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.