The construction of the third Panzerschiff was planned for 1929, but it was actually started three years later. That decision was partially influenced by the fear of the Western powers reaction, mainly that of Germany’s closest neighbour – France.
The 1931 contract for construction of the first of two Dunkerque class “battle cruisers” armed with 330 mm guns questioned the sense of ordering another Deutschland class units. In the meantime German designers quickly prepared some new designs of the Panzerschiff C, considering even the reduction in number of the main battery guns and their calibre to 210 mm. That in comparison to new French warships that were being built turned out to be hard to accept.
Another design included the concept of arming the ship with 240 mm main battery guns in three triple turrets. However, time was the most significant problem - the Germans simply had next to none. If the armament change to 240 mm guns had been accepted along with 30 knots speed requirement, the same armour protection and 10 000 tons displacement limit, designing of a new warship would have taken too much time. When the idea of the Panzerschiff was being born, the political situation in Germany and in the world was changing, which affected both their design and construction, especially the last unit in the class – Panzerschiff C. After the second unit of the class, Panzerschiff B (Ersatz Lotharingen) was laid down, the future of the German capital ships construction programme was unclear due to proposed changes in the already prepared designs. In 1932 Admiral Reader suggested to increase the displacement of the Panzerschiff C to 15 000/18 000 tons and arm her with nine 280 mm guns in three triple turrets. The second option proposed by the admiral was a warship armed with eight 203 mm guns in four twin turrets. Finally, as Germany had no official means to bypass the Treaty of Versailles, the ship was ordered with the previous design specifications. Therefore, third unit of the class, the so-called Panzerschiff C (Ersatz Braunschweig), was ordered from the Marinenwerft shipyard in Wilhelmshaven (construction number 124) on August 23, 1932. The keel was laid on October 1, 1932 on the Slipway 2. The construction was supervised by director Lottman with constructor Dykmann acting as his assistant.
The Deutschland class construction programme had so far been unofficially and systematically altered under influence of changes in political situation, both in Germany and in the world. These contributed to construction of three different warships. Formally all there units had the same characteristics but these figures, especially displacement, were the same only on paper. It was not a real secret, as a close look at their appearance and dimensions revealed the truth that the real characteristics did not correspond to those in the official documents. However, such comparison was only possible after all three units had been commissioned. It took place in 1936 when Hitler was powerful enough as not to bother with such “details”, as abiding previously signed treaties.
As far as differences among the units were concerned, the most noticeable was that in the construction of the control tower (“Kommandoturm” in German). The first version installed on the Deutschland was cylindrical and turned out to be too small, if the warship had to act as a flagship. The next unit, Admiral Scheer, had a larger and more functional control tower. However, after first trials it was observed that in strong headwinds it acted as a sail, reducing the ship’s speed by approximately 1 to 2 knots. A decision was quickly made to rebuild it into a more cylindrical one, similar to that on the Deutschland. The Admiral Graf Spee, as the last to be commissioned, incorporated more internal changes then her predecessors. These, however, were soon found to be insufficient. It is worthy of mention that her control tower was also supposed to be rebuilt, but the outbreak of the war and the scuttling of the ship in 1939 made that impossible.
The hull of unit C – Ersatz Braunschweig was launched on June 30, 1934. Admiral von Spee’s daughter Huberta von Spee named her Admiral Graf Spee. Commander-in-Chief of the Reichsmarine Admiral Reader and numerous distinguished guests attended the launch ceremony. The living crew members of the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as well as those of the light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg, which were all sunk in 1914 while being a part of Vice Admiral von Spee’s squadron, were also invited. Following the launching ceremony, the hull was towed to the B5 fitting berth, where the construction work continued for another year. The construction took three years and three months and cost about 82 million Reichsmark. General characteristics of the Admiral Graf Spee are presented in table no. 1.
The hull was predominately constructed with ST 52 and ST 45 ship steel as well as aluminium. Ninety percent of hull plates were electrically welded, which was then a novel method and allowed for up to 20% hull weight reduction in comparison to traditional riveting. Numerous alterations were introduced in construction of the Admiral Graf Spee’s hull in comparison to her predecessors, such as 13 degrees inclination of the side armour, which stretched between frames 29½ and 148. Armoured decks of the previous two units did not cover the entire beam as was the case with the Admiral Graf Spee. Moreover, Panzerschiff C received a longitudinal anti-torpedo bulkhead which reached as far as the outer bottom, while in the previous two units it only reached the inner bottom. The armour thickness of the transverse anti-torpedo bulkheads was increased and so was that of the walls and floors of the superstructure.
