration paid off. His force came at Graf Spee from two different directions, and the German ship had only two main turrets -- and, as the sinking of the Clement showed, the Germans were still learning how to aim them, although the German gunnery proved to be more accurate than the British (Bennett, p. 77, calculates that the Germans achieved one hit for every 41 shells fired; for Exeter it was one hit for every 64 shells, and the light cruisers -- which had fire control problems -- were even worse. All sides used torpedoes, but there were no hits; Bennett, p. 78. Koop/Schmolke, p. 179, give different numbers, claiming the light cruisers hit with 4.82% of their shells, Graf Spee with 3.48%, and Exeter, firing mostly manually, with a mere 2.66%). Graf Spee managed to silence Exeter's guns (and also kill almost all the bridge personnel, putting her out of control for a time; Pope, pp. 147-148), although the heavy cruiser did manage two hits on the German, one very damaging (Pope, p. 149). Achilles was almost untouched except for some splinter damage, but Ajax sustained damage in the battle from straddles (Paine, p. 10) and from one direct hit that very nearly caused a magazine explosion, although in practice the damage was relatively mild; two turrets were disabled, plus a hoist went out, leaving her with only three usable guns; Woodman, p. 108), but she could still move and fight (Pope, pp. 166-167). She also suffered a shortage of ammunition for her one fully functioning turret (Pope, p. 169). The battle had lasted almost an hour and a half (Von der Porten, p. 52), which was a very long time for a combat of this type.
The Ajax had seven killed, Achilles four, and Exeter, by far the hardest-hit, had more than fifty dead (Pope, p. 122, says 53; Woodman, p. 109, and Koop/Schmolke, p. 176, say 61); there were many more wounded, a few of them fatally. Exeter reportedly had suffered seven hits from 11" shells (although Koop/Schmolke, p. 178, claims that Graf Spee used the wrong ammunition, reducing the damage done); her "A" and "B" turrets were hit and put out of action, her bridge and other control positions damaged, she suffered fires, had a list due to flooding, and lost both telephone and wireless communications; orders had to be passed by messengers, and even the undamaged guns mostly could not be fired due to power problems or the like (Pope, pp. 159-161). The British airplane spotter, sent to call her back to action, reported that he had never seen a ship survive that looked so damaged (Grove, p. 85; Pope, p. 178). Ironically, it was a near miss, not a hit, that destroyed the power systems and took her out of the fight. Fortunately, her machinery worked; she could still move, and headed for the Falklands to make such repairs as she could.
But Graf Spee's armor was so thin that even the light cruisers could hurt her, at least if they hit her in the right spots. Woodman, p. 112, says she suffered two 8" hits from Exeter and 18 6" hits from the light cruisers; this agrees with the total of 20 hits mentioned by Von der Porten, p. 52. Koop/Schmolke, p. 176, suggest 17 6" hits and two 8" hits. Bennett, p. 85, has a diagram showing 19 hits, of which three were from Exeter. Grove, p. 86, claims "at least 23 hits," although he uses the same chart as everyone else. Pope, pp. 172-174, describes fifteen hits, and gives a full catalog on pp. 253-355 of the effects of 18 hits and some near misses, some of which did no damage but several of which disabled a large number of Graf Spee's secondary weapons; they also wounded Langsdorff (Koop/Schmolke, p. 178, believe this affected his thinking, and they note that his first officer wasn't trusted) and did a lot of damage to her communications, radar, airplane, rangefinders, and other equipment; there were six leaks below the waterline, although none was major, and apparently more than fifty holes in her of one sort or another (Pope, p. 197; most of these must have been splinter holes, and minor. Wortman, p. 48, claims "as many as seventy hits" on her, but this must have been a count of holes if it's a record of anything).
Her ability to fight was definitely affected. Her anti-aircraft guns (which were inadequate to begin with) were crippled, one of the big guns could not be aimed, the main director was damaged (meaning that the guns could not be aimed accurately; Grove, p. 167, notes that Graf Spee's shooting got worse as the battle went along), and the torpedo system was out (Grove, p. 87). And Grove, p. 105, says that although her engines had taken no damage, the demands of fast maneuvering, and their time away from repair facilities, had left them so debilitated that they were now only capable of 17 knots.
