Golden Journal No. 43:
SWWAS: River Plate

The Voyage of the Graf Spee
21 August to 17 December 1939
By James P. Werbaneth
August 2021

The Treaty of Versailles had one overriding objective: to insure that Germany would never again be a major military power. It did not ignore the navy. Stripped of submarines, aircraft, and above all its stately battleline of dreadnoughts, the Kriegsmarine was condemned to an onerous purgatory as a coast defense fleet.

The sort of battle line that Scheer sailed to Jutland was gone forever. But in a systematic naval resurgence begun by the Weimar Republic and continued under Hitler, the German Navy became a force to be reckoned with, although now the prime focus was on commerce raiding rather than efforts at Mahanian sea control.

A pivotal event was the development of the Deutschland class of warship. The original Deutschland at least nominally obeyed the letter of the limitations of Versailles, but the designers' intent was another matter entirely. The Germans called the Deutschland a panzerschiff, or "armored ship." But the British press originated a term that far better encapsulated its combination of firepower and economy, and the alarm they caused, one that has proven more enduring: "pocket battleship."

The Deutschland and her slightly more robust sister ships, Admiral Scheer and Admiral Graf Spee, were frightening in their potential for commerce raiding. Great endurance freed them from the confines of the North Sea and dependence on Germany's ports, allowing them to venture into distant waters, and their combination of respectable speed and heavy armament made it difficult for the Reich's once and future enemies to catch and destroy them.

Admiral Graf Spee launches in June 1934.


As war approached in Europe with Hitler's demands on Poland, the Kriegsmarine dispatched a pair of pocket battleships, each accompanied by a supply ship, to the open seas. On 21 August 1939 the Graf Spee left Wilhelmshaven with her tender, the Altmark, followed by the Deutschland. Both warships made it to the expanses of the Atlantic before hostilities broke out, or the British could establish their blockade and patrols across the passages to the North Atlantic. On 3 September the Deutschland was through the Denmark Strait and lurking near Greenland, and the Graf Spee was already well south of the Azores, headed for the South Atlantic.

The objectives of the raiders were summed up by their orders in a document called "Task in the Event of War," issued on 4 August:

Disruption and destruction of enemy merchant shipping by all possible means... Enemy naval forces are to be engaged only if it should further the principal task [i.e., commerce raiding]...

Frequent changes of position in the operational areas will create uncertainty and will restrict enemy merchant shipping even without tangible results. A temporary departure into distant areas will also add to the uncertainty of the enemy.

If the enemy should protect his shipping with superior forces so that direct successes cannot be obtained, then the mere fact that his shipping is so restricted means we have impaired his supply situation. Valuable results will also be obtained if the pocket battleships continue to remain in the convoy area.

That the German strategy was sound was admitted by no less an authority than the British official ultimately responsible for countering it, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Years later he commented on "Task in the Event of War:" "With all this wisdom the British Admiralty would have been in rueful agreement."

The Royal Navy was widely dispersed at the start of World War II in order to protect shipping and hunt down the raiders. Just by putting to sea the Deutschland and Graf Spee thus seized the initiative from the Allies, forcing them into a reactive stance and denying to them the option of concentrating their forces.

The Deutschland took advantage of this with an exceedingly cautious cruise, yielding very meager returns. She took only three ships on her 1939 voyage, one of them a small Norwegian vessel, and another, the American City of Flint, whose capture ignited a furor in the United States and other neutrals. The British tried to exploit it by intercepting the ship when she sailed through Norwegian territorial waters en route to Germany via Murmansk. Norway interned the City of Flint and returned her to her American crew, diminishing the Deutschland's toll on merchant shipping even further.

The Deutschland cruised until mid-November, then broke through the cordon of auxiliary cruisers positioned by the Royal Navy in the Denmark Strait. In all she accounted for less than 7,000 tons of merchant shipping, never approached a convoy, and offset somewhat the fear and uncertainty attendant to any high-seas raider by generating poor publicity with the City of Flint. It was not an auspicious beginning. Ever cautious with his warships, Hitler feared the propaganda effects should the vessel named for the Fatherland be sunk, and ordered her name changed to Lützow.