The ship was powered by four sets of Diesels, each comprised two MAN M 9 Zu 42/58 engines. Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg was contracted to manufacture the ship’s engines on June 8, 1933, and they underwent the first shipyard trials on December 5, 1935. The M9 Zu 42/53 were nine cylinder, two-stroke, medium-speed engines. The power output of a single engine was 6655 HP and for a short period of it could generate the maximum of 7100 HP. The engines were installed in four separate engine rooms located in compartments VI and VIII (engine room I and II) for the port side shaft and compartments IX and XI (engine room III and IV) for the starboard shaft. Two sets of engines transferred their power through transmission gears and clutches to propeller shaft with 3.83 m diameter propeller, smaller than that installed on the Deutschland (4.40 m). Transmission gears manufactured by Vulcan were installed in two separate rooms located in compartment VII for the port side shaft and compartment X for the starboard shaft. Propeller shafts rotated with the maximum of 250 rpm. Designed power output for the Admiral Graf Spee was 54 530 HP which would allow for the maximum speed of 26 knots, but during trials she reached 28.5 knots at 53 650 HP. There were also auxiliary engines installed along each of the main engine sets. These were MAN M 5 Z 42/48 five-cylinder, two-stroke Diesel motors, each with the power output of 3500 HP at 425 rpm. They powered pumps, compressors, fire-fighting equipment, etc. Electricity was provided by eight generators manufactured by A.E.G., Berlin with combined power output of 3360 kW, powered by 375-400 HP, six-cylinder Diesels manufactured by Linke Hoffmann, Breslau.
The main battery consisted of six 28 cm SK C/28 quick-firing guns on C 28 mounts (in two triple turrets). Their arc of fire was 290 degrees (from 0° - the axis of symmetry to 145° on each side). The secondary battery was made of eight 15 cm SK C/28 quick-firing guns on single MPL C/28 mounts, four on each side. The Admiral Graf Spee also received six 8.8 cm SK C/32 guns on three twin C/31 triaxially stabilised mountings. These were mounted on the superstructure, one on each side of the funnel and one behind the main battery gun turret “B”. In 1938, they were replaced by more effective 10.5 cm L/56 C 33 guns on C 31 mounts. Their location was identical to that of the 8.8 cm anti-aircraft guns. Eight 2.7 cm SK/L 83 C 30 guns on four C 30 mounts located abreast the forward and after superstructure were mounted to provide protection against low-flying aircraft. The light anti-aircraft artillery was supplemented by ten 2 cm MG C/30 guns on single mounts. Before setting off for her commerce raiding sortie, the ship received two more 2 cm guns mounted on the sides behind the main battery gun turret “B”, thus increasing the number of these guns to twelve pieces. During construction two quadruple 533 mm torpedo launchers was mounted on the quarterdeck. They were about five metres above the waterline. That turned out to be unfortunate, as at high speed or in heavy sea they were constantly wet which prevented their combat use. The torpedo launchers had characteristic armoured shields. Apart from the already loaded torpedoes only two spare ones were carried.
The main and secondary battery fire was directed from the forward command centre, which transferred target bearing to the artillery control room. The necessary data was acquired by rangefinders. The main battery fire was directed by two 10.5-metre rangefinders mounted in armoured rotating housings at the ship’s foretop and atop the aft command centre. Moreover, each of the main battery turrets had a 10.5-metre rangefinder installed as a backup in case the other two were damaged or broken. The secondary battery fire was directed by 7-metre rangefinder installed atop the forward command centre. The heavy anti-aircraft battery fire was directed by three self-stabilising SL 4 rangefinders. Two mounted on both sides of the funnel and one in front of the bridge slightly behind the forward command centre.
The Admiral Graf Spee was one of the first German warships to be equipped with radar equipment. In January 1938 the prototype “Seetakt” FuMG 39G (g) was installed on board the ship with 0.8 x 1.8 metre “mattress” antenna mounted on the rotating housing of the foretop rangefinder.
The ships complement was 951 seamen (1188 according to other sources).
