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World War II: Admiral Graf Spee

Admiral Graf Spee was a Deutschland-class panzerschiffe (armored ship) that entered service with the German Kriegsmarine in 1936. Largely designed to meet the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, Admiral Graf Spee and the others of its class were often referred to as “pocket battleships” because of their powerful armament of 11-inch guns. At the beginning of World War II, the vessel was sent to the South Atlantic to serve as commerce raider.

It proved successful in this role and soon was hunted down by a British squadron. After taking damage at the Battle of the River Plate on December 13, 1939, Admiral Graf Spee sought refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Blocked by neutrality laws from making repairs and facing a superior British force, Captain Hans Langsdorff elected to scuttle the ship rather than let it be interned in Uruguay.


Deutschland-class panzerschiffe (armored ship), Admiral Graf Spee‘s design was intended to nominally conform to the naval restrictions set forth by the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I. These limited future German warships to 10,000 long tons. Though the vessels of Deutschland-class exceeded this displacement, the German designers devised numerous methods to reduce weight. These included the incorporation diesel propulsion and the large-scale use of welding.

The class’ armament centered on six 11-inch guns mounted in two triple turrets. As a result, the Deutschland-class ships were able to deliver a potent attack despite their relatively small size. As a result of this, they became know in other navies as “pocket battleships.” Capable of around 28 knots, they were able to out-gun many of the foreign warships that were fast enough to catch them.

Portrait of Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee wearing his naval uniform.
 Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee. Public Domain


Laid down at Reichsmarinewerft in Wilhelmshaven on October 1, 1932, the new panzerschiffe was named for Vice Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee who had defeated the British at Coronel on November 1, 1914, before being killed at the Battle of the Falklands a month later. Launched on June 30, 1934, the vessel was sponsored by the late admiral’s daughter. Work continued on Admiral Graf Spee for another eighteen months.

Commissioned on January 6, 1936, with Captain Conrad Patzig in command, new cruiser drew much of its crew from the old battleship Braunschweig. Departing Wilhelmshaven, Admiral Graf Spee spent the early part of the year conducting sea trials. Upon their completion, it was designated flagship of the German Navy.

Admiral Graf Spee


  • Nation: Germany
  • Type: Heavy Cruiser/ “Pocket Battleship”
  • Shipyard: Reichsmarinewerft , Wilhelmshaven
  • Laid Down: October 1, 1932
  • Launched: June 30, 1934
  • Commissioned: January 6, 1936
  • Fate: Scuttled on December 17, 1939


  • Displacement: 14,890 tons
  • Length: 610 ft., 3 in.
  • Beam: 71 ft.
  • Draft: 24 ft. 1 in.
  • Speed: 29.5 knots
  • Complement: 951-1,070 men


Guns (as built)

  • 6 × 28 cm (11 in.) SK C/28 (2 x 3)
  • 8 × 15 cm (5.9 in.) SK C/28
  • 8 × 53.3 cm (21 in.) torpedo tubes

Prewar Operations

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, Admiral Graf Spee entered the Atlantic Ocean and commenced non-intervention patrols off the coast of Spain. After conducting three patrols over the next ten months, the cruiser put into Spithead in late May 1937 to take part in the Coronation Review for King George VI. At the conclusion of the ceremonies, Admiral Graf Spee returned to Spain where it relieved its sister ship, Admiral Scheer.

Returning home late in the year, it participated in fleet maneuvers and made a goodwill call to Sweden. Following a final non-intervention patrol in early 1938, command of the ship passed to Captain Hans Langsdorff in October. Embarking on a series of goodwill visits to Atlantic ports, Admiral Graf Spee also appeared in a naval review in honor of Hungarian regent Admiral Miklós Horthy. After visits to Portuguese ports in the late spring of 1939, the ship returned to Wilhelmshaven.

Pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee at anchor with British warships in the background.
 Admiral Graf Spee at Spithead for King George VI’s coronation review, 1937. Public Domain

World War II Begins

Anticipating the beginning of World War II, German leader Adolf Hitler ordered Admiral Graf Spee to sail for the South Atlantic to be in position to attack Allied shipping. Departing Wilhelmshaven on August 21, Langsdorff steered south and rendezvoused with his supply ship, Altmark, on September 1. Alerted to the beginning of hostilities, he was directed to stringently adhere to prize law when attacking merchant vessels. This required the raider to search ships for war materials before sinking them and ensuring the safety of their crews.

On September 11, one of Admiral Graf Spee‘s floatplanes spotted the heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland. Successfully evading the British ship, Langsdorff received orders on September 26 directing him to initiate a campaign of commerce raiding against Allied shipping. On September 30, the cruiser’s floatplane sank the steamer Clement. To ensure the crew’s safety, Langsdorff radioed Brazilian naval authorities and informed them of the attack. Alerted to the presence of a German raider in the South Atlantic the Royal and French Navies formed eight groups consisting of four carriers, two battleships, one battlecruiser, and sixteen cruisers to hunt down Langsdorff.


