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The fate of the Admiral Graf Spee

By Sakhal

The Admiral Graf Spee and the Battle of River Plate

The "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee was built in 1934 after her sisters Admiral Scheer and Deutschland. She had been projected to elude the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited to Germany to build warships of displacement above 10160 tonnes and armed with calibers above 280 millimeters. The German engineers had made technical "miracles" to build a warship of such power within the mandatory weight (she actually exceeded the weight but not exageratedly). By using a large proportion of light alloys and replacing rivets by electric soldering, it was possible to lighten the hull and arm it with cannons of much superior caliber than those installed in other warships of the same tonnage. The main armament was installed in two triple turrets to save weight, but this caused that the Graf Spee could fire only against a single target with certain precision, negative aspect that came to light when the she had to fire simultaneously against the Exeter and the other two cruisers that pursued her in the Battle of River Plate. The 150-millimeter cannons were installed besides the superstructure in single mountings protected by simple casemates. Two torpedo launchers with four tubes each were installed astern and their main purpose was to quickly sink the merchant ships.

The hull was slightly wider and the waterline belt thicker than in the sister ships and, because of this, the Graf Spee had installed from the beginning the 105-millimeter cannons instead of the 88-millimeter cannons originally installed in the sister ships, which however had the 105-millimeter cannons installed in the autumn of 1939. The main belt was inclined and it had an anti-torpedo bulwark superimposed to it. Other differences with her sisters were the modernized design of the conning tower and the catapult of the aircraft which had been relocated astern the funnel. Apart from the special armament there was another "secret weapon" in the ship: the radar that the Germans called "Dete". The Graf Spee was one of the first warships fitted with these devices. The propulsion system was based in Diesel engines, which despite being not much lighter than steam machinery occupied less space, required less operators and consumed less fuel, granting a larger operational range to a smaller warship. Another advantage was that they produced less smoke, which allowed the Graf Spee to sight first the British squadron in River Plate, for their smoke trails were visible 15 minutes before they could sight the smoke from the German ship. A negative aspect was that the utilization of Diesel machinery reduced maximum speed.

Actually the ships of the Deutschland class were long-range but slow battlecruisers, a fact that the Germans acknowledged in February 1940, when the Lutzow (ex Deutschland) and the Scheer were reclassified as heavy cruisers. They would have been more effective ships if they had installed a lighter armament than the one of 280 and 150 millimeters; the saved weight could have been used to increase speed and protection. However they would have not had the same effects of propaganda. Since their speed did not allow them to fight at long range they were very vulnerable to the 203 -millimeter cannons whose projectiles could easily shatter their armor. The French fast battleship Dunkerque confirmed the obsolescency of this type of warship, and despite another three ships of the Deutschland class were projected, their keels were never laid down. However the main armament for two of them had been already produced and it would be finally installed in the battlecruisers of the Scharnhorst class, another unfortunate design of the Kriegsmarine.

The fate of the Admiral Graf Spee

The Graf Spee left the shipyard in Wilhelmshaven the 21st August 1939, the same day of the sign in Moscow of the German-Russian Pact. About two weeks remained for the beginning of the war but Hitler had taken definitive decisions. During these days of general doubt Germany tuned up its war machinery. The Graf Spee was just an echelon in this homicidal chain and her mission was already one of war, a corsair route against the British merchant ships. She had to reach a secret position to start attacking at the outbreak of the conflict. The complement was formed by 1500 men, all young and selected, commanded by Hans Langsdorff, German officer born in Hamburg in 1894. Apart from those who controlled the Graf Spee there were groups called "prey crews" whose purpose was to get onboard the captured merchants to transfer them to Germany if possible.

On 7th October the Graf Spee had captured four British ships that the captain decided to sink after retrieving the crews and any kind of valuable equipment from them. Facing the corsair expedition of the Graf Spee, the entire British Fleet was set in alarm, but the orders were vague. None of the captured ships communicated her position before being sunk and the only data known was that one or two corsair ships were operating in the Atlantic. Thus the Admiralty initiated the largest tracking operation in History. With the Mediterranean Fleet in the Atlantic were formed nine search groups, being entrusted to each of them a sector in the ocean. Still this seemed like finding a needle in a haystack. However the safety of the Graf Spee relied in preventing that the captured ships called for help, and when one of them did this, things turned ugly for her. As a last resort, with a clever camouflage she could attempt to quietly overpass the enemy squadron without being spotted.

In the morning of the 3rd December, after a brief mission in the Indian, the Graf Spee returned to the Atlantic. Onboard morale was extraordinarily high. During three monts of piracy they had sunk nine enemy merchants with a total of 50000 tonnes, and however not a drop of blood had been spilled. The war seemed like an easy thing. But Commodore Henry Harwood, commander of three British cruisers tasked with patroling the South American coasts (the heavy cruiser Exeter and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles), was preparing a deadly trap for the Graf Spee. He calculated that the Graf Spee would be in the waters of the River Plate around the 13th December, as it indeed happened with disconcerting punctuality. As aforementioned, the German battleship sighted the small enemy fleet with anticipation. However Langsdorff did not realize that he was dealing with cruisers; believing the British ships to be destroyers he ordered to charge against the enemy. And this would be his first mistake.

