Montevideo, Uruguay · December 15, 1939

In the first months of World War II only the British 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 Allied mer­chant traffic. The most noto­rious of these was the flag­ship of the Ger­man Navy, the pocket battle­ship Admiral Graf Spee, whose for­mi­dable triple gun tur­rets had sunk nine Allied ships (50,000 tons) in the Indian and South Atlantic oceans since the out­break of war on Septem­ber 3, 1939. On this date in 1939 three British cruis­ers brought the Admiral Graf Spee to bay off the Uru­guayan coast of South Amer­ica, having fought a fierce action known as the Battle of the River Plate two days before. In the span of an hour the Admiral Graf Spee’s 11‑in guns had in­flicted severe damage on the heavy cruis­er HMS Exeter (armed with 8‑in guns) and driven off the light cruis­ers Ajax and Achilles (armed with 6‑in guns). The Admiral Graf Spee then retired to the port of Monte­vi­deo, capi­tal of neu­tral Uru­guay, where its 45‑year‑old com­mander, Capt. Hans Langs­dorff, ob­tained per­mis­sion to stay no more than 72 hours to repair battle damage. (Langs­dorff had originally requested a two‑week lay­over.) The British devoted this period to in­tense diplo­ma­tic and intel­li­gence acti­vity, in­cluding spreading rumors of supe­rior British naval forces fast approaching Uru­guay, in order to keep the Admiral Graf Spee bottled up while they bought time to bring in heavy rein­force­ments. (There were none in the area.) Two days later, on Decem­ber 17, 1939, the Admiral 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. Three days later in a Buenos Aires hotel room, Langs­dorff, in full dress uniform, killed himself.

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Payback Time: The Last Days of the 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 catch her. 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‑in (28 cm) 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 (15 cm) guns in single turrets and two Arado Ar 196 sea­planes. Her anti-air­craft battery con­sisted of six 4.1‑in (10.5 cm) guns, four 1.5‑in (3.7 cm) guns, and ten 0.79‑in (2 cm) guns. A for­mi­dable 16,000‑ton wea­pon, the Admiral 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 port side bow of Admiral Graf Spee caused by an 8‑in (15 cm) 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, Cap­tain 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 8‑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.

British Newsreel Account of the Dramatic End of Admiral Graf Spee Outside Montevideo, Uruguay’s Harbor