The Admiral Graf Spee was one of the most famous German naval warships of World War II, along with the Bismarck. Her size was limited to that of a cruiser by the Treaty of Versailles, but she was as heavily armed as a small battleship due to innovative weight-saving techniques employed in her construction.
She was sent to the Atlantic Ocean as a commerce raider in 1939, where she sank nine Allied merchant ships. Numerous British hunting groups were assigned to find her, with three British ships finally tracking her down in December 1939. The Battle of the River Plate ensued, during which the Graf Spee was damaged. She docked for repairs in the neutral port of Montevideo, but was forced by international law to leave within 72 hours. Faced with what he believed to be overwhelming odds, the captain scuttled his ship rather than risk the lives of his crew.
Admiral Graf Spee was a Deutschland class cruiser. Launched in 1934, she was named after the World War I Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee who died, along with two of his sons, in the first Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. She was the second vessel to be named after him, the first being the uncompleted World War I German battlecruiser SMS Graf Spee. The launching took place on June 30, 1934 with Admiral Raeder delivering a pre-launch speech, and the christening performed by Grafin Huberta von Spee, daughter of the late Vice Admiral von Spee.
Before Admiral Graf Spee was given her official name, she was referred to as Panzerschiff C and Ersatz Braunschweig, as she would be replacing the old battleship Braunschweig in the fleet inventory. She cost 82 million Reichsmark to build.
After World War I, replacement capital ships for the German Navy were limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 10,000 tons and 11 inch (280 mm) guns. Electric arc welding was used in her construction instead of conventional rivets, thereby saving considerable weight by not requiring overlapping steel plates. Furthermore, Graf Spee’s eight main engines used diesel fuel, an unconventional configuration at the time that also contributed to weight saving. The weight saving allowed her carry a main gun of the same calibre as a battleship, while remaining near the displacement limit of the Treaty of Versailles., hence the classification by the British of her and her two sisters, Deutschland (later renamed Lützow) and Admiral Scheer, as pocket battleships. A year after the Graf Spee's loss, her sisters were reclassified as heavy cruisers.
Technologically, Admiral Graf Spee was ahead of her time, being the first ship in the Kriegsmarine to be equipped with Seetakt radar.
Unlike steam engines, raw low-grade bunker fuel needed treatment before it could be used in her diesel engines. A separating system routinely pre-cleaned the fuel and deposited it in six ready tanks situated close to the engines. The separators used high pressure steam produced in a boiler room lying between decks, aft of the funnel and above the armoured deck.
Graf Spee in 1936Graf Spee's last captain was Hans Langsdorff, a longstanding naval officer who had seen action at the Battle of Jutland, and who assumed command of the ship on 1 November 1938. After commissioning in 1936, Admiral Graf Spee served as fleet flagship until 1938 and performed international maritime control duties off the coast of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
Prior to the invasion of Poland plans were made to deploy the Panzerschiffe as raiders in the Atlantic Ocean. Admiral Graf Spee sailed from Wilhelmshaven on 21 August 1939, to act as a commerce raider in the South Atlantic. Langsdorff plotted a course to cross major shipping lanes at night to avoid detection. Supported by her supply ship, the tanker Altmark, her orders were to sink British merchant ships, but to avoid combat with superior enemy forces, thus threatening vital Allied supply lines and drawing British naval units off their stations in other parts of the world. Graf Spee received orders on 26 September 1939 to "commence active participation in the trade war."
On 30 September the 5050-ton British tramp steamer Clement was stopped and sunk off Brazil with twenty thousand cases of kerosene bound from New York to Salvador, Brazil. Graf Spee radioed the location of Clements lifeboats and Clements captain and first officer were placed aboard the neutral Greek steamer Papalemos a few days later. Graf Spee stopped the 4650-ton British tramp steamer Newton Beach on 5 October with a cargo of maize. Newton Beach served as a prison ship with a prize crew until 8 October. The 4222-ton British steamer Ashlea with a cargo of sugar was stopped and sunk on 7 October. The 8196-ton British liner Huntsman with a cargo of tea was stopped on 10 October, and became a replacement prison ship. Graf Spee used Huntsman's radio to transmit a deceptive message indicating Huntsman had been attacked by a submarine at a different location. Huntsman was sunk after transferring the prisoners to Altmark on 17 October. Graf Spee machine-gunned the bridge and upper deck of the 5299-ton British steamer Trevanion (loaded with ore concentrates) on 22 October when that ship tried to radio a distress message.
The cruise of Admiral Graf Spee with ships sunkGraf Spee moved into the Indian Ocean on 28 October and sank the motor tanker Africa Shell (in ballast) in the Mozambique channel in 15 November. Graf Spee returned to the South Atlantic and sank the 10086-ton Blue Star liner Doric Star on 2 December with a cargo of meat, dairy products, and wool. Doric Star radioed a distress message; and sabotaged its engines so it could not be taken as a prize. Graf Spee sank Tairoa with a cargo of meat, wool, and lead on 3 December after the 7983-ton steamer radioed a distress call. The 3895-ton steamer Streonshalh with a cargo of wheat was sunk on 9 December. Captain Hans Langsdorff strictly adhered to the rules of mercantile warfare at the time and saved all of the crew members of these ships; not a life was lost in these sinkings. The captured crews were transferred to the tanker Altmark. Later, these 303 crew members were freed by force in neutral Norwegian territorial waters by the British destroyer HMS Cossack (the Altmark Incident).