RAISING THE NAZI SEA RAIDER Graf Spee: Will It Happen?
Bonner, Kit, Sea Classics
Salvage teams run into all manner of obstacles as they attempt to raise one of World War Two's most-provocative warships
In 1997, Hector Bado, who can best be described as an imaginative Naval archeologist, was successfully able to secure permission from the Uruguayan government to salvage a 5.9-in gun from the Admiral Graf Spee's secondary battery. In concert with Mensun Bound of the "Lost Ships" television series, Bado raised the funds and acquired the permits to bring up a significant piece of Naval history - a weapon from the legendary pocket battleship Graf Spee. On 13 December 1939, this German Navy commerce raider was hounded into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay, by three determined British and Commonwealth Navy cruisers. After a 90-minute running battle, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles ran the battleship to earth and into the waters of a neutral nation.
Uruguay enforced international neutrality rules strictly, and the Graf Spee left the harbor on 17 December 1939 without the majority of its crew. As the sun went down, over 700,000 onlookers watched as massive explosions demolished the once-proud ship. Her captain had ordered the ship blown up and thus scuttled in the shallow river known as the La Plata Estuary. Through sheer audacity, the Royal Navy won the day, and the next morning, the hulk was still visible and smoking. Since that day, the Graf Spee has rested on the silt and soft bottom of the river. Occasionally, souvenir hunters have looted some of the equipment, but any serious diving has been prevented by silt in the water. It is nearly impossible see beneath the surface.
Bado and others have decided to bring the entire ship to the surface and reassemble it on land. If their organization achieves this, it will be the boldest piece of Naval archeology since the VASA project in Stockholm, Sweden. To date, they have brought up various and sundry pieces of the ship including the range finder and some secondary and anti-aircraft weapons.
This story does not begin in 1997 with the salvage effort. It began in 1932 when the Admiral Graf Spee was launched, and has to include the foundation of the German Navy in preparation for WWII. It also includes Plan Z perhaps significant as it is the last letter in the alphabet, and the German surface fleet was also last on Adolph Hitler's wish list.
THE GERMAN NAVY AND ITS SURFACE FLEET BEFORE WORLD WAR TWO.
In 1939, the German Navy, or Kriegsmarine, was at least five years behind the Army and Air Force in terms of fighting a major war or, at most, holding its own against the British Royal Navy. Repeated warnings to Adolph Hitler by the Navy's Chief, Adm. Erich Raeder, fell on deaf ears. Raeder was treated to four- and five-hour tirades from the Fuhrer in which the" savior of the fatherland" screamed that a surface fleet was of little value to his plans for conquering Europe. In fact, the steel could better be used in the construction of tanks and artillery. This short-sightedness betrayed Adolph Hitler as to what he was - a consummate bully and politician lacking the appreciation of sea power. Fortunately for the Allies, Adolph Hitler may have displayed moments of seeming genius and uncanny military prowess, but at heart he was a former corporal in the army who led a temporary, fortunate and charmed life. This would prove to be his undoing.
Raeder and other prominent Naval officers who were not Hitler's toadies were appalled when war broke out in September of 1939. It was well-known that the German Navy might have been able to challenge the Royal Navy and Commonwealth Navies if a concentrated building program was inaugurated and war was delayed until 1944.
Plan Z had been conceived in 1938 by the German Naval staff as a longrange approach to future Nazi sea power. This plan contended that the German fleet would need a minimum of six additional technologicallymodern (fire control-, surface- and air search radar-capable) 56,000-ton battleships with a minimum of eight 15-in guns in its main battery and rapid-firing anti-aircraft batteries that were overly redundant. In addition, the fleet required 25 ultra-modern, fast and well-armed heavy and light cruisers; four aircraft carriers; 36 large destroyers and, of course, 210 additional ocean-going submarines. Plan Z also relied on the pollyanna view that all other Navies would remain static in their 1939 mode. Adolph Hitler's contribution to Plan Z was undoubtedly influenced by his addiction to strong narcotics. He ordered the plan to include a class of 144,000-ton battleships that could steam at 34-kts and had a main battery of eight 20-in guns. It was to be the Nazi version of Japan's Yamato class, except twice as big! Like the rest of Plan Z, it was consigned to the round file. With the invasion of Poland, the German Government ended any hope of Plan Z.
