Archive for the ‘South America’ Category

To say the Admiral Graf Spee was successful as a merchant raider is to understate the grief she caused France and Britain.  Having deployed in August of 1939 (to be in position when hostilities opened in September), the pocket battleship had roamed the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans, wreaking havoc on Allied merchant shipping.

As the end of 1939 neared, the British (with some French assistance) put together nine (yes, nine) hunting groups, eight in the Atlantic and one in the Indian Ocean.  Their job?  Find, and sink, the Admiral Graf Spee.

The German ship, captained by Captain Hans Langsdorff, had re-entered the South Atlantic after a sinking a merchantman near Mozambique.  On December 2nd, the Doric Star fell victim to the Graf Spee.  The next day, it was Tairoa’s turn.  On the 9th, the Streonshalh and its cargo of grain were sent to Davy Jones’ locker.

British Commodore Henry Harwood, head of Force G, was plotting these various sinkings and guessed that Langsdorff was making for the port of Montevideo on the coast of Uruguay.  So he took his force, the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and light cruisers Ajax and Achilles, and headed in that direction.

On December 13, 1939, they found the Graf Spee, or rather, the Graf Spee found them.  At first glance, it seems like a lopsided affair…3 ships against one…and it was lopsided, but not the way you think.  In naval warfare, it’s all about the size of the guns in the fight, not how many you have.  Langsdorff’s pocket battleship featured 11″ main guns, while the Exeter (the largest of the cruisers) could only answer with 8″ rifles.  So the British, while having a lot more guns, were actually pretty badly out-gunned.  And it showed in the engagement.

The Admiral Graf Spee began firing while her opponents were still out of range.  If Langsdorff made one mistake during the battle, it was at this point.  He believed his opponents were escorting more merchant ships, so rather than simply stand off and pound Force G to a pulp, he closed the distance.  Turning first on the Exeter, he plastered her with medium and heavy shot, putting her out of action quickly.

The two smaller cruisers, maintaining separation to keep Graf Spee’s fire spread out, then entered the fray.  The captain of the Achilles was quite concerned, and was quoted as saying, “My own feelings were that the enemy could do anything he wanted to. He showed no sign of being damaged; his main armament was firing accurately…”

But Langsdorff, who had toured his ship, deteremined that it had sustained too much damage to remain effective, and was too far away from the friendly confines of the European coast to make a run for it.  The Graf Spee turned for the neutral port of Montevideo and the Plate River.

There’s still some mystery as to why, in light of his seeming command of the situation, Langsdorff made the decision he did.  Yes, the Graf Spee had been hit numerous times.  But the damage was considered by many of the crew to be light.  They had suffered 36 killed, but this was out of a full compliment of 1,100 men.  By all appearances, the battle was well in hand.

So after actually winning the engagement (or at least being on the way to victory), the Graf Spee played the role of “the defeated” and made for safer (neutral) ground.  The stage was now set for the intrigue to begin.

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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.

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