The Graf Spee had been forced into Montevideo after the British success at the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939 – the first major naval action of World War Two.

The Graf Spee sailing into Montevideo

The Graf Spee harboured in Montevideo – much to the surprise of the British naval attaché’s office based there. The damage done to the Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate did not appear to be great. Even those on board, according to the ship’s records, were surprised at Langsdorff’s decision to sail to the neutral harbour in Uruguay. The British naval attaché in Montevideo, Henry McCall, and an Intelligence officer, Captain Rex Miller, got into a boat and sailed around the pocket battleship. They both saw little wrong with the ship’s structure and the crew seemed to be working normally as if nothing was wrong. Both British naval officers assumed that the engines were in working order as the ship had sailed at speed to Montevideo to escape the Ajax and Achilles.

“It was all something of a puzzle, and in the circumstances, we concluded that either serious damage to her fire-control system or lack of ammunition could have forced Captain Langsdorff to bring the ship into harbour.” Admiral Sir Henry McCall.

With so little obvious damage, the British asked the Uruguayans to invoke the rule used internationally for an undamaged warship in a neutral port – that it had 24-hours to leave. Either this, or the crew would be interned. This decision McCall quickly regretted as Commodore Harwood had contacted him from the Ajax to inform him that the Graf Spee was still a formidable fighting ship. However, here was McCall trying to get the Uruguayans to get the ship back into the Atlantic again – a number of days before any British reinforcements could get to the area. With only HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles in the immediate vicinity, such a move would pose a serious threat to them.

One of Langsdorff’s first acts in Montevideo was to release the crews of the merchant ships he had sunk during her most recent voyage. Out of nine merchant ships sunk, none of the crews had been killed. All of those released spoke highly of their treatment and of Langsdorff, who spoke perfect English and lent them English books to pass the time.

Langsdorff had also been busy while the Graf Spee was harboured. He had arranged for the burial of those Germans killed in battle and he had also got the Uruguayan authorities to inspect the damage to the ship so that they might not invoke the 24-hour rule.

On December 16th, the British in Montevideo got a message from Commodore Harwood asking them to do all they could to stop the Graf Spee from sailing. International law again helped the British. If a merchant ship sailed from a neutral harbour, any warship from a combatant nation (in this case the Germans and the British) could not sail for 24 hours – effectively giving a merchant ship a 24-hour start ahead of a warship. The Uruguayans were informed that the ‘SS Ashworth’, a British merchant ship in Montevideo, was sailing on the evening of December 16th and the Uruguayans accepted this. However, a ship like the Graf Spee would easily catch up with any merchant ship even with a 24 hours start. McCall and Miller even contemplated some sort of sabotage to the Graf Spee’s rudder (“the means were available”) but decided against it as a great deal of the world’s media was reporting what was happening. Any negative press release would have been damaging to the Royal Navy and would give the Germans an excellent propaganda opportunity.

On December 17th, McCall visited the Ajax and met Harwood. He again told McCall about the importance of keeping the Graf Spee in harbour even though HMS Cumberland had joined the Ajax and Achilles. Reinforcements in the shape of HMS Renown, a battle cruiser, and HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier, were refuelling in Rio de Janeiro – one thousand miles away. Hence there was only Ajax, Achilles and Cumberland between the Graf Spee and the Atlantic, and Harwood was understandably wary after the damage done to the Exeter.

On the same day, the Graf Spee was seen taking on board a great deal of stores from the ‘Tacoma’, a German merchant vessel in Montevideo. The Uruguayan authorities informed McCall that the ship had announced its intention to sail the following day.

It was then that Miller came up with a plan to convince the Germans that reinforcements had arrived and that even the Graf Spee could not take on three cruisers, one battle cruiser and one aircraft carrier. Extra fuel for the ships was ordered in Argentina and the information was leaked to the Germans via the Argentinean press as the fuel was due to be acquired from the Argentinean naval base at Mar del Plata. The Germans fell for this. The communication below clearly shows that Langsdorff believed that the British force now number five ships including an air craft carrier. Langsdorff had two choices; he could fight the British or scuttle the ship so that it did not fall into the hands of the British.

On the Sunday, crew from the Graf Spee were seen leaving the ship and by midday an estimated 800 men had left. Then the Graf Spee sailed but only with a skeleton crew on board. Just three miles out of Montevideo harbour, the Graf Spee stopped. In the evening a large explosion was seen on board the Graf Spee. The ship was still burning four days later. Langsdorff had scuttled the ship and placed explosives in such a manner that the sinking would set them off after the skeleton crew had got off. A communication between Langsdorff and Berlin shows exactly why the captain of the Graf Spee had taken this decision.

“Strategic position off Montevideo. Besides the cruisers and destroyers, Ark Royal and Renown. Close blockade at night; escape into open sea and break-through to home waters is hopeless….request decision on whether the ship should be scuttled in spite of insufficient depth in the estuary of the Plate, or whether interment is preferred.” Langsdorff“No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled.” Berlin


On December 20th Langsdorff shot himself in his hotel room. The rest of the Graf Spee’s crew was interned and many stayed in Uruguay or Argentina even after 1945. Commodore Harwood was promoted to Rear-Admiral almost immediately.