157: Admiral Graf Spee on a Rampage


For a few weeks the Admiral Graf Spee would be on a rampage in the South Atlantic.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 157 - The Early War at Sea Part 7 - Graf Spee on a Rampage. This week a big thank you goes out to Niall for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member, you can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. When the last episode ended the Admiral Graf Spee had finally gotten its commerce raiding mission underway in the South Atlantic. Working together with its supply ship, the Altmark, the Graf Spee was on a mission to sink or capture British shipping that was transiting the coasts of South America and Africa. This episode begins on October 10, 1939 as the Graf Spee had sighted the British Cargo ship Huntsman. The Graf Spee signaled the Huntsman to stop, and as soon as that signal was received the radio officer of the Huntsman began sending the same raider warning transmission over radio that some of the previous ships had also sent as the Graf Spee bore down on them. As soon as this started, another signal was received from the Graf Spee that unless the radio transmissions ended immediately the Graf Spee would open fire. The merchant crew made the reasonable choice to end transmission. An armed boarding party was sent across from the Graf Spee which ordered the crew of the Huntsman to follow the Graf Spee and to conform to the German ships movements. This type of arrangement was something that was only really possible in the large expanses of the Southern Atlantic, anywhere closer to Europe the ship just would have been sunk due to how quickly the ships of the Royal Navy could arrive. And again, because they completely understood that they were at the mercy of the Graf Spee and its guns, the crew of the Huntsman followed as ordered. Due to the fact that the Huntsman had managed to send several radio signals about the presence and actions of the Graf Spee, the captain of the Graf Spee, Langsdorff, made the decision to also send a radio signal to Berlin. This was standard operating procedure for the German ships, the radio signals that Langsdorff sent could by used by British radio direction finding equipment to pinpoint the position of the Graf Spee but if the Huntsman had already transmitted that position then it did not really matter. In fact that British would not receive or gain any information from these signals. Langsdorff was also able to gain some critical information from the Huntsman. The secret documents on board the Huntsman, which should have been destroyed as soon as the German cruiser was spotted, were not and so Langsdorff was able to learn more of how the British were hunting for him. Instead of sending lone cruisers along the trade routes, as Langsdorff expected the British to do, he learned that instead the Royal Navy was focusing on larger groups of ships positioned at specific chokepoints, like the Cape of Good Hope, Rio de la Plata, and Gibraltar. This gave Langsdorff a bit more information about where he could operate and how he could expect the British to respond to his actions.

After the capture of the Huntsman the Graf Spee met up with the Altmark once again to replenish. As this was being completed Langsdorff needed to take care of another problem that he had, the number of prisoners that were piling up on the Graf Spee. For all of the ships that had been captured or sunk so far, the crews had been evacuated and placed on board the Graf Spee . But this was not a long term solution, especially as the number of prisoners grew, the Graf Spee was a warship and was not designed to house large numbers of prisoners. And so Langsdorff wanted to transfer them to the Altmark and ordered the captain of the Altmark, Dau, to work out accommodations for them. The Altmark was also not designed to hold large numbers of prisoners, but it was a bit easier to find space aboard the Altmark especially as the previous 6 weeks at sea had drew down the supplies that it had on board. And so the prisoners were transferred over, and they would spend the next several months stuck on board the Altmark in far from optimal conditions. Just as a preview, these prisoners will be important, and the Altmark will return to the podcast after these episodes are over due to the role that it would play in the start of the Norwegian campaign, yes that Norway, thousands of miles away from the Altmark’s current location and months later in early 1940, do not worry we will get there. Also while the replenishment was underway and while the prisoners were finding their new home on the Altmark the Graf Spee’s engineers were very busy. After about 6 weeks at sea the Graf Spee had a problem with its diesel engines. They were still working, but they were becoming less reliable, and so there was a full overhaul of the engines during this time. This was the maximum amount of work that could be done on them while at sea and away from port, but the hope was that it would help to make them more reliable in the weeks ahead. There was also another problem around the refrigeration system on board the Graf Spee. A lot of thought had went into what kinds of supplies, and how much of each, needed to be onboard the Altmark to support both ships in their actions. But a mistake had been made, and there was not enough Carbolic acid which was a critical part of how the refrigeration system on board the Graf Spee worked. It did not help that the refrigeration units were also having some problems which increased how quickly they used up the acid. When the challenges with both the diesel engines and the refrigerators were considered Langsdorff believed that he would have to make it back to Germany in January 1940 or it would probably never happen. That would however, not stop him from continuing his mission during the intervening time and so he planned his next raiding area, with the choice being to target the trade routes along the coast of south west Africa.

