Graf Spee and the Battle of Rio de la Plata

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) imposed limits on the size of line ships on Germany. Even if Nazi Germany ended up bypassing the construction of the Bismarck, she began by cleverly circumventing these prohibitions by inventing a new class, "pocket battleships", with an artillery superior to that of heavy cruisers (6x 280 mm) and a cuirass capable of withstanding their 203 mm shells, while having a limited tonnage. In addition, their speed and autonomy made them almost irremediable ... Graf Spee was the second of this class (after the Deutschland, renamed Lützow, and before Admiral Scheer), launched in 1934 in Wilhemshaven; he was going to terrorize the British merchant fleet at the start of the war, and meet a tragic fate almost as striking as that of the Bismarck, on the other side of the world…

A privateer in the South Atlantic

When war breaks out, theAdmiral Raeder does not yet have at its disposal the ships it would need to stand up to the British war fleet. But it still has a substantial fleet of modern and balanced ships, capable of inflicting heavy damage on the Allied merchant fleet. He then chose to launch his privateer fleet, made up of the three pocket battleships Deutschland (Lützow), Graf Spee and Scheer (13,000 tonnes each), larger ones (16,000 tonnes) Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and heavy class cruisers Hipper. All of these liners still have preference over U-Boats.

From August 21, 1939, the Graf Spee take advantage of the night to rush into the North Atlantic. He remains in a waiting position as Hitler hopes to obtain a peace to his advantage following the crushing of Poland. It was not until September 26 that the Kriegsmarine was authorized to attack Allied ships; the Graf Spee was already then in the South Atlantic… Indeed, the commander of the pocket battleship, Captain Langsdorff, considered that the sea routes of South America were more strategic for the enemy than those passing through the Cape of Good Hope , while the Mediterranean was still safe for the British thanks to their presence in Gibraltar and Aden. The Graf Spee therefore set off to the West, towards Pernambuco (Brazil), without however yet having the right to engage the enemy warships himself in a battle at the end of September 1939. This did not prevent the German privateer from d '' board a merchant vessel on September 30: this is the Clement, of English flag, and after having evacuated its crew by boats, Langsdorff sank the freighter. The German captain succeeded in obtaining information from the English commander on the instructions given to British sailors in the event of a privateer attack: to prevent the Germans at all costs from being able to use their catch as a supply ship, by destroying the radio and machines on board.

On the way to the Indian Ocean

Langsdorff disembarks the crew of the Clement in a Brazilian port then resumes his hunt, this time on the Cape of Good Hope. He knows that he himself will now be chased. Langsdorff then uses trickery to approach his prey: he has the front and side of his turret mast repainted to pass for a merchant ship; his first success came on October 5 when he took the Newton Beech. But as the Germans board him, the English captain still manages to send a signal and destroy important documents, except for one that will allow Langsdorff to refine his strategy. This allows the corsair to take new holds in the following days:Ashlea (October 7), Huntsman (The 10). Langsdorff sinks the first, then the Newton Beech become too slow. It forces the Huntsman to move towards an undetermined place, far from his departure route; she was finally overtaken and sunk on October 17, her crew transferred to the German supply ship Altmark

The Graf Spee, after having left his supply vessel and the surroundings of the island of Saint Helena, positioned himself on the Cape route to surprise the enemy ships, thanks to the information he had obtained from Huntsman. The first victim is the Trevanion, October 22; the radio has just enough time to send an imprecise signal, but it still puts the British navy in the area on alert. The learner, Langsdorff prefers to cautiously slip away, unwittingly escaping the Renown and the French battleship Strasbourg... The same night, the Graf Spee, still cautious, almost find himself facing the aircraft carrier Furious !

It was therefore decided to change course: at the end of October, the pocket battleship headed for the Indies, but bad weather prevented it from hoping for captures in early November. It was not until the second half of that month that Langsdorff managed to find new potential victims: it was Dutch first. Holland, only seen but let it slip away, then Africa Shell which was sunk in the west of Madagascar on the 15th. The next day, it was the turn of the Dutch Mapia to be arrested, but his papers checked and in view of the good behavior of his captain, Langsdorff decides to let him go ... The raid of Graf Spee in the Indian Ocean is therefore not a great success, to say the least! At the same time, the interception of numerous messages coming from Durban shows that the Allies are aware of the presence of a "German privateer" in the region ...