Even standing still in 1939, the Royal and Commonwealth Navies had 15 battleships versus Germany's two modern battlecruisers - the Scharnhorsts. The RN and Empire Navies had 15 heavy cruisers versus Germany's two, and 40 light cruisers to Raeder's six. The RN and Empire Navies could put 113 relatively modern destroyers to sea with 68 older destroyer-type vessels. Germany had 22 large destroyers. In terms of submarines, the German undersea fleet boasted 59 boats compared to the RN's 47 craft. In 1939, the Russian Navy, which was not a dominant branch of Stalin's military, had more commissioned submarines than the German undersea arm!
Raeder did have three Panzerschiffe, or armored ships, aka pocket battleships Admiral Graf Spee, Deutschland and Admiral Scheer - however, they could only contribute pin-prick attacks on the Allies at sea. Prior to the introduction of the heavy battleships Bismarck and Von Tirpitz, the Panzerschiffes were the showpieces of Germany's new Navy. But they were only three against many, and their true capability was questionable.
In other words, had Plan Z become reality, it would have fallen far short of what was needed. The second major world war of the 20th century began on 3 September 1939 and forced the German Navy into a fight it had no chance of winning. There were minor victories and exciting pursuits in the early months of the strange conflict, but it soon became evident that the Battle of the Atlantic would be between German U-boats and Allied escort ships and carriers with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. It took years but, by mid-1945, the Allies defeated Germany on the high seas and land.
THE ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE - A POCKET BATTLESHIP
Although not a party to the interwar Naval Arms Limitation Treaties, Germany was subject to the Treaty of Versailles. Accordingly, its building program was carefully watched by the international community for any undue Naval construction. The 10,000-ton advertised displacement of the armored cruisers or "pocket battleships" kept them within the stated limitations of reigning Naval treaties of the day and, at the same time, satisfied the major powers that Germany had no "blue water" plans. In reality, the heavy cruisers - pocket cruisers or pocket battleships depending on who was speaking - displaced a hefty 16,023-tons full load.
The three pocket battleships were the Admiral Graf Spee, Scheer and Deutschland. The Admiral Graf Spee was laid down on 1 October 1932 at Germany's Kiel Shipyard. The Graf Spee was 616.5-ft in length with a 71-ft beam. It was heavily armed with six 11-in guns (two triple turrets); eight 5.9-in weapons in its secondary battery; eight 21-in torpedo tubes and a moderate number of anti-aircraft guns. The main battery of six 11-in guns could fire 2.5 salvoes every two minutes at a maximum range of 22.66-mi. The guns were radar controlled - the first capability in any war. The radar was effective for determining range but, however, not yet perfected for target bearing.
THE CRUISE OF THE GRAF SPEE UNTIL 13 DECEMBER 1939
In the early weeks of the war, the world's attention was turned to the European land campaign or lack thereof. There were skirmishes at sea but, for true drama, the media turned its attention to the South Atlantic in December 1939. The Admiral Graf Spee, which left Wilhelmshaven on 21 August 1939 for the South Atlantic, was to be in place where unescorted merchant ships would be fair game as soon as hostilities began. Additionally, the specter of a heavily-armed (11-in gun main battery) powerful warship capable of steaming faster (rated at 26-kts but in reality 28.5-kts) than most Allied battleships was a real headache for the Allied Naval command. Only the British Renown, Hood, and Repulse, as well as the French battleships Strasbourg and Dunkerque, could match speed and fire power of the pocket battleships.
In actuality, by early December 1939, the Graf Spee had turned in a marginal performance in which it sank nine vessels totaling 50,000-tons. Captain Langsdorff was from the old school of Naval professionals, and warned his prey of an impending attack. After all, he did not wish to make war on civilians - only destroy ships and cargo that would benefit the Allies. In fact, during the sea battle with the British, there was a number of captured Allied merchant crew aboard his ship. They were to have been transferred to a supply ship or to Germany for repatriation. However, he still wanted to return to Germany with a much greater number of kills.
This was one of the reasons that the pocket battleship was 250-mi from the entrance to La Plata and situated to intercept any convoys emerging from Argentina to Europe. Kapitan Hans Langsdorff, the commanding officer of the Graf Spee, was anxious to run up the "kill score" before being ushered in to see Hitler and Adm. Raeder. Nine medium and small freighters grossing 50,000-tons was not much when compared to the mounting successes of the U-boat arm of the fleet. U-47's L/Cmdr. Gunther Prien had recently dispatched the obsolete British battleship HMS Royal Oak (40,000-tons full load) in the UN's backyard (Scapa Flo) on 14 Octoberl939. A month earlier, on 17 September 1939, the British carrier HMS Courageous (22,500-tons) was sunk by the U-29. Other submarine commanders would turn in far greater tallies of merchant ships on each patrol as the war began in earnest and the U-boats often had to fight ASW vessels to get at the fat targets.
