In September 2016 David was published in the fantastic Britain at War magazine. Here's the full nine page article, in its unabridged version:
Several glass plate negatives were recently discovered deep in the photographic archive at the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre. The series of black and white images revealed what looked like a twin-barrelled gun lying on a cobbled jetty. It was clear from studying the breech blocks that the dismantled weapon was not British built, but in fact of German manufacture. The most glaring indicator as to the origin of this gun was the nonchalant wartime reference attributed to the set of vintage negatives – it simply read ‘Graf Spee’.
Buenos Aires, 20 December 1939.
In the confines of a bland ground level room at the Argentine Naval Arsenal, a large eagle-emblazoned ensign was stretched out across the tiled floor. The room was just so. Everything had its place and everything was in its place, with one exception. Lying prostrate on top of an old German Imperial Navy flag, impeccably dressed in his blue-black serge uniform, was the Kapitän zur See of arguably the most infamous German Panzerschiff of World War Two.
A crumpled cigar rose out of a well used ashtray. Several letters and a pipe were neatly placed on a desk, along with an empty glass, still emitting an odour of Scotch. To all intents and purposes it looked like the much-admired and patriotic 45-year-old Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff was sound asleep. The unremarkable picture rapidly became unfathomable. On closer inspection, a Mauser automatic pistol could be seen lying next to his open right hand.
The captain of the marauding pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee had allegedly taken his own life. A neat bullet hole in his right temple indicated the cause of death.
Photographs Courtesy of the Author
One of the aforementioned letters was addressed to the German Ambassador in Buenos Aires. The first paragraph read:
Your Excellency, After a long struggle I reached the grave decision to scuttle the Admiral Graf Spee, in order to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. I am still convinced that under the circumstances this decision was the only one left, once I had taken my ship into the trap of Montevideo. For with the ammunition remaining, any attempt to fight my way back to open and deep water was bound to fail. And yet only in deep water could I have scuttled the ship, after having used the remaining ammunition, thus avoiding her falling to the enemy...
A week prior to the death of Captain Langsdorff, Admiral Graf Spee had been roaming the high seas with relative impunity. The crew of the German pocket battleship had been deployed before the start of the war. Graf Spee and her crew had proved to be extremely successful in their commerce raiding role. Between 26 September and 13 December 1939 Graf Spee stopped and sank nine Allied merchant vessels, totalling 50,089 tonnes.
Photographs Courtesy of the NHHC
Langsdorff would allow the merchant crew time to disembark into lifeboats. The lifeless vessels would be searched for anything of value to military intelligence, then scuttled or sunk by gunfire. The hapless merchant crews were transferred to one of the supply vessels that followed Graf Spee. The happy times would not last. In the not too distant future, the feted tenure of the pocket battleship would come to an explosive conclusion.
On the morning of 13 December 1939, funnel smoke from the Panzerschiff was spotted by warships of Royal Navy Force G, comprising ships from the South American Cruiser Squadron, HMS Exeter, HMNZS Achilles and HMS Ajax. One of the first great sea battles of World War Two ensued. This engagement would become known as the Battle of River Plate. Langsdorff was encouraged to fight by the notion that his pocket battleship possessed superior firepower when compared to the combined might of three lesser Royal Navy warships.
Graf Spee engaged headlong with Force G, bringing to bear her arsenal of 28cm guns mounted in two triple turrets, capable of firing 300kg projectiles over the horizon. A heavy and prolonged exchange of naval gunfire ensued. Damaged, though not debilitated, Graf Spee made smoke and escaped. The wounded battleship headed for the port of Montevideo in neutral Uruguay. Langsdorff intended to effect repairs, refuel, and bury 36 members of his crew. On arrival at Montevideo harbour, Graf Spee glided into wind, applied astern propulsion, and stopped dead in the water. She let go her anchor at 00:10 on 14 December.
As Graf Spee sat riding her anchor and cable, Langsdorff intently studied the damage reports submitted by his part of ship officers. To allow for effective repairs he requested 15 days in harbour. To extend the 24 hours already granted, Langsdorff petitioned the Foreign Relations Minister of the Uruguayan Republic, via Otto Langman, the German minister at Montevideo. However, Uruguay was a neutral country and wanted to remain so.