On October 22, even before reaching the African coast, the Graf Spee came upon the Trevannion, a 5,300 ton steamer loaded down with ore. The same signals were sent from the Graff Spee, stop, prepare to be boarded, and most importantly not to send any radio signals or the Graf Spee would open fire. These signals were received, and completely ignored. Captain Edwards of the Trevannion ordered the Trevannion’s radio operator to continue sending the RRR signal along with the ships current position. These signals were detected by the Graf Spee and so Langsdorff ordered the 20mm cannons to open fire on the Trevannion, which they did. Undeterred Edwards ordered the young radio operator to continue sending the signal, and so he did until the ship was boarded and the signals were ended. The crew was brought on board the Graf Spee and the Trevannion was sent to the bottom of the ocean with explosive charges. Afterwards the Graf Spee met up with the Altmark again to transfer the new prisoners. At this point Langsdorff had a choice to make, his goal had been to make for the trade routes that went along the southwestern African coast and towards the Cape of Good Hope. But the assumption had to be made that the prolonged signals from the Trevannion had been received by someone, somewhere, and those had been relayed back to the British and so British warships might now be expecting him to do exactly what he had been planning to do. This meant that a change of plan was in order, and so Langsdorff hoped to confuse the British by sailing into the Indian ocean. The Altmark would make for the far south Atlantic away from any shipping routes to wait for the return of the Graf Spee from its stint in the Indian Ocean. The plan was never to stay long in the Indian Ocean, only to make his presence there known to the British to confuse them before the Graf Spee would double back into the Atlantic to continue to attack the trade routes there. Langsdorff believed that this could be accomplished in only around 2 weeks and so rendezvous plans were made with the Altmark. The two ships would part and the Graf Spee would make its way around the Cape and then head north into the Indian Ocean. On November 9th the Graf Spee had moved far enough north to begin its hunt in earnest and the Arado float plane was flown off to begin scouting ahead. Much like the Graf Spee the Arado was also having engine problems, the floatplane was already using the only spare engine that had been brought on the cruise, with the first having been put out of action due to mechanical problems. And now the new engine was developing cracks in the engine block. It was still functional for the moment, but it was only a matter of time before the cracks worsened to the point where it would not longer fly. The Graf Spee’s new hunting grounds were not very lucrative, at least for several days as the Graf Spee moved north. Only two ships would be spotted while the Graf Spee was in the Indian Ocean. One was a small Dutch steamer, which was encountered when the seas were so rough that Langsdorff decided not to board, although it would be stopped for a brief period. The other was the small British tanker the Africa Shell, which the Graf Spee did sink. After these two ships Langsdorff decided that he had accomplished his goal of appearing in the Indian Ocean and he began to make his way back around the Cape. Another important part of the Indian Ocean raid is that duringA\ these actions Langsdorff had removed the disguises that his mean had put in place earlier in their cruise, where they had done their best to make the Graf Spee appear to be the Admiral Scheer, one of the other Deutschland class cruisers. While in the Indian Ocean the changes to the Graf Spee’s super structure had been removed and the obfuscation of the ship’s name had been removed. The goal was to make the British think that the Admiral Scheer was in the Atlantic and the Graf Spee was in the Indian Ocean. Then on the way back to the Atlantic a further deception was put in place. Langsdorff ordered his men to add a dummy funnel and a dummy third gun turret both out of canvas and wood. The goal with these changes was not to look like another Deutschland class cruiser but instead to make the Graf Spee appear to be a British battlecruiser, specifically the HMS Renown. Changes were also made to the super structure, and paint was used to bring the ship into line with the same type of grey that the British used for the Renown. These type of disguises would never have fooled a Royal Navy ship, but they were not designed to, all Langsdorff needed was to fool the captains and radio officers of merchant ships long enough for their radio signals to be confusing. It would take 6 days for the new disguises to be put in place while the Graf Spee made to the preplanned rendezvous with the Altmark.


