“The Sinking of the Graf Spee”


The Admiral Graf Spee, "built in Nazi Germany ... looted merchant men of every nationality." It lost a battle with three British "little cruisers" and "went to cover." The pocket battleship was scuttled "in Davy Jones's pocket"


One of the many, many causes of World War I was the mighty expansion of the German navy during World War I, the result of the peculiar desires of Wilhelm II. Imperial Germany didn't need a big navy, but even Wilhelm's mother admitted "Wilhelm's one idea is to have a Navy which shall be larger and stronger than the Royal Navy" (Keegan-Admiralty, pp. 112-113. For references cited in this entry, see the bibliography at the end of this note).

The Germans never quite managed to build a fleet to match the Royal Navy, but they came close enough to scare the British badly, and to win a tactical victory (though a complete strategic defeat) at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

After the war, the British determined there would be no more of that. One of the conditions of the Armistice was that the major units of the German fleet (which, by then was mutinous and hardly capable of fighting) be placed under guard in Britain. Half a year later, knowing that the ships would be surrendered, the German crews scuttled the entire fleet at Scapa Flow (Keegan-First, p. 420). And the German fleet from then on was to be restricted to a small, lightly-armed force, with no ability to fight the British.

The Germans, in the years after the Great War, did their best to figure out ways around the restrictions. The time eventually came when they started laying down new ships, and after a few small craft, they came out with the concept of the _panzerschiff,_ known in Britain as the "pocket battleship." The first ship of this type, the _Deutschland_ (later renamed _Lutzow_) caused "a sensation... for she was an expression of Germany's will to outflank the conditions of Versailles" (Preston, p. 133). Two more ships of the class, the _Admiral Graf Spee_ (named after an admiral who had died in World War I) and the _Admiral Scheer,_ followed.

The pocket battleships didn't really deserve either the name or the hype. They had six 11" guns (the bare minimum size to be considered a battleship, though a real battleship would have had at least eight of them), but her armor did not exceed three and a half inches (a battleship should have had at least three times that), and her top speed was 26 knots (Paine, p. 3). And although they were theoretically 10,000 ton ships (the treaty limit for cruisers at the time), the three ships were certainly much heavier (Bruce/Cogar, p. 2, estimates roughly 12,000 tons; Paine comes up with over 15,000 -- the latter making her nearly as heavy as the first modern battleship, _Dreadnought,_ which was less than 18,000 tons)

Even so, the "pocket battleship" design was basically an overgunned heavy cruiser. Theoretically, she could "outrun what she could not outgun" -- overwhelming cruisers with her heavy guns and using her speed to get away from battleships. But the British had three battle cruisers (_Hood_, _Repulse_, and _Renown_) which could outrun *and* outgun the pocket battleships, and the battleships of the _Queen Elizabeth_ class were only a couple of knots slower than the pocket battleships. And the battleships of the _King George V_ class, which started to come off the stocks at the beginning of World War II, were also faster than the pocket battleships. Had the _panzerschiff_ existed in World War I, they would have been revolutionary. In World War II, they were pests, but hardly technological miracles.

(This was a constant problem for the German navy: they thought too much in World War I terms. Their alleged super-battleships, _Bismarck_ and _Tirpitz_, were slightly improved versions of the World War I _Baden_ class, relatively under-armed and with inefficient machinery that took too much space and weight for the power they produced. It has been claimed that the _Bismarck_ was the strongest battleship in the world at the time of her maiden voyage. But vessels of the American _North Carolina_ and _South Dakota_ classes, and the Japanese _Yamato_, were all stronger, and all were in service by the end of 1942.)

Still, even a cruiser could do major damage if it came across unprotected merchant ships (the _Admiral Scheer_ once single-handedly knocked off six ships from an Atlantic convoy; Paine, pp. 4, 273-274), and the Germans meant to use every vessel they could lay their hands on to attack British commerce (Humble, p. 140). When World War II began, the Germans sent out the pocket battleships to see what they could find.

