07 Февруари 2004 01:36
Divers set to salvage the Graf Spee
By Mary Milliken
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (Reuters) - The scuttled Nazi battleship "Admiral Graf Spee" has withstood the silt and currents at the mouth of the River Plate for more than 60 years while waiting for someone to salvage it.
Most of the Graf Spee survivors have died and only octogenarians in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo can recall watching one of the first naval clashes of World War II unfold on their sleepy shores.
But the legend of the pride of the German fleet continues to inspire younger generations, and this week a team of divers will begin raising pieces of the pocket battleship -- a smaller, lighter version of a conventional warship -- out of the River Plate estuary in a project expected to take years.
"It was a masterpiece in its time," said Mensun Bound, a marine archaeologist from Oxford University weaned on tales of the Battle of the River Plate.
"And it doesn’t have a dark history. Its captain was a man of great dignity and honour. It was a battle in which both sides came out with their honour intact."
Under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff, the Graf Spee sank nine commercial vessels in the Atlantic in late 1939 but always gave the crews time to evacuate the ships.
The British navy dispatched three ships -- HMS Exeter, HMS Achilles and HMS Ajax -- to the Uruguayan coast and on December 13, 1939, they sighted and attacked the Graf Spee.
Langsdorff took his badly damaged ship to port in Montevideo, where he was allowed to bury 36 dead sailors. His loyalty to Nazi leaders was questioned when he gave the old German naval salute at the funeral instead of the Nazi salute.
Neutral Uruguay, under intense diplomatic pressure from Britain, then ordered the Graf Spee out to sea after 72 hours.
"I went down to the port the morning they left," said Maria Eleonor Ramis, 83, one of the estimated 750, 000 people who watched events on the shore that day. "It was very sad because the sailors were all so young, 18 and 19 years old."
’THE WHOLE WORLD WAS WATCHING’
Believing he would be met by a beefed-up British fleet, Langsdorff evacuated his men to ships headed to Argentina, then sank the Graf Spee with explosives to stop it from falling into enemy hands.
"It was an event that the whole world was watching," said Cristina Maldonado, a historian at Montevideo’s Naval Museum.
Two days after scuttling his ship, Langsdorff took his own life in Buenos Aires.
Survivors who stayed in Uruguay and Argentina often spoke of recovering the Graf Spee, located 4 miles (7 km) off the coast in waters no deeper than 36 feet (12 metres).
In 1997, Bound and Uruguayan partner Hector Bado found the ship was in much better condition than expected as they extracted one of the guns.
On Thursday, they will attempt to raise the range finder, a component 34 feet wide and 20 feet tall (10.5 metres wide and 6 metres tall) that held the first radar antenna installed in a warship.
The team will study how to lighten the Graf Spee until they can raise the ship’s hull, which is in two pieces, one 490 feet (150 metres) long, the other 98 feet (30 metres) long.
The divers declined to discuss the cost of the project, but they say they are working to bring on salvaging experts from Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands and perhaps Germany. The ship will remain in Uruguay.
"It will be rebuilt on land and will be the best ship museum in the world," said Bado. "This is the last salvageable German battleship in the world and it has an amazing story."