Image: Salvaging the Admiral Graf Spee
Matilde Campodonico  /  AP
A 27-ton piece of the Admiral Graf Spee's communications tower is recovered Wednesday by a salvage team outside the port of Montevideo, Uruguay.
updated 2/25/2004 5:35:34 PM ET 2004-02-25T22:35:34

A salvage team used a floating crane to raise a key piece of a sunken German battleship Wednesday, lifting a 27-ton part of the command tower after weeks of failed attempts.

Retired Navy Capt. Alberto Braida, a logistics planner for the salvage operation, told The Associated Press the team recovered its first significant part of the Admiral Graf Spee, once a symbol of German naval might in the early days of World War II.

“We’ve got it!” he said of the large chunk of the communications tower that once held sophisticated range-finding equipment for the warship’s 11-inch (28-centimeter) guns.

The vessel — considered one of the most sophisticated of its time — prowled the South Atlantic, sinking as many as nine allied merchant ships before warships from Britain and New Zealand crippled it in a December 1939 naval engagement.

Scuttled by its captain, the Graf Spee has remained for decades in waters less than 25 feet (7.6 meters) deep only miles outside the port of Montevideo.

Mixed results
Braida said the team salvaged the range-finding equipment, known as the telemeter, during a second attempt Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, the recovery team managed to raise the telemeter, but the supporting cables snapped and the 27-ton piece crashed back into the water.

An optical instrument, the telemeter was a sophisticated instrument for its era that helped gunners improve their aim and hone in on targets up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.

Tricky river currents and fickle winds on the River Plate estuary had stymied the salvage team ever since it made a first attempt Feb. 9 to pull the top of the command tower from the muddy waters.

The recovery effort is being financed by private investors in Europe and the United Sates. The team said it hopes to recover as much of the ship as possible in the next three years to place it on display.

'Pocket battleship'
Feared by many navies at the outset of the war, the Graf Spee — a “pocket battleship” which carried less powerful guns and was smaller than a conventional ship of that class — was tracked down by British forces off the South American coast.

The “Battle of the River Plate” began on Dec. 13, 1939, near the mouth of the river as the German warship was pursued by a battle group consisting of the British warships HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax and the HMNZS Achilles of New Zealand.

The Graf Spee was crippled in the battle, forcing the captain, Hans Langsdorff, to take refuge in the Montevideo harbor.

Unable to make the necessary repairs, Langsdorff sank it on Dec. 17, 1939. The crew was taken by ship to Buenos Aires, and the captain committed suicide there days later.

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