The German ship had 37 killed and 57 wounded (Pope, p. 175), and she was low on ammunition (only 31 shells remaining per gun of her main armament, or enough for a half an hour's battle, according to Bennett, p. 77. Grove, p. 105, says that what was left was almost all armor-piercing, which was actually less useful against the thin-skinned cruisers she faced). Plus her galley was wrecked, meaning that there could be no hot food, which would hurt morale if nothing else. And her desalination boiler was out (Grove, p. 87), meaning fresh water was short. Also she was said to be "not seaworthy for the North Atlantic," according to her navigator's report (Pope, p. 176); this was apparently due to holes in her bow, which were well above the waterline but which would take in water in high seas (Grove, p. 87) and which, it turned out, could not be properly repaired without a dockyard visit (Grove, p. 103). She fled to Montevideo harbor (Becker, p. 104) even as the Exeter (which had been hurt far more) limped off to the fuel depot at the Falklands. No one knew it, but the Battle of the River Plate was over.
At least one of the British cruiser captains thought they had lost (Pope, p. 177); with Exeter out of it, the Graf Spee could crush the light cruisers. Harwood, with Exeter out of the fight, had been prepared to break off action until nightfall, simply shadowing the Germans until evening (Woodman, p. 109). But Langsdorff was giving up -- one of his officers suggested that he was in shock; he had been knocked out briefly during the fight. (Von der Porten, p. 54, comments that he had "fought a fine campaign but a poor battle.") And he chose to flee to Montevideo rather than the more German-friendly Buenos Aires because it had better access to salt water; he was afraid his big ship would get its intakes filled with mud in Argentina (Woodman, p. 114).
There were a few more shots fired as the Graf Spee headed to Uruguay, which some call the "second battle" of the Plate (Woodman, p. 120), but the Germans made it safely into Montevideo harbor. Going there was probably a mistake; they should have gone to Argentina (Pope, p. 198). Uruguay was a neutral nation that had cordial relations with the British, so Graf Spee had to either repair her damage quickly and get out, or she had to accept internment. The repair estimate, though, was that she would need two weeks to get back into shape for sea (Pope, p. 199). That left the Germans with a problem: Even if they could stay in Uruguay without being interned, could they repair the ship before the British arrived with overwhelming force? Or should they leave with a damaged ship while the going was good?
They did manage in fairly short order to fix the desalination equipment, and to put temporary patches on the biggest holes (Grove, p. 122), which made her seaworthy but not really ready to fight.
The good news for the Germans is that they would have most of a week before serious forces arrived (although, once all the scattered forces arrived, they would be overwhelming -- two aircraft carriers, a battle cruiser, and eight cruisers; Bennett, p. 45). But they didn't take advantage. British intelligence and diplomacy first worked to keep the ship in place for several days (Pope, p 200), then tricked Captain Langsdorff into believing that they had overwhelming forces heading for him (Humble, p. 141). One account claimed that the Renown, a battlecruiser that was faster than Graf Spee and had six 15" guns in three turrets (meaning that she had a huge edge in firepower over the Germans) had arrived (Woodman, p. 123). In fact, no reinforcements could reach Harwood in less than five days after the Graf Spee fled (Pope, p. 196) except for the heavy cruiser Cumberland, whose captain had correctly anticipated that he would be needed and arrived about a day after the battle (Pope, p. 193; Woodman, p. 110; Grove, pp. 85-86, notes that she actually set out before all her shafts were working; she actually was still engaging in repairs as she started her voyage north).
And the entrance to the River Plate was so wide that Harwood's two cruisers couldn't even patrol it all until Cumberland arrived (Pope, p. 191). And the British were short of both fuel and ammunition (Pope, p. 216). But the British managed enough tricks to make it sound as if major forces were coming on the scene. In fact, they had only the equivalent of the force they had had before the first battle -- one heavy cruiser (Cumberland) and the two light cruisers. Cumberland was probably stronger than Exeter (eight 8" guns rather than six, and better armor; Worth, pp. 101-102), but the other two now had damage.
The British ships did at least have a little more status; Commodore Harwood was promoted Rear Admiral for his role in the battle, and given a knighthood; his captains, although not elevated in rank, were also given honors (Pope, pp. 220-221; Woodman, p. 132).
Langsdorff asked for instructions from Berlin, suggesting that he try to reach Buenos Aires where he would likely have a better chance of making proper repairs and being interned in friendly circumstances where he could hope to escape (Pope, pp. 206-207; Woodman, p. 125; one suggestion was that the Graf Spee might be "given" to the Argentines but operated by the Germans -- a trick the Germans had used in World War One); this would have let him function as a "fleet in being," pinning down British ships. But the British cleverly sailed a merchant ship at this moment -- meaning that theGraf Spee was forced to stay in harbor or violate the neutrality laws (which required giving merchant ships a 24 hour head start; Pope, p. 208). Langsdorff took this as dooming the Argentina plan. He wrote that he would sail his ship out to sea and sink her in shallow water to save his crew (Pope, p. 212, who suggests on p. 213 that the letter -- which levels many accusations at Uruguay -- was designed to be used as propaganda).
