Salvaging a ship - and history


Battle: The Graf Spee's short life off the coast of Uruguay offers lessons about a German captain and World War II.

May 08, 2004|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - Big events often start in small places. The American Civil War was sparked in part by John Brown's raid on a federal arsenal in a West Virginia hamlet named Harpers Ferry; World War I was precipitated by the assassination in June of 1914 of an Austrian archduke in the Balkan province of Bosnia; and the opening naval battle of World War II was waged off the coast of tiny Uruguay.

Today, evidence can still be found of that fight of Dec. 13, 1939, between a German pocket battleship and three British cruisers, or at least evidence of its resolution. Four miles off Montevideo's sandy beach, a ship's mast rises 30 feet above the surface of the Rio de la Plata, signaling the presence below of the Admiral Graf Spee, scuttled four days after the battle by its own captain.

Down at the port in the old section of this city of a million and a half people, an important piece of that dreadnought is on display, guarded by sailors, few of whom know much about the Graf Spee and its short life and surprising death, and might wonder what it has to do with Uruguay.

The object drawing all the attention is the Graf Spee's electronic range finder - 27 tons of rusted steel, perforated here and there by the eroding salt of the estuary, a machine so sophisticated at directing the ship's 11-inch guns it made the Graf Spee one of the deadliest crafts afloat.

It was detached from the hulk by an Uruguayan salvager named Hector Bado.

He and Alfredo Etchegaray, with the support of British marine archeologists, are determined to raise the Graf Spee and make it a museum. Tourists will come, they believe, from Britain and Germany, and from this region.

The story of the ship and its fate is embedded in the histories of the two countries that abide on the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay and Argentina, though neither participated in the war and they favored different sides. It is a story with an improbable hero, German commander Hans Langsdorff.

The ship was called a pocket battleship because of its size: 10,000 tons, compared with the Bismarck, at 52,600. The absence of heavy protective plating gave it great speed, though it had all the firepower of a battleship, plus rudimentary radar and the range finder.

It left Germany secretly Aug. 21, 1939, less than two weeks before the start of the war. Its mission was to sink commercial vessels taking meat and grains to Europe from South America. This it did with great efficiency. Before it engaged three British cruisers off Punte del Este - Uruguay's jetset resort, where thousands had gathered Dec. 13 to hear the daylong thunder of guns off their coast - the Graf Spee had put nine freighters on the bottom.

As darkness fell that day, one of the British ships, the Exeter, was almost sunk. Another, the Ajax, was badly damaged but functioning. The Achilles, the third cruiser, was intact. The Graf Spee, also hurt, and low on ammunition, ran for the safety of Montevideo's neutral harbor.

Captain Langsdorff hoped to remain several weeks to repair the ship and restock his munitions before going out to engage the remaining cruisers - now three, with the arrival of the Cumberland. Langsdorff was informed by Uruguayan authorities that he had 72 hours and that according to international law covering the behavior of neutral countries, he could make no improvements in his ship's fighting ability.

The quality of Langsdorff as a commander, and human being, was revealed during his brief stay in Montevideo. He immediately arranged to have those among his crew who died in the battle buried with full military honors. Hundreds of the Graf Spee's crew poured off the ship for the ceremony and marched through Montevideo, followed by the scores of British merchant marine officers who had been prisoners aboard the Graf Spee, having been taken from their ships before they were sunk.

Hundreds of Uruguayans, some of German ancestry, accompanied the procession.

The 36 dead were laid to rest for the duration of the war in ground made available in the British cemetery.

Langsdorff hailed his dead sailors with the German naval salute, eschewing the Nazi salute, a gesture received badly by the German ambassador, who was present. Word of it also rankled Hitler, in Berlin, who, it is said, ordered Langsdorff to take the ship out and go down fighting. Lacking ammunition, Langsdorff knew this would result in the deaths of many or all of his crew. Thus he arranged to have most of them surreptitiously transferred onto an Argentine freighter.

Then, in the early evening of Dec. 17, with an abbreviated crew, Langsdorff set the great ship in motion toward the outer harbor, filled it with the explosives on hand, and as the three British cruisers began to move in closer in anticipation, he turned and anchored east of the old harbor, then made off with his men to Buenos Aires on the freighter that held the rest of his crew. They would be interned in Argentina for the duration of the war. Many would stay there the rest of their lives.

With thousands of people jamming the beaches and quays of the port, the Graf Spee blew up and sank at 7:56 p.m. Two days later, Langsdorff shot himself in the Naval Arsenal in Buenos Aires. He was found wrapped in the German naval flag. He is buried in the German cemetery in that city.

The affair of the Graf Spee, with its high drama and operatic outcome, had a number of benign effects. It was the first major victory for the Allies at the outset of what would be a long struggle. It deprived the Nazis of a powerful weapon of war. And, perhaps more importantly, through the character of Captain Langsdorff, it encouraged the world to believe that not all Germans were Nazis or sympathetic to their cause.

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