79 years ago, the British won a surprise victory over Nazi Germany in the first major naval battle of World War II

(AP Photo)German pocket battleship Graf Spee settles almost to the waterline outside the neutral harbour of Montevideo, Uruguay, 24 hours after explosions scuttled it on December 17, 1939. This view shows the buckled stern, which crumpled from force of the explosion and the heat.

World War II got off to a bad start for the British.

About two weeks after Poland surrendered to Germany at the end of September 1939 – succumbing to a month of the Nazi blitzkrieg – the British battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a U-boat, claiming more than 800 British sailors.

That was followed in short order by the first German air raid on the UK, targeting ships at the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

At the end of November, German mining of British waters intensified after claiming several merchant ships.

Weeks later, on December 12, the British Royal Navy suffered another setback, as the destroyer HMS Duchess collided with the battleship HMS Barham. The Duchess was cut in half and only 23 of its 160 crew members survived.

But the Royal Navy recorded a spirit-lifting victory just days later, after British ships cornered the imposing German warship Graf Spee off the coast of South America, defeating it in the first major naval battle of World War II.

The Graf Spee was much larger than any of the British ships pursuing it. Despite doing considerable damage to them, however, it was unable to fend them off.

Winston Churchill called the battle a “brilliant sea fight [that] warmed the cockles of British hearts.”

Here’s how the British claimed a victory.

When war broke out in September 1939, the Graf Spee was patrolling in the Atlantic. It played a significant role in the German effort to cut Allied shipping lines, sinking eight merchant ships between September and December. The Allies deployed “hunting groups” to track down the German battleship — 23 major ships in total.

(AP Photo)The Admiral Graf Spee, then the newest battleship of the German 10,000-ton class, arrives in its home port at Kiel, Germany, for the first time, February 14, 1936.

The Graf Spee, commissioned in 1936, was more than 600 feet long and had 1,150 crew members. It displaced well over 10,000 tons, despite Treaty of Versailles stipulations limiting German warships to that size.

It carried six 11-inch guns, with three each on two turrets – one fore and one aft. It also had eight 5.9-inch guns with 105 mm, 37 mm, and 20 mm cannons placed throughout.

The Graf Spee was equipped with eight torpedo tubes and carried two floatplane aircraft that could be launched from a catapult on its bridge superstructure.

Source: Imperial War Museums

The Graf Spee, commanded by Capt. Hans Langsdorff, sank three more ships — bringing its total merchant shipping sunk to roughly a half-million tons — before heading toward shipping lanes near the River Plate in early December. Commodore Henry Harwood of Hunting Group G guessed where the German ship was headed, closing in with heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles on December 13.

(AP Photo)The Graf Spee steams through the English Channel on its way to maneuvers off the Spanish coast on April 20, 1939. German sailors lined the rail of the vessel to watch a circling British plane from which this photo was taken.

The crew of the Achilles was 60% New Zealanders, whose country would not form its own navy until 1941.

The Royal New Zealand Navy still commemorates the battle as an example of its fortitude.

Source: Imperial War Museums, Rear Adm. Henry Harwood

The German warship engaged its pursuers just after 6 a.m., landing direct hits on the Exeter, knocking out its guns and much of its communications. The Exeter would eventually retreat to the Falkland Islands. The Graf Spee was also able to disable two of the four gun turrets on the Ajax and did damage to the Achilles.

(AP Photo)Bodies of 36 Nazi sailors, killed in fight between the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and three British cruisers, brought ashore in Swastika-covered coffins for burial at Montevideo, December 15, 1939.

Source: Imperial War Museums, Daily Mail, Rear Adm. Henry Harwood

The battle was brief but intense. The Graf Spee engaged for about 20 minutes before breaking off and attempting to evade its British counterparts. The Graf Spee had nearly twice the firepower of its pursuers but was outnumbered. The number direct hits reported on the German warship ranged from 20 to 60 or 70. Reports of the number of German sailors killed range from 36 to 113.

(AP Photo)The side of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, lying battered and shell-torn in the harbour at Montevideo, Uruguay, December 17, 1939, after her running fight with British Royal Navy cruisers.

Source: Imperial War Museums, Daily Mail, Rear Adm. Henry Harwood,Military Factory, The New York Times

The Exeter, despite its damage, was able to strike the Graf Spee’s fuel systems and galleys. The damage was limited, but it was enough. The German ship retreated to the neutral port of Montevideo in Uruguay. Harwood, the British commodore, suspected his ships had done little damage to the Graf Spee, and he decided to break off the action around 7:30 a.m.

(AP Photo)One of the two catapult planes carried by the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, its engine, wings, and tail shot off during the running battle with Royal Navy ships, in the harbour at Montevideo, Uruguay, December 17, 1939.