There was little happening on land as the Allies traded insults in what became known as the "Phony War," so a sea battle drew a big audience.
COMMODORE HENRY HARWOOD AND FORCE G
In the days leading up to 13 December, Force G or the South American Division, took a calculated risk in sweeping toward the Uruguayan coast as part of a search pattern for the raider. Commodore (2nd Class) Henry Harwood (OBE), who generally employed the heavy cruiser Exeter as his flagship, had broken his pennant aboard HMS Ajax several weeks before the battle. He had sent the overworked Exeter to the Falklands for maintenance and a rest for the crew. He chose to use the Ajax and Achilles to move within 230-mi of Montevideo and ordered the Exeter to join them no later than the 12th of December. On the 12th, with the Exeter back in the Division, the three cruisers spread out in a formation for maximum surveillance. The enthusiasm aboard the three cruisers was admirable, yet covering several thousand miles of South American coastline with four cruisers and two destroyers was nearly impossible. Despite repeated requests for additional cruisers, Harwood was ignored, as he had been for the last two years. Then, shortly after war was declared, the slaughter of Allied merchant ships began in Harwood's backyard. Now, the Admiralty had to listen. Having three cruisers near the River Plate was a tribute to Commodore Harwood's intuitive sense, and it was about to pay off.
It was not only Force G that was desperately seeking the German warships. Actually, the Allies had deployed 15 cruisers, three battle-cruisers and three aircraft carriers to actively search for the Graf Spee and Deutschland which were supposedly wreaking havoc in the shipping lanes. In reality, the Admiral Graf Spee was the villain as the Deutschland had only sunk one Allied vessel, and had returned to base on 1 November 1939 - a poor showing, but it achieved the goal of tying down important units in the Allied Navies and causing fear among merchant ships crews. The Allies also did not know that the Graf Spee and Deutschland changed name plates to confuse Allied pursuers, and even America's Life magazine had plotted the courses of these two pocket battleships based on reports received - mostly false - and German disinformation.
Time ran out for the Graf Spee at 0614 on 13 December 1939. Seeking one final attack on Allied merchantmen near the River Plate Estuary, lookouts aboard the Graf Spee were convinced that the smoke smudge on the horizon came from a valuable Allied convoy which had been predicted by German Naval intelligence. The distant smoke and now two masts further convinced Langsdorff that the convoy he sought was coming to him. Although the Graf Spee was in great need of an overhaul and due to return home, a bigger score of Allied sinkings was sought to really impress Hitler. The Fürher was not a keen supporter of surface ships, and redemption of his opinion might be at hand.
As the German ship drew closer, disappointment set in as it soon became evident that she had run afoul of elements of Force G - heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and light cruisers HMS Ajax and New Zealand's HMNZ Achilles (the fourth ship in Force G, heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland, was in the Falkland Islands). Aboard the Allied cruisers, the large ship on the horizon could only be what they had been seeking - the enemy raider. A Seafox reconnaissance aircraft was launched from the light cruiser HMS Ajax and, now, there was no mistaking the ship's identity. Fortuitously, the Arado scout plane aboard the Graf Spee could not be launched, so Langsdorff was partially blind as to what lie out there.
Despite all of the fanfare, the battle would be joined as the opponents closed at a combined speed of almost 60-kts. The Graf Spee was designed to outrun any Allied battleship and outgun any cruiser. Outrunning and outgunning three determined cruisers was entirely different. The Graf Spec's fundamental rule of engagement was to avoid battle unless impossible. If the Graf Spee could avoid combat, which might result in damage or destruction, merchant ship raiding could continue and, along with it, embarrassment to the Royal Navy. Captain Langsdorff was far from being a coward, and running from these three cruisers with "bones in their teeth" heading toward his ship violated his Teutonic spirit of fighting and defeating your enemy. Besides, a Naval officer is trained to fight, not to sink innocent merchantmen. After nine hollow victories, it is certain he and his crew looked forward to redemption in combat.
His decision was in the best of Naval traditions, yet the pride of the fleet would never see home again.