Having made his decision, Langsdorff put it into action and started to disable his ship, and he arranged for most of his crew to be taken off while appointing a few to do the last-minute tasks of scuttling. Then came the bombshell: the ships he had feared, Renown and Ark Royal, were at Rio, not outside Montevideo (Grove, p. 123). He could still escape -- except that he had now seriously disabled his ship, because he didn't want anyone salvaging her!
So Langsdorff went ahead with his plans and took the Graf Spee out into the estuary on December 17. Woodman, p. 133, says that Langsdorff wanted set it up so that he alone could pull a master switch and blow up the ship; there is a hint that he wanted to kill himself along with his ship (indeed, Grove, pp. 125, 128, says that his officers had to talk him out of it, and his second-in-command appointed a junior officer to keep watch on him). But the gunnery officer he consulted said that such a master control was not possible. Once he had gotten away from shore (although not yet out in deep water), he had a merchant vessel and tugs come alongside and take off the bulk of the crew while he and his select handful blew up the ship (Pope, pp. 224-225). Wortman, p. 49, says that twenty thousand people watched her last trip.
Not all the charges exploded, so the front end for the ship was not as badly ruined as the back, but she burned for four days (Grove, p. 156); there was certainly no possibility of salvaging her.
Three days later, once his men were properly interned, Langsdorf committed suicide (Bruce/Cogar, p. 3. He was probably smart, given the reception he would have faced had he returned to Germany). It appears it took two shots; the first bullet barely grazed his head, but he had the nerve to shoot again, and that one was fatal (Grove, pp. 138-139). He had arranged it so that most of his men ended up in Argentina, not Uruguay -- although they were restricted more closely than he would have liked (Pope, pp. 232-233), and when Argentina eventually declared war on Germany, the became POWs (Woodman, p. 141). When they finally went home, ironically, the Germans were escorted home by the Ajax (Jackson, p. 20) -- although Grove, p. 144, reports that almost half decided to settle in Argentina after the war rather than return to a defeated Germany.
It is widely reported that Langsdorff, when he shot himself, had set it up so that his body fell on an ensign of the German Imperial Navy (i.e. the flag from World War I), not the Nazi flag (Pope, p. 235), although Grove, p. 139, denies this.
In terms of tonnage sunk, the Graf Spee had "paid for herself." But the British had had the last laugh, so they treated it as a moral victory, and the Germans as a defeat. On the other hand, some of the pocket battleship's officers managed to escape Argentina and do more damage -- one died on the Bismarck a year and a half later, and one captained a submarine that sank more tonnage than the Graf Spee herself (Woodman, pp. 141-142).
The commander of the Altmark eventually tried to bring home the British sailors who had been captured and placed on his ship, apparently going against Langsdorff's orders to have them interned (Jacskon, p. 22). But a British destroyer group caught up with them in Norwegian waters and freed them (Keegan-Second, p. 50; Woodman, pp. 144-146; Jackson, p. 23). This had the side effect of boosting the prospects of Winston Churchill, who as the cabinet official responsible for the navy had ordered the move (Von der Porten, p. 61), so it arguably helped the war effort far more than just by freeing a few sailors. Since the waters were neutral (neither side should have been there), the British did not sink the Altmark; after a complex career, she sank due to an accidental explosion in Yokohama, Japan in 1942 (Woodman, p. 146).
Delgado, p. 159, notes that the location of the Graf Spee wreck is known -- indeed, parts of the ship remained above the surface until 1950 (Woodman, p. 138) -- and that a survey in 1997 found that much of the ship had vanished in ways that did not suggest battle damage. It has been suggested that the British did some clandestine dives to recover such things as the ship's radar. If so, the British search has never been documented. Grove, pp. 157-164, does document a complicated campaign by the British to gain ownership of the wreck, and they did gather some parts (e.g. of the radar), but it doesn't sound as if they really learned much.
