In August 1939, the German warship Graf Spee, a heavy, state-of-the-art cruiser with battleship-sized guns known as a â€śpocket battleship,â€ť passed north of Scotland before turning and sailing due south between Iceland and the British Isles, across the Equator and into the South Atlantic. For ten weeks, the Graf Spee ravaged merchant shipping in the South Atlantic, sending 50,000 tons of merchant ships to the bottom, mostly British vessels.
On December 13, a British South Atlantic Fleet force found the Graf Spee off the coast near the border between Argentina and Uruguay and immediately attacked. The Graf Spee sustained superficial damage but significant casualties and fled toward the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. The Uruguayan government refused the Graf Speeâ€™s request for safe haven, but the ship remained in the harbor. The British used disinformation to make the Germans believe that they would soon be overwhelmed by a strong naval force. Fearful that his ship might be captured and knowing that it would not survive the midwinter trip home across the North Atlantic, the captain scuttled his ship on December 17 before committing suicide three days later.
The crew evacuated the Graf Spee. Maintaining neutrality, the Uruguayan government would neither repatriate the crew nor grant them asylum. For a short time, the German Legation housed them in Montevideo and then they sat out the war in an internment camp. After the war many of the German sailors elected to remain in Argentina.
Six decades later, the Graf Spee incident typically does not even merit a footnote in histories of World War II. The terror of Hitlerâ€™s war on unarmed merchant shipping, the diplomatic crisis for Uruguayâ€™s government at the onset of the summer holidays, the people of Montevideo watching the burning ship from the cityâ€™s beaches, the clever use of intelligence on the part of the British, and the fate of the shipâ€™s captain and its crew were emblematic of the impact of the war in South America.
The Museo Naval in Montevideo looks like someoneâ€™s attic. It consists of a couple of large rooms filled with model ships, photographs, officersâ€™ mess silver, shipsâ€™ nameplates, and the like displayed in rough chronological order without any attempt at historical interpretation. The most unusual item is â€śFoque,â€ť a stuffed spaniel who was shipâ€™s mascot on the ROU CapitĂˇn Miranda from 1987 to 1999. Why somebody back in 1999 decided to stuff poor Foque and place him in the Museo Naval is anyoneâ€™s guess: perhaps the lack of historical interpretation should probably be counted as a piece of good luck.
The Graf Spee exhibit runs floor to ceiling in a long, narrow room. It displays a shipâ€™s telephone, a stretcher used to evacuate a wounded sailor, the sword and scabbard that Captain Langsdorf surrendered to the Uruguayan navy and a large black medallion bearing Hitlerâ€™s profile. A few photos memorialize the incident, the most interesting of which is the last photograph ever taken from the Graf Spee, a shot off the stern showing the Nazi naval ensign. Another photo shows the Graf Spee as it sank and burned, and there is even a signed photograph of captured British Merchant Marine officers, posing at a Christmas dinner that took place in the Graf Speeâ€™s officersâ€™ mess a few days before the shipâ€™s fateful encounter with the British. A souvenir program from the royal performance of a 1957 movie about the incident provides the only background in English.