Photographs Courtesy of the NHHC
The Uruguayan government adhered to articles of the 13th Hague Convention, which laid out the rights and duties of neutral countries in wartime. The articles of the convention stated that an extension to stay in a neutral harbour may be increased above the statutory 24 hours in exceptional circumstances only. A vessel of a belligerent power could have its time in harbour increased to effect repairs that would make the vessel navigable and safe for sea. It was declared in no uncertain terms that Graf Spee was not allowed to increase her armed force. To that end Graf Spee was granted 72 hours, after which she would be required to sail from Montevideo on 17 December and be clear of territorial waters by 20:00 – or be interned.
Langsdorff knew three days was not enough time to get his Panzerschiff safe and seaworthy. He reported back to German Naval Headquarters and informed them of his predicament. In dispatch No. 5 of the official Admiralty report on the River Plate action, the British Naval Attaché at Buenos Aires, Captain H.W.U. McCall, said: ‘It is known that he [Langsdorff] had a telephone talk with Hitler after his arrival in Buenos Aires and rumour of some reliability says that it was of a most violent nature.’ He was allegedly told to either sail and fight, or scuttle Graf Spee and not let anything fall into enemy hands. Furthermore, internment was not an option.
After the one-way telephone conversation, Langsdorff’s mind was made up. The factors thought to have prejudiced his final decision have never been conclusively proven. It is possible that having just buried 36 of his crew, Langsdorff did not want to lose anymore lives. To compound his situation, the stocks of ammunition held on board may have been much depleted. This point is argued by captains of several of the merchant vessels captured. They state that during the whole engagement with Force G, Graf Spee’s rate of fire was slow and estimated she only got off approximately 50 rounds per turret. Whatever the reasons, Graf Spee’s fate was sealed.
Photograph Courtesy of the NHHC
Over the next 48 hours, the crew of Graf Spee worked tirelessly, preparing her for scuttling by rigging the explosives which would ultimately sink their ship. Any secret equipment, instrumentation and documentation were rendered useless or totally destroyed. Over this period the majority of her crew were disembarked using several of Graff Spee’s small boats. The men were transferred to the sympathetic German Bremen-Lloyd Line steamship Tacoma, also anchored in the harbour.
At 17:10 on Sunday 17 December, the pocket battleship weighed anchor with just a skeleton crew on board. She transited the channel leading out of the harbour, followed by Tacoma 15 minutes later. Graf Spee’s starboard anchor was made ready for letting go. Initially, the battleship was heading in a south-easterly direction. Only one of her four sets of diesel engines was operational. The remaining engines had been sabotaged on sailing. These powerhouses had initially been started, but then deliberately not injected with any lubrication. Piston failure and total engine seizure swiftly followed.
As the ship slowly made headway towards open water, many of her portholes were opened. All the working parts of her smaller anti-aircraft weapons were ditched over the side, along with all the small arms from the ship’s armoury. After a few cables she was turned westward towards the mouth of the channel leading to Buenos Aires. It was here that Langsdorff first stopped Graf Spee in the water. The majority of the skeleton crew disembarked the stationary battleship for the last time by climbing down a pilot ladder into the waiting ship’s boats. Once the small craft were clear to starboard, revolutions were rung on the telegraph and the vessel moved off. Only 11 men, including Langsdorff, remained on board.
The Panzerschiff was around 6NM south-west of Montevideo when at 20:15 Langsdorff gave the helmsmen an order to alter course west. As the vessel left the deep channel and entered shallow water, the order to stop the remaining engine was passed. Graf Spee glided to a halt. Her stem ploughed into the soft mud, causing her to come to a stop with a shudder. Out of respect for neutral Uruguay and so as not to block the busy commercial shipping lanes, Langsdorff had deliberately run his ship aground clear of the deep water channel. The battleship’s starboard anchor was let go to prevent the powerless vessel from drifting back into the shipping lanes. This anchor was specifically chosen because it could not be seen from the shore.
Final checks were carried out on the scuttling charges. Lastly, the swastika-adorned Kreigsmarine ensign was lowered. The remaining crewmen climbed down the pilot ladder and boarded the waiting captain's launch. Kapitän zur See Langsdorff was the last man to disembark Admiral Graf Spee.
Photographs Showing the Explosion Sequence of Graf Spee -Courtesy of the Author
Britain At War Magazine Sept 2016
The carefully placed explosive charges were linked to a selection of different detonation timers, all individually powered by 12-volt batteries. These timers had been liberated from several of the merchant vessels stopped and sunk by Graf Spee. The charges were strategically placed in specific areas to cause maximum damage, like next to the torpedo warheads and in the 28cm ammunition magazines forward and aft. At 20:54 the skyline erupted in a series of brilliant flashes. The sound of the seemingly silent explosion far out at sea only took a matter of seconds to travel across the water and hit the shoreside spectators. The charges placed at the stern of the vessel obliterated her aft turret and almost ripped her stern clean off, causing her to settle, stern first. The charges in the forward 28cm magazine failed to detonate. This caused the ship to settle aft on the seabed, with a 30-degree list to starboard.