More daring and energetic was the cruise of the Graf Spee, commanded by Captain (Kapitan zur See) Hans Langsdorff. A torpedo specialist and Jutland veteran, Langsdorff was more disposed to focus on the part of his orders urging the destruction of enemy shipping than their explicit and implicit discouragement of risk-taking. As a result his effect on British merchant traffic, and the nerves and energies of the Royal Navy, was much greater.

However, as good as his judgment was in the strategy of cruising, it was flawed in the area of naval tactics. Langsdorff bested a British cruiser force off the River Plate, but conceded victory through a precipitous flight to the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. There the destruction of his ship was effected through a remarkable psychological operation.

The Graf Spee Strikes

The Graf Spee did not begin raiding immediately upon the start of hostilities. Hitler hoped for a settlement with Britain and France, and prohibited either pocket battleship from taking the offensive. They might not have been taking any prizes at this stage, but the Graf Spee and Deutschland constituted a threat waiting to materialize.

Nontheless soon after Germany went to war, the Graf Spee came close to discovery twice in the same day. Once, her aircraft spotted a British cruiser nearby that was still oblivious to her presence, and Langsdorff was able to move away. Then the Graf Spee saw another vessel and was able to escape undetected again. The next month the Altmark had an even closer call when she was found by aircraft from the HMS Ark Royal and, consistent with the tenor of cruiser operations of the time, her signalmen were able to convince the British pilots that the Altmark was actually an American ship.

On 23 September Langsdorff received a message to begin commerce raiding. He informed the Naval Staff Operations Division that he intended to go toward Pernambuco, Brazil, leaving the Altmark behind in her "waiting area." On 29 September Langsdorff was given specific orders forbidding him to risk Graf Spee in battle.

Her first prize was taken the next day off Pernambuco, the 5,000-ton liner Clement. Langsdorff learned from two prisoners that British merchant vessels were instructed to break radio silence when caught by a raider and signal "RRR," the code for "attacked by surface raider," for as long as possible. It was hoped that this would provoke the German ship into firing, giving the crew a pretext to take to the boats and delay an investigation aboard the ship. Also, radio equipment and engines were to be damaged as much as possible to prevent the prize from being pressed into service as a supply ship.

Langsdorff's next destination was the Cape of Good Hope. He intended to stay in the South Atlantic, as he believed that as long as British shipping was able to pass through the Mediterranean safely, the Indian Ocean sea lanes were of secondary importance.

Along the way work proceeded on disguising the Graf Spee as an Allied warship. Langsdorff had the front and side walls of the solid forward superstructure painted a light color but the edges dark, to give the appearance of a British tripod mast. Eventually he went on to add a dummy turret to further obscure the Graf Spee's distinctive silhouette.

She seized her second ship, the Newton Beach, on 5 October. The Newton Beach steamed right up to the Graf Spee, taking her for a French naval vessel. With this merchantman Langsdorff also gained a document, the only one not destroyed by the crew, giving him sufficient information to simulate Allied radio signals. Moreover, it confirmed that Britain was not yet convoying its merchant ships.

Two days later he captured the Ashlea, whose crew also believed the raider French. Langsdorff transferred her crew to the Newton Beach and took vital supplied aboard the Graf Spee, then sank the Ashlea. This capture yielded more valuable intelligence that no two ships were taking the same route, meaning that the Graf Spee would have to actively search for additional prizes after each capture.

At this time the Graf Spee experienced a blow to her reconnaissance capabilities when a crack developed in the engine block of her floatplane. In addition, the Newton Beach's slow speed held the Graf Spee back so badly that Langsdorff had to take off her crew and send her to the bottom.

On the afternoon of 10 October the Graf Spee captured the Huntsman, a large British ship carrying a variety of commodities. Since Langsdorff lacked accommodations for her 84-man crew he did not sink her right away. Instead, he put a prize crew aboard and arranged for a rendezvous.

The Ashlea, Newton Beach and Huntsman were all seized in a small area north of St. Helena, and Langsdorff prudently decided not to linger further. First he sent out a bogus submarine alarm, ostensibly from the Newton Beach. Then in the evening after capturing the Huntsman he radioed to the Naval Staff Operations Division, giving them his intelligence that merchant shipping routes had shifted as much as 300 miles south of peacetime routes. The headquarters replied by leaving the risks to his discretion, "if rapid and effective results are considered desirable."

