KMS Admiral Graf Spee
Pocket Battleship / Armored Cruiser
The Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled off the coast of Montevideo in the 1939 Battle of the River Plate
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Admiral Graf Spee was a pre-World War 2 vessel of the Deutschland-class of German warships. She was designed and built during a time when Germany was still under the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles signed after World War 1. The treaty stipulated new warship designs with a displacement not to exceed 10,000 tons. However, the Admiral Graf Spee was a product of both rule-bending and outright disregard for such limitations - a practice that would prove more and more common during Hitler's rise to power. The Deutschland-class was first committed to sea by its lead ship - KMS Deutschland and this vessel was then followed by the KMS Admiral Scheer and, finally, the KMS Admiral Graf Spee. The Graf Spee was named after German Admiral Maximilian von Spee who was killed in combat during World War 1, going down with his flagship, two sons and 2,200 German sailors at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The Admiral Graf Spee was laid down in October of 1932 and launched in June of 1934, being officially commissioned in January of 1936. All of the Deutschland-class ships were eventually lost to action in World War 2. The original lead ship "Deutschland" was later renamed the "Lutzow" for fear that such a named vessel, being lost to enemy action, might have devastating effects on national pride and morale.
Though all three ships of the class would easily exceed the allowed 10,000 tonnage limit (the Graf Spee alone topped 16,000 tons at construction's end) they were never truly "battleship-caliber" vessels by definition. Selected machinery arrived in the form of 8 x MAN diesel engines producing 56,000 shaft horsepower to two propeller shafts and this came with the added benefit of speed and proved a weight-saving measure, allowing attention to be paid to overall protection of the vessel through armor and, consequently, armament. Construction consisted of electric welding which further saved weight and was a contrast to the accepted practice of riveting. What German naval engineers had in fact produced was more of a "tweener" warship design - neither true battleship nor a true cruiser. The end-product sported "battleship-like" armament and armor but it was an inherently faster ocean-going design - speeds exceeding 28 knots. The vessel took on the performance capabilities of a cruiser type ship. To this end, the design became known to the world as a "pocket battleship" and the Graf Spee would be further set apart from her contemporaries in that she was also completed with an early form of shipborne radar known as "Seetakt" - the first German naval war vessel to be equipped as such.
The Graf Spee was armed with 6 x 11" main guns across two main turrets - three guns to a turret - with one turret emplacement set forward and the other held aft. This was supplemented by 8 x 5.9" guns and further strengthened by 6 x 105mm, 8 x 37mm and 10 x 20mm cannons throughout. The larger-caliber weapons were suitable against surface ships and land-based targets while the smaller-caliber systems could be used against both surface vessels and low-flying aircraft. Additionally the vessel was given true "ship-killing" capabilities in the form of 8 x 533mm torpedo tubes. Two Arado Ar 196 floatplane aircraft were carried aboard and launched from a catapult held amidships behind the bridge superstructure. These aircraft provided the vessel with the required "eye in the sky" conducting various reconnoitering sorties and, if called too, attacking with machine guns, bombs and depth charges. The aircraft could then be recovered from the water via a crane to be used again. The Graf Spee's side profile was characterized by its single smoke funnel held at amidships and high ranging mast. A crew of 1,150 officers and sailors made the vessel their wartime home.
Upon her completion, the Graf Spee set out on various propaganda tours after having completed her requisite sea trials. In August of 1939, the vessel was ordered to the South Atlantic with Captain Hans Langsdorff at the helm. World War 2 officially broke out in September of that year which now opened all Allied shipping in the Atlantic to raiding.
The Graf Spee is best known for her ultimate action at the "Battle of River Plate" in the South Atlantic, taking on British Royal Navy warships in December of 1939. The Germans spotted the HMS Exeter and a pair of cruisers - HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles - sailing on the horizon. Langsdorff ordered his men to battlestations and full speed ahead in an effort to surprise the enemy. However, the British spotted her in turn and readied for battle. British officer Henry Harwood directed his fleet to split from formation, forcing the Graf Spee to specifically select her targets to engage. Shells were exchanged in anger between the two sides with the Graf Spee crew earning much respect in the foray - considering she was outnumbered. The HMS Exeter was turned from the battle, heavily damaged, with successive hits from the Graf Spee. The German vessel's main guns were truly a match for the light-armored British vessels. A smokescreen was then laid by the Graf Spee believed to be under attack from torpedoes. Exeter returned after a break but was repelled once more. HMS Ajax now suffered damage from the Graf Spee, losing one of her turrets. The action was enough to see both sides break off combat and sail their respective ways.
Despite the showing, the Graf Spee was not an invincible vessel. In the action she incurred enough battle damage and wounded to force her to find a friendly port for repairs and removal of the injured. Some reports state that the Graf Spee received as many as 60 to 70 direct hits in the fighting. Additionally, her ammunition stores were low and both of her oil purification and water desalination systems were completely ruined - making a return trip home to Germany a near-impossibility.
The vessel therefore ended up in nearby neutral Montevideo, Uruguay, the idea being that the ship could be made seaworthy again. While in harbor, the British Navy had convinced the Germans through deliberately-intercepted radio transmissions that there was a sizeable nearby force awaiting their return to sea. This eventually left the Graf Spee captain with two decisions - make a suicide run towards friendly Argentina or scuttle the boat where she lay. The decision was ultimately made to scuttle the ship and, due to the neutral state of Uruguay, the Graf Spee crew had 72 hours on their side before the vessel would be turned over. This time was spent removing the injured and wiring explosives.
On December 17th, 1939 the crew of the Graf Spee began the scuttle process. When all was readied, the remaining crew were taken prisoner and the Graf Spee was blown up on December 18th. However, her captain (Langsdorff) elected to kill himself in macabre honorary fashion on December 20th, taking the full blame for the failure of the Graf Spee and not wanting to face his homeland Germany in disgrace. The Graf Spee's participation in World War 2 had officially ended.
The wreckage of the Graf Spee is known today and a painstaking endeavor to raise the ship began in 2004.