The damage to Exeter was so severe that there was talk of scrapping her, but it was decided that she was too important psychologically to be gotten rid of. She was so heavily reworked that she was in the dockyard for more than a year, finally returning to service in early 1941 (Grove, p. 153), and joined the combined Dutch/British/American/Australian forces guarding the East Indies about a year later (NavalInt, p. 58) -- only to be damaged very early in the action at the Battle of the Java Sea. She was again the first cruiser damaged, and had fallen out of the battle line in a way that perhaps cost the allies what little hope they had (NavalInt, pp. 66-68; Morison, p. 94). Unable to repair the damage and with her speed reduced to 16 knots, she was sunk on March 1, 1942 (Morison, p. 100) -- making her one of the very few British ships to have the bitter distinction of being badly mauled by gunfire in both the Atlantic and Pacific (as far as I know, it's the only one -- although Prince of Waleswas damaged by the Bismark in the Atlantic and then sunk in the Pacific, she was sunk by aircraft). Exeter and her escorts apparently went down so quickly that it wasn't until after the war that the Allies even found out what happened to them; NavalInt, p. 78, reports that they called in a sighting of the enemy and were never heard from again, and Parkin, p. 38, says that their fate was not known until after the war when survivors were located in Japanese POW camps; with her speed reduced and her fire control system damaged, she couldn't flee quickly and couldn't fight well, and was sunk with her escorts by an overwhelming force. One of the escorts, USS Pope, fought so valiantly that she and her survivors were awarded three battle stars and a presidential citation (Parkin, p. 42) -- but they had accomplished little except to show that the Americans would fight, and fight hard.
The other three British ships most closely involved in the Grad Spee fight, Ajax, Achilles, and Cumberland, all survived -- the latter two, in fact, played themselves in a movie about the battle (Grove, p. 155). Achilles was the last survivor, serving in the Indian navy after 1948 and not being scrapped until 1978.
It is interesting to note that, when the Exeter returned to Britain for repairs, Winston Churchill (then still the Navy boss, not the Prime Minister) was there to give a speech that included the line, "This great action will long be told in sound and story" ( Grove, p. 151).
This isn't the only item written about the sinking of the Graf Spee; Bennett, p. 56, cites one by a high-ranking British offices, Ronald Hopwood, beginning, "There's a wreck at the mouth of a river, that once was the pride of her land." Major Ralph Furse wrote "I Saw Three Ships," a fantasy beginning "South steamed Ajax, Exeter, Achilles" and printed on pp. 16-17 of Winton. More likely to be traditional is "The Battle of the River Plate," published by Cyril Tawney. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Becker: Cajus Becker, Hitler's Naval War, (German edition 1971; English edition 1974 from Macdonald and Jane's; I used the undated Kensington paperback edition)
- Bennett: Geoffrey Bennett, Battle of the River Plate, Ian Allen, 1972, 1974
- Bruce/Cogar: Anthony Bruce and William Cogar, An Encyclopedia of Naval History, 1998 (I use the 1999 Checkmark edition)
- Delgado: James P. Delgado, Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea, Checkmark, 2001. Interestingly, the book quotes a snatch of this song on p. ix
- Draminski: Stefan Draminski, The German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee, Topdrawings #22 (a detailed set of ship plans with only very limited text, in Polish and English), Kagero, 2015
- Grove: Eric J. Grove, The Price of Disobedience: The Battle of the River Plate Reconsidered, Naval Institute Press, 2000
- Humble: Richard Humble, Battleships and Battlecruisers, Chartwell, 1983
- Jackson: Robert Jackson, The German Navy in World War II, Brown Books, 1999
- Keegan-Admiralty: John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare, Penguin, 1988
- Keegan-First: John Keegan, The First World War, Knopf, 1999
- Keegan-Second: John Keegan, The Second World War, Viking, 1989
- Koop/Schmolke: Gerhard Koop and Klaus-Peter Schmolke, Pocket Battleships of the Deutschland Class, German edition 1990, 1993; English edition translated by Geoffrey Brooks 2000 (I use the 2014 Seaforth edition)
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963
- NavalInt: Office of Naval Intelligence, Unites States Navy, The Java Sea Campaign: Combat Narratives, a classified 1943 report on the battle of the Java Sea, now declassified and published in print-on-demand form without listing a publisher (!)
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Parkin: Robert Sinclair Parkin, Blood on the Sea: American Destroyed Lose in World War II, 1995; I use the 1996 Sarpedon edition
- Pope: Dudley Pope, The Battle of the River Plate, 1956 (I use the 1990 Avon paperback)
- Preston: Antony Preston, Battleships, Gallery, 1981
- Showell: Jak P. Mallmann Showell, The German Navy in World War Two, Naval Institute Press, 1979
- Von der Porten: Edward P. Von der Porten, The German Navy in World War II (with a Foreword by Karl Donitz), Galahad Books, 1969
- Winton: John Winton, editor, The War at Sea: The British Navy in World War II, with an introduction by Earl Mountbatten, William Morrow & Company, 1967
- Woodman: Richard Woodman, The Battle of the River Plate: A Grand Delusion, 2008; I use the 2015 Pen & Sword paperback
- Worth: Richard Worth, Fleets of World War II, Da Capo, 2001
- Wortman: Marc Wortman, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016
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