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Weapons of World War Two

The Battle of the Atlantic (Sep-Dec 1939)

Admiral Graf Spee pocket battleship

Admiral Graf Spee pocket battleship

The battleship "Admiral Graf Spee" was built in 1934 after her sister ships "Admiral Scheer" and "Deutschland" (1). She had been designed to elude the Versailles Treaty, which prohibited Germany to build warships of displacement above 10000 tonnes. The German engineers had achieved a technical miracle by building, within the mandatory weight, a warship of great power. By using light alloys and, above all, by replacing rivets with electric welding, it was possible to lighten the hull and arm it with cannons of caliber much superior to that of those installed in other warships of the same tonnage. With a length of 188 meters, armed with six 280-millimeter cannons and eight 150-millimeter cannons, capable of a speed of 26 knots and protected by an armor of 102 millimeters, the "Admiral Graf Spee" was fast like a cruiser and powerful like a battleship. Because of this she was called "pocket battleship". Besides the especially powerful armament there was a secret weapon onboard: the orientable radar which the German called "Dete". The "Admiral Graf Spee" was one of the first warships fitted with such an installation.

(1) In respect of the former Deutschland, the Admiral Graf Spee had a modernized conning tower of more robust silhouette and the aircraft catapult had been reallocated after the funnel. The dimensions of the hull were the same with exception of the width, which was increased 70 centimeters. Besides, the waterline had a slightly thicker armor.

The "Admiral Graf Spee" left the shipyards at Wilhelmshaven the 21st August 1939, the same day of the signing in Moscow of the Soviet-German pact. About two weeks remained for the outbreak of the war, but Hitler had taken definitive decisions. He took advantage of these days of general incertitude to tune up his powerful war machinery. The "Admiral Graf Spee" was an echelon of this homicidal chain and her mission was already one of war. She had to reach a secret position to open fire against the enemy merchant fleet at the beginning of the conflict (2). The crew was formed by 1500 men, all of them young and select. Among them there were "prey crews" whose task was to get onboard the captured merchant ships and bring them to Germany if possible. During her corsair mission, until the 7th October the "Admiral Graf Spee" captured four British ships which the captain decided to sink after retrieving their crews and any kind of valuable materials from them. Facing the corsair expedition of the "Admiral Graf Spee", the whole British fleet was put in state of alarm, but the orders were vague. None of the sunken ships had communicated their position before sinking and it was only known that one or two corsair ships were operating in the Atlantic. The Admiralty decided to start the largest tracking operation in History. With the Mediterranean Fleet in the Atlantic nine search groups were formed, being entrusted a sector in the ocean to each of them. But it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Still, the safety of the "Admiral Graf Spee" relied in that the captured ships did not ask for help, and when one of them did it things became ugly for the German battleship. However, with a clever camouflage she was able to quietly pass through the enemy squadron.

(2) Hans Langsdorff, German officer born in Hamburg in 1894, committed suicide in Buenos Aires the 19th December 1939 after having ordered to scuttle his ship at the entrance of the port of Montevideo. The outbreak of the Second World War found him in command of the Admiral Graf Spee. Since the first day of the war Captain Langsdorff carried out a corsair war across the Atlantic and Indian oceans. After the sinking of nine merchant ships the Royal Navy started the hunt of the German battleship.

In the morning of the 3rd December, after a brief mission in the Indian, the "Admiral Graf Spee" returned to the Atlantic. The morale onboard was extremely high. In three months of piracy they had sunk nine enemy steamships for a total of more than 50000 tonnes and not even a drop of blood had been spilled. The war seemed to be an easy thing. However, Commodore Henry Harwood, commander of three British cruisers tasked with patrolling the South American coasts (3), was preparing a deadly trap for the "Admiral Graf Spee". He calculated with a very small chance of success that the German battleship would be in the waters of the River Plate circa the 13th December, as it indeed happened with astonishing punctuality. The "Admiral Graf Spee" was the first in sighting the small enemy fleet (4). Due to the damages suffered in the battle she had to seek refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo (5). In the morning of the 14th December the German wounded and the British prisoners, who consequently regained their freedom, were disembarked. Then the commander of the German battleship started to realize that he had committed a big mistake. A diplomatic battle harder than the naval one had started. He was taking the risk of losing his ship without being able to fire a shot. Uruguay granted a small time for repairing the damages suffered during the battle. At the end of that time the "Admiral Graf Spee" should leave, otherwise she would be seized and the crew interned (6). Meanwhile, the enemy cruisers awaited the German battleship at the entrance of the port to sink her. Her captain, facing the dilemma with a gallantry which made History, decided to leave the port and sink the ship with explosives (7).

(3) The squadron commanded by Henry Harwood comprised the heavy cruiser Exeter and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles.

(4) Langsdorff did not realize that he was dealing with cruisers. Believing the British ships to be destroyers, he charged against the enemy at full speed. And this was his first mistake. However, despite the enemy units being cruisers, the Admiral Graf Spee should have, at least in theory, advantages when facing them. She was armed with six 280-millimeter cannons and eight 150-millimeter cannons, directed by an excellent fire control system. The three British cruisers had a total of six 203-millimeter cannons (those of the Exeter) and sixteen 152-millimeter cannons. A salvo from the Admiral Graf Spee would easily destroy the thinner armor of the British cruisers, whereas three simultaneous salvos from the latter would find it harder to break through the relatively robust armor of the German battleship.

(5) The battle lasted for an hour and twenty minutes. The British cruisers were hit several times and the Exeter was put out of action. The balance of casualties rose to 36 dead and 60 wounded for the German and 72 dead (61 on the Exeter) and 28 wounded for the British. In opinion of Charles Woodhouse, commander of the Ajax, Langsdorff could have avoided the combat and fled before the British could have noticed about his presence if he had wanted so. But he accepted the battle. The largest part of experts who studied this battle agreed that it was a mistake from Langsdorff to not finish the action against the Exeter. Langsdorff was injured in the head during the battle and it is probable that his judgement were diminished because of this. The Admiral Graf Spee was severely damaged as well and because of this she took refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo.

(6) Uruguay granted a stay of only 72 hours to the German, until the 17th December. After having tried in vain to obtain a prolongation of the permission, in the evening of the 17th December Langsdorff moved the Admiral Graf Spee a few miles away from the port to scuttle her with explosives. Then Langsdorff and his crew headed toward the port of Buenos Aires, where he committed suicide two days later.

(7) This way, the German deprived the enemy from the propaganda success of having sunk the Admiral Graf Spee or, even worse, from capturing this valuable ship and her technical secrets, being the most prominent the orientable radar "Dete". In that time the British warships still used fixed radars.

Launched: 30 June 1934

Length: 186 meters

Beam: 21.3 meters

Draught: 5.8 meters

Displacement: 12290 tonnes

Propulsion: Eight MAN Diesel 9-cylinder engines (four per shaft) for a total power of 56000 horsepower; two propellers

Maximum speed: 28 knots

Operational range: 7570 nautical miles at 19 knots

Armor: 80 millimeters in main belt; 40 millimeters in anti-torpedo bulkhead; 45 millimeters in deck (76 millimeters above magazines); 85-140 millimeters in main turrets; 100 millimeters in barbettes; 10 millimeters in secondary armament

Armament: Six 280-millimeter cannons (2 x 3); eight 150-millimeter cannons (8 x 1); six 105-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (3 x 2); eight 37-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (4 x 2); ten 20-millimeter anti-aircraft cannons (10 x 1); eight 533-millimeter torpedo tubes (2 x 4); two reconnaissance aircraft

Complement: 1150

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