The Graf Spee detected considerable radio traffic among British stations in Africa, and Langsdorff surmised that the Royal Navy was reinforcing the South Atlantic. He believed that considerable naval forces could be assembled at Cape Town, under the worst circumstances a battleship, two aircraft carriers, six heavy cruisers and six light cruisers, all determined to find the Graf Spee. His appraisal was only slightly inflated.

On 14 October the Naval Staff Operations Division sent Langsdorff a fairly accurate estimate of the forces arrayed against him:


  • East Coast of South America: Cruisers Ajax, HMNZS Achilles, Exeter, and Cumberland, with destroyers; possibly Vindictive and Despatch
  • West Coast of Africa: Cruisers Neptune, Danae, Albatross, destroyers, two submarines
  • Durban Area: Cruisers Sussex and Shropshire
  • Passing South Through Red Sea: Aircraft Carrier Glorious, battleship Malaya
  • North America and West Indies: Cruisers Berwick, York, Orion, Perth, destroyers
  • Gibraltar Area: Cruisers Norfolk, Suffolk, seven submarines from Malta


  • Submarine Watch From East Atlantic and West Indian Stations at Brest, Dakar, Casablanca, Safi and Fort de France
  • Dakar Area: New 6th Squadron of fourteen submarines, four destroyers, cruiser Primaguet

This was in sharp contrast to the intelligence situation, or more properly the lack of it, of the British in October 1939. First of all, the British thought they were hunting the Scheer and not the Graf Spee, and even at that Churchill suspected it might be a fake, an ingenious ruse to confuse the Royal Navy. Also, the possibility was raised that there might be two such raiders in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, so simultaneous searches were conducted in both, wasting valuable resources. Furthermore, the pattern that Langsdorff was establishing of withdrawing after making his presence known there thwarted attempts to pin him down.

The British even misunderstood the primary German objective. Churchill believed that a more logical goal than dispersing British shipping, as the Graf Spee and Deutschland were doing, was to herd it toward the British Isles, rendering it vulnerable to Luftwaffe attack.

The Graf Spee met the Altmark on the morning of 14 October, and this time it was the turn of the latter's Captain Dau to mistake her at first for a French naval vessel. The two German ships stayed together and rendezvoused with the Huntsman at 0830 16 October, after which the prisoners aboard her were sent to the Altmark, and the Huntsman sunk.

Langsdorff believed that his initial successes east of Pernambuco had intensified merchant traffic around the Cape of Good Hope. Accordingly he continued on his way there, despite the dangers, and was willing to venture as far as the seas east of Durban, if necessary.

He sank the Trevanion on 22 October, but not before the British ship got off a confused, semi-coherent radio message that alarmed Langsdorff and the British naval commander at Simonstown. Langsdorff sped westward, a fortunate decision, as waiting for him off the coast of South Africa were an aircraft carrier and two fast capital ships perfectly capable of catching and sinking his ship, the HMS Renown and the French battlecruiser Strasbourg.

The next night the Graf Spee passed a blacked-out vessel. Under international law Langsdorff would have been justified in attacking immediately. But despite this and clear conditions, he elected not to attack, feeling that it would have been difficult to spot the fall of shot, and that the range was too great to use torpedoes. Langsdorff's bridge officers believed she was a fast passenger liner but his gunnery officers, equipped with powerful optics and, as they would show in Montevideo, perhaps equally powerful imaginations, were convinced she was the aircraft carrier HMS Furious.

The Graf Spee and her tender met once more on 28 October. Then Langsdorff informed his officers that he intended to carry out an Operations Division-suggested diversion into the Indian Ocean as, after the taking of the Trevanion, the enemy was concentrating effort on the South Atlantic off South Africa. By appearing near Madagascar the German pocket battleship would draw attention to the southwest Indian Ocean and cause even more confusion.

The Graf Spee passed Cape Town at 0400 3 November, well out of aerial reconnaissance range. Heavy seas slowed her progress and made it difficult to take prizes. Also, new cracks appeared in the airplane's engine, delaying scouting, and had to be fixed in an improvised manner with metallic cement and a steel band.

Once in the Indian Ocean, Langsdorff sank no merchant ships at first. He had three options; he could move up the Straits of Mozambique, shell the South African coast, or send his aircraft to bomb the oil storage tanks at Durban.

