HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association


FAQ 15

Damage to Graf Spee


A major problem was the condition of the engines which after having been in operation for double the permissible time without overhaul, showed definite signs of fatigue and overstrain. There were piston rods out of true and cracks in the fundamentals and cylinders so that at speeds over 17 knots no certainty of functioning can be guaranteed". (Ref MD P 309).


During the battle Langsdorff received conflicting reports on the damage his ship was sustaining.  Graf Spee received 23 hits of which only 3 were from Exeter’s heavier 8 inch shells.


The damage she sustained as a result of these hits can be summarised;


• There were two holes in the bows, the larger one 4m2.


• The main galley and bakery was out of action, the flour store was contaminated by sea water,


• The primary rangefinder was damaged beyond repair as was the forward high angle director.


• The fire control systems that controlled the guns were affected by the excessive vibration of the diesel engines.


• The forward 11 inch turret was proving unreliable.


• The auxiliary boiler which supplied steam both to the distilling plant for fresh water and to the purifier to refine the fuel for the main engines was damaged and could not be repaired at sea. This could be repaired in harbour but its position at the foot of the funnel above the armoured deck meant that it would be equally vulnerable in any future action. The ship had capacity for sufficient cleansed fuel for about 1200 miles steaming. (Source Naval Historical Branch). This is in contrast to the signal sent to Germany by Kapitän Kay, Executive Officer (second-in-command) in January 1940 which gave the figure as only 16 hours steaming. This signal may have been sent to appease Hitler and allow a design fault in the ship to cover up Langsdorff’s failings.  


• There were severe injuries to upper deck personnel and damage to the 5.9" open guns. These casualties really shocked Langsdorff and caused morale problems with a crew that had been used to just sinking merchant ships.


• With the forward Anti-aircraft (AA) director out of action, the starboard 4.1-in gun mounting and the right barrel of the port mounting disabled and the starboard 4.1-in shell hoist no longer functioning, the ship was more vulnerable to air attack or air spotting. This would have been a point of importance should Graf Spee have come out from Montevideo and been threatened by HMS Ark Royal’s aircraft.


• With damage to the functioning of both port and starboard torpedo tubes the ship was unable to launch a torpedo attack.


• On top of this were the wear and tear effects of 3 months at sea without shore support.


• Finally, Langsdorff was wounded twice; in the shoulder and later briefly knocked unconscious.  Oberleutnant Rasenak said that he was no longer the same after this.


• The myth of the invincibility of a pocket battleship against anything but a battle cruiser had been exploded.