On December 8, 1914, ‘Admiral Graf von Spee’ went down with his flagship at the Falkland Islands. Twenty five years later the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ badly battered was driven into port on the same coast.
For a hundred days of war the pocket battleships that were the pride of Nazi Germany’s fleet sailed the vast open spaces of the ocean, and the only news of their voyaging was contained in the brief messages which stated that yet another merchant ship has been sent to a watery grave. Now it was the ‘Deutschland’ that set the cables buzzing; then it was the ‘Admiral Scheer’; then, but more rarely, the newest of the ‘pocket battleships’ trio, ‘Admiral Graf Spee’.” All the world knew that these ships, amongst the eight most powerful war vessels in existence, were at large; all the world knew that they were being hunted night and day with the most relentless persistency by the ships of the British Navy. At last, one of the quarry was sighted, and after a few hours of dramatic combat ‘went to earth’ in a neutral harbour.
On December 13 she was making her course along the Uruguayan coast -‘ Admiral Graf Spee’ third and newest of the ‘pocket battlefields.’ It was already dawn when at 6am the German warship was spotted by a British cruiser and ‘Formose,’ a French merchantman. Within two hours the cruiser, with her speed of over thirty knots compared with the German ship’s twenty-seven, had come within range, and both ships opened fire. No doubt ‘Graf Spee’ hoped that with her vast superiority of armament she would be able to repel the attack, and possibly sink her opponent. But now another British warship, the ‘Exeter’ appeared over the horizon.
Natives on the shore of Punta del Este, who has rushed from their homes at the sound of firing and were watching with eager eyes the flashes of flame as the great guns went into action, heard twelve shots fired in quick succession. A the same time the first British cruiser, supposed to have ben ‘Ajax’ poured out a vast smoke screen.
Now, the ‘Graf Spee’ headed for the open sea, but the second cruiser began to close in, and a running fight developed which continued within sight of shore at intervals throughout the day. As fast as her engines could take her the German ship made for the refuge of the River Plate, and as hard and as fast as their guns could fire, the British cruisers-by now a third, the ‘Achilles’ had come up-were doing their utmost to sink her, or at least put her out of action before she could reach territorial waters.
In a later stage of the engagement one of the British cruisers, the 8″ gun ‘Exeter’ was damaged and in consequence forced to reduce her speed and drop behind. The other two cruisers, ‘Ajax’ and ‘Achilles’ both small ships mounting 6″ guns only continued the chase and scored repeated hits. They were unable, however, to bring the hunted ship to bay, and as dark fell the ‘Graf Spee’s’ searchlights played on the shore of Montevideo as she searched for the opening of the harbour. Maritime police put off in a tug and guided the sip to her anchorage. Ambulances were rushed to the quay as soon as she moored, and thirty-six dead and some sixty wounded were taken off. Her captain was among the wounded, having been injured in the arm. A Uruguayan spokesman was reported to have said that the badly damaged battleship would be allowed to remain in the port up to thirty days in order to effect necessary repairs.
So the day ended, and in the outer harbour or int he estuary all three ships of Commodore Harwood’s squadron-for despite her damage, the ‘Exeter’ has succeeded in coming up-maintained an unsleeping vigil. ‘Graf Spee’ was trapped.
With the coming of the morning light the battered ship showed her gaping wounds to the crowds which packed the quays. There were three shell holes on the water line on the starboard quarter, and through a huge hole in the port quarter one could see into the crew’s sleeping compartments. The plates were bent outwards, indicating a terrific explosion inside the vessel. On deck a mass of wreckage was all that was left of an aeroplane which has suffered a direct hit from a British shell. A shell had gone right through he control tower, and another tremendous hole had been torn in the fighting towers, where were most of the 36 men who were killed. The gun tower on the port side has been torn from its foundations.
As one observer said, the British did everything but blow ‘Graf Spee’ out of the water. It was obvious that she would need the most extensive repairs, and there were many who believe that she would never put to sea again, particularly in view of the fact that outside the harbour the three cruisers which had chased her so gallantly has now been strongly reinforced.
The news of the battle electrified the world. Perhaps the most dramatic account of the battle was that given by the six British captains of merchantmen who has been kept as prisoners in the ‘Graf Spee’ since their vessels were sunk by the raider. Said Captain Dove after a tribute to the courteous conduct of the German commander, ‘When the battle started yesterday they bolted the door, and I did not know what was happening until I heard the ‘Graf Spee’ guns and felt the impact of the British shells. According to our reckoning the ‘Graf Spee’ was hit sixteen times. We played cards, including bridge, throughout the battle. One shot exploded near us, and we kept splinters of it as souvenirs.”
Everywhere the fight was hailed as a British triumph-everywhere, that is, but in Germany where it was claimed that the ‘Graf Spee’ in an heroic battle had won a great victory. Said one German paper, the British had fired gas grenades, and ” as there was a danger that foodstuffs might be affected by poison gas the commander of the ‘Graf Spee’ put to anchor in the harbour for fresh supplies” !
Naval experts were amazed at the success of the three comparatively small British cruisers in driving from the seas one of the most formidable of modern battleships. The British cruisers’ gun range is only 18,000 to 25,000 yards as compared with the 30,000 yards of the German ship, and their biggest guns fired shells of only 250lbs as against the 670lbs shells belches from the ‘Graf Spee’.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister referred to the “very gallant action which has been fought by three comparatively small British ships against a much more heavily armed adversely”; and in the House of Lords, Lord Chatfield spoke of the “brilliant and successful fight in the South Atlantic”. He went on, “we had been hunting for the ‘Graf Spee’ for some time. It could be assumed that any ship that got into touch with her was not going to lose touch. That is the spirit which animates the Navy today, as it has animated the Navy of Past days.” Lord Chatfield concluded by saying that he had no doubt that the ‘Graf Spee’ would soon put out to sea again”, and added grimly, “for a short time.”