158: The End of the Admiral Graf Spee


After being sighted by the British cruisers under Captain Harwood, it was only a matter of time before the story of the Admiral Graf Spee came to an end.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 158 - The Early War at Sea Part 8 - The End of the Admiral Graf Spee. This week a big thank you goes out to Mark for the donation and to Ellen, Logan, Adrienne, Jim, and Allen for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out more at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. After almost 4 months at sea, on December 13th at roughly 6:17 AM the Admiral Graf Spee opened fire on British warships for the first time. The ships had first sighted one another just a few minutes earlier, at around 6AM and the Graf Spee had received a single to verify its identity. In the intervening 17 minutes aboard the Graf Spee orders had been sent out to get the engines up to full speed, and to start working on firing solutions. At that moment the ships were more than 15,000 meters distant from one another, so determining the exact angle and elevation for the guns was not a trivial matter. The Graf Spee had another problem, as the ship approached top speed the vibration caused throughout the ship caused a screw to loosen in the forward turret, and it was one of the one screws for the control motors. This meant that at least at the beginning of the engagement the front turret, fully 50% of the Graf Spee’s firepower because it only had two turrets, could only fire on the enemy ship if the ship turned to starboard, a serious problem. Meanwhile, on board the British cruisers efforts were being made to determine what exactly the ship was that was bearing down on them. They would be able to verify its identity as a Deutschland class cruiser just before it opened fire. As so often happens with naval engagements, what had taken so long to occur, with the Royal Navy having spent months trying to track down the German surface raiders, would be over in only a matter of hours. This episode will see the story of the Graf Spee to its conclusions, in the mud of the River Plate estuary.

The British cruiser Exeter would be the first target for the gunners on board the Graf Spee simply due to the fact that it would be slightly closer when the firing started. The first salvo from the Graf Spee fell several hundred meters short of the Exeter, the second straddled the target, and then the third was much closer, sending blast fragments through the upper works and damaging the Walrus floatplane that was preparing to launch. It was standard procedure as soon as a surface ship engagement started, or was about to start, to get any aircraft off the ship due to how vulnerable they were to being damaged by enemy fire and they presented a fire risk. The Exeter’s Walrus would not make it off in time, and so it was pushed overboard. Not wanting to be outdone, the Exeter would also open fire a few minutes later at a range of a bit over 18,000 meters. The Exeter was able to fire much more quickly and after a few salvos the range had been found and the sixth salvo would find its target including a direct hit on one of Graf Spee’s 10.5cm anti-aircraft gun positions. The shell penetrated into the ship before damaging the freshwater distillation plant on board the ship, which did not have a huge impact on the immediate combat capabilities of the ship, but was critical to its long term prospects for being at sea. During the first few minutes of the battle only the rear turret of the Graf Spee had been able to fire due to the problems with the front turret caused by vibrations. Of course the crew had been frantically trying to determine why the turret refused to traverse. Harwood in the Ajax was a bit confused as to why the Graf Spee was only using one of its turrets, and even that one seemed to be firing slowly, because it was taking the German ship over a minute per salvo. At first he assumed that his plan to split the Graf Spee’s fire by splitting his force into two smaller groups was working, because the rear turret was firing on Exeter, but then the front turret simply did not fire. But after a few minutes the problem, the loose screw, was found by the Graf Spee’s crew, bringing the forward turret into action, allowing the German ship to bring even more punishment down on the Exeter. On the German ship’s fifth salvo, it achieved a strong hit when one of the shells hit the Exeter’s B turret and completely wrecked it while also sending shell splinter into the bridge, killing many of the people there, and destroying some of the communication and control equipment. To reestablish command of the ship Captain Bell had to move to the after control position, and then rely on a chain of men relaying helm orders verbally from that control position down to the emergency after steering position. This would allow the Exeter to continue at full speed and maintain its roll in the engagement, which during these opening minutes was mostly as a punching bag for the Graf Spee as German shells kept landing on or near the ship. Two of the Exeter’s turrets continued to fire but they were unable to find another hit on the Graf Spee during this time. While the focus on the Exeter continued, at 6:22 the Achilles would fire its first 6 inch salvo, with the Ajax joining in a few minutes later. It would take a few minutes for the British cruisers to find their range though, as the first estimates of the distance were very wrong which resulted in the first salvos from both ships sailing well over the Graf Spee. They would eventually correct this error, and as their fire came in closer to the German ship Langsdorff ordered his guns off of the very obviously wounded Exeter and to instead focus on the lead British cruiser of the pair, the Ajax. In response Harwood would change his course slightly to increase the range between his ships and the Graf Spee.