Langsdorff cruised past the southern tip of Madagascar, reaching the area northeast of Lourenco Marques, Mozambique on the morning of 14 November. The next day the Graf Spee encountered and sank the British tanker Africa Shell. Knowing that now that there was definitely a German raider in the Indian Ocean, the Royal Navy frantically sent Force H of Sussex and Shropshire and Force K of Renown and Ark Royal, then cruising off the the west coast of Africa, toward the Cape. But Langsdorff, his mission complete, left the Indian Ocean by the end of the month.

The Graf Spee's seaplane was not the only source of mechanical difficulties. Her diesel engines represented a major innovation, but they also presented major problems. On 24 November Langsdorff told his officers that the engines needed overhaul in Germany, to which the Graf Spee was scheduled to return in January 1940.

Equally significant, he informed them that he no longer wished to avoid combat under all circumstances, but would "take what was coming" with the full power of his ship. One factor in this decision was a deep fear of fast Allied cruisers capable of shadowing the Graf Spee out of gun range, calling in heavier reinforcements. Langsdorff hoped to strike any cruiser hard enough and early enough that it could not shadow. Furthermore, his aggressive streak was as strong as ever. Since the cruise was almost over, the captain stated: "There is therefore no longer the same degree of importance in the possibility of the ship being hit. If the Graf Spee can get into the range of a convoy escort warship, its heavy guns can at least damage any opponent (except the Renown) so that it would no longer be of use to the convoy."

He wanted to score one, last, big victory before heading home, his determination even greater because no other raider would be coming to take the Graf Spee's place. For this extra audacity was needed.

Graf Spee in 1936.


He had a clear idea of where he could accomplish one final victory before heading home. In one of the most crucial decisions of his voyage, Langsdorff headed for the general vicinity of the Trevanion's capture until about 6 December, then move to South America and the River Plate traffic.

Grand Admiral Erich Raeder saw a chance to exploit the British naval dispersal caused by the Graf Spee. Although Raeder was an adherent to the classic battleline, this means of warfare was precluded by Hitler's early ignition of the war. But Raeder was also a student of cruiser operations in World War I, and understood the opportunity he faced.

He ordered a sortie by the new battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to the North Atlantic, under Vice Admiral Wilhelm Marschall. Marschall almost succeeded in breaking out undetected, but late in the afternoon of 23 November his battlecruisers met the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi. At dusk her captain, E. C. Kennedy, signalled "Enemy battlecruisers sighted" before being engaged.

The Rawalpindi fought a brave but obviously doomed battle for sixteen minutes before her destruction. The Germans then moved in to rescue her crew, the only time during the war that heavy German warships did so after a battle. However, they fled when the light cruiser Newcastle arrived.

Marschall returned to Germany by a circuitous route to the far north and wretched weather, which flooded forward turrets and did much more damage than the Rawalpindi. They made it home undetected by the Royal Navy, aided in large part by excellent signals intelligence.

Raeder was highly critical of Marchall's actions. He disagreed first with his decision not to engage the Newcastle, to which Marschall responded by asserting the doctrine that heavy warships should not attack torpedo-carrying lighter ships under conditions of low visibility. Actually Marschall's prompt withdrawal saved him from engagement with the far superior Home Fleet. Furthermore, Raeder believed that Marshcall erred by not returning directly home once he felt breakout was impractical. For his part, Marschall perceived the Grand Admiral's criticisms as unwarranted attacks on the judgment of a commander at sea, who was in a much better position than his shore-bound superior to appraise the situation at hand.

The sortie of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau was to have a major effect on the eventual fate of the Graf Spee. In the aftermath of his dispute with Marschall, Raeder would be reluctant to give Langsdorff critical intelligence that the "man on the scene" could not hope to get for himself.

The Graf Spee sank the Doric Star in the eastern South Atlantic on 2 December. The German raider then launched her aircraft on a scouting mission that was almost its last. The batteries in the aircraft's radio were defective, and the pilot could not be kept informed of the mother ship's course, later had to land in heavy seas that almost swamped it. The plane and its crew were recovered that night after attracting the Graf Spee with a star shell.

Before sinking the Doric Star was able to send off an alert. The initiative in the South Atlantic was firmly in German control, and Churchill actually expressed relief that the Graf Spee was making her presence known by sinking ships on the Cape-Freetown route.