Still, despite being cruisers, the Graf Spee should have, at least in theory, advantages facing the enemy. She was armed with six 280-millimeter cannons and eight 150-millimeter cannons, directed by an excellent fire control system. The three British cruisers had in total six 203-millimeter cannons (the ones of the Exeter) and sixteen 152-millimeter cannons. A salvo from the Graf Spee would easily destroy the thinner armor of the British ships, whereas three simultaneous salvos from the cruisers hardly would break through the relatively robust armor of the German battleship. The battle lasted for a hour and twenty minutes, causing to the Germans 36 dead and 60 wounded and to the British 72 dead (61 on the Exeter) and 28 wounded. The three British cruisers were hit several times. In opinion of Charles Woodhouse, commander of the Ajax, Langsdorff could have avoided the combat and fled before the British could have noticed about his presence if he had wanted so. But he accepted the battle, in which the Exeter but also the Graf Spee resulted severely damaged. The majority of experts who studied the Battle of River Plate agreed that it was a mistake from Langsdorff to not complete the neutralization of the Exeter.

Langsdorff was injured in the head and his judgement was probably diminished because of this. After the Graf Spee was severely damaged during the confrontation she had to take refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo. In the morning of the 14th December were disembarked the German wounded and the British prisoner, who consequently retrieved their freedom. Then Langsdorff started to realize that he had committed a big mistake. It was started a diplomatic battle, more arduous than the naval one, with the risk of losing the ship without even having sunk any of the enemy warships. Uruguay conceded only 72 hours to the Germans to repair the damages suffered during the battle. Ended that time the ship would have to leave the port, otherwise she would be seized and the crew interned. Meanwhile the British ships awaited outside the port to sink the Graf Spee as soon as this one exited. Langsdorff, after having tried in vain a prolongation of the permission, facing the dilemma with a heroism that made History, opted for exiting the Graf Spee outside the port in the sunset of the 17th December and sink her with explosives. Then along with his crew he navigated to Buenos Aires, where he committed suicide the 19th December.

The fate of the Admiral Graf Spee

The Admiral Graf Spee in December 1939 with an Arado 196 seaplane. Note the tall and narrow conning tower, characteristic of the German warships of that time, fitted with a radar-telemeter device on top.

Class: Deutschland (Deutschland, Admiral Speer and Admiral Graf Spee)

Built in: Wilhelmshaven Shipyards

Authorized: 1932

Keel laid: 1 October 1932

Launched: 30 June 1934

Completed: 6 January 1936

Fate: Sunk by her own crew the 17th December 1939 and scuttled in 1942

Length (in waterline): 181.7 meters

Length (total): 186 meters

Beam: 21.3 meters

Draught: 5.8 meters

Displacement (standard): 12290 tonnes

Displacement (normal): 14100 tonnes

Displacement (full load): 16460 tonnes

Engines: Eight MAN Diesel 9-cylinder engines (four per axis); two propellers

Power (total): 56000 shaft horsepower

Fuel load: 2564 tonnes

Speed (maximum): 28 knots

Operational range: 7570 nautical miles at 19 knots

Armor: 80 millimeters in main belt; 40 millimeters in anti-torpedo bulwark; 45 millimeters in deck; 85-140 millimeters in main turrets; 100 millimeters in barbettes; 10 millimeters in secondary armament

Armament: Six 280-millimeter 54-caliber cannons (2 x 3); eight 150-millimeter 55-caliber cannons (8 x 1); six 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (3 x 2); eight 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (4 x 2); ten 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (10 x 1); eight 533-millimeter torpedo tubes (2 x 4); two reconnaissance aircraft

Complement: 1150

Service history

1936-38: Flagship of the Fleet.

1936-39: Patrols in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War.

May 1937: Attends the British Coronation Ceremony in Spithead.

1938: Remodelation; modification of the conning tower and installation of radar equipment.

21 August - 13 December 1939: Corsair patrols in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

September - December 1939: Sinks nine merchant ships for a total of 50089 tonnes.

13 December 1939: Battle of River Plate; causes important damages to the British cruisers Exeter and Ajax; hit by twenty projectiles; fire control destroyed and forecastle damaged; takes refuge in Montevideo.

17 December 1939: Sunk by her own crew outside Montevideo.

1942: Scuttled.

The Exeter

The fate of the Admiral Graf Spee

The Exeter in December 1939, carrying a Walrus seaplane. It can be seen the low profile of the bridge, the V-shaped catapult astern the aft funnel and the 102-millimeter cannons installed in single mountings.

Class: York (York and Exeter)

Built in: Devonport Shipyards

Authorized: 1927

Keel laid: 1 August 1928

Launched: 18 July 1929

Completed: 21 July 1931

Fate: Sunk after being severely damaged by four Japanese heavy cruisers the 1st March 1942

Length (in waterline): 164.9 meters

Length (total): 175.6 meters

Beam: 17.7 meters

Draught: 6.2 meters

Displacement (standard): 8520 tonnes

Engines: Eight Admiralty 3-drum boilers; four Parsons turbines of simple reduction; four propellers

Power (total): 80000 shaft horsepower

Fuel load: 1930 tonnes

Speed (maximum): 32 knots

Operational range: 8400 nautical miles at 14 knots

Armor: 51-76 millimeters in main belt; 51 millimeters in deck; 38-51 millimeters in main turrets

Armament: Six 203-millimeter cannons (3 x 2); four 102-millimeter cannons (4 x 1), increased to eight in 1941; sixteen 40-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (installed in 1941); two 12.7 -millimeter machine guns (installed in 1941); six 533-millimeter torpedo tubes (2 x 3); two reconnaissance aircraft

Complement: 630

Categories: Ships - Naval Warfare - World War Two - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-10-19

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