IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Salvagers struggle to raise Nazi ship

Tricky winds and river currents stymied salvage experts’ efforts to raise a piece of the submerged wreckage of a German World War II battleship scuttled off Uruguay.
RANGEFINDER OF NAZI POCKET BATTLESHIP GRAF SPEE LIES ON PLATE RIVER FLOOR
The range-finding tower of the Nazi battleship Admiral Graf Spee sits by itself at left, on the floor of Uruguay's Plate River, as seen in this computer-generated image made from sonar data late in 2003. The tower was separated from the rest of its ship during its sinking in 1939.Thomas Schmid-Graf Spee Project / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

'Pocket battlelship'
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.

RANGEFINDER OF NAZI POCKET BATTLESHIP GRAF SPEE LIES ON PLATE RIVER FLOOR
The rangefinder (lower L) of the Nazi pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sits on the floor of the Plate River, seven kilometers from the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, after being separated from the ship when it was scuttled and sunk by its commander on December 17, 1939, as seen in this computer-generated image made from sonar data late in 2003. The Graf Spee Project, whose plan is to recover the entire ship piece-by-piece over the next few years to make a museum, will try again on February 11, 2004, to recover the rangefinder after a failed attempt on February 9. REUTERS/Handout/Thomas Schmid-Graf Spee Project NO SALESThomas Schmid-Graf Spee Project / X80001

British forces tracked it down off the South American coast, and the “Battle of the River Plate” began on Dec. 13, 1939. The German warship was pursued by a battle group consisting of two British light cruisers, HMS Exeter and HMS Ajax, and the HMNZS Achilles of New Zealand.

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.