At the time, the German Battle Cruiser KMS Admiral Graf Spee was in rendezvous with its supply ship the Altmark in the Atlantic Ocean, southwest of the Canary Islands. Under orders, both the Graf Spee and the Altmark fled at high speed southward. A hunter group of 25 allied ships was ordered to find and to sink the German cruiser.
The KMS Admiral Graf Spee had been laid down as Construction Number 125 at the German navy shipyard at Wilhelmshaven on October 1, 1932, and it was launched nearly two years later on June 30, 1934. With its eight nine-cylinder MAN diesel engines, the ship could travel at the fast water speed of 32 miles per hour. This ship was christened by Huberta, the daughter of Admiral Maximilian von Spee, in honor of whom the ship was named.
During the month of October (1939), the Graf Spee sank or captured five ships in the South Atlantic before making into the Indian Ocean where there was an encounter with another two more ships. On her return to the Atlantic, the Graf Spee sank three more ships before heading towards the coast of South America at Montevideo, Uruguay. It should also be added that there was no loss of life in any of these naval encounters, and Captain Hans Langsdorff on the Graf Spee humanely ensured the safety of all personnel aboard all ships that were sunk or captured.
Around daylight on Wednesday December 13 (1939), a firefight began with Graf Spee versus three British warships; Exeter, Ajax and Achilles. After a two hour fight all four ships disengaged, and that evening the damaged Graf Spee steamed into the port of Montevideo in neutral Uruguay for repairs which would take about two weeks to complete.
The German wounded were taken to the English Hospital in Montevideo, and the dead were buried with due honor. Allied shipping personnel who had been captured by the Graf Spee before their ships were sunk, were released in Montevideo. According to international laws involving a neutral country during a war, the government of Uruguay informed the Graf Spee that it would need to leave within 72 hours, (3 days) or face internment.
The British admiralty broadcast a series of radio signals in Morse Code on frequencies known to be intercepted by German intelligence and this information indicated that a large British naval force was awaiting the Graf Spee if it ventured out into international waters. However in reality, the nearest British task force was still some 3,000 miles away. So this was just a bluff.
The Graf Spee was still in disrepair and it was low in ammunition, and therefore incapable of winning a major attack out in the ocean. If it remained in Montevideo, the Royal Navy would have access to the impounded ship.
Captain Langsdorff aboard the Graf Spee, callsign DGTS, communicated by radio with naval headquarters in Germany using German Morse Code, and two options were placed before him. He could make a dash to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where the ship would be impounded though safe. Or he could scuttle the ship, which was the option that he chose.
On Monday December 18 (1939), the Graf Spee with the captain and a maintenance crew of just 40 seamen moved away from Montevideo, and in the early evening, a planned massive series of internal explosions destroyed and sank the Graf Spee. A small tug from Argentina had already carried the remaining seamen over to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Another small German supply ship, the Tacoma, was impounded in Buenos Aires.
Two days later, Captain Hans Langsdorff committed suicide in his hotel room in Buenos Aires; all of the German seamen from both ships were taken to Argentina and interned for the remainder of the war; and the few rusted remains of the Graf Spee remain to this day in the shallow waters just five miles almost directly south of Montevideo.
Radio coverage of the dramatic events associated with the Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbour and in the River Plate estuary were presented by Talbot G. Bowen at the request of NBC in New York. Bowen, an American citizen who was employed in Montevideo, had previously presented on local radio a few items of regional interest, as well as a couple of major radio events for NBC in the United States.
Bowen had been contracted by NBC to cover all local events associated with the Graf Spee, and he happened to be on the quayside at Montevideo when the Graf Spee moved out of the harbor at 5:55 pm on December 17 (1939). He gave a live actuality report of the departure of the Graf Spee from Monevideo Harbor, and of its explosive sinking less than two hours later. It is stated that several thousand people were on the wharf watching the dramatic events just five miles out to sea.
The live radio coverage from Montevideo in Uruguay was fed from the waterside wharf by underwater cable and phone line to the new Transradio Receiver Station at La Dora San Martin near Buenos Aires in Argentina, and from thence to the Monte Grande Transmitter Station LSX for coverage to the United States and beyond. Nationwide American coverage was obtained via 175 mediumwave stations operated by the two NBC networks, Red and Blue, and international coverage was provided via shortwave stations WGEA and WGEO in Schenectady New York.
We should also add that all three of the British warships survived the Battle of the River Plate, though HMS Exeter was subsequently sunk three years later in the Second Battle of the Java Sea north of Australia in 1942. Both HMS Ajax and the British made New Zealand vessel HMNZS Achilles survived World War 2.