The life (and death) of the Admiral Graf Spee is probably unknown to many. But since her last day afloat was December 17, 1939, it seems like a pretty good subject for Today’s History Lesson. So let’s head to beautiful South America…specifically, Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.
The Admiral Graf Spee was a pocket battleship, essentially a cruiser-sized ship (about 10,000 tons) with battleship-sized guns (11″ main rifles), which was made possible by saving weight elsewhere. And on December 17th, she was nestled in Montevideo’s harbor undergoing repairs.
When she had left Germany back in August, her mission was that of a merchant raider, and the South Atlantic Ocean was her hunting ground. Targeting Allied (read: British) shipping, she quickly gained a reputation as a formidable opponent and a real threat. Numerous ships were attacked and sunk over the next 3+ months. But Captain Hans Langsdorff was actually a pretty decent guy, taking proper care of prisoners and following all the rules of merchant warfare. In fact, in all his attacks, not a single life was lost.
Maybe the British felt pretty good about Langsdorff’s war conduct, but he was still sinking ships at an alarming rate. So, like the Bismarck 18 months later, the British began a massive hunt for the Graf Spee and finally located her off the South American coast. Having just refueled and unloaded more than 300 prisoners, the German raider was in fighting trim. But she was damaged in battle on the 13th, and made for the neutral port of Montevideo, arriving there the next day.
And then the antics began. The rules of warfare stated that a ship could only stay in a neutral harbor for 24 hours, but it also said that a warship had to give any merchant ship leaving that same harbor a 24-hour headstart. So, the British (who really wanted this ship) ordered their merchant ships out of the harbor at 24-hour intervals…to keep the Graf Spee trapped there while additional forces could be gathered just beyond the “international waters” boundary. Furthermore, the British sent false communications (of course, intercepted by the Germans) stating that an overwhelming force was being assembled.
And that brings us to the present (well, the “present” of our story). Captain Langsdorff had been ordered by the Uruguayan government to leave, but he could see that his ship had no real hope of escape (probably true), and knew that a huge British force was waiting (definitely false). So rather than face the loss of his crew and endanger the harbor with a battle he couldn’t win, Langsdorff sailed the Graf Spee just outside the harbor…and scuttled her.
The crew were taken prisoner and Captain Langsdorff committed suicide 3 days later.