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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Movements of the Graf Spee

The Movements of the Graf Spee

AFTER SINKING the Clement on 30 September, the Admiral Graf Spee made a cast more than 2000 miles to the eastward and between 5 and 10 October captured and later sank three steamers—the Newton Beech, 4651 tons, the Ashlea, 4222 tons, and the Huntsman, 8196 tons— all homeward-bound from South Africa. On 14 October, south-west of St. Helena, the raider refuelled from the Altmark, to whom she transferred the crews of the sunken ships. Returning towards the African coast, she intercepted and sank on 22 October the steamer Trevanion, 5299 tons, homeward-bound from South Australia. Six days later the raider again refuelled from the Altmark in mid-Atlantic. She then made a wide sweep into the Indian Ocean, but sighted nothing until 15 November, when she sank the small tanker Africa Shell, 706 tons, 160 miles north-east of Lourenco Marques. Next day she stopped the Dutch steamer Mapia but allowed her to proceed. Eleven days later, the Admiralty ordered Forces ‘H’ (Sussex and Shropshire) and ‘K’ (Ark Royal and Renown) to patrol south of the Cape of Good Hope to intercept the raider. But, by that time, the Admiral Graf Spee was back in mid-Atlantic where, on 26 November, she had refuelled from the Altmark and re-embarked the masters and senior officers of the ships previously sunk.

The Achilles remained in company with the Cumberland till 5 November and then patrolled the coast from Santos to Rio de Janeiro, where she arrived on 10 November and spent two days. Returning south, she met the Ajax on 22 November and spent the day searching for the German merchant ships Lahn and Tacoma, which had escaped from Chilean ports. The search was unsuccessful, both German ships arriving at Montevideo during the afternoon. After refuelling, the Achilles started next day on another long, independent patrol which took her more than 2000 miles to the north. By the morning of 3 December she was off Pernambuco.

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Early in the morning of 4 December the Achilles received orders from Commodore Harwood to return to Montevideo on 8 December. Course was shaped accordingly and the ship increased speed to 19 knots to arrive on time. The elusive raider had been located again on the eastern side of the Atlantic. The timely concentration of the cruisers of the South America Division was now in progress. It is in the immensity of the open sea, devoid of natural features and obstructions such as restrict the movements of armies, that naval operations differ fundamentally from land warfare. The constant problem of the naval commander is how to intercept an opponent intent upon evasion. From the Cape of Good Hope to the Falkland Islands is 4000-odd miles, to the River Plate 3700 miles, and to Rio de Janeiro 3270 miles. The shortest distance across the South Atlantic is 1630 miles from Pernambuco to Freetown, and from that line southward to the Cape is 3100 miles. Even the increased range of observation afforded by the aircraft of the warships searching for the Admiral Graf Spee represented but tiny circles in the 10,000,000 square miles of the South Atlantic.

The Admiral Graf Spee had returned to the area where she had sunk the Trevanion and there, on 2 December, she intercepted and sank the Blue Star liner Doric Star, 10,086 tons, homeward-bound from New Zealand and Sydney with a full cargo of meat, dairy produce, and wool. The destruction of this ship and her valuable cargo was a considerable success for the raider, but it was shortly to prove her undoing. The Doric Star had succeeded in transmitting a distress signal giving her position at the time of attack. Knowing this, Captain Langsdorf left the area at high speed. Early next morning he sighted and sank the Shaw Savill steamer Tairoa, 7983 tons, bound from Australia to England with a cargo of meat, wool, and lead. This was the day on which Commodore Harwood ordered his cruisers to concentrate off the River Plate. On 6 December the Admiral Graf Spee refuelled from the Altmark for the last time. She was then nearly half-way between St. Helena and the River Plate area and about 1700 miles from Montevideo. Next day she sank her last victim, the British steamer Streonshalh, 3895 tons, laden with wheat from the River Plate. In ten weeks the raider had destroyed nine British ships totalling 50,089 tons without the loss of a single life.

When the Doric Star reported on 2 December that she was being attacked by a pocket battleship, she was more than 3000 miles from the South American coast. A similar report was broadcast early the following day by an unknown ship—it was in fact, the Tairoa—170 miles south-west of that position. Commodore Harwood correctly anticipated that the raider, knowing she had been reported, would leave that area and probably cross the South Atlantic. He estimated that at a cruising speed of 15 knots, she could arrive in the Rio de Janeiro focal area by the morning of 12 December, the River Plate area by the evening of that day or early on 13 December, or the Falkland Islands area by 14 December. ‘I decided,’ he wrote, ‘that the Plate, with its larger number of ships and its very valuable grain and meat trade, was the vital area to be defended. I therefore arranged to concentrate there my available forces in advance of the time at which it was anticipated the raider might start operations in that area.’

At seven o’clock on the morning of 12 December, the Ajax and Achilles joined company with the Exeter 150 miles east of Punta Medanos, in the southern approach to the River Plate. The Cumberland was refitting at Port Stanley. During the afternoon, Commodore Harwood gave his captains the clearest picture of his intentions in two brief signals, the first of which began: ‘My page 7 policy with three cruisers in company versus one pocket battleship—attack at once by day or night…’, and then set out the tactics to be adopted. The essence of the second signal was that captains were to act ‘without further orders so as to maintain decisive gun range’. During the evening, the British cruisers exercised these tactics. It was a full-dress rehearsal of the drama that was staged next morning.

The Admiral Graf Spee was a well-armoured ship of some 12,000 tons displacement, with a speed of 25 knots or better. She mounted six 11-inch guns in two triple turrets and eight 5.9-inch guns, four on each beam. The 11-inch guns had a maximum range of 30,000 yards (15 sea miles) and fired a projectile of 670 pounds. She also had eight torpedo-tubes in quadruple mountings. The Exeter was armed with six 8-inch guns in three turrets, each gun firing a projectile of 256 pounds. The Ajax and Achilles each had eight 6-inch guns in four turrets, firing a projectile of 112 pounds. The secondary guns of the German ship were the equal in weight of the main armament of either the Ajax or the Achilles. She could fire a total weight of 4830 pounds as against 3328 pounds from the three British cruisers, though the rate of her 11-inch guns was slower. The British ships had an advantage in speed of about five knots. But against the material superiority of the Admiral Graf Spee was to be set a vitally important moral factor. British naval doctrine, established by long tradition, laid down that ‘war at sea cannot be waged successfully without risking the loss of ships. Should the object to be achieved justify a reasonable loss of ships, the fact that such losses may occur should be no deterrent to the carrying out of the operation.’