On October 5, Admiral Graf Spee captured Newton Beach and two days later sank the cargo vessel Ashlea. Though the former initially was used as a prisoner transport, it proved too slow and was soon discarded. Taking Huntsman on October 10, Langsdorff retained the steamer and took it to a rendezvous with Altmark a week later. Transferring prisoners to his supply ship, he then sank Huntsman.

After sinking Trevanion on October 22, Langsdorff steered for the Indian Ocean in an attempt confuse his pursuers. Sinking the tanker Africa Shell on November 15, Admiral Graf Spee turned for the Atlantic in order to refuel from Altmark. While rendezvousing on November 26, the cruiser’s crew made efforts to alter the ship’s silhouette by building a fake turret and a dummy funnel.

Continuing his campaign, Langsdorff sank the freighter Doric Star on December 2. In the course of the attack, the Allied ship was able to radio for aid and relay its position. Receiving this, Commodore Henry Harwood, commanding the Royal Navy’s Force G, steered for the River Plate anticipating that this area would be Admiral Graf Spee‘s next target. Harwood’s command consisted of the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and the light cruisers HMS Ajax (flagship) and HMS Achilles.

Also available to Harwood was Cumberland which was refitting in the Falkland Islands. The sinking of Doric Star was quickly followed by an attack on the refrigerator ship Tairoa. Meeting a final time with Altmark on December 6, Langsdorff sank the freighter Streonshalh the next day. On board, his men found shipping information that led him to decide to move against the River Plate estuary.

Battle of the River Plate

On December 13, Admiral Graf Spee spotted masts off the starboard bow. While Langsdorff first believed these to be convoy escorts reports soon informed him that it was a British squadron. Electing to fight, he ordered his ship to maximum speed and closed with the enemy. This proved a blunder as Admiral Graf Spee could have stood off and hammered the out-ranged British warships with its 11-inch guns. Instead, the maneuver brought the cruiser within range of Exeter‘s 8-inch and the light cruisers’ 6-inch guns.

Pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee steaming in the River Plate, South America with shipping in the background.
 Admiral Graf Spee enters Montevideo harbor following the Battle of the River Plate, December 1939. Public Domain

With the enemy’s approach, Harwood implemented a battle plan which called for Exeter to attack separately from the light cruisers with the goal of splitting Langsdorff’s fire. At 6:18 AM, Admiral Graf Spee opened the Battle of the River Plate by firing on Exeter with its main guns while its secondary armament targeted Ajax and Achilles. Over the next half hour, the German vessel hammered Exeter disabling both its forward turrets and starting several fires. In return, the British cruiser hit Admiral Graf Spee‘s fuel processing system with an 8-inch shell.

Though his ship appeared largely undamaged, the loss of the fuel processing system limited Langsdorff to sixteen hours of usable fuel. To aid their compatriot, the two British light cruisers closed on Admiral Graf Spee. Thinking the British ships to be making a torpedo attack, Langsdorff turned away. The two sides continued the fight until around 7:25 AM when the action came to an end. Pulling back, Harwood decided to shadow the German ship with the goal of attacking again after dark.


Entering the estuary, Langsdorff made a political error in anchoring at Montevideo in neutral Uruguay rather than the friendlier Mar del Plata, Argentina to the south. Putting in a little after midnight on December 14, Langsdorff landed his wounded and asked the Uruguayan government for two weeks to make repairs. This was opposed by British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake who argued that under the 13th Hague Convention Admiral Graf Spee should be expelled from neutral waters after twenty-four hours.

Advised that few naval resources were in the area, Millington-Drake continued to press for the ship’s expulsion publicly while British agents arranged to have British and French merchant ships sail every twenty-four hours. This action invoked Article 16 of the convention which stated “A belligerent warship may not leave a neutral port or roadstead until twenty-four hours after the departure of a merchant ship flying the flag of its adversary.” As a result, these sailings held Admiral Graf Spee in place while additional naval forces were gathered.

Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning and partially submerged in the River Plate
 Scuttling of Admiral Graf Spee in the River Plate. Public Domain

While Langsdorff lobbied for time to repair his ship, he received a variety of false intelligence which suggested the arrival of Force H, including the carrier HMS Ark Royal and battlecruiser HMS Renown. While a force centered on Renown was en route, in reality Harwood had only been reinforced by Cumberland. Completely deceived and unable to repair Admiral Graf Spee, Langsdorff discussed his options with his superiors in Germany.

Prohibited from allowing the ship to be interned by the Uruguayans and believing that certain destruction awaited him at sea, he ordered Admiral Graf Spee scuttled in the River Plate on December 17. This decision infuriated Hitler who later directed that all German ships were fight until the end. Taken to Buenos Aires, Argentina with the crew, Langsdorff committed suicide on December 19.


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