THE ENEMY JOINED: A POCKET BATTLESHIP VERSUS THREE CRUISERS
The armor over the vital areas of the Graf Spee ranged from 5.5-in on the turrets to a 2.3-in belt on the hull. There was a catapult amidships for the two Arado scout planes. The six 11-in radar-directed guns in the battleship's main battery could certainly dispose of the cruisers closing in, especially with a range of over 22-mi.
Opposing the Graf Spee were two light cruisers - Ajax and Achilles - which mounted a total of 16 6-in guns, and the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter which had six 8-in guns with a maximum range of 16.5-mi. In addition, the total secondary battery of Allied cruisers was twelve 4-in guns, and 22 torpedo tubes.
These were the assets on paper, and did not reflect such items as courage, determination, and the fortunes of war.
Soon after the discovery of the pocket battleship - and conversely aboard the Graf Spee, the presence of enemy warships - Commodore Harwood split his force into two divisions. The Exeter came at the Graf Spee from one direction and the two light cruisers from another. This would allow "flank marching" as the two attacking divisions would report fall of shot and converge on the target from two directions. A secondary benefit may have been realized by this tactic - charging the enemy at full speed likely deceived Capt. Langsdorff into thinking that this was the forward element of a larger and more powerful force just over the horizon. As the Allied cruisers worked up to full speed, they were moving at 33-plus-kts and straining to pull even more horsepower from their turbine engines. The Graf Spee had also pulled out the stops, yet her overworked diesel plant would allow just over 26-kts.
At 0615, the Graf Spee opened fire on the Exeter at approximately 11-mi and, within minutes, scored two hits. Twenty-one minutes into the battle, the Exeter was firing at a rapid rate and her shells were marching toward the Graf Spee. The German commander also split his main battery and began firing on the Ajax and Achilles as well. This caused him to lose one of his two advantages - range and size of shell. His secondary battery of 5.9-in weapons also opened up on the two light cruisers. His ship was now well within range of all three Allied cruisers, yet he could have remained at twice the range and still scored hits - well outside the maximum range of his attackers.
Unfortunately, the Exeter was quickly put out of the battle by hits forward that eliminated turrets A and B, and ultimately the aft 8-in turret. The bridge was peppered with shrapnel that killed or wounded nearly all of the command staff. It was up to the fast-moving Ajax and Achilles, both of which were pumping out 6-in shells as fast as could be loaded. Often shells were in flight when the next rounds were fired from the red-hot barrels.
Of the 190 8-in shells fired by the Exeter, only three hit their mark. Though wounded, Capt. Bell, RN, CB, seriously considered taking what was left of the Exeter and ramming the fleeing battleship. However, as the battle began to wind down, the Exeter was found to have shipped 650-tons of water forward and was capable of only 20-kts. As such, it would be lucky if the battered cruiser made the 1200-mi journey to the Falklands for repairs - she survived, and arrived at the RN base in the Falklands on 16 December.
The Ajax and Achilles had expended most of their 6-in ammunition and suffered some damage, and the GrafSpee had been hit 20 times. One hit destroyed a critical piece of equipment - the funnel containing a device for cleaning diesel fuel which was vital to keeping the engines on line. The cleaner relied on hot exhaust gasses to superheat water to steam which was used to remove sediment and other foreign matter from fuel. It was crucial to the operation of the diesel plant. It had been destroyed by a 6-in shell. This and other reasons such as dead and wounded aboard his command caused Langsdorff to head for the River Plate and Montevideo. At 0740, the battle was over and the GrafSpee moved at 24-kts towards safety. The two light cruisers pursued at 14-mi - kept there by sporadic 11-in shells fired in their direction.
The butcher's bill was Exeter out of action; Ajax severely damaged and Achilles with only light damage. There were 61 killed aboard the Exeter; seven dead on the Ajax and four killed aboard the Achilles. The GrafSpee lost 36 men with and additional 60 wounded. The damage to the GrafSpee was sufficient to force her out of action and into the relative security of a neutral port. Over the following days, disappointment was compounded with deception and the GrafSpee was finally doomed.
THE END OF THE ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE
The German ship arrived in Montevideo harbor at midnight and anchored. The battle now shifted from gunfire to legalities, diplomacy and deception. Captain Langsdorff was desperate to remain in the neutral harbor until repairs to the diesel fuel cleaner could be made. This would likely take up to two weeks, and, hopefully, Allied ships would be recalled from their patrol outside the harbor. The GrafSpee could then sail for home.
Technically, the ship could remain for up to 96-hrs for minimal repairs, and, in any event, could not leave until 24-hours had passed after an Allied merchant ship had left the same harbor.