Operational history 1936–1939
In the final phase of the fitting-out, shortly before she was commissioned, the Admiral Graf Spee underwent sea trials. They began on December 5, 1935, with engine trials which were successfully completed. A month later, on January 6, 1936, she was officially commissioned into the German navy with Captain Conrad Patzig1 as her commander. January and February sea trials demonstrated that the ship was not as seaworthy as the Admiral Scheer. However, they were conducted with partially filled fuel and water tanks which had a negative impact on ship’s stability. In February, during the Neukrug measured mile tests, the ship reached 28.5 knots at 14 000 tons displacement and 53 650 HP. In comparison to her sister ship, the Admiral Scheer, the Admiral Graf Spee was less manoeuvrable which was noticeable especially during strong gusts of wind. With deeper draft the battleship lost a knot of its speed, and if the depth of the basin was deeper, the value rose to 2 or 3 knots. Different arrangement of machinery and auxiliary equipment within the hull caused vibrations stronger than on board the Admiral Scheer. Moreover, in bad weather and heavy seas the command bridge was constantly wet. As a consequence, a decision was made to rebuild the control tower of the Admiral Scheer and the Admiral Graf Spee and install additional wind shields protecting the bridge. It was also decided that the superstructure would be altered to expand the navigation spaces. The initial trials and crew training was completed on May 9, 1936 and shortly thereafter she became the flagship of the Kriegsmarine. Her first combat operation was a patrol in the Spanish waters along with the light cruisers Leipzig and Nürnberg escorted by 6 torpedo boats. The German task force left Wilhelmshaven on August 20, 1939, and after a few days replaced the patrolling Admiral Scheer and the Deutschland. Apart from that the ship was to provide cover for evacuation of German, Swiss and Austrian citizens. She took part in more such patrols in the Spanish waters, but in the meantime, in May 1937, she also represented Germany at the Spithead Naval Review on the occasion of the Coronation of the British King George VI. After the conclusion of the review, the ship returned to her patrolling duty.
Between March and May 1938 the Admiral Graf Spee underwent an overhaul at the Deutsche Werke shipyard in Kiel, where her superstructure was slightly modified. Two searchlight platforms on the sides of the bridge superstructure were removed and replaced by a single platform and searchlight on the face of the bridge superstructure. Yard arms of the navigation bridge were enclosed and the superstructure section housing the ship’s bakery, located between the funnel and the catapult, was removed.
In 1939 the Admiral Graf Spee and the Deutschland took part in the reintegration of the Lithuanian harbour of Memel (Klaipėda) into the Germany. The operation began on March 19, 1939 and two days later, on March 21, Adolf Hitler embarked on the Deutschland anchored at Swinemünde. In the afternoon the armada comprising Admiral Scheer, Deutschland and Admiral Graf Spee, escorted by the light cruisers Nürnberg and Leipzig, destroyers, torpedo boats and minesweepers left Stettin and headed for Memel. German warships anchored in the roadstead of the Lithuanian harbour on March 23. Following the reincorporation of the port into the German Reich, the German warships returned home. On April 17, 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee along with her sistership the Deutschland and the escort of light cruisers Köln, Leipzig and Nürnberg, the 1st and 3rd Destroyer Division and a submarine flotilla (15 U-boats) and the U-boat tender Erwin Wessner took part in the naval exercises in the Atlantic. German warships visited Malaga, Granada, Vigo and the capital of Portugal – Lisbon.
Before the outbreak of the World War II on August 21, 1939, the Admiral Graf Spee left Wilhelmshaven and headed for mid Atlantic. Two days later she passed between the Farroe Islands and Iceland. On August 31, the information about the planned attack against Poland on September 1 was received. In the evening the ship was in combat readiness. In the morning of the next day she met with the fleet tanker Altmark, which acted as her supply ship, to bunker fuel and transfer provisions. For the following hours both vessels were drifting, waiting for the events to unfold. In the meantime unnecessary equipment including heavy boats, canvas landing-mat, stern and riding booms, etc. were transferred to the tanker, and so were two of the battleship’s 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. At midday of September 3, the commander of the Admiral Graf Spee was informed that Great Britain declared war on Germany. Therefore, both ships were ordered to head for the area of operation between 5° to 10° N and 25° to 35° W. In the afternoon, at about 5 p.m., the battleship’s commander Hans Willhelm Langsdorff was informed that France had also entered the war. He read the orders to the crew gathered on the quarterdeck. Later the ship headed for the South Atlantic, near Trinidad. On September 8, she crossed the Equator, so a traditional baptism ceremony was organized. She reached her waiting position on September 10, 1939. In the morning hours of the next day, the crew of the ship’s Arado floatplane spotted the British cruiser Cumberland. After the plane returned and was quickly taken on board, the Admiral Graf Spee left the area at full speed, changing course to avoid detection. Only on September 26, an order to commence the commerce raiding operations against British and French ships was received.
