The HELMUT RUGE STORY
PART TWO -- THE 'GRAF SPEE ', 1939
THE SOUTH ATLANTIC, AUGUST 1939 TO DECEMBER 1939
Although the Non-Commissioned officer's course was to prepare me to continue to serve on 'PT' Boats or more
likely on 'U' Boats, I was then ordered, in error, to serve on the pocket battleship 'Graf Spee' with five other 'PT'
Boat radio operators as decoding operators. One day after our arrival, the 'Graf Spee' sailed from Wilhemshaven on
the 20th August 1939, on what was "supposedly" a public relations visit to Brazil and Argentina.
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When we were in the North Sea all the radio operators, about 30 in all, were ordered to meet at the rear of the ship
and told to go to their respective stations. Only when the officer in charge of the section to which the 6 'PT' Boat
operators were allocated, found us sitting there not knowing what we had to do, having never been trained to
decode messages, was it realised that there had been a mistake, which was now to late to correct. They thought
we had been on a special course at Flensburg to learn how to listen in to the messages broadcast by the English
and French navies and to help the civilian code breaking experts on board to interpret the messages through the
radio operator's ability, not only to recognise the ship from which the message was being sent, but even to
recognise the operator as each operator had his own unique 'handwriting'.
I often wonder what happened to the six radio operators who had been trained to serve as decoding operators must
have felt when they found themselves sent to serve on tiny 'PT' boats or 'U' boats, rather than a battleship or
Because the error could not be corrected, the civilian experts on board had to give us some special training to
enable us to do our job and I became an operator responsible for listening to French Navy radio broadcasts,
because I was able to speak a little French.
Although the 'Graf Spee' was on a "peaceful" voyage we did in fact sail fully armed and it had been planned for us to
be able to extend our time at sea without giving away out position, by secretly meeting up in the South Atlantic with
a Kriegsmarine oil tanker called the 'Altmark'. This tanker was later to become famous when it was captured by the
British destroyer, the 'Cossack', (DD.03) in a Norwegian fjord in 1940, full of the ratings taken off British ships sunk by the
On the 1st September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, war was declared and the 'Graf Spee's'
voyage ceased being a "friendly" mission and became one of searching for and sinking any enemy shipping sailing
in the South Atlantic. Between the 30th September 1939 and the 13th December 1939 the 'Spee' intercepted and
sank nine enemy merchant ships, whose crews were first taken aboard our ship and then the ratings transferred to
the 'Altmark' when refueling took place at sea. The officers from these ships were kept on the 'Graf Spee' and were
later, much to their alarm, to be still on board during the "Battle of The Rio de a Plata", although none were killed in
the 'Battle' and they were to get their freedom in Uruguay after the Battle.
On the 30th September we sank the 'Clement' off the town of Pernambuco in Brazil, then in mid Atlantic between
the 5th and 10th of October sank the 'Newton Beach' , the 'Ashlea' and the 'Huntsman'. We then proceeded to the
west coast of Africa where we sank the 'Trevnion', then rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sank a small tanker,
the 'Africa Shell', off Mozambique. We returned to the South Atlantic, where we sank the Blue Star liner the 'Doric
Star' on 2nd of December, the 'Tairoa' on the 3rd off the African coast and the 'Streonshaln' on the 7th when
heading towards Brazil.
We were able to crack one of the British radio codes when one of the merchant ships that we sank failed to destroy
their code book. When we approached this particular ship, we instructed them not to transmit any messages or we
would open fire on them. Despite our order, we heard the ship start to send a message and sent this information to
the 'Graf Spee's' commander. The 'Spee' then fired a short burst from the 2 cm machine guns at the merchant
vessel's bridge, as a result of which the radio operator was wounded and was unable to destroy his code book,
hiding it instead behind his transmitter. Once we boarded their ship we found the code book which we took back,
together with their radio transmitter to the 'Spee'.
With the code book and the enemy ships radio transmitter we were able to send false messages which would make
the British believe, for instance, that we were in the North Atlantic, not the South Atlantic and create as much
confusion as possible. We always tried to communicate, with the enemy ships we sank, by signal lamp because to
use radio contact would give our position away to the British. However, if one of these ships was able to get of a
radio message before it was sunk, we had nothing to lose by using our radio and would then take the opportunity
to send our own messages to Germany advising them of the ships we had sunk and the cargoes they were
THE 'BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE', DECEMBER 1939
Despite our precautions to hide our whereabouts from the British, we were finally intercepted, on the 13th
December 1939, off the Uruguayan coast by a British squadron that included two cruisers from the British Navy, the
'Exeter' (CA.68) and the 'Ajax' (CL.22) and the 'Achilles' (CL.70) of the New Zealand Navy, commanded by Commodore Harwood. I was
destined to be involved in the first and famous sea battle of the Second World War known as the "Battle of the River
Plate" which started at 6:18 am local time when the 'Spee' opened fire with a full broadside at the 'Exeter' and the
While I was on duty in the radio office during the battle, which lasted four hours, a shell from one of the enemy
cruisers past through the radio office and lodged on a bunk in the next cabin, incredibly, without exploding. By a
lucky chance for me, the crew on the British cruiser had fired a training armour piercing but non-explosive shell by
mistake. Had the shell had an explosive warhead, I would have certainly been killed. My life had been spared for the
first time, or was it the second, third or fourth, if one includes the efforts of my Mother and my sister! My knowledge
of what was happening during the battle was restricted as I was in the radio office, but I was kept partly informed by
the man who was in the Radar office who could see what was happening.