The destruction of the German battleship kick-started a chain of events which required quick thinking, subterfuge and a degree of luck on the part of British Naval Intelligence and the Director of the Signal Department (DSD). The Admiralty were anxious to discover all they could about the battleship. However, they thought it unlikely that any important secret would be found intact. Nevertheless, a clandestine salvage operation was mounted. This operation was documented as ‘Case 6160’ and would eventually see a specific item from Graf Spee’s revolutionary weapons systems salvaged, analysed and then unceremoniously left on a cluttered jetty at Devonport Royal Dockyard in Great Britain.
Prior to Graf Spee embarking on her wartime activities, every member of her ship’s company was presented with a photograph of the ship. A typically German gesture, by all accounts. Shortly after her arrival at Montevideo, one of these photographs was obtained by a Royal Navy officer in the port. The image was sent to the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) and carefully examined. NID noticed a fitting on the masthead which could not be identified and which was not present in other photographs of the vessel. It was not known for sure in 1939 if Graf Spee carried Radio Detecting and Finding equipment (RDF), the precursor to Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR).
News of the very public scuttling of Graf Spee was telegraphed around the world. Photographs of the stricken vessel were also published by various US news agencies and these also came to the attention of NID. Several photographs of the warship showed a mattress-shaped antenna mounted on a rotating foretop rangefinder. The Admiralty wanted to know what this device was. They also wanted samples of the battleship’s armoured plating and details of the construction and thickness of her electrically welded hull. For the Admiralty, getting people from Britain to survey the wreck now became the top priority.
It is thought Langsdorff had attempted to scuttle Graf Spee in international waters so the wreck could be salvaged legitimately by Germany. On 19 January 1940 a report filed by C.G Jarratt, Head of the Military Branch, said ‘…the wreck would still be German property even if Uruguayan jurisdiction were admitted over the waters in which it lies’. From the outset there was a very real possibility that even if the German government could not logistically salvage the wreck, they may attempt to sell her to a salvage company in neutral Uruguay. This, no doubt, would be under the proviso that German experts would oversee the breaking up of the ship and ensure the disappearance of any remaining military secrets.
Photographs Courtesy of the NHHC
Luckily for the British government, a real mistrust and near hatred for the Nazi regime existed in Uruguay. This would make the British purchase of the wreck eminently possible. The eventual transaction was very much the brainchild of the British Minister to Uruguay, Mr Millington-Drake. Fortuitously, Millington-Drake was acquainted with a Uruguayan businessman called Senor Don Julio Vega-Helguera. The British Minister was under the impression that textile exporter Vega was trustworthy and above question. This may have been far from the truth. British intelligence in Montevideo discovered that 32-year-old Vega was actually known to be a thoroughly untrustworthy character who would dabble in anything that would show a reasonable profit. He did, however, have the ear of many Uruguayan ministers and could arrange practically anything. Senor Vega was also a very close friend of the German Minister in Uruguay.
Julio Vega successfully negotiated unconditional rights to the wreck of Graf Spee and on 23 February 1940 he purchased the entire sunken vessel for a princely sum equivalent to £14,000. Unknown to the German legation and the Uruguayan government, the purchase of the wreck had in fact been instigated and paid for by the British government via Vega. As far as the salvage company and the outside world knew, Senor Vega was the new owner of Graf Spee. Secretly, Vega would become a go-between with the British government and the Uruguayan salvage company he commissioned to carry out the work. Don Julio Vega-Helguera was a very complex character and to this day is a much overlooked player in the Graf Spee story. On his final bill to the Admiralty he wrote: ‘I have done this for love of the good cause which England is defending and out of personal friendship for the British Minister, Mr Millington-Drake.’
The salvage company of choice was Regusci and Voulminot, the biggest and most capable engineering firm in Uruguay. Senor Voulminot was of French extraction and pro-Ally. It transpired that he had lost several relatives in the last war. This may explain why his company refused categorically to carry out any repair work on Graf Spee after she first entered Montevideo back in December 1939. Ironically, Voulminot’s company did supply materials for emergency repairs to Exeter as she lay in the Falkland Islands after The Battle of River Plate.