On November 26th the two ships met once again and the supplies began to be transferred and the hose was ran over to begin the refueling. The Graf Spee had been at sea since before the start of the war and had travelled more than 30,000 miles or almost 50,000 kilometers and Langsdorff had decided that it was time to start the path back to Germany. The route back would not be direct though, and instead Langsdorff informed his officers that they would make their way up the western coast of Africa, then west across the Atlantic to South America before making their way north, aiming to find a few more British merchant ships and if things went well they would make their way to the areas off of Rio de la Plata where it was likely that the hunting grounds would be very lucrative. Along with the announcement of the ships course, there was a critical change to the operating procedures for the Graf Spee for the remainder of its time in the South Atlantic. Up until the 24th of November the Graf Spee had been operating under the orders that it was to avoid British warships at all costs, even if the Graf Spee was heavily favored in an engagement. But that was changing, and instead Langsdorff informed his officers that if they encountered a British warship and the odds were favorable, or even if the odds were even, they would engage. This was a major change and really went against the orders that had been given to the ship on how to execute its cruise, but with the decision made by Langsdorff the other officers were sort of along for the ride. As the Graf Spee was steaming north off the coast of Namibia, a ship game into view, the 10,000 ton British steamer the Doric Star. The Doric Star was on its way from Australia back to Europe. Up until the sighting of the Doric Star the Graf Spee had generally started any interaction with merchant ships by radioing the ship to stop and to not use its wireless or it would be fired on. Instead of following this template Langsdorff ordered warning shots to be fired from long range, and immediately the ship started to send the standard raider distress calls. The initial reaction of the captain of the Doric Star was to try and run away, ordering the engine room to provide all possible speed, but it very quickly became clear that this was not a viable option. The Captain would later write “After the second shot [. . .] it was impossible to escape, so [I] stopped the engines and ordered the wireless operator to amplify the message and state battleship attacking. By this time I could read the daylight Morse lamp from [the] battleship signalling ‘Stop your wireless!’ but I took no notice. After [the] distress call had been transmitted I ordered the wireless operator to cease transmitting as the [fast approaching] battleship was exhibiting a notice ‘Stop you[r] wireless or I will open fire.” Unlike the previous ships that the Graf Spee had attacked, the engineers on the Doric Star were able to damage the engines, which meant that its speed was slow enough that the Graf Spee had to make the decision to either sink it or leave it very quickly. The information provided by the crew made it seem like the ship was just carrying a cargo of wool, a completely reasonable cargo for such a ship as the wool from Australia and New Zealand was a common import for the home islands. But this was not all that it carried, and instead it also had a large amount of meat and dairy products, which is one of the things that the Graf Spee was very short of. They would never learn of this though, because Langsdorff was in a hurry. Not only was there concern of British warships have received the report of the attack and moving to intercept, a radio message had also arrived from the Arado floatplane that had been on scouting duty. It had run out of fuel, and was sitting on the ocean with a damaged float which meant that it had to be gathered up quite quickly. The crew of the Doric Star were given 10 minutes to gather their things before torpedoes were fired at the merchant ship, sending it under the waves. The Graf Spee would quickly make its way to the location of the floatplane and then evacuate the scene of the crime as quickly as possible. The next ship was spotted was on December 3, when the Tairoa was spotted on the horizon. At this point Langsdorff was losing patience with these merchant ships and ordered that as soon as any wireless transmission from the ship was intercepted the firing would begin. Of course the Tairoa began its radio transmission, and therefore the shells started falling, with the Graf Spee’s secondary fire hitting the Tairoa’s upper works. Again the crewmen of the merchant ship were given just a few minutes to gather what they needed and then they were back on the Graf Spee and the Tairoa was fired on by a torpedo and the Graf Spee’s secondary 5.9 inch guns. Once the ship was sinking the Graf Spee moved away from the scene, this time for a longer trip because it was at this point that Langsdorff ordered the ship to head west, across the Atlantic, with the intention of moving against the British shipping off the south American coast. On December 6th the Graf Spee and the Altmark met again, for what would be the final time as the 144 men captured from the Doric Star and the Tairoa were transferred over to the Altmark. Then the two ships would part and the Graf Spee would make for the South American coast, and by December 12th they would be 150 miles off the coast of Brazil, ready to begin hunting another round of merchant ships.

