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ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE
Sister ships: DEUTSCHLAND, ADMIRAL SCHEER
Notes: Following World War I, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles allowed Germany to build warships with a maximum displacement of 10,000 tons and a maximum gun size of 11". It was guessed that within these limits, nothing larger or more powerful than a coast defense ship could be built. And in the years immediately following World War I, economic conditions in Germany precluded much shipbuilding of any kind. However, planning and design did take place; and combined with the "new technologies" of diesel engines and electric welding, what did emerge in 1933 was a type of ship that surprised nearly everyone. The first of the class, the DEUTSCHLAND, was tagged as a "pocket battleship". More accurately, it was a heavily-armed, thinly-armored commerce raider, capable of steaming for long distances without refueling, and (referring to warships) able to sink anything it couldn't out-run, and out-run anything that could catch it (with the exception of the British battlecruisers HOOD, RENOWN and REPULSE -- and the Washington Treaties forbade the British to build any more battlecruisers). It should be noted that critics of the design "turned it around" and noted that they "couldn't sink anything they could catch, and couldn't catch anything they could sink". However, those critics went largely unheard, and the "Panzerschiffes" (armored ships) caused a large amount of concern in many navies. The class were regarded as good sea boats, but wet in a heavy sea.
ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE was launched in June, 1934, and commissioned in January, 1936 as fleet Flagship. She served in the "Non-Intervention Patrol" during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1937. A refit in 1938 added six 4.1" guns, and three additional 3.45" guns (bringing the total to six). At the beginning of World War II, she was relatively successful as a commerce raider in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, sinking nine merchant ships of 50,089 tons total. On 13 December 1939, GRAF SPEE was "caught" by the British cruisers EXETER, AJAX and ACHILLES, at what became known as the Battle of the River Platte. Commodore H. H. Harwood, aboard the AJAX, divided his forces and approached GRAF SPEE from different quarters, forcing Captain Langsdorff to divide his fire. GRAF SPEE quickly scored several hits on the EXETER, knocking out one of her forward 8" turrets and damaging many of the bridge controls. In return, GRAF SPEE took two salvoes of British 6" shells, which knocked out her fire control system; after this point, GRAF SPEE's fire was noted as "erratic". (Hailey and Lancelot, CLEAR FOR ACTION, p.149; see Bibliography.) Langsdorff ordered smoke to be laid, and the GRAF SPEE successfully withdrew from the battle into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. The British cruisers, despite their damages and low supplies of ammunition, trailed GRAF SPEE, then waited for her to depart. By international law, Langsdorff was allowed 72 hours to effect repairs and depart, or be interred by local authorities. In the meantime, the British heavy cruiser CUMBERLAND had joined Harwood's forces outside the harbor; and deliberately worded radio messages, designed to be "overheard" by the GRAF SPEE, mislead the Germans to believe that even heavier forces were present -- and waiting for the GRAF SPEE to emerge from Montevideo. On 17 December, unwilling to sacrifice his crew against overwhelming odds, Langsdorff ordered the release of 61 captive officers from the merchant ships sunk earlier (but still aboard) at Montevideo. Then Langsdorff ordered that the ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE be scuttled in the mouth of the River Platte. 61 of her crew were killed in action.