Admiral Graf Spee (heavy cruiser)
Admiral Graf Spee was a warship in the navy of Germany during World War II, whose success as a surface raider in the South Atlantic led to its loss by scuttling near Uruguay. She was named for Maximilian Graf von Spee, an admiral during World War I
Admiral Graf Spee, a 12,340-ton Deutschland class armored ship built at Wilhelmshaven, Germany, was commissioned in January 1936. She and her two sisters, Deutschland and Admiral Scheer, were constructed as panzerschiff ("armored cruisers"), of a type in size and protection between a light and heavy cruiser, but carried heavier guns (eleven-inch) than contemporary foreign cruisers; the size of these guns and their turrets relative to their overall structure of the ship was such that all three were informally called “pocket battleships.” They were propelled by diesel engines that provided extraordinarily long range, though with a maximum speed (about 29 knots) that was somewhat slower than most cruisers. Largely designed as oceanic commerce raiders, it was expected that they could outgun almost any opponent that could not be outrun.
Following shakedown Admiral Graf Spee was, for a few years, flagship of the German fleet. During 1936-1938 she made training cruises in the Atlantic and Baltic, served off Spain during that Nation's civil war, and, in May 1937, was present off Spithead during the Coronation Naval Review held in honor of British King George VI. In April and May 1939 she participated in German naval exercises in the Atlantic.
As political tensions in Europe aproached a climax in mid-August 1939, Admiral Graf Spee again left Germany for the south Atlantic, where she remained hidden as World War II began early in the following month. Beginning in late September she cruised actively against British shipping in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, capturing and sinking nine ships and causing Germany's opponents a great deal of anxiety and effort. On 6 December she rendezvoused with the supply ship Altmark, which had kept her supplied with fuel during her raiding operations, then headed for South America, where rich hunting among enemy merchant ships was expected.
Battle of the River Plate
At dawn on 13 December 1939 Admiral Graf Spee, cruising toward Rio de la Plata (River Plate) in search of enemy merchantmen, sighted distant masts. Twenty-three major warships were actively hunting for her. Now the two sides were about to meet, for those masts belonged to three British cruisers, Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (the latter part of the Royal New Zealand Navy). Initially thinking these were merchant vessels, Admiral Graf Spee's Captain Hans Langsdorf headed for them, continuing his approach once their true nature was known.
British Commodore Henry Harwood, on board Ajax, also steamed toward his enemy. The opposing ships closed rapidly to gunfire range, with shooting beginning at just under 20,000 yards. Harwood divided his force, complicating Langsdorf's gunnery, but both sides began hitting early. Exeter was very seriously damaged by the German's eleven-inch guns: both of her forward eight-inch gun turrets were knocked out, her bridge crew was largely killed or wounded and fires raged amidships. She gamely remained in action until her remaining turret would no longer function. Admiral Graf Spee had also been repeatedly struck by Exeter's shells, and by six-inch projectiles from the other two cruisers. She laid a smoke screen and turned away, firing on Ajax and Achilles, and disabled two of the former's gun turrets.
An hour and twenty minutes of intense combat was followed by a long day's pursuit as Admiral Graf Spee headed for Montevideo, Uruguay, harried by Ajax and Achilles. She arrived just after midnight on 14 December and requested time to make repairs, reporting to the Uruguayans that she had been hit some seventy times. The British decided to keep the German warship in port as long as possible so they could bring up reinforcements. To this end they resorted to diplomatic trickery and broadcast misleading reports that the carrier Ark Royal and battle cruiser Renown were nearby. Captain Langsdorf, with much of his ammunition expended and his ship damaged, was soon persuaded that escape was impossible. After consulting with the German Government, in the early evening of 17 December he took his ship out into the broad river and blew her up, completely demolishing Admiral Graf Spee's after portion and leaving her a sunken, burned-out wreck.
Her crew went to Argentina where, on the night of 19-20 December 1939, Captain Langsdorf took his own life. The Battle of the River Plate, first of World War II's many great sea battles, greatly boosted British prestige and morale, but at considerable cost. The badly injured Exeter, initially thought not worth repairing, was out of the war for fifteen months. Repairs to Ajax lasted until mid-1940.
Admiral Graf Spee's shattered wreck has remained there ever since, partially visible in the shallow water. Recently (beginning in 2004) a group based in Uruguay has salvaged some of her weapons and fittings.
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