Although the fire power of the 'Graf Spee' was much greater than that of the individual enemy cruisers (9- 28 cm (10.6")
and 10- 15cm guns, against 6 - 20cm guns of the Exeter and 6- 15cm guns each on the Ajax and Achilles),
They were able to inflict sufficient damage to the 'Graf Spee' for it to be necessary for emergency repairs to be
carried out in a port. The 'Graf Spee' therefore broke of the battle and made for the nearest neutral port,
Montevideo in Uruguay, where, according to the Geneva Convention, we would be allowed 72 hours to carry out
emergency repairs. After an inspection of the damage to our ship by an Uruguayan Commission we were given an
extension of time to 4 days to carry out the repairs to the ship.
The 'Exeter' was heavily damaged and had been forced to limp to the Falklands for repair. They had had all their
main guns destroyed, the bridge hit with a resultant loss of steering, many fires below and were taking on water as a
result of hits below the waterline. Sixty members of the crew had been killed in the battle.
Because the firepower of the 'Spee' had been concentrated mainly on the better armed 'Exeter' during the battle the
'Ajax' and the 'Achilles' had suffered much less damage and, once the 'Spee' was in Montevideo harbour, patrolled
outside in the Rio de la Plata, being joined the next day by the British 20cm gunned cruiser the ''Cumberland' (CA.57) which
had been in the Falklands for repairs and which sailed immediately to assist the two remaining British ships.
The 'Graf Spee' had sustained damage to several parts of the ship. There were 58 hits to the superstructure, bow
was holed, there was a hole below the waterline, the evaporators badly damaged and, most significantly, the main
food store, kitchen and mess had been destroyed. The damage was too substantial to be repaired in the time we
were allowed under the Geneva Convention to stay in Montevideo. Further, the ship was also now very low on
ammunition as a result of the battle, being down to 6 rounds for the main 28 cm guns, enough for 15 minutes of
battle, and also few remaining rounds for the 15 cm guns. The 'Graf Spee' was now unable to feed its crew
properly during a voyage back to Germany, nor could it fight for long enough to escape the Allied warships waiting
outside the River Plate.
In addition to the damage to the ship, 38 of the 'Spee's' crew had died and 150 wounded. The 38 killed were buried
in the British Cemetery in Montevideo at a ceremony attended by the crew of the 'Spee' and, at their own choice, by
the officers from the ships that had been sunk by the 'Spee'. The 50 most seriously wounded were treated in
hospitals in Montevideo, some of whom were to stay and live in Uruguay when the War ended.
The captain of the 'Graf Spee', Langsdohf, who was highly respected for his humanity as well as his seamanship.
called a meeting of the crew and told them that, although, they could leave harbour and try to fight their way past the
enemy ships back to Germany, however the shortage of ammunition and the lack of cooking facilities would mean
that the 'Graf Spee' would either be sunk, with the loss of many lives, or, if not, be unable to feed the crew on the
long voyage back to Europe trying to avoid the enemy. The Captain did not believe that the crew should die
unnecessarily because the 'Fatherland' considered it to be the correct and honourable thing to do. Captain Langsdorf
told the crew the options available and that he had decided that the 'Graf Spee' should be scuttled' near
Throughout the day of Sunday ,17th December, the day the Uruguayan authorities said we must leave, the
explosive charges for the scuttling were set and all those members of the crew not required to scuttle the Spee'
were transferred on to a German merchant ship the 'Tacoma', that happened to be in Montevideo harbour at that
On the evening of 17 December the 'Spee' steamed slowly out of Montevideo harbour, accompanied by the
'Tacoma'. Once into the Rio de la Plata, beyond the 3 mile limit, the crew abandoned the 'Graf Spee' and she was
blown up, settling onto the shallow bottom of the river and left to burn for 3 days. pic
The skeleton crew on the 'Spee', together with those members of the crew on the 'Tacoma', were transferred to
tugs which had been waiting near the 3 mile limit in order to avoid interference from the British, The tugs then
sailed, towing a lighter full of the crew's personal belongings, 125 miles up river to Buenos Aires rather than
Montevideo. At that time, although both Uruguay and Argentina were neutral, Uruguay was considered pro-British
whereas Argentina believed that Germany would win the war and were therefore more inclined to be pro-Germany.
Argentina also had a very large resident German community. Another consideration was that if we were interned in
Uruguay there was always the danger that Uruguay might declare war on Germany, with the result that the crew
could end up as prisoners of war, rather than internees.
The next day in Buenos Aires, after Captain Langsdorf had first ensured that the members of his crew would be
correctly taken care of in accordance with the Geneva Convention, he shot himself wrapped in the flag of the
Imperial German Navy. It is considered by some people that the decision to scuttle the 'Graf Spee' came from
Berlin, but from what I heard as one of the ship's radio operators, it is my belief that the German High Command left
the final decision, to try and escape or scuttle the ship, to Langsdorf.
Although a disaster for Germany and a sad end for a proud ship, I did not feel any great emotion about the end of
the 'Spee', being a 'small boat' sailor and had never really liked being on a ship of her size.
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