Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sixty four years ago today the German Navy scuttled the Graf Spee off the coast of Montevideo, Uruguay.  Though often dubbed a "pocket battleship" because of her 11 inch guns, the 16,000 ton Graf Spee, while larger than a heavy cruiser, was only one third the size of battleships such as the HMS Hood (47,000 tons) and German battleship Bismarck (50,000 tons).  After the outbreak of World War II, the ship sank several merchant vessels in the South Atlantic, and Great Britain responded by deploying nine different squadrons of ships in search of the raider.   On December 13, 1939, a British squadron consisting of one heavy cruiser (Exeter) and two light cruisers (Achilles and Ajax), intercepted the ship off the coast of Uruguay.  The German warship moved south toward the British squadron at full speed, and opened fire while still beyond the range of its adversaries.   The larger Exeter moved northwest, drawing a portion of Graf Spee's fire, while the two smaller cruisers moved to the northeast.  See Winston Churchill, The Second World War: Vol. I: The Gathering Storm, 521-22  (1948) (producing five diagrams detailing various phases of the battle).  Battered by several 11 inch shells, the Exeter withdrew, after scoring several hits of her own.   Damaged and still harried by the Ajax and Achilles, the Graf Spee made smoke and sought refuge in port of Montevideo. 
Once in port, the German vessel sought two weeks to make repairs.  However, British diplomats invoked the 1907 Hague Convention Concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, to which Uruguay was a signatory.  Article XII of the Convention required belligerent ships to depart from a neutral port within 24 hours of entry.  British diplomats initially invoked this article in an effort to force Uruguay immediately to expel the German raider.  However, the British Admiralty had dispatched the heavy cruiser Cumberland to join the Ajax and Achilles, and additional vessels were scheduled to arrive on December 19.  As a result, the British invoked Article XVI of the convention, which prohibited a belligerent ship from leaving a neutral port less than 24 hours after a ship from a different belligerent.  British and French merchant vessels began departing in 24 hour intervals, thereby delaying any possible departure by the German vessel.  Anticipating that the injured vessel would soon be hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, a skeleton crew sailed the Graf Spee out to sea and scuttled her, as pictured above.