Admiral Graf Spee

Admiral  Graf Spee

Before the outbreak of the World War II on August 21, 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee left Wilhelmshaven and headed for mid Atlantic. Two days later she passed between the Farroe Islands and Iceland. On August 31, the information about the planned attack against Poland on September 1 was received. In the evening the ship was in combat readiness. In the morning of the next day she met with the fleet tanker Altmark, which acted as her supply ship, to bunker fuel and transfer provisions. For the following hours both vessels were drifting, waiting for the events to unfold. In the meantime unnecessary equipment including heavy boats, canvas landing-mat, stern and riding booms, etc. were transferred to the tanker, and so were two of the battleship’s 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. At midday of September 3, the commander of the Admiral Graf Spee was informed that Great Britain declared war on Germany. Therefore, both ships were ordered to head for the area of operation between 5° to 10° N and 25° to 35° W. In the afternoon, at about 5 p.m., the battleship’s commander Hans Willhelm Langsdorff was informed that France had also entered the war. He read the orders to the crew gathered on the quarterdeck. Later the ship headed for the South Atlantic, near Trinidad. On September 8, she crossed the Equator, so a traditional baptism ceremony was organized. She reached her waiting position on September 10, 1939. In the morning hours of the next day, the crew of the ship’s Arado floatplane spotted the British cruiser Cumberland. After the plane returned and was quickly taken on board, the Admiral Graf Spee left the area at full speed, changing course to avoid detection. Only on September 26, an order to commence the commerce raiding operations against British and French ships was received.
British freighter Clement (5051 BRT) of the Booth Line, Liverpool, destroyed by gunfire on September 30, 1939, became the first victim of the German raider. The Greek steamer Papalemos was stopped in the evening and Clement’s captain and chief engineer were transferred to that ship and Admiral Graf Spee headed south towards Cape Town. In October she sank the s/s Newton Beach, s/s Ashlea, s/s Huntsman and m/s Trevanion. The next randez-vous with the Altmark took place on October 28, 1939. The raider resupplied and transferred crews of the sunk merchantmen to the tanker. In the evening a radio message was received which ordered the ship to head for the Indian Ocean. There she sank the British m/s Africa Shell. The next day she encountered and stopped the Dutch steamer Mapia which was allowed to proceed. At the end of November, the Admiral Graf Spee met with the Altmark to refuel and replenish supplies. The crew built a dummy second gun turret behind the real forward one and erected a second funnel to make the ship look similar to the British Renown class battle cruiser.
At the beginning of December the German warship sank s/s Doric Star, s/s Tairoa and s/s Streonshalh. Documents informing about movement of British merchantmen were discovered on board the last one, so Captain Langsdorff decided to set course for the mouth of the River Plate to attack any encountered ships.

Battle of the River Plate

On December 13, 1939, the German warship was spotted near the mouth of the River Plate by Force G under command of Commodore Henry H. Harwood2. It was composed of two British warships, the heavy cruiser Exeter (flagship) and the light cruiser Ajax as well as the New Zealand light cruiser Achilles. At 5.30, smoke was spotted on the horizon by the observers on board the Admiral Graf Spee. At first, it was mistaken for an Allied convoy, so the ship headed to intercept it. Later, it was identified as cruisers which could be the convoy’s escort. After discussing the matter with his second-in-command, Captain Langsdorff decided to engage the enemy. At 6.15, the Admiral Graf Spee increased speed and altered her heading to 115 degrees, so the targets would be on her starboard. Meanwhile, the British warships were about 18 000 metres away, approaching the enemy in the line ahead. First was Harwood’s flagship, the light cruiser Ajax under command of Captain Charles H. L. Woodhouse, followed by Achilles commanded by Captain William P. Parry. The heavy cruiser Exeter under command of Captain Frederick S. Bell closed the formation. The Admiral Graf Spee opened fire first with both main battery gun turrets targeting the Exeter. The salvos fell short, so Captain Paul Ascher3 had to correct the bearing. Initially, the armour piercing shells were fired, but soon the artillery switched to high-explosive ones, more effective against lightly or non-armoured targets. The shells splashing close to the Exeter holed her superstructure, bridge and gun turrets.