For what will very soon become an obvious reason, at this point it is important to discuss what had been happening among the British cruisers that had been tasked with guarding the South American coast against German commerce raiders. On board the Royal Navy cruiser Ajax Commodore Henry Harwood was very quickly going to have his date with destiny, but he did not really know exactly when or where it would happen. Over the previous weeks the reports of the Tairoa and the Doric Star had been forwarded to him, because his force of cruisers, known as Force G were best positioned to do something about it. They were stationed of the South American coast, and the force consisted of the Ajax, a light cruiser with six inch guns, the Achilles and Ajax, two cruisers with 8 inch guns, and then the Cumberland, also armed with 6 inch guns. On December 3rd these cruisers were spread out a bit, as they had been generally patrolling for the German ship that was on the loose, although it was still at least a little unclear if it was the Graf Spee or the Admiral Scheer, due in no small part to Langsdorff’s efforts at deception. Due to concerns that the German ship might be on its way, Harwood ordered his three available cruisers to come together at a rendezvous point about halfway between Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro. One of the cruisers, the Cumberland, would not be available for several more days as it was at that moment undergoing a brief refit in the Falkland Islands. Because of the limited numbers of ships that Harwood had under his command, and the fact that he needed as least two of them together if he wanted to make a serious go against the Graf Spee, he had to try and guess where he could meet the Graf Spee. I do not have Harwood’s notes from before the action against the Graf Spee, but here is a quote from his dispatch after the sinking of the Graf Spee on why he chose to move his ships to the River Plate, which would be the perfect position for them to be in. “The British ship Doric Star had reported being attacked by a pocket battleship in position 19° 15’ South, [00]5° 5’ East during the afternoon of 2nd December, 1939, and a similar report had been sent by an unknown vessel [in fact the Tairoa] 170 miles south-west of that position at 05.00 GMT on 3 December. From this data I estimated that at a cruising speed of 15 knots the raider could reach the Rio de Janeiro focal area a.m. 12th December, the River Plate focal area p.m. 12th December or a.m. 13th December and the Falklands Islands area 14th December. I decided that the Plate, with its larger number of ships and its very valuable grain and meat trade, was the vital area to be defended. I therefore arranged to concentrate there my available forces in advance of the time at which it was anticipated the raider might start operations in that area.” With the goal of gathering his ships off the River Plate as soon as possible, the orders were distributed to the ships. The Cumberland already almost to the Falklands, and it was told to continue, but the orders were to keep half of its propulsion ready as much as possible, this order was important because the ship was in port for a boiler cleaning, which often meant shutting down all of the boilers for an extended period, but this meant that if the Cumberland was needed it would have to be brought back up before it could leave port. With half of its boilers always available, it would be easier for the ship to leave port as quickly as possible. When the three available cruisers met, Harwood distributed his orders: “My policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship. Attack at once by day or night. By day act as two units, First Division (Ajax and Achilles) and [Second Division] Exeter diverged to permit flank marking. First Division will concentrate gunfire.” With the three ships together, just after 6AM on December 13th smoke was spotted on the horizon. The lookouts on the Graf Spee spotted the British ships at roughly the same time, believing that it was one cruiser and two destroyers. Aboard the Graf Spee Langsdorff ordered the ship to be put on an interception course with the intention of engaging the British ships. Aboard the Ajax Harwood made a similar decision. The four ships started at around 31,000 meters distant from one another, but soon that distance was closing rapidly.