delara newsDelaware Amateur Radio Association, Delaware OH VOL 36 NUMBER 8
Wally Kenyon W8WLK
I'm breaking from tradition form an aviation story to what is to me an incredible story about how British radio operators faked radio broadcasts and...well...go ahead and read about it.Battle of the River PlateOn the morning of 13 December 1939, lookouts spotted a pair of masts off the ship's starboard bow. Langsdorff, Captain of the Admiral Graf Spee, assumed this to be the escort for a convoy. However, the ship was identified as HMS Exeter; she was accompanied by a pair of smaller warships identified as Leander-class cruisers. Langsdorff decided not to flee from the British ships, and so ordered his ship to battle stations and to close at maximum speed. At 06:08, the British spotted Admiral Graf Spee; Commodore Harwood divided his forces up to split the fire of Admiral Graf Spee's 28 cm guns. The German ship opened fire with her main battery at Exeter and her secondary guns at the flagship Ajax at 06:17. At 06:20, Exeter returned fire, followed by Ajax at 06:21 and Achilles at 06:24. In the span of thirty minutes, Admiral Graf Spee had hit Exeter three times, disabling her two forward turrets, destroying her bridge and her aircraft catapult, and starting major fires. Ajax and Achilles moved closer to Admiral Graf Spee to relieve the pressure on Exeter.Langsdorff thought the two light cruisers were making a torpedo attack, and turned away under a smokescreen. The respite allowed Exeter to withdraw from the action; by now, only one of her gun turrets was still in action, and she had suffered 61 dead and 23 wounded crew members. At around 07:00, Exeter returned to the engagement, firing from her stern turret. Admiral Graf Spee fired on her again, scored more hits, and forced Exeter to withdraw again, this time with a list to port. At 07:25, Admiral Graf Spee scored a hit on Ajax that disabled her aft turrets. Both sides broke off the action, Admiral Graf Spee retreating into the River Plate estuary, while Harwood's battered cruisers remained outside to observe any possible breakout attempts. In the course of the engagement, Admiral Graf Spee had been hit approximately 70 times; 36 men were killed and 60 more were wounded, including Langsdorff, who had been wounded twice by splinters while standing on the open bridge. ScuttlingAs a result of battle damage and casualties, Langsdorff decided to put into Montevideo, where repairs could be effected and the wounded men could be evacuated from the ship. Most of the hits scored by the British cruisers caused only minor structural and superficial damage but the oil purification plant, which was required to prepare the diesel fuel for the engines, was destroyed. Her desalination plant and galley were also destroyed, which would have increased the difficulty of a return to Germany. A hit in the bow would also have negatively affected her seaworthiness in the heavy seas of the North Atlantic. Admiral Graf Spee had fired much of her ammunition in the engagement with Harwood's cruisers. After arriving in port, the wounded crewmen were taken to local hospitals and the dead were buried with full military honors. Captive Allied seamen still aboard the ship were released. Repairs necessary to make the ship seaworthy were expected to take up to two weeks. British naval intelligence worked to convince Langsdorff that vastly superior forces were concentrating to destroy his ship, if he attempted to break out of the harbor. The Admiralty broadcast a series of signals, on frequencies known to be intercepted by German intelligence. The closest heavy units—the carrier Ark Royal and battlecruiser Renown—were some 2,900 miles away, much too far to intervene in the situation. Believing the British reports, Langsdorff discussed his options with commanders in Berlin. These were either to break out and seek refuge in Buenos Aires, where the Argentine government would intern the ship, or to scuttle the ship in the Plate estuary. Langsdorff was unwilling to risk the lives of his crew, so he decided to scuttle the ship. He knew that although Uruguay was neutral, the government was on friendly terms with Britain and if he allowed his ship to be interned, the Uruguayan Navy would allow British intelligence officers access to the ship. Under Article 17 of the Hague Convention, neutrality restrictions limited Admiral Graf Spee to a period of 72 hours for repairs in Montevideo, before she would be interned for the duration of the war. On 17 December 1939, Langsdorff ordered the destruction of all important equipment aboard the ship. The ship's remaining ammunition supply was dispersed throughout the ship, in preparation for scuttling. On 18 December, the ship, with only Langsdorff and 40 other men aboard, moved into the outer roadstead to be scuttled. A crowd of 20,000 watched as the scuttling charges were set; the crew was taken off by an Argentine tug and the ship was scuttled at 20:55. The multiple explosions from the munitions sent jets of flame high into the air and created a large cloud of smoke that obscured the ship which burned in the shallow water for the next two days.