At around the same time that Harwood turned away form the German cruiser, the Graf Spee would also turn. This would result in a renewed focus on the Exeter which had used the brief respite as a chance to launch a torpedo attack on the Graf Spee which would not find its target. While the Exeter was damaged, it would around this time achieve two more hits on the Graf Spee, with one shell passing through the superstructure while the other penetrated the armor amidships. This shell would be the most important because it passed through the armor, through a few decks, and then exploded in a workshop. But critically hit severed the connection between the fire control director and the guns, which meant that the Graf Spee’s guns could not longer be centrally controlled which reduced their effectiveness. Unfortunately for the crew of the Exeter, they would pay a price for this new victory. Three more of the Graf Spee’s shells would hit the Exeter, one hitting the A turret and putting it out of action, another passing through the forward super structure before detonating on the other side, and finally and most damaging was the third shell which penetrated three decks and detonated right above the anti-aircraft magazine. In order to prevent the resulting fire from detonating the magazine, the local decision was made by Royal Marine sergeant, George Puddifoot, and an Engine Room Artificer, Frank Bond to flood the magazine. Having bit hit several times, with one only working turret, and taking on water the Exeter was by around 7AM local time no longer an effective fighting unit. But the ship would continue on course, refusing to give up the fight until ordered to do so, although the order would be given to the cruiser to begin making smoke to try and reduce the chances of more hits by the Graf Spee. Then at around 7:30, the electrical supply to the only working turret failed. For the time being the Exeter was out of action, but over the preceding hour it had hit the Graf Spee several times, causing key damage that not just reduced its immediate effectiveness due to the damage to the fire control setup, but also its long term prospects to continue its commerce raiding campaign due to the destruction of the freshwater distillation plant. The impact that the Exeter’s 8 inch shells had on the Graf Spee also came as something of a surprise for the crew, although it should not have given the sacrifices that had been made to the Graf Spee’s armor scheme to allow for its large guns and heavy diesel engines. The turns of the British cruisers and the Graf Spee caused problems for the gunnery of all three ships and over the next 10 minutes or so there was a lot of bad misses from both sides as they grappled with the new range and change rate between the ships. The Graf Spee would also begin making smoke which made it even harder for the British gunners to find their target. As with every long running naval engagement, there were periods between 6:30 and 7:00 when the ships were running on parallel courses, then at other times they would be diverging or coming together. Meanwhile the guns blazed away with little damaged caused on both sides. Just before 7:00 the Graf Spee would turn to begin heading almost directly West, or towards the South American coast, and the British would change course to the northwest and then southwest. At 7:08 the British gunners were finding it very difficult to hit the Graf Spee as it continued to lay smoke, and Harwood decided to reduce the range. This meant that the forward turrets of the British cruisers were the only ones that could fire on the target, but the hope was that once the range was closed all of the guns could be brought to bear. Then at 7:16 the Graf Spee quickly changed course which allowed all of her guns to be fired at the Ajax, which was straddled three times over the following salvos. At this point the range between the ships had closed down to just 8,000 meters, and so the British ships started making their own smoke while slightly altering course to bring all of their guns into action. During this time the Ajax was hit by a shell which penetrated below the X turret and exploded taking the turret out of action, and then another shell directly impacted the Y turret which jammed the turret so that it could not be traversed, essentially taking it out of action as well. Down to just two turrets Harwood decided that the next course of action was to launch a torpedo attack, and the Ajax and Achilles made a sharp turn at 7:24 to fire torpedos, a turn that was spotted by the Graf Spee which immediately made a hard turn to move out of the expected tracks of the torpedoes, which would work and the torpedoes would continue harmlessly on their way.

