I Was There! - We Were Prisoners On the 'Graf Spee'

The War Illustrated, Volume 1, No. 17, Page 541-542, December 29, 1939.

On board the "Graf Spee" as prisoners were the captains of six British merchant ships, who were uncomfortably aware of the action although they saw nothing of it. These accounts are due to the "Daily Express", Reuters, and British United Press.

Captain Stubbs, of the "Doric Star", said: "It was about six o'clock in the morning when a German officer came down and said, 'Gentlemen, I'm afraid we'll have to leave you to your own devices.' We didn't know what he meant."

"Our quarters were pretty cramped, right under one of the 'Graf Spee's' gun turrets."

"Then we heard the roar of guns in the distance and we knew that our lads had spotted the Nazi battleship."

"Next minute the 'Graf Spee' rolled drunkenly. There was a tremendous crash over our heads. She had opened fire."

"We thought it would never end. We counted 17 hits altogether on the 'Graf Spee'. Did we cheer and sing?"

"It was the strangest position I've ever known in my 40 years at sea."

"Some fellows were cool. They had begun shaving before the battle started and they went on shaving."

"I had a sore throat and was gargling when a fragment of shell tore into our quarters. It did not hurt anyone, but it made me swallow my gargle."

"The worst part of all was when the 'Graf Spee's' guns just overhead fired. It was like an earthquake."

"The best part was when the German officer finally came down and said, 'Gentlemen, the war is over for you. We have just entered Montevideo harbour.'"

"That, we knew, meant a British victory."

Captain Charles Pottinger, of the steamer "Ashlea", which was captured on October 7, said:

We were treated fine on board the "Graf Spee". Once her commander told me he was proud to say that not a single British life had been lost by his exploits.

Mostly we prisoners played rummy and sat around, talked and smoked. The Germans let us keep our money when we were captured, and allowed us to buy cigarettes from their ship's stores.

Late on Tuesday (December 12), while I was exercising with Captain Stubbs, of the "Doric Star", I noticed an atmosphere of unusual tension on board. Officers began hurriedly inspecting gun stations and controls.

A young lieutenant who had been particularly friendly to us all walked by at that moment, and, while I never expected a reply, I asked him what was the matter. Turning and eyeing me severely, he observed, "We are expecting an attack, and I admire the courage of men who plan to attack the 'Graf Spee' with such little ship."

About five o'clock on Wednesday morning the hurry and scurry stopped. Most of the prisoners thought that the sudden lull was due to the fact that the danger was past, and many of us dozed. I must have slept several hours, but it seemed like five minutes later when a roar woke me.

Commands began to come through the loudspeaker. The "Graf Spee's" engine revolutions changed from a steady thud to an almost continuous roar... Suddenly I felt the ship shudder slightly, and a great roar of orders broke out again. This must have been the "Exeter's" first hit.

For the next forty minutes there was pandemonium. We listened, counting the roars as the "Graf Spee" fired. When the count went past twenty we knew the Germans had run into something big.

We felt the dull thuds that followed every time the British shells found a mark. I don't know whether any of us was afraid to die. I do know that if ever I was afraid of death it was then. It's one thing to pass out during illness; it's different when you feel fit and strong to be faced with the prospect of drowning slowly behind a locked steel cabin door.

The firing stopped as suddenly as it had started. It seemed obvious that the "Graf Spee" must have sunk whatever enemy he had faced.

Although normally I am not very religious, I dropped on my knees to pray. I couldn't say what I prayed for whether it was for my own safety or for the poor lads I thought must have gone down.

Captain Dove, of the "Africa Shell", revealed a tribute that one German had paid to the British.

"After the battle", he said, "Captain Hans Langsdorff, commander of the 'Graf Spee', called me to the bridge and said, 'Your cruisers made a very gallant fight. When people fight like that, all personal enmity is lost. Those British are hard.'"

Captain Dove added that another officer said to him: "You fellows have been prisoners here for quite a while. Now it looks as if it's our turn."

"I was treated all right on board", Captain Dove added. "I even struck up a friendship with the commander, who instructed a tailor to make me heavier clothes owing to the cold weather."

"When the battle started yesterday they bolted the door, and I did not know what was happening until I heard the 'Graf Spee's' guns and felt the impact of the British shells upon the ship's hull."

"It was a funny feeling. We wanted the 'Graf Spee' to be sunk, but we couldn't help wondering what would happen to us."

Captain Dove said that the German battleship thought she was near some cargo ships when she sighted the cruiser "Exeter".

"The order to man action stations was sounded. I and my colleagues were locked up in the mess deck. The 'Graf Spee' opened fire and the 'Exeter' immediately replied. According to our reckoning the 'Graf Spee' was hit at least 16 times."

"We played cards, including bridge, throughout the battle. One shell exploded near us, and we kept splinters of it as souvenirs."

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