While German submarines stole most of the attention in the Battle of the Atlantic, the German surface fleet shared a similar success during the early days of the battle as well. Since the end of September 1939, the pocket battleships (later re-classified as heavy cruisers) Admiral Graf Spee and Deutschland (later renamed Lützow) hunted merchant traffic. Graf Spee, in particular, haunted the Allied merchant fleet, sinking nine British cargo ships to the bottom of the Atlantic without losing a single German life. As a response, Britain and France organized eight task forces, each known by a letter, to hunt down the German ships. That decision in itself tied up over twenty Allied warships, including the carrier Ark Royal, the battlecruiser Renown, and the battleship Strasbourg, all badly needed elsewhere, but the livelihood of Britain preceded all other demands.
Royal Navy Commodore Henry Harwood and his South Atlantic Fleet was the commander who found one of the German pocket battleships. At 0552 on 13 Dec 1939, flagship light cruiser Ajax, heavy cruiser Exeter, and light cruiser Achilles spotted Graf Spee near Rio de la Plata at the border of Argentina and Uruguay off South America. With his heavy ships elsewhere, Harwood knew he was no match for the German capital ship, but made a dash at her nevertheless. Exeter was the first to come within range of Graf Spee’s guns and was the first to be hit by one of the German 670lb shells. Exeter returned fire, straddling the German pocket battleship without hits, meanwhile sustaining two more hits from the German ship. While Exeter drew fire, however, Ajax and Achilles were now in position. The two smaller cruisers’ 6in shells punished Graf Spee for over an hour. After 90 minutes of combat, Harwood, injured by shrapnel himself, withdrew his three ships. Exeter was sent to the Falkland Islands for emergency repairs. The commander of the Admiral Graf Spee, Captain Hans Langsdorff, was also injured in the battle. His damage control officer informed him that Graf Spee was hit 18 times, and 37 men were killed during the battle. Several guns were disabled, ammunitions were low, and the crew was working hard to close many holes made by British shells. Langsdorff, under direct orders from Berlin not to engage Allied surface forces, decided to let Harwood’s ships withdraw, and headed for the neutral port of Montevideo. Langsdorff requested Montevideo for two weeks’ time for repairs, but he was only granted 72 hours. When the time came, the ship was in no position to combat the large British fleet that must have assembled outside the port, waiting for him. After berthing the crew aboard German freighters at Montevideo, he scuttled the pocket battleship on 17 December. Like captains of old, he committed suicide to go down with his ship. Before pulling the trigger, he wrapped himself in the colors of Imperial German, not the Nazi swastika. “For a captain with a sense of honor,” he wrote in his suicide note, “it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship.”
Though the battle was now over, the closure did not come until 16 Feb 1940 when the Altmark, Admiral Graf Spee’s former supply ship, was found by Royal Navy Captain Philip Vian’s flotilla in Norway. 299 British captives taken by Graf Spee during her hunt were freed from the Altmark when Vian’s destroyers captured her.