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The Graf Spee was scuttled at the Battle of the River Plate

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 2 on Wednesday, 6 June 2012

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This edited article about the Graf Spee originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 718 published on 18 October 1975.

Graf Spee, picture, image, illustration

The Graf Spee by John Keay

The remarkable fact about the Graf Spee is that although she was larger, possessed thicker armour and was able to fire far heavier broadsides than any of her adversaries, her captain was forced to sink her.

The Graf Spee, together with two other battleships, the Deutschland, renamed Luzon, in 1940, and the Scheer, were designed to comply with the existing limitations set down in naval treaties. Nevertheless, all of them were also designed with commerce raiding in mind.

In the August of 1939, the Graf Spee was already at sea, and when war was declared in September, she was waiting to go into action, 500 miles off the coast of Brazil.

By the December, having ranged as far as the Indian Ocean and back, she could congratulate herself for having sunk nine British ships.

But now eight hunting groups of vessels were out in search of the Graf Spee. The commander of one such group was Commodore Harwood. Piecing together the raider’s movements from various reports, he concluded that she would arrive at Montevideo, on the River Plate, sometime during the middle of December.

As the morning of December 13th dawned, Exeter (an 8 in. gun medium cruiser) Ajax and Achilles (6 in. gun light cruisers) were in position off the River Plate. At 6.14 a.m. a look-out reported: “Smoke Green 45!” In the East, the Graf Spee sailed over the horizon.

As the enemy approached, Harwood ordered his ships to separate, in order to disperse the raider’s fire. The pocket battleship opened up with her guns from over eleven miles away. Three minutes later, Exeter replied.

Captain Langsdorf, commander of the Graf Spee, concentrated his fire on the Exeter, whose small 8-in. guns were already striking home. The British cruiser was hit continuously, and her forward guns were soon out of action. Ajax and Achilles were also damaged, but they fought grimly on.

But Langsdorf had not escaped unscathed. With Ajax and Achilles snapping at his heels, he made for neutral Montevideo, where he was allowed to stay for a short time only.

Now his ship was trapped. The light cruisers, reinforced by Cumberland, which had arrived overnight, prowled outside the Plate Estuary and waited.

The German commander, realising that his position was hopeless weighed anchor with a skeleton crew aboard and sailed slowly down the estuary. Suddenly, to the amazement of the crowds watching from Montevideo harbour, the boats were lowered and men pulled away from the ship’s towering sides. At 8.45 p.m., as the sun set, a huge explosion racked the Graf Spee. Rather than face the British cruisers, Langsdorf had scuttled his mighty floating fortress.

Broken hearted at his failure, the German captain had written a letter. “I am happy to pay with my life for any possible reflection on the honour of the flag.” Then he shot himself.

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