It was nice to see a battleship as the main image on the New York Times website this morning, even if it's only a "pocket" battleship, and a Nazi one at that. But the story of the Admiral Graf Spee is one of the best heroic/tragic tales from World War II.
First, there's the duplicity of the Germans to build a series of battleships in the early 1930s half again as massive as the Treaty of Versailles restricted them. The Nazis claimed the Graf Spee's displacement was 10,000 tons, when it was actually closer to 16,000. And since battleships fight like boxers--slugging it out until one is too battered to go on--a ship's size matters.
And then there's the role of commerce raiders--the German warships who operated singly against Allied merchant shipping all over the globe. The captains of these raiders knew the entire British navy was out to sink them, forcing them to hunt, strike, and disappear. The Graf Spee sunk or captured nine Allied ships during her two month run in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans before the Royal Navy finally caught her.
But the greatest aspect of the Graf Spee story is the Battle of the River Plate, fought December 13, 1939 off the coast of Uruguay. Three Allied warships led by the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and including the light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles surprised the Spee in the merchant-rich waters near the estuary of the River Plate. The early morning battle left the Exeter in shambles after numerous 11-inch shells from the Graf Spee knocked out her turrets and power, but the Allied warships scored enough hits on the German battleship to convince her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to make for the safety of Montevideo's port.
And here's where the story enters a diplomatic wrangling game between British officials in Montevideo, the Uruguayan authorites, and the German navy. After delaying the Spee's departure for several days, the British managed to convince the Germans that a phantom naval force waited out at sea in ambush. No such force existed, just the worn out Ajax and Achilles. Believing he faced certain destruction if he sortied, Langsdorff cabled to Berlin to ask if he should seek internment of his warship, or attempt to scuttle it. In a rare occurrence, the Nazi's didn't ask him to fight against impossible odds. Berlin replied: "No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled." On December 17th, a skeleton crew sailed the Graf Spee into the estuary, and after explosive charges were set along the keel, and the crew evacuated, it blew up and burned for several days. A few days later Captain Langsdorff committed suicide in his Montevideo hotel room, wrapping himself not in the Nazi swastika flag (unlike most naval officers, he was not a committed Nazi), but a World War I imperial naval ensign similar to the one he had fought under at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. And there ends the story the battle, though the recovery of the wrecked Graf Spee, and especially its Nazi-era emblems, is what inspired today's New York Times story.