At this point there was a brief break as the Graf Spee had turned sharply away from the British ships . Aboard the British ships Harwood was rethinking his strategy due to the damage that his ships had already received, the Ajax was down half of its guns, the Exeter was essentially non functional, and only the Achilles was mostly in fighting shape. And so instead of continuing to closely engage the Graf Spee Harwood had his cruisers change course to the east with the intention of trailing the Graf Spee out of gun range until after dark when the attack would be renewed. During this time the captain of the Exeter decided that it was time to disengage and to turn south and to head to the Falklands for repairs. A report also reached Harwood that the Ajax was down to only 20 percent of ammunition, which was later clarified to say that it was only for the A turret, but at that time the A turret was the only one that could effectively fire. After bringing his ships to around 24,000 meters from the Graf Spee the British ships turned back to the west to follow. During all of this time the crew of the Ajax were quickly trying to make repairs with the first priority being the ships wireless transmitters which had been knocked out during the action. Most importantly, at least when it came to the long term plans of the Royal Navy, was the report sent to the Admiralty in London about the action that had just taken place and the status of the British cruisers. This information would be broadcast several times of the following hours. Another important signal would be a message sent to the Cumberland in the Falklands to come as quickly as possible to replace the Exeter. This first signal was actually corrupted, and was not decypherable by the cumberland but the Captain of the ship, Captain Fallowfield made an assumption as to its contents and immediately gave orders for the ship to get underway as soon as possible. His guess was later confirmed to the accurate several hours later, which would allow the Cumberland to arrive several hours earlier than it otherwise would have. The expected arrival time of the Cumberland was 34 hours. At around noon the Exeter was also able to restore its wireless capabilities and after a situation report was provided to Harwood he confirmed the Exeter’s intention to move to the Falklands at best speed, which was at that time only 18 knots due to the amount of water that had been taken aboard. During this break in the action all three British ships would take a moment to hold burials at sea for their dead crew from the morning actions. Harwood would also consider the longer term situation that the British cruisers found themselves in. He did not believe they had damaged the German cruiser in any meaningful way, a wrong assumption, but that is what Harwood would base his further actions on. This made him hesitant to commit to any more immediate actions, especially when the Cumberland on the way to arrive the next day and the larger battlecruisers Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal only around 5 days away. All that really needed to be done was keep contact with the Graf Spee until assistance arrived.

While Harwood did not believe that his ships had caused any serious damage to the Graf Spee, aboard the German ship the situation looked far more worrying. The head gunnery officer aboard the Graf Spee would say that the Graf Spee’s ‘own gunnery had suffered through her alterations of course, the spotting difficulties, the handicap of having to engage targets that were well abaft the beam, interference to her secondary armament caused by her main armament and the failure of the after ammunition supply for her secondary armament. In consequence the achievements of Spee’s guns in the “following” action were poor’. By the time that the ships broke off the Graf Spee had been hit twice by Exeter’s 8 inch shells and around 18 6 inch shells from the Ajax and Achilles. Unlike the British cruisers, none of these hits seriously impaired the ability of the Graf Spee’s guns to continue action although damage to the main rangefinder and the destruction of the ammunition hoists for the secondary guns made it far more difficult to hit enemy ships. However, the Graf Spee was in a very different situation than any ship of the Royal Navy, because at least in 1939 almost anywhere in the world a ship of the Royal Navy was only a few days away from either a British port or a friendly port, but that was absolutely not the case for the Graf Spee. And this made some of the damage to the Graf Spee just as problematic as it would have been if its turrets had been destroyed. Fresh water distillation was non functional, every galley on the ship had been heavily damaged, large amounts of the food on board had been ruined. There were also some hits in the front areas of the ship that had caused some water to be taken on, and which would have to be prepared if the ship was to be able to make it through the North Atlantic back to Germany. The ship had also had 1 officer and 35 sailors killed, along with 60 wounded. As he reviewed his options Langsdorff would make the decision to make for Montevideo, the nearest major port, although it was a neutral one in Uruguay. The rules for neutral ports were that the Graf Spee could only stay for 24 hours before it would have to leave, but Langsdorff hoped that the deadline could be extended and the ship could be repaired during that time. Over the course of the evening the German ship continued on its way to Montevideo while the British cruisers continued their pursuit mostly outside of gun range, there was one instance where the Ajax closed the distance after 7PM, but a few quick German salvos caused the British ship to back off again. As the ships approached Uruguayan territorial waters, at which point they would need to stop firing, Harwood attempted to have the Achilles position itself to cause the Graf Spee to turn away, but it did not and eventually Harwood called off the Achilles and the Graf Spee would make it into Montevideo. The two British cruisers would take up positions to block any escape from the German ship, with the Ajax blocking the southern route out of the port while the Achilles manned the norther route. Wireless transmissions were then sent off to London to again fully inform the Admiralty to what the situation was. Meanwhile the Graf Spee would drop anchor in Montevideo at around 11:30PM.