In one of history's little ironies, the _Graf Spee_ headed for South America (Becker, p. 37), where the fleet of her namesake, Graf von Spee, had died when his small fleet of cruisers was destroyed at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914.

At first, it seemed the Germans had found the Happy Hunting Grounds; _Graf Spee_ took nine prizes (Paine, p. 4) totalling about 50,000 tons, for the most part stopping them, sending off the crews, and then sinking them; indeed, many of the British sailors were put on the supply ship _Altmark_, from which the British eventually rescued them (Keegan-Second, p. 50).

But the British, just as they had in 1914, threw a huge force against the tiny surface raider. A total of twenty ships (a few of them French) were formed into eight task groups to hunt the lone German ship (Humble, p. 140).

In the end, it was one of the weaker task forces that found her: The heavy cruiser _Exeter_ and light cruisers _Ajax_ and _Achilles_, commanded by Commodore Harry Harwood, caught up with the German on December 13, 1939. _Graf Spee_ had a big edge in weight of shell and range of guns; _Exeter_ had a mere six 8" guns (Paine, p. 178), and the other two nothing heavier than 6". But they came at _Graf Spee_ from two different directions, and the German ship had only two turrets. _Graf Spee_ managed to silence _Exeter's_ guns, and _Ajax_ also sustained damage in the battle from straddles (Paine, p. 10) -- but _Graf Spee's_ armor was so thin that even the light cruisers could hurt her, and she was almost out of ammunition. She fled to Montevideo harbor (Becker, p. 104).

No one knew it, but the Battle of the River Plate was over. Uruguay was a neutral nation, so _Graf Spee_ had to either repair her damage quickly and get out, or she had to accept internment. And British intelligence tricked Captain Langsdorff into believing that they had overwhelming forces heading for him (Humble, p. 141). Langsdorf took the _Graf Spee_ out into the estuary and scuttled her on December 17. Later, he committed suicide (Bruce/Cogar, p. 3. He was probably smart, given the reception he would have faced had he returned to Germany).

In terms of tonnage sunk, the _Graf Spee_ had "paid for herself." But the British had had the last laugh, so they treated it as a moral victory, and the Germans as a defeat.

Delgado, p. 159, notes that the location of the wreck is known, and that a survey in 1997 found that much of the ship had vanished in ways that did not suggest battle damage. It has been suggested that the British did some clandestine dives to recover such things as the ship's radar. If so, the British search has never been documented. - RBW


Becker: Cajus Becker, _Hitler's Naval War_, (German edition 1971; English edition 1974 from Macdonald and Jane's; I used the undated Kensington paperback edition)

Bruce/Cogar: Anthony Bruce and William Cogar, _An Encyclopedia of Naval History_, 1998 (I use the 1999 Checkmark edition)

Delgado: James P. Delgado, _Lost Waships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea_, Checkmark, 2001. Interestingly, the book quotes a snatch of this song on p. ix.

Humble: Richard Humble, _Battleships and Battlecruisers_, Chartwell, 1983

Keegan-Admiralty: John Keegan, _The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare_, Penguin, 1988

Keegan-First: John Keegan, _The First World War_, Knopf, 1999

Keegan-Second: John Keegan, _The Second World War_, Viking, 1989

Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, _Ships of the World_, Houghton Mifflin, 1997

Preston: Antony Preston, _Battleships_, Gallery, 1981 - RBW

Historical references

  • December 13, 1939 - Three British cruisers battle the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Platte.
  • December 17, 1939 - The Admiral Graf Spee is scuttled outside Montevideo harbor to avoid another battle (source: "German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee" from Wikipedia).

Cross references


  1. Morton-Ulster 31, "The Sinking of the Graf Spee" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #2909
  4. BI, MorU031


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1970 (Morton-Ulster)
Found in: Ireland