On the warm evening of 17 December 1939, the German panzerschiff KMS Graf Spee glided silently into the shipping channel of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata) at the mouth of the harbor in Montevideo, Uruguay. She cleared the channel at about 1830 local time, and the crowds gathered pierside (and beside their radios in England) assumed she was headed to sea to re-engage Commodore Harwood’s HMS Cumberland and two battered light cruisers, Ajax and Achilles.

Graf Spee had haunting connections to the waters in which she found herself. She was named for Admiral Maximillian Graf von Spee, who, with his two sons, and his Sudseegeschwader of cruisers Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden had met their ends off South America in the Battle of the Falkands, a battle that included an eerie parallel to the events of December 1939, and was fought just nine hundred miles from where Graf Spee now sailed, almost exactly twenty five years before.

What the crowds who watched the drama didn’t know was that Graf Spee was manned by a skeleton crew of officers and senior rates. Her captain, Hans Langsdorff, had made the decision to scuttle his ship. Graf Spee came to a stop at about 2000, when her remaining crew were taken off by tug. Scuttling charges exploded, along with munitions in her magazines, in the fading evening light.

For many, including the leadership of the Third Reich, the move seemed inexplicable, even cowardly. Further examination in the aftermath of events reveals a situation of serious damage to Graf Spee, a touching humanity from her Captain, and a web of British deceit that forced the German Captain’s hand.

Damage to HMS Exeter A and B Turrets

On 13 December, Graf Spee engaged in a dawn running fight against Harwood’s force of HMS Exeter, as well as light cruisers Ajax and Achilles. Graf Spee’s six 11-in (28cm) guns wrecked Exeter, and damaged Achilles and Ajax. However, in the exchange Graf Spee was struck no fewer than thirty times. Hits had wrecked her Arado float planes, her foretop rangefinder, and her galley. More importantly, Graf Spee’s oil purifier, required for her diesel engines, was damaged by an 8-in hit from Exeter, leaving her with fuel for just twenty hours’ operation.

Damage to Graf Spee

In the wake of the 13 December action, Captain Langsdorff steered for the harbor of Montevideo, in neutral Uruguay. Initially, British diplomats protested that, under the Hague Convention, Graf Spee was limited to 24 hours’ stay. Behind the scenes, however, the British Admiralty knew that any force capable of stopping and sinking Graf Spee was several days’ steaming away from Montevideo. Another restriction of the Hague Convention prevented a belligerent from putting to sea from a neutral harbor within 24 hours of departure of a merchant vessel of an adversary. While maintaining the public position that Graf Spee was obligated to depart Montevideo as soon as possible, the British instead carefully orchestrated reasons for her to stay. British and French merchantmen staggered departure from the harbor to take advantage of the stipulations of the Convention.

In the mean time, British intelligence spread disinformation that heavy Royal Navy units which included battlecruiser Renown and aircraft carrier Ark Royal, lay over the horizon off Montevideo to intercept Graf Spee. In actuality, any Royal Navy units capable of defeating the German were unable to intercept until the 19th at the earliest. But the rumors were convincing enough for the numerous German agents to faithfully report the information to the German consulate, and to Langsdorff.

Captain Langsdorff, his ship crippled by the damage from the fight on the 13th, believed he was facing a greatly superior force. Graf Spee, even at full strength, was four knots slower than Renown, and her 11-in guns, while with comparable range to Renown’s 15-in (38cm) main battery, were markedly inferior in weight of shot and penetration. She certainly was no match for the air contingent aboard Ark Royal.

A gentleman warrior who managed to destroy nine merchant vessels at the outbreak of war without the loss of life, Langsdorff chose not to send his ship and his crew to what he believed to be certain death. Instead, Graf Spee is scuttled in the shallow waters of the River Plate estuary. Two days after his ship is destroyed by her own crew, Captain Langsdorff wraps himself in the colors of the Imperial Navy, and takes his own life. His crew is interned, and the thirty-seven dead among his crew buried with honors in a Montevideo cemetery.

Captain Langsdorff attends Crew Funeral

Funeral Procession for Captain Langsdorff

Twenty-five years earlier, British cryptanalysts had broken the German Naval code, and had baited a trap for Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee in the form of generating a fake order to raid the British coaling station at Port Stanley in the Falklands. There, Sturdee’s battlecruisers awaited the Sudseegeschwader, overtaking the worn-out German cruisers and sinking them after a short pursuit.