Even before the Graf Spee arrived in port news of the confrontation at sea had reached the city, with the 4 warships being spotted from the lighthouses along the coasts. The exact details of the engagement and its results were confused though, with at one point news of a British cruiser being sunk arrived, which was then quickly proven to be false. When Langsdorff entered into Montevideo he hoped that he could use the excuse that the Graf Spee was unseaworthy due to battle damage, which would have allowed the ship to stay longer than the allowed 24 hours. This was a loophole in the neutrality rules to allow for any ship to at least stay in port long enough to effect repairs, but in this case the request was denied. The Graf Spee would get an extension though, out to 48 hours which was the amount of time that the Uruguayan government allowed British warships to spend in Montevideo to reprovision. Langsdorff was hoping for a longer stay so that U-boats could be sent to their assistance, or at least that was the theory although there were no solid plans. With only 48 hours the crew of the Graf Spee began to effect repairs as quickly as possible, aided by two German merchant ships that were also in the port. These ships were able to provide specialty equipment and skilled workers, and further help arrived from Buenos Aires from which came more specialty workers including a group of elevator engineers who immediately when to work on the ammunition hoists. But no matter what could be done to the ship while it was in port, the clock was ticking, and the British ships were still there. Harwood had no problems with the fact that the Graf Spee was allowed to stay for 48 hours because that allowed the Cumberland to arrive from the Falklands. With the three cruisers now ready to engage the Graf Spee the British would find themselves in a very similar position as they had a few days prior when the Exeter had joined the Ajax and Achilles, as the Cumberland was a sister ship of the Exeter. And so it might be impossible to sink the German ship, but again the plan was to cause damage, to slow, delay, and keep contact for as long as possible. Meanwhile Harwood was in communication with the British consul in Montevideo, with the two of them working together to spread misinformation about the current strength of the Royal Navy in the area. Harwood wanted Langsdorff to believe that the Renown and the Ark Royal had arrived. There were many ways in which this misinformation was spread. One of the most interesting was through the use of a simple telephone conversation. Two British embassy officials would have a telephone conversation between Montevideo and Buenos Aires during which the British ambassador in Buenos Aires was informed that he needed to arrange for 2,000 tons of boiler oil to be delivered to the Mar del Plata naval base on the Argentinian coast so that it could be transferred to two capital ships. These capital ships could only be the Renown and Ark Royal, but the line was not secure and the conversation was intercepted and reported to the German representatives in the two cities. This is exactly what the British wanted though, and the request for the boiler oil seemed to point directly towards the presence of two Royal Navy capital ships. But of course those reinforcements had not arrived, but Harwood came up with a scheme that involved taking advantage of the rules of neutral ports. International Law limited the amount of time that a warship could stay in a neutral port to 24 hours, which had already been extended to 48, but it also provided a provision whereby when a belligerent warship was in port, it could not leave within 24 hours of the departure of a merchant ship. This rule was designed to ensure that the warship could not essentially follow the merchantman out of the harbor and immediately attack. Because of this rule, Harwood had an idea, there were 8 British merchant ships in the harbor, and if it could be arranged for them to leave at a specific time every day they could delay the departure of the Graf Spee for several more days, by which time the Renown and the Ark Royal would have time to actually arrive. To accomplish this Harwood was in contact with the British consul who arranged for the the SS Ashworth to leave on the evening of December 16th, which would delay the departure of the German ship until the evening of the 17th, then on the 17th another ship would leave, the British cargo liner the Dunster Grange. While working to delay Langsdorff’s departure, Harwood would also ensure that all of his ships were visited by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker, the Olythus to ensure that fuel was not a problem, and with the arrival of the Cumberland the cruisers were positioned to ensure all exits were watched. Plans were also made to bring the ships together if the Graf Spee made ready to leave so that they could combine their fire on the German ship. They were aided in this by every British merchantman in the harbor keeping a close eye on the German cruiser, and all of them were more than ready to start broadcasting a warning to Harwood the instant the Graf Spee moved. Technically this was against the rules, and a fine would be imposed, but if the 5 pound fine was reimbursed by the Royal Navy would be the best fiver that the Royal Navy would ever spend. While the British were trying to be clever and preparing for the action to come, Langsdorff was trying to decide what to do. His decision making was complicated by the fact that he really did believe that the Ark Royal and Renown were already waiting for him, which meant that any hope of breaking out and reaching Germany were crushed. Langsdorff would discuss the situation with his officers, and they all agreed that the prospects of a real breakout were very bad. They also did not want the ship to be interned in Montevideo due to the belief that it would be quickly sold to the British due to the close relationship between the two governments. This meant there were three options, to scuttle the ship, to go down fighting, or maybe, just maybe, break out long enough to make it to Buenos Aires which was under 200 kilometers to the West. At that point the ship would still be interned, but at least it would be with a friendly Argentinian government, where they could be assured that once interned the ship could just be sold to Argentina. When the news arrived in Berlin, Raeder simply told Langsdorff to use his best judgement but no matter what path he chose the overriding concern was that the ship not fall into the hands of the Royal Navy. Langsdorff discussed the matter with his officers, and they were much more downcast about the chances of making it to Buenos Aires, mostly due to it being completely impossible to leave the port unnoticed.

