By Bonner, Kit | Sea Classics, March 2006 | Go to article overview
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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.


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.

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