What were the Germans’ problems in Montevideo?
All were depressed by their defeat and Langsdorff realised he had sailed into a trap by entering Montevideo in Uruguay. Although adhering strictly to international law in its treatment of Graf Spee it was a country that was strongly pro-British. He realised that in the ship’s present state, with a large hole in the bows, his chances of reaching Germany through the north Atlantic winter storms were low and he was not prepared to sacrifice his ship and a thousand men as a target for British gunnery.
The local ship repairer refused to work for him. Dockyard labour had to be brought over from Buenos Aires in neutral Argentina and the Montevideo harbour authorities were uncooperative. An aircraft chartered by the Germans for a reconnaissance flight over the estuary refused to cross the coast line on the pretext that visibility was not good enough.
On Friday 15th December Graf Spee’s gunnery officer, Fregattenkapitän Ascher, the ship’s official recognition officer whose judgement was much respected, reported that he could see HMS Ark Royal and three destroyers and it was assumed that HMS Renown with her 15 inch guns would soon arrive.
This was reported to Berlin who replied that they had already sunk Ark Royal and the Fuhrer himself demanded photographs (German claims to have sunk Ark Royal became a British national joke until she was truly sunk in November 1941). The German Admiralty intelligence doubted the report but gave credence to the man on the spot.
On Saturday 16th December both the British Naval Attaché and his assistant made telephone calls to the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires supposedly asking for fuel to be provided for Ark Royal and Renown in the next day or two.
It was known that these telephone lines were tapped by the Germans and the news that major British units were gathering appeared in the evening papers. For good dramatic effect these two calls were combined into one and made a good scene in both the 1956 film and the 2006 Timewatch programme. Millington-Drake has written that the details of the scenes in the Legation at Montevideo are fictional.
It seems probable that by this time Langsdorff’s mind was already made up and that these calls did not affect his judgment. By then he had accepted that scuttling was his only option left.
Reliable information on this ruse is difficult to find but while Millington-Drake regarded the Naval Attaché’s phone call as fictional as far as the Legation in Montevideo was concerned, there was undoubtedly wide coverage in the press.
Ascher had probably mistaken the oiler Olympus for Ark Royal and the three cruisers for destroyers.