Even with the British efforts to delay the Graf Spee’s departure, the clock was ticking and would accelerate when the Uruguayan government announced that after the departure of the Dunster Grange no further ships would be allowed to depart the port until the Graf Spee either left or was interned. With this announcement, Langsdorff gathered his officers so that final plans could be made for what the German ship would do when the time expired. Their belief was that even if they moved out to engage the British ships the chance of breaking through and making it to Germany was very low, especially due to the lack of maneuverability that would be forced upon the ship by the shallow water and narrow channels on the way out of Montevideo. This also left open the possibility that the ship could be damaged or run aground in a way that would prevent the ship from sufficiently sinking, and it could fall into British hands. Getting to Buenos Aires was also going to be a problem not just due to the British ships but also due to the mud in the river which would reduce the efficiency of the already challenged German diesel engines. This was an issue that the British cruisers would also experience, but to a much lesser degree due to their shallower draughts. All of these challenges resulted in the fateful decision being made: the Graf Spee would leave Montevideo, make for international waters, and then immediately it would be scuttled. The news was delivered the officers and men at noon on December 17th, and they were told that as many men as possible would be taken off of the ship before it set out, leaving only a skeleton crew to bring the ship out of the port. The crew of the Graf Spee then set about working out a system to scuttle the ship, which was not the easiest thing in the world to do to a warship like the Graf Spee, which did not have scuttling charges. So a plan was developed where the five remaining torpedo warheads would be placed under the engine room, and then they were surrounded by grenades connected to batteries, which would allow them to be detonated when circuits were closed. Then at the base of the turrets shells and bags of gunpowder were stacked so that they would explode. After this work was done, the entire crew except for 43 officers and sailors were moved off of the ship and onto the German merchant ship Tacoma. Langsdorff then relayed the signal to the harbor authorities that he planned to leave at about 6:15PM. The ship weighed anchor and was on the way, with the intention of moving out into international waters 3 miles out to sea. The Graf Spee was accompanied by two tuns and a lighter for the remaining crew. The charges were set to detonate with a 20 minute delay and the men on board evacuated onto the accompanying boats. One of the officers who remained on board until the end would later recount: “At the very last, we five officers gathered with our Captain on the quarterdeck, the flag and pennant were hauled down and then we got into the Captain’s launch which had also come alongside. We went about a mile away and then awaited the moment until the fuse should do its work.” Another sailor would write about what he saw after the charges blew: “Ever more columns of fire leap forth [. . .] I can see clearly how two of the big guns of the stern turret are turned in the air as if they were toothpicks. The cloud of the main explosion rises to over 300 metres and still the explosions go on. The Graf Spee is enveloped in flames.” The ship settled into the water and into the deep mud, the long adventure of the Admiral Graf Spee and its crew was over.

Back in Germany, when news of the events in Montevideo were fully known Hitler and Raeder were quite disappointed in Langsdorff’s decision to scuttle the ship instead of to go down fighting. Hitler believed that the Graf Spee absolutely should have sailed out of Montevideo to take as many British ships down with them as possible. This would prompt Hitler to have Raeder issue a new general order to all ships of the Kriegsmarine: “The German warship, fights with the full deployment of its crew until the last shell, until it is victorious or goes down with flag flying.” This order would have important ramifications for the German Navy in the years that followed. Overall, the entire Panzerschiffe experiment would end 1939 in disappointment. The Admiral Scheer was still stuck in port due to mechanical issues, the first war cruise of the Deutschland would be disappointing with only a handful of merchant ships and the Admiral Graf Spee sinking only 9 totaling a mere 50,000 tons. It was a disappointing start to the German surface raiding campaign, although greater efforts would be made in early 1940 with the larger ships then available to the German Navy. Back in South America the officers and crew would, for the most part, spend the next 6 years as guests of the Argentinian government. Then in 1946 they would be repatriated to Germany on board the Highland Monarch, which was escorted by none other than the HMS Ajax. Langsdorff would not live to be repatriated, because on the night of December 20th 1939, after writing letters to his parents and wife, Langsdorff would commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. The missions of the Panzerschiffe were always going to be risky, far from home and greatly outnumbered, and in some ways it is impressive that the Graf Spee lasted as long as it did. The ship itself would be visible for years after the war, slowly sinking into the mud near Montevideo, with salvage efforts as recent as 2004.