Langsdorff therefore decides, despite being chased by two British squadrons, to take risks. He informed his crew on November 24 of an imminent return to Germany to overhaul the machines, but this time without avoiding any contact with enemy warships. The hunt for merchant ships continued all the same in early December: the victims were the Doric Star and the Tairoa, respectively arrested and then sunk on December 2 and 3 off the coast of Africa; then comes, on December 7, the turn of Streaonshalh, this time off Brazil. It will be the last victim of the Graf Spee ; Langsdorff found documents on the cargo ship attesting to the presence in the region of many potential victims. But rather than finding easy catches, the Graf Spee will have to face the British navy.

The battle of Rio de la Plata

During the night of December 12 to 13, the German ship patrols off the Rio de la Plata. The lookout then signals two masts on the horizon; Believing in a "pretty good job," Langsdorff gives the order to set sail for the spotted ship. But hope gives way to nasty surprises: rather than a merchant ship, the Graf Spee finds himself facing the light cruiser Exeter, followed by Achilles and Ajax.

The Admiralty had not heard from the Graf Spee for almost twenty days when theExeter and theAjax leave Port Stanley in the Falklands on December 2. The British squadron led by Commodore Harwood joins the cruisers Achilles and Cumberland and then tries to find the German privateer. But technical problems keep the Cumberland. This is the attack on Tairoa which allows the English navy to calculate the possible route of the Graf Spee, and the three cruisers regroup at the Rio de la Plata on December 10.

The balance of power may seem very favorable to the British, who are three to one. But the Graf Spee is better armed and better protected than its adversaries. Each of the two camps also has several possible tactics, depending on whether he spots the other first or not (the German has a higher lookout), or depending on whether he chooses to divide his forces or not (for the English obviously). In fact, Harwood chose two groups: theExeter on the one hand, theAjax and theAchilles the other. Likewise, it is the Graf Spee who spots the enemy first. Langsdorff identifies theExeter, but takes the other two for destroyers; he also believes these ships are an escort to a merchant convoy, so he decides to attack without hesitation. The British lookouts first mistook the privateer for a merchant ship, and theExeter therefore comes to meet him without knowing what to expect. Fortunately, theAjax barely managed a minute before the first German shell set off to alert theExeter by identifying the corsair! It is 6:17 am, the fight begins.

TheExeter is hit in the third salvo by delayed shells which cause very important damage and reduce its firing capacity! The English cruiser also managed to hit his opponent in his third salvo, but the eighth German blow incapacitated one of his main turrets. TheExeter violently hit does not turn correctly to be in the ideal position, but still manages to correct the shot and hit the Graf Spee. The latter is at 12,000 meters, taking an opposite route but parallel to his opponent. The other two British ships opened fire at 6:20 am, 18,000 meters away, but aimed too short; the privateer reserves its secondary artillery for them, using its main pieces against theExeter. Langsdorff, believing that the English cruiser is sufficiently affected for the moment, decides to turn next to theAjax threatening him with a torpedo attack; the German captain turns and hits theAjax then his companion theAchilles to starboard aft, avoiding the dreaded attack, while theExeter is him on the aft port side. The latter is already badly damaged, as Langsdorff correctly judged, who aimed his main fire at the ’Ajax and theAchilles. Yet on theExeter we don't give up and three torpedoes are launched; but the Graf Spee smelled the blow and turned: at 6:39 a.m., he returned most of his shot to theExeter and finally puts him out of action! Two minutes ago, theAjax and theAchilles have tacked to approach the privateer, catching him by surprise. The Graf Spee, at 7 o'clock, head north at 24 knots, followed to starboard by the two cruisers, and to port by a Exeter in agony; Langsdorff then decides to hide behind a smokescreen, ending the first phase of the battle.