Source: Imperial War Museums, Daily Mail, Rear Adm. Henry Harwood

British ships continued to shadow the Graf Spee, which fired on the Ajax in the early afternoon on December 13 and then on the Achilles after sundown that day. The German ship appeared to be sailing into the River Plate. International law said warships could only remain in a neutral port for 24 hours. The Graf Spee requested 14 days to make repairs but was given only a 72-hour extension by Uruguay. British officials tried to have the ship interned or expelled.

(AP Photo)The Graf Spee in flames off Montevideo, Uruguay, December 17, 1939. When the ship was trapped in the River Plate by three British warships, its captain blew it up, and the ship sank.

Source: Imperial War Museums

Harwood initially requested the British minister in Montevideo try to delay the Graf Spee from leaving port so his reinforcements could arrive. Other Allied ships hurried to the area while Harwood kept watch outside the harbour. Only one ship, the cruiser HMS Cumberland, made it to the area, joining the Ajax and Achilles on patrol outside Montevideo on late on December 14.

(AP Photo/Friedrich Adolphe)The Admiral Graf Spee, once the pride of the German Navy, sinks near Montevideo, Uruguay, December 17, 1939. Graf Spee was scuttled by her commander, Capt. Hans Langsdorff, avoiding internment and a further fight with British warships.

Source: Imperial War Museums

Harwood still thought that the Graf Spee had sustained little damage during the December 13 battle, and he set as his goal the total destruction of the German warship. But the commander of the Graf Spee was convinced that a much more imposing force awaited him outside Montevideo. Rather than risking another engagement, he scuttled the ship on December 17.

(AP Photo)Capt. Hans Langsdorff, wearing his Iron Cross, surrounded by members of the Graf Spee’s crew, aboard a tug on arrival in Buenos Aires, as they are taken for internment, December 18, 1939.

Source: Imperial War Museums

The battled claimed the lives of 72 British sailors, but was a bright spot for the Allies amid Nazi Germany’s earlier successes — especially for the British.

(AP Photo)One sailor aboard the British cruiser Ajax, which visited Montevideo, Uruguay, wore a heavy beard on January 10, 1940.

Source: Daily Mail

Winston Churchill heralded the naval victory, saying, “This brilliant sea fight takes its place in our naval annals and in a long, cold, dark winter it warmed the cockles of the British hearts.” The British prime minister predicted, “This great battle will long be told in song and story.”

(AP Photo)Winston Churchill, first lord of the British admiralty, signs autographs with men from the cruisers Ajax and Exeter during a celebration in London on February 23, 1940.

Source: Daily Mail

The German commander faced a much more bleak fate. He left most of the ship’s 350 crew ashore in Montevideo and sailed out of the harbour, where he scuttled the ship. Days later, he committed suicide with a revolver at a Buenos Aires hotel, telling his superiors in a letter that he didn’t want his motives to be misconstrued and that the captain’s “personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship.” His crew was interned in Uruguay or Argentina, and many stayed after the war.

(AP Photo)Survivors of the Admiral Graf Spee paid tribute to their dead comrades in Montevideo, December 13, 1940, one year after the fight with the British warships.

The last surviving member of the Graf Spee’s crew, Gustav Friedrich Adolph Quick, died in Montevideo in June 2007. He joined the ship at age 19 and was 89 when he died.

Source: Daily Mail, The New York Times, World War II Today

Salvagers began to recover fragments of the Graf Spee around 2000. The effort ignited controversy in Uruguay, especially the recovery of the vessel’s tailpiece: A 9-foot-high eagle sitting on a swastika, which was covered when it was brought up. The Uruguayan government protested, fearing neo-Nazis would acquire artifacts from the ship at auction. “There are ethical limits on the promotion of Nazi symbols in museums, so who are the potential buyers of these icons if not neo-Nazis?” Miguel Esmoris, director of Uruguay’s National Heritage Commission, said at the time.

(AP Photo/Marcelo Hernandez)Workers watch as an eagle from the World War II German battleship Graf Spee is salvaged in Montevideo, Uruguay, February 10, 2006. A symbol of German naval might in early World War II, the ship was sunk in December 1939. Tricky winds and river currents stymied salvage experts’ repeated attempts to raise a eagle from the submerged wreckage.

Alfredo Etchegaray, a public-relations executive, party organiser, and amateur historian who led the recovery effort in 2006, told The New York Times that the Graf Spee was a prized artifact of the war, citing reports that collectors in the US and Asia were willing to pay $US15 million or more for pieces of the ship.

“This was the first important Allied victory of World War II, so the Graf Spee is also a valuable trophy for Germany’s enemies,” he told The Times.

Source: The New York Times

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