The Royal Navy was sending reinforcements to assist the Ajax and Achilles, but that would take time. Only the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland could join Force G before the time limit was reached. A game of diplomatic deception was now necessary. The British had discovered that the pocket battleship had only suffered superficial wounds, and needed to keep Langsdorff bottled up until reinforcements could arrive. An Allied cargo vessel was ordered to leave the harbor, thus preventing the GrafSpee from leaving for at least 24-hrs. At the same time, a story was planted in an Argentine newspaper that the cruisers outside the harbor had been augmented with heavy ships - a battleship and aircraft carrier. A telephone call was made to the British Embassy in Argentina from the British office in Uruguay confirming the newspaper account. The line used was known to be tapped by the Germans.
Langsdorff finally had little choice: Be interned with his ship or go out to certain defeat. He elected to obey the spirit of the Furher' s orders - he had scuttling charges placed, and, on 17 December at 1730, the Admiral GrafSpee weighed anchor and slowly moved into the River Plate. The dead and wounded from the sea battle had been taken ashore in Uruguay, and only Langsdorff and 40 volunteers were aboard. The rest of the crew boarded a German freighter, the SS Takoma, and left for Argentina. Hundreds of thousands of onlookers had come to see a sea battle, and were puzzled when the ship's boats left the Graf Spee toward nearby Argentina.
The ship erupted in a huge series of explosions that demolished its superstructure and caused her to settle into the silt and mud.
The onlookers were incredulous as were the waiting British cruisers. The ruse had worked, and the GrafSpee was no more. In reality, the German ship could have probably fought her way out as the opposition was light.
Three days later, Capt. Langsdorff was found dead in his hotel room in Buenos Aires - he had shot himself after dressing in his full uniform. It was a bizarre ending to a conventional sea battle.
Commodore Harwood was promoted to Rear Admiral and knighted - he became Sir Henry Harwood. There were dozens of citations awarded for this action by the British. Langsdorf s name was literally spit upon by Adolph Hitler and his cronies - yet, what could one expect from them? As to the still-smoldering hulk, when it became cold steel, it was marked by buoys as a menace to navigation. It became fodder for thousands of cameras, and then lost its appeal as the war progressed. Within a decade, the battle was a historical event with the rusted remains being the reminder of the Battle of the River Plate and the GrafSpee.
SALVAGE OPERATION OF IMMENSE PROPORTIONS
A team, headed by Hector Bado, plans to retrieve the ship in large pieces and reassemble it on shore. Bado is a German financier and diver with a love for ships. He recognizes that this operation is possible, but will require extensive engineering capability, heavy lift cranes and massive barges as a beginning. The superstructure will come off first, and then the hull which now is broken into two pieces. The hull separated after the explosion and consists of a forward section 128-ft in length, and the aft part that is 479-ft long. Unfortunately, the hull pieces have sunk into mud and silt has entered and filled hundreds of internal compartments - 8000-tons of silt is the estimate. This will have to be removed before the hull can be moved to dry land.
The GrafSpee is 4-mi from shore, the distance it moved from the harbor anchorage on 17 December 1939. That will be the minimum distance required to transport the giant, rusted pieces of the ship. Of course, the weapons - 11-in gun barrels and other equipment - will have to be salvaged from around the hulk. One 11-in barrel was seen being thrown in the air like a matchstick when the scuttling charges went off.
On the plus side, the River Plate is not a rough body of water, so storms should not hamper the operation. The weather is also quite cooperative in this region, and the local people are easy to work with. Another major advantage is that of financing - Bado is allowed to recover and sell artifacts from the ship. That is where the advantages have come to a roadblock.
The process of salvaging the ship has run into a legal snarl that may delay the current three-year timetable and consume some of the investor funding. In 1940, the wreck was sold by the German Embassy to a private salvage firm. The firm has turned out to be the British Government! As of this writing, that issue has yet to be resolved.
In any event, with sufficient funds, the necessary equipment, and legal barriers removed, it is possible that this ship may again be whole - for the entire world to see. If Mr. Bado and his team succeed, they will have achieved the greatest Naval archeological feat in history.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: RAISING THE NAZI SEA RAIDER Graf Spee: Will It Happen?. Contributors: Bonner, Kit - Author. Magazine title: Sea Classics. Volume: 39. Issue: 3 Publication date: March 2006. Page number: 10+. © Challenge Publications Inc. Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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