British freighter Clement (5051 BRT) of the Booth Line, Liverpool, destroyed by gunfire on September 30, 1939, became the first victim of the German raider. The Greek steamer Papalemos was stopped in the evening and Clement’s captain and chief engineer were transferred to that ship and Admiral Graf Spee headed south towards Cape Town. In October she sank the s/s Newton Beach, s/s Ashlea, s/s Huntsman and m/s Trevanion. The next randez-vous with the Altmark took place on October 28, 1939. The raider resupplied and transferred crews of the sunk merchantmen to the tanker. In the evening a radio message was received which ordered the ship to head for the Indian Ocean. There she sank the British m/s Africa Shell. The next day she encountered and stopped the Dutch steamer Mapia which was allowed to proceed. At the end of November, the Admiral Graf Spee met with the Altmark to refuel and replenish supplies. The crew built a dummy second gun turret behind the real forward one and erected a second funnel to make the ship look similar to the British Renown class battle cruiser.
At the beginning of December the German warship sank s/s Doric Star, s/s Tairoa and s/s Streonshalh. Documents informing about movement of British merchantmen were discovered on board the last one, so Captain Langsdorff decided to set course for the mouth of the River Plate to attack any encountered ships.
Battle of the River Plate
On December 13, 1939, the German warship was spotted near the mouth of the River Plate by Force G under command of Commodore Henry H. Harwood2. It was composed of two British warships, the heavy cruiser Exeter (flagship) and the light cruiser Ajax as well as the New Zealand light cruiser Achilles. At 5.30, smoke was spotted on the horizon by the observers on board the Admiral Graf Spee. At first, it was mistaken for an Allied convoy, so the ship headed to intercept it. Later, it was identified as cruisers which could be the convoy’s escort. After discussing the matter with his second-in-command, Captain Langsdorff decided to engage the enemy. At 6.15, the Admiral Graf Spee increased speed and altered her heading to 115 degrees, so the targets would be on her starboard. Meanwhile, the British warships were about 18 000 metres away, approaching the enemy in the line ahead. First was Harwood’s flagship, the light cruiser Ajax under command of Captain Charles H. L. Woodhouse, followed by Achilles commanded by Captain William P. Parry. The heavy cruiser Exeter under command of Captain Frederick S. Bell closed the formation. The Admiral Graf Spee opened fire first with both main battery gun turrets targeting the Exeter. The salvos fell short, so Captain Paul Ascher3 had to correct the bearing. Initially, the armour piercing shells were fired, but soon the artillery switched to high-explosive ones, more effective against lightly or non-armoured targets. The shells splashing close to the Exeter holed her superstructure, bridge and gun turrets.
