Admiral Graf Spee

Admiral  Graf Spee

After first salvos, the British warships split up. The Exeter increased speed and headed for the enemy, while the Ajax and Achilles tried to flank the German warship from the other side. At about 6.20, the Achilles opened fire, followed shortly thereafter by the Ajax. In the meantime, also the Admiral Graf Spee’s secondary battery joined the artillery duel and quickly scored hits on the Exeter. At 6.25 a shell destroyed the paint store room in the bow section of the British cruiser. Soon, the second hit the forward superstructure. The third hit, on the “B” turret, was most dangerous. Eight men were instantly killed and the splinters showered the bridge, killing or wounding all officers and seamen present apart from the ship’s commander Captain Bell. In the meantime the emergency parties were flooding the magazines. While the British sailors were trying to save the Exeter from an explosion, the light cruisers continued the fight. At 6.25, the battleship’s torpedo officer, Commander Gerfried Brutzer, warned Captain Langsdorff that the British light cruiser were in position for a torpedo attack. After a short council, the previous heading was altered to north-west. While the Admiral Graf Spee was turning, her battery switched targets and started firing at the light cruisers, which turned out to be Langsdorff’s greatest mistake. First, he failed to take advantage of the heavier battery, which allowed him to fire from a distance at which his ship was beyond the reach of enemy guns. Then, he split artillery fire between targets instead on concentrating on the strongest enemy warship. Following the change of course of the German vessel, both British light cruisers were on her starboard, some 12 000 metres away. So far, their fire had been independent yet fierce, but from then on it was coordinated and controlled by the artillery officer of the Ajax. Despite the well-aimed German fire, the British hit back with all they got. In the battle, the Admiral Graf Spee was hit twice by 203 mm shells fired by the Exeter. The first hit amidship and exploded inside the hull causing damage and casualties. The second hit the Admiral’s bridge. A number of 150 mm shells exploded close to the ship and the splinters caused some damage to the hull. The forward main battery turret directed by Commander Ascher again switched the target to the Exeter, which closed the distance and launched three torpedoes from the starboard. The Admiral Graf Spee turned and they passed her at a safe distance. At 6.34, the light cruiser Achilles closed on the German warship and opened fire. First shell hit the communication boats stored between the superstructure and the funnel and the second hit 10.5 cm gun turret damaging it slightly. The Admiral Graf Spee made a turn and laid smoke screen.

Funnel seen from top. Note the large platform with two searchlights and two 2 cm mounts on each side.

Exchanging blows

The fire exchange lasted for a couple of minutes with both sides scoring hits. However, the British fire was more efficient since it was directed by a spotter plane from the Ajax. Avoiding subsequent torpedoes and laying smoke screen the Admiral Graf Spee headed west, away from the open ocean. Commodore Harwood ordered screening of the German warship, while remaining beyond the range of her guns. British warships were in pitiful condition. The Exeter was hit several times, fires were raging on board which were only extinguished with difficulty. She had a 10 degrees list, 61 killed and 23 wounded. Moreover, the aft turret was out of action due to malfunction in the electrical system (both forward turrets had been put out of action earlier). The Ajax had both of her aft turrets damaged. Fires were burning inside the hull, which were put out after some time. Seven crewmen were killed and 16 were injured. The Achilles was hit by splinters of a 28 cm shell which exploded close to her side near the bridge. Four seamen were killed in the artillery control room when it was destroyed. The Admiral Graf Spee received two direct 203 mm and eighteen 150 mm hits. Her main armour was pierced and she sustained serious internal damage to communication routes and most of her magazines were cut off. Both turrets “A” and “B” were damaged and so was the secondary battery ammunition hoist. The explosion destroyed the fire control room and killed its crew. Raw fuel processing systems, radio direction-finder, galley, desalination plant, spotter floatplane, communication boats, wardroom and mess room were destroyed. Approximately 60% of the ammunition was expended. Thirty-six men were killed and 60 were injured. Langsdorff decided that it was necessary to make repairs to the hull and then try to break through to Germany via the North Atlantic. Therefore, he headed for Montevideo to make crucial repairs. He informed the Naval Warfare Command (SKL) about his decision and soon received Admiral Reader’s permission. Both British light cruisers screening the German warship at a safe distance, were fired upon when they tried to close the distance. Meanwhile, the heavily damaged Exeter was heading for the Falkland Islands. After 8.00, the radio antennas aboard the Ajax were repaired and the warning concerning the German raider was transmitted. Commodore Harwood called for the heavy cruiser Cumberland stationed at Port Stanley to replace the damaged Exeter. Subsequent attempts to close the distance taken by Achilles and Ajax ended with the Admiral Graf Spee opening fire. Ten minutes after midnight on December 14, 1939. the German warship anchored in the roadstead of the Uruguayan harbour of Montevideo.

Endnotes

1 Kapitän zur See.
2 British warships were a part the South American Division under command of Commodore Harwood. Initially, the heavy cruiser Exeter was the flagship, but she had to undergo an overhaul at Port Stanley, so the commodore transferred his flag to the light cruiser Ajax. Soon, the Exeter was called back and joined the task force. In her absence, the New Zealand light cruiser Achilles was detached from the South Pacific as her replacement.
3 Commander (Korvettenkapitän) Paul Ascher was the battleship’s artillery officer, commanding the main 280 mm battery. Lieutenant Commander (Kapitänleutnant) Kurt Meusemann (Third Artillery Officer) commanded the secondary 150 mm battery and the anti-aircraft battery was under command of Captain - Junior Grade (Fregattenkapitän) Hans Fuchs.

 

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