In 1914, the British deception pushed the German warships into a one-sided battle that led to their destruction. In 1939, it was the ruse of that very threat of overwhelming force that caused the self-destruction of the pocket-battleship named for the commander of that 1914 squadron. Twenty-five years and less than a thousand miles away.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Aviation, Books, History, Maritime Security, Navy

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  • According to Geofferey Bennett’s “Battle of the River Plate” The Graf Spee had expended 228 (55%) of her 414 rounds of 11″ scoring 10 hits.

    In all probability even the Cumberland (larger than the Exeter she replaced) and light cruisers Ajax and Achilles could have defeated her without any other assistance.

    Even if Graf Spee won the ensuing engagement, if even British cruiser survived it could tale Graf Spee and bring even more overwhelming forces down on her.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    According to captured documents, Graf Spee had 324 11-inch rounds remaining after the 13 December fight. (Pope)

    Either way, I would disagree entirely that “all probability” pointed to Harwood’s ships winning such an engagement. Particularly if Graf Spee inflicted similar damage to Cumberland as she had to Exeter.

  • Byron

    IMHO, the critical hit was the fuel purifier; with only 24 hour steaming left in the “day”tanks (purified fuel), Langsdorf ran the chance of his engines stopping in the middle of a battle. And any mariner will tell you that in a battle, estimated range is optimistic to say the least.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I agree with you. The loss of the oil purifier was his most limiting factor. Had he been able to break out past Harwood’s ships and meet with Altmark, he might have gotten sufficient fuel for a fight, and the technical assistance to get the purifier repaired/replaced.

  • Byron

    URR, don’t know if you’ve ever seen a purifier, but they’re on the large side. Even the ones on FFGs are a pretty good size. Modern ships can take most of the equipement through ladder ways and equipment removal routes/access plates, but older ships would require cutting holes in the ship to get stuff out…and I’ve done exactly that many times.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Roger that. Langsdorff would have had to make for a neutral port in the company of Altmark, or so the story goes. From which she might not have escaped, whether the oil purifier was repaired or not.

    It was fear of just such damage (or wear) to critical equipment that haunted the commerce raiders of both world wars. In 1914, neither of Spee’s big cruisers could make more than 18 knots because of worn out boilers. If they could have made their designed 25 knots they might have escaped the Falklands fight.

  • Sperrwaffe

    🙂 🙂 🙂 Someone remembers…

    Let my highlight something. Langsdorff did something very special. Something which had a certain heritage. You might call it his education. If you have a better word please add.

    “Ich werde uns nicht von einer Übermacht in Stücke schießen lassen. Für mich sind tausend junge Männer lebend mehr wert als tausend tote Helden.”
    This can be translated into: “I will not let us shot to pieces by a overwhelming force. For me thousand young men alive are worth more than thousand dead heroes.”
    From my point of view this is the real important thing which happened. Langsdorff entered the Navy beginning of WWI. He was educated by this Navy where honor and even gallantry were of relevance. A lot of those Navy Officers still stuck to those principles. Not all, but still a lot. The Navy of the emperor was able to pass such views. In a society which was highly conservative, Naval Officers were still something special. This changed in the course of events. Even at the beginning of the U-Boot Krieg this gallantry was possible.
    1939 was one of the last occasions, something like this happened. A CO deciding to save his crew instead of making his final stand.
    The “Operation Rheinübung” had a different outcome…Just look for Adm Lütjens last message. One clear statement. Combined with the British Fleet looking for the kill.

  • URR, “Either way, I would disagree entirely that “all probability” pointed to Harwood’s ships winning such an engagement. Particularly if Graf Spee inflicted similar damage to Cumberland as she had to Exeter.”

    Certainly the British had every reason to try to make sure the Renown was available when the Graf Spee came out, because she was still dangerous and likely to cause serious damage, but essentially her fate had already been sealed as a result of the earlier fight and the arrival of the Cumberland. The record of the earlier engagement showed Graf Spee’s fire was not accurate enough to disable three cruisers before she ran out of ammunition.

    I did miss read my source, but in a way that favored Graf Spee. Rereading per Bennett Graf Spee had fired 414 rounds and had 186 remaining, indicating she had consumed 69%. Achilles had consumed 78%, and Ajax 51%. Presumably Cumberland was arriving fully topped up. Exeter had fired only 193 rounds (32%), presumably because of the loss of A and B turret and because the after turret was under local control for much of the fight.