The German captain was twice wounded during the engagement, but his ship suffered no major damage, having been hit seven times! Now is the time for Langsdorff to make a decision: to attack or not? He knows thatExeter is not at his level, but believes for a long time that theAjax and theAchilles are destroyers. When he finally learns of their true nature, he is not yet determined to flee. Shortly after 7 a.m., the seaplane of theAjax who is responsible for informing the British artillerymen, the damage to the various ships making it impossible to coordinate fire by radio; but it is a total confusion for several minutes between the cruisers Achilles and Ajax, suggesting a chance for the Graf Spee. Harwood, present on theAjax, nevertheless decides to get closer to his opponent: it is to quits or double, to obtain a definitive victory or the incapacitation of his last two still valid ships! But the pursuit being impossible, it was probably his only choice ... When the Graf Spee turns to port to the west, Harwood thinks he wants to finish theExeter ; he turned to starboard with his two cruisers to fire on the German. The latter then diverted his cannons from the dying cruiser to aim them at theAjax and theAchilles. At 7:24 am, theAjax launches its torpedoes about 8 kilometers but the Graf Spee spots them and avoids them. Better, he touches theAjax of a shell that destroys its two rear turrets! At 7:38 am, the German privateer seemed in a good position to use all his strengths against his opponents, who therefore remained cautious. What's more, the firepower of theAjax is considerably reduced: in addition to the damage suffered on its artillery, it only has 20% of its ammunition! Pessimism then takes the British camp, which feels like throwing snowballs at the German ship ... Harwood decides to break off the fight. The Graf Spee heading west, followed to starboard byAchilles and to port by theAjax. At 8:30 am, the two cruisers followed their enemy at a distance of 28 kilometers. This is the end of the second phase of the fight.

On board of Graf Spee, the damage report recommends a quick return to a port. Indeed, despite her courageous resistance, the ship is no longer able to tackle the North Atlantic. It was therefore decided to head for Montevideo. This decision by Langsdorff seems to have been a bit hasty: indeed, the damage suffered did not seem so terrible, despite seventeen shells received. On the British side we are worried about theExeter : In view of the damage suffered, Harwood orders him to give up and join the Falklands. At the same time, the Cumberland ordered to reverse from Port Stanley. The pursuit can continue ...

The suicide of Graf Spee

During the hours which follow, the intentions of the German privateer are not clear for his adversaries: is he heading towards Montevideo or Buenos Aires? Is he seriously affected? The three ships still exchanged a few shots in the early evening, on December 13, 1939. At 8:48 pm, the Graf Spee heads to Uruguay. The British Admiralty has meanwhile decided to dispatch the aircraft carrier to the site. Ark royal, the battle cruiser Renown, as well as three cruisers and three destroyers! At the same time, intense diplomatic activity took place in Montevideo, through the British Ambassador.

It is a paradox to know that when the Graf Spee entering the harbor of Montevideo it suffered very little damage, and yet the Uruguayan port will be its tomb! The guns give way to diplomacy. The aim of the British was then to prevent the German privateer from returning to sea. The Germans did not remain inactive at the diplomatic level, and the Uruguayan authorities found themselves very embarrassed by this cumbersome host ... The negotiations lasted several days, and the British deployed treasures of the imagination to both convince the Uruguayans and trap the Germans. The aim of the English services is to make Langsdorff believe that huge reinforcements are heading towards Montevideo and that he must surrender in this trap. But the British don't expect what they will see: they learn that the Graf Spee will resume sea on December 17, 1939, but that at the same time most of the German sailors are transferred to the freighter Tacoma. At 6.15 p.m., the Graf Spee set sail, cover three miles and stop the machines; the crowd is gathered in the bay, awaiting a great battle. But as the sun disappears behind the shadow of the German privateer, a formidable explosion sounds, followed by a blinding light: the Graf Spee scuttled! It will burn for four days. Captain Langsdorff killed himself on December 20, after writing a letter to the German Ambassador in which he said he made the decision to prevent the Graf Spee does not fall into the hands of the enemy.

It was the British fleet's first "victory" over its German rival since Jutland in 1916.

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- The Second World War, Jules Tallandier editions, 7 volumes, 1966.

- The Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945) by Guy Malbosc. Economica, 1995.

- A. AMZIEV, The Battle of the Atlantic, Vernoy / Idégraf, 1980.

- Michael Powell, The Battle of the Rio de la Plata, Presses de la Cité, 1957

Video: La bataille du rio de la plata (January 2022).