Langsdorff captured and sank another vessel, the Tairoa, on 3 December. As she was being stopped Langsdorff tried to forestall the "RRR" transmissions by spraying her bridge with light gunfire. This wounded three men, the first casualties inflicted by the Graf Spee.

Across the Atlantic, Commodore Henry Harwood was acting under the same intelligence contraints as other officers in the Royal Navy. He was commander of the South Atlantic Division and Force G, consisting of the heavy cruisers Cumberland and Exeter, and the light cruisers Ajax and Achilles, the last a New Zealand ship. His most recent intelligence was from the 15 November sinking of the Africa Shell during Langsdorff's Indian Ocean foray, and from there he could only guess the German's intentions.

Harwood was under orders from the Admiralty not to spread out his ships in hope of catching the raider. But wear and tear, and the need to guard three widely separated points—the shipping focal points of Rio de Janeiro and the River Plate, and his base of Port Stanley in the Falklands—dictated that there had to be some dispersal. On Saturday, 2 December the Ajax and Exeter were at Port Stanley, with the Cumberland patrolling off the River Plate, and the Achilles off Rio de Janeiro. The flagship Ajax was finishing a brief period of rest and refitting and was about to sail to join the other vessels, with the Exeter staying behind to finish some repairs.

One option that Harwood believed the German captain was considering was an attack on Port Stanley on 8 December, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the attempted attack by Admiral Graf Spee that resulted in the destruction of his squadron. Port Stanley was not much of a base, but it was all Harwood had, and he was loathe to see it damaged. Its importance was heightened by the difficulty of procuring fuel elsewhere, as international law stated that a belligerent warship could not enter a neutral country's port more often than once every three months. However, Harwood had cultivated excellent relations with the nearby South American countries, and this rule was not as stringently enforced as it might have been.

He could do little about the Graf Spee until he received fresh intelligence. The Cumberland urgently needed repairs, and he recalled her to the Falklands to rejoin the Exeter on 7 December. They would patrol the islands against the "anniversary" attack, then the Cumberland would undergo maintenance.

On 2 December Harwood sailed in the Ajax for the Plate to relieve the Cumberland. Within an hour he got world from the Admiralty that the Doric Star had just been attacked by a German pocket battleship southwest of St. Helena, more than 3,000 miles from any of the places where shipping concentrated around South America. Before dawn the next day, he was informed that an unknown vessel, actually the Tairoa, had been similarly attacked 170 miles southwest of the Doric Star's position.

The commodore came to a conclusion that, based on such limited intelligence, amounted to a very fortuitous educated guess. First, he believed that the Graf Spee was headed for the River Plate. Then he calculated her average speed as 15 knots. Only the Germans knew the performance of their diesels, and Harwood had absolutely no idea of the raider's fuel reserves, or her ability to burn oil for extra speed.

Harwood was on the mark. The Graf Spee's top speed had been 28.5 knots, but tropical growths on her hull had cut that to 25. Normally she cruised at 22 knots, though delays on her voyage to the Plate meant that her average was 15.

He acted on his expectations by ordering the Exeter, Achilles and Ajax to meet off the River Plate on 10 December. Harwood's gamble on the attractiveness of the Plate ship traffic was a bold one, as the Falklands and Rio de Janeiro were each about 1,000 miles away. If Harwood was wrong, there would be no chance to react.

The Graf Spee met the Altmark on 6 December and put 144 prisoners on the supply ship, keeping only the captains and radio operators on the pocket battleship. Langsdorff also wanted to conduct searchlight drills that night, as he considered nighttime combat likely, followed in the morning by range-finding exercises. The Graf Spee's position was far from normal shipping routes, and Langsdorff considered the searchlight practice safe enough. But this ended suddenly at 2242, when a blacked-out ship was sighted. The captain again chose not to sink her, this time believing that she was a German merchant vessel that had broken out and was on the long voyage home.

At 1843 7 December, the Graf Spee captured and sank the British ship Streonshalgh. Besides 31 prisoners, the Germans recovered one of two bags of documents that the crew tried to sink. The papers outlined assembly points for British vessels off the Plate estuary.

Langsdorff was given still another reason to head for the Plate. He was told by the Operations Division that there was a convoy of four ships, at a total of 30,000 tons, about to leave Montevideo escorted by an auxiliary cruiser. It was one piece of intelligence that would not work in Langsdorff's favor.

To be continued.

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