Ironclad Graf Spee

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German title Ironclad Graf Spee
Original title The Battle of the River Plate
Country of production Great Britain
original language English
Publishing year 1956
length 112 minutes
Age rating FSK 12
Director Michael Powell ,
Emeric Pressburger
script Michael Powell,
Emeric Pressburger
production Michael Powell,
Emeric Pressburger,
Earl St. John (Studio KSM)
music Brian Easdale
camera Christopher Challis
cut Reginald Mills

Panzerschiff Graf Spee (Original title: The Battle of the River Plate ) is a British film from 1956 about the German armored ship Admiral Graf Spee , which brought down allied merchant ships in the Central and South Atlantic at the beginning of the Second World War and then with a British cruiser squadron Naval battle fought off the Rio de la Plata .


"This is a story of fighting at sea."

The pirate trip

This struggle at sea turns out to be rather one-sided in the first part of the film. The story begins with the sinking of the unarmed coastal tanker Africa Shell on November 15, 1939 off the southeast coast of Africa. His captain Dove protests loudly against the sinking, which he believes takes place within the protected three-mile zone of the mainland and was therefore impermissible under martial law . But when he meets the commander of Admiral Graf Spee Langsdorff , he treats him with respect and extremely courteous. They discuss strategic and tactical aspects of the use of pocket battleships like the Graf Spee . Dove is even allowed to inspect the ship and finally watches the provisions and fuel being taken over from the Altmark utility . The Altmark also returns the captured officers of the first five captured merchant ships, which were temporarily housed on it, back to the Spee . Among them, Dove meets old friends again.

The followers

When the steamer Doric Star was sunk by the Spee in the South Atlantic at the beginning of December , but was still able to send a radio message, Commodore Harwood, head of a British cruiser squadron, became aware of the trade disruptor. At a commanders meeting on his flagship , the light cruiser HMS Ajax , he explains his thoughts to Captains Woodhouse, Bell (heavy cruiser HMS Exeter ) and Parry (light cruiser HMNZS Achilles ): The German ship will either continue into the Indian Ocean , the journey home set out north or previously haunt the busy trade routes on the east coast of South America. If so, Harwood wants to set him a trap in the waters off the Río de la Plata .

The battle in front of the Rio de la Plata

After two more sinks, the Graf Spee actually calls at the South American continent, where it meets the cruiser association on December 13th. Although the British ships are far inferior to the Spee by artillery , they take up the fight. In order to force the Spee to distribute the fire, the unit is divided into the Exeter and the two light cruisers. In the battle, the Exeter in particular is badly hit and has to expire after all of its heavy guns have failed. The slightly damaged Ajax and Achilles initially cover the Exeter's escape and then also retreat, since without the heavy cruiser they no longer have a chance to survive against the Spee .

But the German ship was also hit several times. The destruction of the galley is particularly unpleasant , so that no hot meals can be served to the crew. Langsdorff therefore decides to call at Montevideo in Uruguay in order to have the battle damage repaired there. The captains captured, who had to fear for their lives during the shooting, but on the other hand welcomed the prospect of the privateer being captured by British forces, are now relieved when they are released on arrival. Captain Dove thanks Langsdorff for the fair treatment.

The diplomatic war

Now the diplomatic war begins. According to international law, a warship of a warring nation may only remain in a neutral port for a limited period of time in order to restore its seaworthiness there. Otherwise there is a risk of the ship being immobilized and the crew interned . Since the English are currently guarding the mouth of the Rio de la Plata with only weak forces, namely with the two light cruisers Ajax and Achilles and the newly added heavy cruiser HMS Cumberland , the ambassadors of England and France make representations to the Uruguayan foreign minister. They want to persuade him to expel the Spee from port as soon as possible so that she is forced to sail before the repairs are completed and face the enemy. The German envoy, on the other hand, argues that the Spee would need at least two weeks to restore its seaworthiness. Ultimately, the Germans are granted a period of 72 hours.

