Amazing photo surfaces showing fiery death of German warship chased down by the Royal Navy

THIS dramatic photo of the fiery death of a German warship during the Second World War can today be revealed for the first time in 80 years.

Monday, 16th December 2019, 2:30 pm
Updated Monday, 16th December 2019, 5:42 pm

The image has been unearthed by former News defence correspondent, Tim King, and show the final moments of the German pocket battleship admiral Graf Spee after the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939.

Tim discovered the photos by chance in his late father’s sea chest. He said: ‘He was serving as a warrant officer in HMS Ark Royal at the time and, although the carrier had been despatched as part of the squadron to close the trap on the Germans, to my knowledge Ark Royal only got as far as Rio de Janeiro to refuel, but was recalled to Freetown when news of Graf Spee’s fate arrived.

‘The photos were taken by a member of the Naval Attaché’s staff at Buenos Aires on December 19, the morning after the scuttling, and show the fires still raging below decks, but I have no idea how my father got hold of them.’

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The inferno raging on the deck of the Admiral Graf Spee Picture courtesy of Tim King

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They record the fateful aftermath of the battle that began as dawn broke 80 years ago on December 13, when lookouts spotted smoke on the horizon and quickly identified it was coming from the quarry that had eluded them since the outbreak of the Second World War three months earlier.

The Royal Navy’s ‘Force G’ comprising the cruisers HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Achilles closed with the Graf Spee off Uruguay’s River Plate estuary and opened fire at 6.14am at a range of nine-and-a-half miles.

They had cornered the 10,000-ton raider that had caused havoc in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, sinking thousands of tons of British merchant shipping.

The biggest sea battle of the war so far was fierce and Exeter with 8in, Ajax and Achilles with 6in turrets as main armament were outgunned by Graf Spee’s six 11in and eight 5.9in guns.

Exeter took heavy punishment, but carried on fighting with one turret and a 7 degree list; Ajax was also badly damaged and Achilles hit.

But it was far from one-sided. Squadron commander Commodore Henry Harwood’s strategy was to spread the cruisers to split the Germans’ main guns and, despite the crippling bombardment, Exeter dealt the decisive blow when one of her 8in shells pierced two decks before exploding in Graf Spee’s funnel area, destroying her fuel purification system and leaving her only 16 hours’ power supply.

The battle, which cost 76 British and 36 German lives, then turned into a pursuit with Ajax and Achilles shadowing Graf Spee into the neutral port of Montevideo for repairs.

Ammunition was running low, too, so any attempt to escape home was now futile.

She was trapped. While diplomatic arguments raged between the embassies ashore as to how long Graf Spee could remain, the Royal Navy had despatched a powerful squadron comprising the carrier HMS Ark Royal, battleship HMS Renown and cruisers Shropshire, Dorsetshire and Neptune.

Although they would have intercepted Graf Spee had she been forced to make a break to the north or north east, the reinforcements were still days away from Montevideo, but British naval intelligence managed to convince Graf Spee’s Captain Hans Langsdorff the Royal Navy was waiting for him in force just outside territorial waters.

When the Uruguayans called ‘time’ after 72 hours, Langsdorff, believing the odds against his escape were overwhelming, ordered Graf Spee to be scuttled after moving her into the harbour roads.

Huge crowds that had assembled looking for a grandstand view of the battle they were certain was imminent were denied it as explosions ripped into the 14,890-ton German warship’s hull, jetting vast columns of smoke and flames into the sky as she settled on the sea bed.

Langsdorff and the 40 crew who stayed on board to lay the charges had been taken off by an Argentinian tug and interned.

Two days later, on December 20, Hans Langsdorff lay down in full dress uniform on the ship’s battle ensign and shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel.

The victory was a major boost to British morale in the early war years and removed a major threat to merchant supply ships in the southern oceans.