Once the wreck was sold off it was guarded by the Uruguayan navy. Only permitted people were allowed to approach and board the ship. Scientists at the British Air Ministry were in the process of developing RDF. It was decided without hesitation to send an expert to survey the wreck. So it was that Scientific Officer Mr Labouchere Bainbridge-Bell, one of the principal inventors of RADAR, was sent to Uruguay. Bainbridge-Bell was the right-hand man of the acclaimed inventor of RADAR, Sir Robert Watson-Watt. In order to keep the real reason for his visit secret, so as not to offend or embarrass the Uruguayan government, Bainbridge-Bell was to pose as a British government salvage expert. It was suggested as a ruse that Great Britain was interested in purchasing the wreck for its scrap metal.
Photographs Courtesy of the NHHC
Bainbridge-Bell took a train from Paddington to Plymouth. Once at Mount Wise, the residence of the Commander-in-Chief, he was embarked on a destroyer and taken across the Channel to France. On arrival at France he was placed on a train, in a compartment labelled ‘Courier Royal’. After a short journey, the scientist was taken off the train and driven to an aerodrome where he was put on an aircraft bound for Buenos Aires. There were no direct flights to Uruguay from France. Once in Argentina, Bainbridge-Bell boarded another aircraft and flew into Montevideo. Here he was told to report to the British Consular Authority (BCA), who would arrange for him to be escorted to the burnt out and half-sunken wreck.
Graf Spee was listing heavily to starboard. Bainbridge-Bell had to use all his strength to climb the tilting foremast and visually inspect the object of NID’s interest. Although the Germans had attempted to do a thorough job in sabotaging the vessel, the scientist recognised components required for an RDF system. This was definite proof that Germany had already developed an early RADAR-type capability. Over the duration of his first visit to the wreck, Bainbridge-Bell removed several items of interest for further analysis. As he recovered the items he placed them on the sloping deck, wedged against fittings to prevent them rolling overboard. On his return to the location where he had left the liberated items, Bainbridge-Bell was aghast to find they had disappeared. He asked the man who had been charged as his escort what had happened to them. He was told they had slid over the side! This was the moment Bainbridge-Bell realised that his escort, provided by the BCA, was in fact pro-Nazi. Bainbridge-Bell continued to study the wreck over the course of several visits and he eventually salvaged many items.
From the moment the scientist revealed his findings to the BCA, he ceased to be treated as a VIP. Bainbridge-Bell was then returned to Great Britain as an ordinary tourist. He was dumped at Dakar on the coast of West Africa. From there he flew back to England on a routine flight. Bainbridge-Bell made many in-depth notes and sketches of Graf Spee’s RADAR system and its components. When he arrived back at the Air Ministry he compiled his report. In his suitcases Bainbridge-Bell also brought back various pieces of the new RADAR outfit, which included a scope chassis and hood and parts of the lower power pack and ranging unit. All this valuable intelligence was backed up by many photographs and diagrams of Graf Spee’s internal RADAR office.
It is not known if Bainbridge-Bell’s discoveries altered or advanced the British development of RADAR in any way. However, it did prove that the German Navy was more advanced than British Naval Intelligence Division had first thought. The Royal Navy would have no gun-laying RADAR capability until 1941. It was the experimental Seetakt (Seetaktisch) FuMO 22 RADAR fitted to her foretop rangefinder cupola that had enabled Graf Spee to locate and accurately fire upon Royal Navy warships in 1939.
Photographs Courtesy of the NHHC
Keeping up the pretence of actually salvaging metal from the wreck, NID instructed representatives from a real British salvage firm, Messrs. Thomas W. Ward and Co. to travel to Uruguay and survey Graf Spee for scrap. The two representatives from the company, Mr F.A. Smith and Mr S.J. Dyal, arrived in Buenos Aires on 5 April 1940. Unfortunately, on arrival at the airport it was discovered that Mr Smith had died during transit, owing to a burst ulcer. The remaining representative from Ward and Co. managed to gain access to the wreck on 6 April. Many of his future visits were severely hampered by bad weather, which made the wreck difficult to board and unsafe to investigate. Mr Dyal’s initial report into the condition of Graf Spee was cabled to the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) on 9 April 1940. Dyal had found the wreck to be lying in 9 metres of water and listing 10 degrees to starboard. All decks were under water and the ship was partially buried to a depth of 3 metres in the mud. Approximately 300 of her portholes were wide open and the Panzerschiff continued to sink further.
