River Plate Estuary, Uruguay December 13, 1939

In the first months of World War II only Great Britain’s Royal Navy, under the leader­ship of 65‑year-old First Lord of the Ad­mi­ralty (in May 1940, Prime Minis­ter) Winston Chur­chill, pro­se­cuted the war against Nazi Germany with energy. After U‑boats had sunk the air­craft carrier HMS Cou­ra­geous and the battle­ship Royal Oak early in the war, British war­ships sought out German surface com­merce raiders, which Adolf Hitler had unleashed on British mer­chant traffic and, after Decem­ber 11, 1941, on merchant­men of Britain’s allies like the United States and Canada. The most noto­rious of the German shipping marauders was the flag­ship of the Kriegs­marine, the pocket battle­ship (reclassified as a heavy cruiser in 1940) Admiral Graf Spee. The ship’s two Arado Ar 196 recon­nais­sance planes and its for­mi­dable triple gun turrets had managed to find and send nine (one source said 16) British ships (over 50,000 tons) to the bottom of the Indian and South Atlantic oceans since the out­break of war on Septem­ber 3, 1939—all this allegedly with­out causing injury or loss of life to the crew of a single vessel. (The Graf Spee’s 45‑year‑old com­mander, Hans Langs­dorff, ordered the captain and crew of each vessel to abandon ship before he opened fire and sank their ship.)

After scuttling her last merchantman on Decem­ber 7, 1939, in the mid-South Atlantic Ocean, Langs­dorff ordered his war­ship to make for the South Amer­i­can port of Monte­video at the mouth of the River Plate, the shared border between neutral Uru­guay and Argen­tina. It was there that Admiral Graf Spee expected to meet up with a German convoy. Instead of a friendly recep­tion, Langs­dorff found three Royal Navy war­ships con­verging on him early on this date, Decem­ber 13, 1939: the 8,390‑ton heavy cruiser HMS Exeter with six 8‑in (203mm) guns (in accor­dance with 1920s dis­arma­ment trea­ties) mounted in three deck turrets plus two light cruisers, Ajax and Achilles, each armed with 6‑in (152mm) guns. In a fierce 20‑minute clash that became known as the Battle of the River Plate, the Graf Spee’s 11.1‑in (283mm) guns drove off the out­gunned light cruisers, but in Exeter’s return fire the German battle­ship suffered major damage to its super­structure and, crit­i­cally, its fuel system. Besides, the Graf Spee’s ammu­ni­tion stocks had been depleted by two-thirds, leaving her big guns with just 20 minutes or so of rounds to fire. Langs­dorff wisely left the battle­field to retire to nearby Monte­vi­deo, not the Argen­tine port of Mar del Plata 200 miles south of Monte­vi­deo, which polit­i­cally might have been a better choice had the imme­di­ate circum­stances not been so dire. The Uru­guayan autho­ri­ties gave Langs­dorff per­mis­sion to stay no more than 72 hours to repair battle damage. The German captain’s original request for a two‑week layover had been turned down.

During Graf Spee’s repair stop in Monte­vi­deo’s harbor the British engaged in intense diplo­ma­tic and intel­li­gence acti­vity (for example, spreading rumors of supe­rior British naval forces fast approaching Uru­guay), all designed to keep the German battle­ship bottled up while buying time to bring in heavy rein­force­ments. There were none in the imme­di­ate area, although Langs­dorff had con­vinced him­self that an over­whelming Allied naval force awaited his return to sea from the Uru­guayan capi­tal. Two days later, on Decem­ber 17, 1939, the Graf Spee unex­pectedly put to sea again, only to be dra­ma­tically scuttled in full view of 20,000 on­lookers on Mon­te­video’s water­front. This was the first nota­ble British suc­cess of the war, and British media made the most of it. (See video below.) Three days later in a hotel room in the Argen­tine capital of Buenos Aires, Langs­dorff, in full dress uniform, killed himself. His crew gave him a hero’s funeral.

Payback Time: The Last Days of Germany’s Admiral Graf Spee

The Admiral Graf Spee the year she was commissioned, 1936

Above: The Admiral Graf Spee was built to out­gun and out­run any British or French war­ship fast enough to try to catch her—in other words, a nearly invin­ci­ble ship. With a top speed of 28 knots (32 mph), only a hand­ful of ships were capable of chasing her and power­ful enough to sink her when caught. The Admiral Graf Spee’s primary arma­ment consisted of six 11.1‑in (283mm) guns mounted in two triple‑gun turrets, one forward and one aft of the super­structure, as shown here in this 1936 photo­graph. Amid­ships was a secondary battery of eight 5.9‑in (150mm) guns in single turrets and two Arado Ar 196 sea­planes. Her antiair­craft battery con­sisted of six 4.1‑in (105mm) guns, four 1.5‑in (37mm) guns, and ten 0.79‑in (20mm) guns. A for­mi­dable 16,000‑ton wea­pon, the Graf Spee inflicted serious damage on Allied merchant shipping in the last months of 1939.

Damaged port side bow of Admiral Graf Spee, December 1939Close-up view of the Admiral Graf Spee’s port side, December 1939

Left: Damaged portside bow of Admiral Graf Spee caused by an 8‑in (150mm) shell. One of HMS Exeter’s 8‑in shells destroyed the steam boilers needed to operate the ship’s fuel-cleaning system. With no hope of replacing or repairing the system at sea, and suffering engine fatigue that reduced her top speed to 23 knots (26‑1/2 mph), Capt. Hans Langs­dorff sought sanc­tu­ary and time for making emer­gency repairs in the Uru­guay­an har­bor of Montevideo, arriving in the early afternoon of December 13, 1939.

Right: A close-up view of the Admiral Graf Spee’s port side, showing hull damage near the third 5.9‑in gun turret and the destroyed Arado Ar 196 sea­plane. The two British light cruisers, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles, using their 6‑in guns, scored 20 hits on the Admiral Graf Spee, damaging food stores and bakeries.

Admiral Graf Spee scuttled, December 17, 1939

Above: Uruguayan authorities followed international treaties and, although ex­tending the normal 24‑hour period of safe sanc­tuary to 72 hours, demanded the Admiral Graf Spee leave port by 8 p.m., Decem­ber 17, 1939, or else be interned for the dura­tion of the war. The Kriegs­marine instructed Langs­dorff not to let the damaged ship be interned in Uru­guay (which was sym­pathetic to Britain in her war against Germany) or allow her to fall into enemy hands. Left to choose a stra­tegy on his own, Langs­dorff decided to scuttle the Kriegs­marine’s flag­ship, largely to spare his crew further casu­al­ties (36 dead and 60 wounded). (Hitler was said to be infuri­ated with Langs­dorff’s deci­sion.) At the limit of Uru­guay­an terri­torial waters, ten miles from shore, the ship stopped and her crew eva­cu­ated by barge to Buenos Aires, where they were interned. Shortly there­after, two of three planted explo­sives blew up the Admiral Graf Spee and she settled into the shallow estu­ary of the River Plate, the border between Uruguay and Argentina, burning for the next seven days. Inter­est­ingly, the sunken war­ship was named after German Vice‑Adm. Maxi­milian Graf von Spee, who on Decem­ber 8, 1914, with 800 crew­men went down with the SMS Scharn­horst, flag­ship of Kaiser Wilhelm’s navy, off the South Atlantic Falk­land Islands, courtesy of two British battle­cruisers. The wreck lies roughly 1,200 miles from Montevideo.

Newsreel Account of the End of Admiral Graf Spee Outside Montevideo, Uruguay’s Harbor (First minute of film suffers from deterioration)