Warship Wednesday (on a Tuesday), Dec. 17, 2019: The Count’s Bones
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday (on a Tuesday), Dec. 17, 2019: The Count’s Bones
Here we see the aftermath of this very day in history some 80 years ago– the scuttled German “pocket battleship” SMS Graf Spee, resting on the bottom in 25 feet of water off the harbor of Montevideo, Uruguay, following the 1939 Battle of the River Plate.
While internet warships commentators and naval museum fans will fight to the death that Graf Spee and her fellow 1930s-era Deutschland-class “Panzerschiff” (armored ships) were an abomination when compared to regular battleships– vessels the Germans were unable to build due to Versallies limits– they did pack a half-dozen bruising 11-inch SK C/28 guns and another eight 5.9-inch SK C/28 guns in a 16,000-ton hull with a minimum of 3.9-inches of belt armor.
While incapable of holding off even a serious pre-dreadnought battlewagon, by nature of their 28-knot speed and amazing 16,000nm range (at 18 knots!) they were ideal for commerce raiding and able to chew up anything that could catch them that was smaller than a battlecruiser.
Named after Vizeadmiral Maximilian Johannes Maria Hubert Reichsgraf (Count) von Spee, who was lost at the December 1914 Battle of the Falkland Islands along with his two sons, our pocket battleship was laid down 1 October 1932 at Reichsmarinewerft, Wilhelmshaven when Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was still Germany’s president, she was commissioned 6 January 1936 after the Machtergreifung brought Hitler to power. In a nod to the latter, she picked up a giant bronze Nazi eagle on her stern to complement her Von Spee coat of arms on her bow, a blend of Kaiser and Fuhrer, if you will.
Her brief peacetime career was filled with intrigues as the ship participated in the Spanish Civil War and the lead up to the Big One in 1939.
With that, she was soon at her job of reaping British merchantmen in the Atlantic and had sunk nine such vessels (taking care to preserve the lives of their mariners) before a force of three much smaller British cruisers– HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax, and HMNZS Achilles-– fought a running battle with the big German at sea off the coast of Uruguay near the mouth of the River Plate on 13 December.
While all four ships involved were damaged, they were all still afloat at the end of the engagement with 36 of the Graf Spee‘s complement killed and the Royal Navy consigning 72 of their own to the sea at the end of the day.
For a more detailed account of the battle, which would be wasted here, see the Royal Navy’s “The Battle of the River Plate: An Account of Events Before, During and After the Action Up to the Self Destruction of the Admiral Graf Spee, 1940” at the National Archives. It is 16-pages including three great maps.
Suffering from over 30 hits from the British guns, the German vessel needed time to lick her wounds and bury her dead ashore.
Denied a lengthy stay in neutral Montevideo, German CPT Hans Langsdorff believed a British bluff that a much stronger force was waiting for him offshore and scuttled his vessel on 17 December to comply with the local demand that he leave the port in 72 hours. This included misinformation that the battlecruiser Renown was offshore when, in fact, she was not.
With most of his crew looking on from shore, Graf Spee began to sink, ablaze. She would burn for three full days.
As Graf Spee only had enough fuel for about one more day of steaming anyway, and the Uruguayans would not transfer any more, it was an academically sound choice to scuttle the German ship. Even if it managed to break out, she would have been dead in the water the next day in a very unfriendly South Atlantic more than 6,000 miles from home. Instead of a watery grave, the surviving crew of the pocket battleship lived to see another day.
Of course, the Battle of the River Plate was the first chance since the loss of the auxiliary cruiser HMS Rawalpindi the month before for the Royal Navy to exact some measure of revenge for that ship’s heroic stand against the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst.
And on the 18th of December in a broadcast to the Nation, Churchill would compare the tragic but heroic end of Rawalpindi to the inglorious scuttling of the German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee in Montevideo Roads (the day before) with the comment, “Once in harbour she had the choice of submitting in the ordinary manner to internment, which would have been unfortunate for her, or, of coming out to fight and going down in battle, like the Rawalpindi, which would have been honourable to her”.
On 19 December, two days after Graf Spee settled in the muck of the river, Langsdorff led 1,038 men across the border with Argentina into exile, where they would be held together under local custody. Despite telling the local press that he was “satisfied,” Langsdorff, a Great War veteran who earned his Iron Cross at Jutland, fatally shot himself in his Buenos Aires hotel room with his Mauser pocket pistol. He was lying on Graf Spee‘s battle ensign.
