MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Tricky winds and river currents stymied salvage experts’ repeated attempts Monday to raise a piece of the submerged wreckage of a German battleship scuttled off Uruguay in the opening days of World War II.
The ship — the Admiral Graf Spee — was a symbol of German naval might early in the war. The vessel prowled the South Atlantic, sinking as many as nine allied merchant ships before warships from Britain and New Zealand crippled it in December 1939.
The Graf Spee’s captain scuttled the ship before committing suicide, and it has remained in waters less than 25 feet (7.5 meters) deep only miles outside the port of Montevideo ever since.
Private investors from the United States and Europe are helping to fund a multimillion-dollar recovery effort to remove the ship’s wreckage piece by piece from the River Plate within three years.
14 hours of work
On Monday, workers using a 195-foot (60-meter) crane aboard a work barge made four attempts over 14 hours to remove a piece from the 27-ton communications tower that held range-finding equipment for the Graf Spee’s 11-inch (28-centimeter) guns.
Hector Bado, head of the recovery operation, told The Associated Press that divers battled blustery winds and choppy waters in an attempt to remove part of the tower.
“Removing this piece of equipment is going to take more time than we originally anticipated,” he said.
The work began just after dawn and continued past sundown under a South American summer sun with temperatures hitting the upper 80s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius). People on pleasure boats and clifftops used binoculars to watch the recovery effort.
Feared by many navies at the outset of the war, the Graf Spee was a “pocket battleship” that carried less powerful guns and was smaller than a conventional ship of its class.
Accounts from the time reported that thousands of Uruguayans followed the booming gunbattle offshore from clifftops along the coast and from high rooftops.
The Graf Spee was crippled in the fight after taking several direct hits, and Capt. Hans Langsdorff decided to take refuge in Montevideo harbor. The ship was unable to make the necessary repairs within the 72-hour period in a neutral harbor allowed by international convention.
Langsdorff took the limping craft out of the harbor and sank it on Dec. 17, 1939. The crew was taken by ship to Buenos Aires and the captain committed suicide days later.
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