    Even if Graf Spee had 324 rounds of 11″ remaining, she had consumed 46% of her 11″ and succeeding in severely damaging only one ship.

    The Germans clearly regarded the ammunition remaining as inadequate. The German minister to Uruguay, Langmann commented, “It would be preferable in view of [the Graf Spee’s] shortage of ammunition to blow her up…”

    For all the hype about being a “pocket battleship” Graf Spee was a cruiser, though certainly a large and well armed one. In 1940 the German Navy reclassified the remaining ships of the class as “heavy cruisers.” She was armored like one, no better than many other heavy cruisers. Not as well armored as Germany’s own Hipper class or the American New Orleans or the later Baltimore classes. She was not proof against 8″ shells, and in some circumstances not even against 6″ projectiles.

    Comparing displacements, Graf Spee was 16,200 tons full load, while the three remaining British cruisers totaled over 41,000 tons full load. The light cruisers were nearly as large as Exeter and were similarly strongly built.

    In the earlier engagement the Graf Spee had fought for an hour and 24 minutes and had failed to sink even one of the three ships. She had expended, according to Bennett, most of her ammunition. Once her 11″ rounds were expended she would be reduced to a large but very poorly armed light cruiser, that could have been finished off by any British cruiser that remained essentially in tact.

    While nothing is certain the odds were on the side of the British. Even if she had done damage equal to that done on Dec. 13, she was extremely unlikely to have severely damaged all three cruisers before she ran out of 11″ shells.

    Additionally, considering torpedoes, Graf Spee had fired four and presumably had four remaining, while the British would have eight on Cumberland, eight on Achilles, and four remaining on Ajax for a total of 20.

    For propaganda reasons the British liked to portray this as a David and Goliath affair, it really was not. Churchill in particular viewed it as vindication of his opinion that Troubridge and his armored cruisers should have engaged the German battlecruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau as they escaped to Turkey. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pursuit_of_Goeben_and_Breslau) (Unlike the case of the Graf Spee, in that case the German ship had substantial advantage in speed and armor as well as range.)

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Graf Spee was certainly a cruiser, but a well-armed one. And while her fire was not particularly accurate, neither was that of the British cruisers.

    The track record of the Royal Navy in defeating an opponent when the odds should have been on their side has been spotty, to say the least. (The Goeben affair, when Milne should have engaged, and due to worn out boilers in Goeben, Milne would have had the significant speed advantage, the High Seas Fleet escape at Jutland.) It would happen again, with the Channel Dash in Feb of 42, where the RN held the cards but never played them.

    Sperrwaffe, Cdr Salamander had a wonderful post about Captain Langsdorff and his moral courage in not sacrificing his crew in what he believed would be a futile gesture of propaganda value only. He is a gentleman-warrior and I do hope is a hero to the generations that followed!

  • My source indicates Graf Spee fired 41 rounds per hit, Exeter 64 rounds per hit and Ajax and Achilles 121 rounds per hit. To some extent that is to be expected, over the same range, the longer ranged gun has lost less of its energy, takes less time to cover the distance, retains more of its velocity, and consequently is more accurate.

    I agree Troubridge should have taken on Goeben. As it turned out, it was a much more important engagement than Jutland.

  • I see a parallel between the German Panzerschiff and the American 44 gun frigates of the War of 1812, except that the 44 gun frigates were at least as fast as the smaller British frigates.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    It seems commerce raiding got harder with the advent of steam, machinery, and the need for coal and oil.

    Hadn’t thought of it in those terms until you compared the 44-gun frigates to the Panzerschiffe.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    … not to mention wireless communications.

  • I had thought surface commerce raiders was a thing of the past. For surface warships it probably is, but cruise missiles like the Club-K in containers, satellite cuing, and small drones for remote targeting may bring back the use of armed merchantmen.


    When a ship is hit by a missile that could have come from hundreds of miles away, identifying the shooter may be difficult.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Funny you should mention the “klub-k”. Precisely that scenario has popped up in more than one war game. Auxiliary cruisers and commerce raiding, updated for the 21st century.

  • If I were Chinese Navy planning the opening salvos of a war with the US, think I would try to use that system from merchant ships to take out every underway replenishment ship. Might put a few into harbors too.

    I’ve also seen some photos of the Chinese firing army artillery from the decks of merchant ships. Pretty crude, but might work for some purposes.