After first salvos, the British warships split up. The Exeter increased speed and headed for the enemy, while the Ajax and Achilles tried to flank the German warship from the other side. At about 6.20, the Achilles opened fire, followed shortly thereafter by the Ajax. In the meantime, also the Admiral Graf Spee’s secondary battery joined the artillery duel and quickly scored hits on the Exeter. At 6.25 a shell destroyed the paint store room in the bow section of the British cruiser. Soon, the second hit the forward superstructure. The third hit, on the “B” turret, was most dangerous. Eight men were instantly killed and the splinters showered the bridge, killing or wounding all officers and seamen present apart from the ship’s commander Captain Bell. In the meantime the emergency parties were flooding the magazines. While the British sailors were trying to save the Exeter from an explosion, the light cruisers continued the fight. At 6.25, the battleship’s torpedo officer, Commander Gerfried Brutzer, warned Captain Langsdorff that the British light cruiser were in position for a torpedo attack. After a short council, the previous heading was altered to north-west. While the Admiral Graf Spee was turning, her battery switched targets and started firing at the light cruisers, which turned out to be Langsdorff’s greatest mistake. First, he failed to take advantage of the heavier battery, which allowed him to fire from a distance at which his ship was beyond the reach of enemy guns. Then, he split artillery fire between targets instead on concentrating on the strongest enemy warship. Following the change of course of the German vessel, both British light cruisers were on her starboard, some 12 000 metres away. So far, their fire had been independent yet fierce, but from then on it was coordinated and controlled by the artillery officer of the Ajax. Despite the well-aimed German fire, the British hit back with all they got. In the battle, the Admiral Graf Spee was hit twice by 203 mm shells fired by the Exeter. The first hit amidship and exploded inside the hull causing damage and casualties. The second hit the Admiral’s bridge. A number of 150 mm shells exploded close to the ship and the splinters caused some damage to the hull. The forward main battery turret directed by Commander Ascher again switched the target to the Exeter, which closed the distance and launched three torpedoes from the starboard. The Admiral Graf Spee turned and they passed her at a safe distance. At 6.34, the light cruiser Achilles closed on the German warship and opened fire. First shell hit the communication boats stored between the superstructure and the funnel and the second hit 10.5 cm gun turret damaging it slightly. The Admiral Graf Spee made a turn and laid smoke screen.
The fire exchange lasted for a couple of minutes with both sides scoring hits. However, the British fire was more efficient since it was directed by a spotter plane from the Ajax. Avoiding subsequent torpedoes and laying smoke screen the Admiral Graf Spee headed west, away from the open ocean. Commodore Harwood ordered screening of the German warship, while remaining beyond the range of her guns. British warships were in pitiful condition. The Exeter was hit several times, fires were raging on board which were only extinguished with difficulty. She had a 10 degrees list, 61 killed and 23 wounded. Moreover, the aft turret was out of action due to malfunction in the electrical system (both forward turrets had been put out of action earlier). The Ajax had both of her aft turrets damaged. Fires were burning inside the hull, which were put out after some time. Seven crewmen were killed and 16 were injured. The Achilles was hit by splinters of a 28 cm shell which exploded close to her side near the bridge. Four seamen were killed in the artillery control room when it was destroyed. The Admiral Graf Spee received two direct 203 mm and eighteen 150 mm hits. Her main armour was pierced and she sustained serious internal damage to communication routes and most of her magazines were cut off. Both turrets “A” and “B” were damaged and so was the secondary battery ammunition hoist. The explosion destroyed the fire control room and killed its crew. Raw fuel processing systems, radio direction-finder, galley, desalination plant, spotter floatplane, communication boats, wardroom and mess room were destroyed. Approximately 60% of the ammunition was expended. Thirty-six men were killed and 60 were injured. Langsdorff decided that it was necessary to make repairs to the hull and then try to break through to Germany via the North Atlantic. Therefore, he headed for Montevideo to make crucial repairs. He informed the Naval Warfare Command (SKL) about his decision and soon received Admiral Reader’s permission. Both British light cruisers screening the German warship at a safe distance, were fired upon when they tried to close the distance. Meanwhile, the heavily damaged Exeter was heading for the Falkland Islands. After 8.00, the radio antennas aboard the Ajax were repaired and the warning concerning the German raider was transmitted. Commodore Harwood called for the heavy cruiser Cumberland stationed at Port Stanley to replace the damaged Exeter. Subsequent attempts to close the distance taken by Achilles and Ajax ended with the Admiral Graf Spee opening fire. Ten minutes after midnight on December 14, 1939. the German warship anchored in the roadstead of the Uruguayan harbour of Montevideo.
1 Kapitän zur See.
2 British warships were a part the South American Division under command of Commodore Harwood. Initially, the heavy cruiser Exeter was the flagship, but she had to undergo an overhaul at Port Stanley, so the commodore transferred his flag to the light cruiser Ajax. Soon, the Exeter was called back and joined the task force. In her absence, the New Zealand light cruiser Achilles was detached from the South Pacific as her replacement.
3 Commander (Korvettenkapitän) Paul Ascher was the battleship’s artillery officer, commanding the main 280 mm battery. Lieutenant Commander (Kapitänleutnant) Kurt Meusemann (Third Artillery Officer) commanded the secondary 150 mm battery and the anti-aircraft battery was under command of Captain - Junior Grade (Fregattenkapitän) Hans Fuchs.
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