75 years ago today, December 17, 1939,thousands of curious residents of Montevideo, Uruguay, gathered at the docks overlooking the estuary of the Rio de la Plata. They can be seen in this wire service photo which appeared in the Milwaukee Journal the next day.
The ship visible three miles from shore is the German warship the Admiral Graf Spree. Two years earlier, the ship had participated in the Coronation Review for King George VI. In 1939, Germany was at war with Britain, and in the first months of the war, it had sunk nine British ships in the South Atlantic. It was confronted by British ships on December 13 and suffered considerable damage. It sailed into neutral port in Uruguay to effect repairs. Uruguay, however, allowed it only 72 hours in port, an insufficient amount of time.
The British began transmitting on frequencies known to be monitored by the Germans, and gave the immpression that a much larger force was en route to Uruguay than was truly the case. The Germans believed the misinformation, leading the Graf Spree’s captain to believe that a return to Germany would be impossible. He sailed the vessel into the Rio de la Plata, and 20,000 gathered on the docks to witness what they believed would be a battle between the German ship and British vessels. Instead, the Graf Spree prepared to scuttle the ship. At 8:55 PM, after an Argentine tug evacuated the crew, the charges were detonated, treating the spectators on shore to an explosion visible for miles.
While much of the ship was salvaged, parts are still visible in the Rio de la Plata. The ship’s captain committed suicide in his Argentine hotel room three days later.