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, however she was as heavily armed as a 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.
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 under 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.
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.
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 Clements lifeboats and Clements captain and first officer were placed aboard the neutral Greek steamer Papalemos a few days later. Graf Spee stopped the 4650-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 4222-ton British steamer Ashlea with a cargo of sugar was stopped and sunk on 7 October. The 8196-ton British liner Huntsman with a cargo of tea was stopped on 10 October, and became a replacement prison ship. Graf Spee used Huntsmans 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 Almark on 17 October. Graf Spee machine-gunned the bridge and upper deck of the 5299-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 10086-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 it's 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 7983-ton steamer radioed a distress call. The 3895-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 (the Altmark Incident).
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.
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, under the same convention, the Graf Spee had to give British merchant ships 24 hours start if they left port, and the British Consul organised 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, it 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.
At 6:15pm on 17 December 1939, the German warship left Montevideo harbour, with the British gunned cruisers Ajax, Achilles, and the 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 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, in order to prove he had not acted out of fear for his own life.
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, and Langsdorff's decision to leave port was seen as partly motivated by a desire not to cause such harm.
The first salvage from the ship was most likely carried out by Royal Navy intelligence teams which recovered the highly advanced Seetakt radar not destroyed in the scuttling. In late January 1940, the wreck was boarded by US Navy sailors from the light cruiser .
In February 2004 a salvage team began work raising the wreck of the Admiral Graf Spee. The operation is in part being funded by the government of Uruguay, in part by the private sector, as the wreck is now a hazard to navigation. The first major section, a 27-ton gunnery range-finding telemeter, was raised on 25 February 2004. It is expected to take several years to raise the entire wreck. Film director James Cameron is filming the salvage operation. After it has been raised, it is planned that the ship will be restored and put on display at the National Marine Museum in Montevideo.
On 10 February 2006, the eagle figurehead of the Admiral Graf Spee was removed from the stern of the ship and recovered. To protect the feelings of those sensitive to Nazi Germany, the swastika at the base of the figurehead was covered as it was pulled from the water.