Tuesday, February 10th 2004 - 20:00 UTC

Bad weather deals setback to “Graf Spee” salvage attempt

The project to salvage the 27-ton communications tower of sunken Nazi battleship “Admiral Graf Spee” in the Rio de la Plata was dealt a blow by bad weather on Monday.

The attempt to raise the ship's communications tower had been postponed a week ago due to adverse weather conditions, but early Monday morning the operation got under way only to be abandoned 12 hours later because one of the cables on the floating crane doing the lifting broke.

The first step in a 3-year process to raise the entire vessel is to bring up the communications tower, which contains a German range finding device that gave Nazi gunners and torpedo firing teams very accurate fixes on their targets.

A team of German, British, Argentine and Uruguayan professionals, funded by the Uruguayan government and private institutions, is carrying out the salvage efforts.

The "Admiral Graf Spee" was one of three German vessels nicknamed "pocket" battleships because - although they were quite well-armed - they weighed only a third as much as traditional battleships, making them quick and very potent offensive weapons platforms.

The director of the recovery operation, Hector Bado, told a press conference on Sunday that the ship is also special because "it represents the only salvageable World War II battleship in the world." On Dec. 13, 1939, four months into the war, the "Graf Spee," which had wrought havoc among Allied merchant shipping, was severely damaged in attacks by three Allied battleships - two British and one from New Zealand - 300 meters off the Uruguayan coast at what is now the tourist destination Punta del Este.

Ignoring his officers' advice to move out into the Atlantic Ocean to try and outrun the pursuing Allied warships, Capt. Hans Langsdorff headed towards Montevideo Bay to request protection from neutral Uruguay under international law.

Under intense diplomatic pressure from Britain, Uruguay ordered the "Graf Spee" out to sea after the 72 hours a belligerent is allowed to stay in a neutral port, according to international law.

Erroneously thinking the British fleet was larger than it really was due to the impression created by British Ambassador Eugene Millington Drake via media sources, Langsdorff decided not to make a run for it, but to evacuate his men on ships headed to Argentina and scuttle the vessel using dynamite.

After the TNT detonations, the ship burned for three days before sinking eight meters into the mud of the Rio de la Plata. Langsdorff committed suicide in Buenos Aires two days later.

"Some 500,000 people saw the boat sink, there is not one Uruguayan family that doesn't have someone who saw it," said Alfredo Etchegaray, who organized the project.

Salvage efforts have already been cancelled twice due to poor weather conditions. Fortunately, the 600-foot ship lies only 23 feet below the ocean's surface, making salvage efforts much easier than they might be if it had gone to the bottom in deeper water.

However, one of biggest challenges for the team is to raise the 12,700-ton ship's hull, which is in two pieces and of which 30 percent is buried in the mud. Furthermore, the ship did not settle straight onto the ocean bed, but is tilted 65 degrees to starboard.

The operation is expected to take three years but could go longer depending on "the condition of the boat, which could force us to change our technique," said German Thomas Smid, a ship expert who worked with James Cameron on the movie "Titanic." Plans are to restore all of the vessel's components and display them in Uruguay. "We think it is going to be big draw for tourism," Etchegaray said.

The local media has speculated that the ship may hold a live torpedo. But the professional team as well as the only surviving former German sailor from the ship living in Uruguay, Friedrich Adolph, say that if there are munitions in the ship, by now they would be totally ineffective.

However, Adolph says he would rather not take that chance. For him, the battleship should stay where it is - lodged in the mud of the Rio de la Plata. "Leave the 'Graf Spee' in peace," he said.

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