Next to arrive in the country were two men from the Admiralty. These men were also said to be representing T.W. Ward and Co. However, they were in fact sent undercover by NID. Purvis and Kilroy travelled from Britain to New York on board the soon-to-be ill fated Cunard cruise liner RMS Lancastria and then on to Montevideo. Mr M.K. Purvis was from the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors (RCNC). He was representing the Director of Naval Construction (DNC) and the Director of Naval Ordnance (DNO). The fastidious notes made by Purvis allow the salvage story of Graf Spee to be recounted today. Accompanying Purvis was Lt. C.P. Kilroy Royal Navy. Kilroy was a torpedo officer on the staff of RAML. He was sent out to investigate aspects of Graf Spee’s degaussing, anti-mining, fire control and torpedo capabilities. Over a period of several days Purvis and Kilroy visited the wreck many times to investigate her construction and armament.
To facilitate the removal of parts from Graf Spee, an ex-Royal Navy seaman was employed locally by Millington-Drake. Mr Deakin, who was living in the country, was appointed as a charge hand and would oversee a small team of men in removing items in which the Admiralty had expressed a preference. These items included: two whole pieces of armour plate from the top of the main gun turrets; two pieces of side armour from the conning tower; a set of twin 4cm guns (complete); a stabilised director complete with base; six instruments from the lower control position; a set of twin 10.5cm guns complete with mounting; one 15cm gun complete with mounting; sundry small samples and instruments; samples of plates; samples of welding; and one or more of the 28cm gun barrels from the forward turret (these barrels were estimated to weigh 50 tons each). The list was pretty exhaustive, although it is not known if all the items requested were actually recovered.
The removal of items was a very dangerous affair. The wreck was continually shifting and there was always the likelihood of further explosions. A key item on the Admiralty’s list was one of Graf Spee’s six twin-barrelled L65 C33 10.5cm anti-aircraft guns. The forward starboard gun was submerged. The only other anti-aircraft gun salvageable was the port forward mounting. This weapon had successfully been put out of action by Exeter during the battle as a shell had entered through the gun magazine feed. Deakin and his team removed the securing bolts around the gun mounting. A crane was provided by Voulminot’s and the larger items, including this 20-ton gun, were removed. The salvaged items were boxed in crates and kept at Voulminot’s yard for onward transit to Great Britain. Purvis, Kilroy and Dyal took hundreds of photographs and compiled detailed reports prior to departing Montevideo. Dyal and Purvis sailed for Great Britain on 2 May 1940, on board the steamer Dunster Grange. Kilroy remained behind to supervise the continued removal and secure storage of items from Graf Spee.
Photograph of MV Dunster Grange Courtesy of Sea Hazard 1939 - 1945
Merchant vessels regularly transited between Montevideo and Great Britain, carrying meat, grain and other essential supplies. The crate containing Graf Spee’s port anti-aircraft gun was loaded on board the Houlder Line steamship, Princesa. The vessel was bound for Liverpool from Montevideo via Free Town, South Africa as part of convoy number SL34. The convoy had to cross the dangerous expanse of the Atlantic, a prolific hunting ground for German U-boats. During the crossing, two vessels in the convoy, the Barbara Marie and Willowbank, were sunk by U-boat U-46.
Photograph of MV Princesa Courtesy of Sea Hazard 1939 - 1945
The Princesa was detached from the convoy on 16 June 1940 and made her way towards Plymouth Sound, eventually berthing alongside 7 Wharf at Devonport Dockyard. Her special cargo was duly unloaded and inspected by members of the Construction Department and DSD. The armoured plating of the anti-aircraft gun was taken away for further analysis, leaving the two barrels and the weapon’s splinter box framework, along with all its internal workings. As time passed and the war intensified, the gun of Graf Spee was moved to a jetty at the bow end of No.8 Dry Dock. It was here in July 1942 that these unremarkable – but important – photographs were taken.
For many years, Graf Spee’s gun remained forlorn and ignored in Devonport Dockyard. Had the historic importance of this weapon been identified earlier, the only existing twin-barrelled heavy anti-aircraft gun from the Graf Spee may not have been cut up and scrapped in the 1970s. These photographs are probably the only remaining record proving that a gun from the PanzerschiffAdmiralGraf Spee was actually landed on British soil.
Photographs of Graf Spee's Gun at Devonport Dockyard 1942 - Courtesy of the DNHC
The general conclusion of the inspection and salvage of Graf Spee, written by M.K. Purvis in his report to the Admiralty read: ‘The River Plate action and the ensuing inspection of the wreck of “Graf Spee” show this type of ship to be one that we should not imitate…’
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