Some 300,000 Argentines attended the 45‐year‐old captain’s funeral.
On 2 February 1940, just six weeks after the German ship was scuttled, the brand new light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50), with the U.S. Navy still officially neutral in the conflict, called on Montevideo while on her shakedown cruise. Soon, a boarding party that included ENS Richard D. Sampson motored over to the wreck and boarded her to collect what intel they could. After all, the Germans still had two other sisterships to Graf Spee in active service at the time.
Graf Spee would be partially broken up above the waterline in situ, with its good German steel ironically– according to legend– going on to be used to make Ballester Molina M1911-ish pistols in Argentina for a British SOE contract.
Ian McCollum over at Forgotten Weapons opines on that in the below:
As Graf Spee‘s 1942-43 salvage was done by a British contractor, much of her salvageable secrets were uncovered.
Today, numerous parts of the ship are on public display around Latin America including a large salvaged optical rangefinder, telegraphs and several small deck guns. One of her anchors stands at a memorial in Montevideo. Further, hundreds of small relics of the vessel are in personal collections around the world.
Her 880-pound stern eagle was recovered by divers in 2006 as part of a government effort to further scrap the ship but has been the subject of much bickering over its final ownership, and it has been in storage onshore ever since.
It is set to be auctioned off in the coming weeks to comply with a court order with possible winners paying upwards of $30 million for the item, which includes a large swastika in the dirty bird’s talons.
Of Graf Spee’s foes at the River Plate, HMNZS Achilles‘ Y-turret was preserved when (as the Indian cruiser INS Delhi) she was scrapped at the end of the 1970s, and since the mid-1990s has been sitting outside HMNZS Philomel (a Royal New Zealand Navy shore station) at Devonport, Auckland. HMS Exeter (68) was sunk during the Second Battle of the Java Sea, 1 March 1942 and her wreck has been destroyed by illegal salvagers. However, Exeter’s bell, removed in a 1940 refit, is on display at the White Ensign Club in Portsmouth. HMS Ajax (22), scrapped in 1949, has her bell on a monument in Montevideo, donated by ADM Sir Henry Harwood and Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, the latter responsible for circulating the rumors that a large British force was off the port in 1939, waiting for Graf Spee.
Of the more than 1,000 Graf Spee sailors shipwrecked in South America in 1939, nearly 200 managed to escape their loose Argentine custody and, either make for Chile and other points North, or return to Germany by other means. One of these, KKpt Jürgen Wattenberg, reached Germany in May 1940 and would join the U-boat arm only to be captured again in 1942 when his submarine was sunk by the British, spending the rest of the war in the clink in Arizona. Another, Oblt.z.S Friedrich Wilhelm Rasenack, managed to make it back home by June 1941 and would later write a book about his former ship.
In all, between the sailors who never left and those who returned to Latin America after seeing how bad life was in post-war Allied-occupied Germany, some 500 survivors settled in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. They established large colonies in Bariloche, Villa Belgrano, and Cumbrecita, among others. The Waldschanke club in Buenos Aires still held raucous Graf Spee crew reunions well into the 1970s.
The last survivor of pocket battleship’s 1939 crew died at age 89 in Montevideo in 2007.
As for Langsdorff, to this day, his crew’s descendants regularly visit his grave in Argentina’s La Chacarita National Cemetery in Buenos Aires to commemorate him, with many holding that his decision saved their father’s or grandfather’s respective lives.
“The affection, gratitude and unwavering trust of many former Spee soldiers in many encounters over the years have made me proud and defined my joy at the rescue of the many men by my father,” the Captian’s 82-year-old daughter, Nedden, recently told German media. “So I hope one will find a way for him to be honored publicly as well.”
His actions are still celebrated in the German navy today.
“In this respect, it is a historical example of timeless soldierly virtues,” the spokesman for the German Defense Ministry said. “These are recognized in the Bundeswehr and his example is used at the naval school in Mürwik, in teaching and training, to support the young officer candidates in their personal confrontation with the political, legal and ethical dimensions of the military and naval service.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, the Internationales Maritimes Museum in Hamburg has an extremely detailed 1:100 scale model of Graf Spee, built by master Helmut Schmidt, on display on deck 5 of the museum. It is the closest thing to a memorial to the ship in her home country.
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