Since I was a child, the battle of the river Plate has always fascinated me, and I never expected, in my wildest dreams, to be able to visit Montevideo.
The above shows the Admiral Graf Spee in 1936.
As we entered Montevideo harbour we were given the back ground of the battle and an indication of where the remains of the German battle ship is located.
At one point our captain told us to look across the starboard side for a buoy, which indicated the location of the Admiral Graf Spee as the masts, which were the final indication of the ship, where no longer visible and only a buoy indicated the spot.
The only buoy I could see is the one in the picture, but I doubt that this is the buoy in question as it was too close to the channel used by larger ships to enter Montevideo, and even our size (30,000 gt) would have been at risk of damage if the remains of the wreck had shifted.
Going ashore, to join the tour that we had arranged with a local tour company, took us past a few nautical items, but even though I checked as best I could in the time allowed, I didn’t find any artifacts from the Admiral Graf Spee.
We were met just outside the dock area by our tour operator’s driver and his minibus, and being a party of ten it didn’t take long for us to set off on the tour.
Our first stop was Plaza de la Constitución, which was the centre of the old city when it was called Plaza Mayor in 1726. Even today the the area is also referred to as Plaza Matriz, it is the oldest plaza in Montevideo.
During our visit a small local market was in full swing.
Second hand plates and other household items always seem to attract me – what did the owners do for a living, where did they live, how many in the family . . .
It was a beautiful day and being among the trees was very pleasant.
In the centre of the plaza was a fountain
Looking closely at the fountain I saw the symbol of the Mason’s – the fountain was built (or perhaps donated) by the local Masonic Lodge for the benefit of the people.
Facing the plaza is the Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral. There has been a church on this site since 1740 (colonial times) and in 1790 the foundations for the current cathedral were laid. It was consecrated in 1804.
After visiting the cathedral we made our way to the old post office, which is now a museum, and outside I photographed the roof across the road. I asked why they stacked the tiles as such – they were not tiles, I was told by the guide but art! I live and learn . . .
Before the government postal service a private system existed via stagecoach. It was not until 1859 that the government issued the Uruguay Mail decree, which stated that All correspondence will be franked by postal stamps, without which no letters will be delivered.
The postal museum is just behind the two yellow post boxes –
For my British readers it appears that Uruguay had giros years before the British :- o)
Display of early stamps
Jose Gervasio Artigas – 1764 – 1850
A Uruguayan hero that helped create the Uruguay that we know today, there are many statues of him and also a national holiday.
We were dropped off at the Plaza Independencia to enjoy a short break and the plaza is a photographers delite (and I don’t mean that I am that photographer).
Once again we see Jose Gervasio Artigas in a place of honour.
From the plaza looking down the main shopping street. Plaza Independencia is a beautiful spot, cool shade from the trees, lovely buildings of yesteryear, I found the plaza to be very relaxing.
Legislative Palace – we drove past it after leaving Plaza Independencia.
The government began building it in 1904 and it was inaugurated on August 25th, 1925 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The building contains twenty seven different colours of Marble, which were quarried from various Uruguayan quarries.
Parque Batlle is the public park in central Montevideo, where we visited the memorial that depicts yoked oxen pulling a loaded wagon, which is how things moved around the country before the motor car or the railways.
The artist José Belloni (1882-1965) created the sculpture in 1934 from bronze.
Our next stop was a small rise that overlooked a beach area of Montevideo and to make sure you hadn’t forgotten were you were . . .
Of course everyone wanted their photograph taken while climbing or leaning on the sign, so I had to wait and snap the above while the ‘climbers’ were swapping over.
As we drove back to the ship, I could see the sea and couldn’t help but think of the last few hours of the Admiral Graf Spee.
Han Wilhelm Langsdorff March 1894 – December 1939
Captain of the Admiral Graf Spee, Captain Langsdorff, had entered the neutral harbour of Montevideo due to battle damage to his ship, and he had a number of casualties.
He hoped to be able to repair certain aspects of his ship, but once he had inspected the damage he realised that the oil purification plant, which prepared his fuel for the engines had been destroyed, plus the crew galleys were wrecked and the desalination plant had been destroyed – he would not be able to make it back to Germany without major repairs.
Those who were killed in the battle were buried in a cemetery in Montevideo – note Captain Langsdorfff gives a naval salute during the burial service, whereas others, mainly civilians, gave the Nazi salute.
According to Article 18 of the Hague Convention, neutrality restrictions limited Admiral Graf Spee to repairs only to make her safe to go to sea, but not to increase or repair her ability as a fighting machine.
The Uruguayan government under Article 14 extended the twenty four hour rule that a belligerent had to leave within twenty four hours, to seventy two hours, to allow for further repairs to be made for safety at sea.
In the meantime, the British Admiralty had broadcast, on a frequency that they knew the Germans would intercept, that HMS Renown (battleship) and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and other capital; ships were concentrating at the mouth of the River Plate. All this was untrue as the two ships mentioned were 2500 nm away, but the Germans and Captain Langsdorff believed the British broadcast. Captain Langsdorff decided to scuttle his ship rather than allowing it to be interned in case Uruguay entered the war on the side of the British.
On Sunday, 17th December 1939, five days after the first shots had been fired between the British ships and the Admiral Graf Spee, Captain Langsdorff had the great vessel moved out of the harbour and headed towards Buenos Aires.
His crew, all but forty two volunteers, left the ship and boarded the German freighter Tacoma.
The Admiral Graf Spee was maneuvered so that she faced west, towards the setting sun. The remaining crew, including Captain Langsdorff, left her and boarded the Tacoma.
At 20.54 hrs, six minutes before the 72 hour period of grace had ended, and just as the sun set over the hills the estimated 20,000 watchers saw a flash of light and the centre of the ship seemed to twist upwards as she began to blow herself to bits.
The end of the battle.
Captain Langsdorff and his volunteers were taken to Buenos Aires aboard the Tacoma.
Of his crew 37 were buried in the cemetery in Montevideo, 28 were in a Uruguayan hospital, 4 in a Uruguayan gaol, (but that is another story), and the rest were interned in Argentina.
During a meeting with all of his men in Buenos Aires he said ‘A few days ago it was your sad duty to pay the last honours to your dead comrades. Perhaps you will be called upon to undertake a similar task in the future.’
Some of his officers understood what he meant, particularly when he gave certain officers some of his personal items, such as his camera.
At midnight on the 19th December he wrote three letters, one to his wife, one to his parents & one to the German Ambassador in Buenos Aires. He sealed the envelopes, and placed them on a table and unwrapped an Imperial Germany Navy flag,
He then shot himself.
He was found the next morning at 8.30 am by one of his officers.
It was noticeable that he was covered by the Imperial Navy flag,
and not the Nazi naval flag.
His funeral was the following day in Buenos Aires and attended by his crew, the German Ambassador, representatives of the Argentina armed forces and Captain Pottinger, Master of the British cargo ship Ashlea who represented the captains and officers who had been held captive on the Admiral Graf Spee during the battle.
SS Ashlea sunk off the west coast of Africa 7th October 1939.