At the instigation of Commodore Harwood, who still considers his ships to be inferior and wants to give stronger units the opportunity to run to the Rio de la Plata, the British finally change their approach and advocate for the Spee to stay longer in Montevideo. At the same time, rumors about the imminent arrival of a large British fleet are being launched through targeted indiscretions. In addition, a French freighter leaves the port, so Spee is forced to stay because a warship is only allowed to leave the neutral port 24 hours after an opposing merchant ship has left the port.

The end

In view of the unclear knowledge about the strength of the British blockade forces and the difficulties in making the Spee clear for sea and combat, Langsdorff decided to take a radical step. On December 17th, Spee strolls into the roadstead in front of Montevideo in front of thousands of onlookers who are eagerly awaiting a sea battle . There the crew disembarked, a little later several explosions caused the ship to go up in flames and sink. A huge cloud of smoke heralds the end of the ironclad, which the Germans sank themselves so as not to let it fall into the hands of the enemy.

The British show Hans Langsdorff great respect, as the narrator's words at the end of the film document: “For their commanding officer, Hans Langsdorff, there was only one thing: The seaman's honor told him not to survive the end of his ship. While the enemy was walking home, the shot echoed in the quarters of the Naval Arsenal in Buenos Aires that put an end to the life of this man, who was highly respected by friend and foe. This man who was a sailor - and a gentleman. "


Theatrical releases

Great Britain December 24, 1956
Sweden December 26, 1956
Denmark February 6, 1957
Federal Republic of Germany April 5th 1957
Finland September 13, 1957
United States November 1957


The outdoor shots were shot in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean near Malta , in two ports in Malta, in Portsmouth , in the Cromarty Firth , Invergordon in Scotland and in the port of Montevideo , Uruguay. The studio recordings were made at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire , England.


The protagonist of the film: Heavy cruiser USS Salem (CA-139) as Admiral Graf Spee

The German ironclad is portrayed by the US heavy cruiser USS Salem . On the English side, HMS Jamaica ( Crown Colony class ) act as Exeter and HMS Sheffield as Ajax , HMS Cumberland plays itself. And the Indian cruiser INS Delhi also plays itself, as it was HMNZS Achilles at the beginning of the Second World War in the service of the New Zealand Navy.

Patrick Dove, formerly the captain of the coastal tanker Africa Shell , which was attacked by Graf Spee on November 15, 1939 , plays the - small - role of the captain of the also angry steamer Streonshall , but mainly served as an advisor for the scenes with the British prisoners on board the Admiral Graf Spee .

Filming began on December 13, 1955, the 16th anniversary of the battle of the Rio de la Plata. The River Plate Association in Auckland sent a telegram to the film crew: “ Congratulations on choosing the day. We hope your shooting (meaning the "shots" of the cameras) will be as successful as ours! "


The film was nominated for the British Film Academy Award in 1957 in three categories including Best British Film and Best British Screenplay .


  • “A somewhat nicer and inaccurate details, noticeably fair English war film (...)." - 6000 films. Critical notes from the cinema years 1945 to 1958. Handbook V of the Catholic film criticism, 3rd edition, Verlag Haus Altenberg, Düsseldorf 1963, p. 331
  • "Documentary presentation (...); as remarkable as questionable." (Rating: 2 out of 4 possible stars = average) - Adolf Heinzlmeier and Berndt Schulz in the lexicon “Films on TV” (extended new edition). Rasch and Röhring, Hamburg 1990, ISBN 3-89136-392-3 , p. 632

DVD release

  • Ironclad Graf Spee . Power Station GmbH 2007

Web links

References and comments

  1. The prefixes in front of the ship names mean: HMS = "His / Her Majesty's Ship" , HMNZS = "His / Her Majesty's New Zealand Ship" ; USS = " United States Ship "; INS = "Indian Naval Ship" (national prefixes for warships), MS = "Motor Ship" , SS = "Steam Ship" (prefixes for civil ship classes); see also main article on prefixes of ship names
  2. Art. 17 of the Hague Agreement of October 18, 1907 ( Memento of September 11, 2011 in the Internet Archive ): Within neutral ports and anchorages, warships of belligerents may only repair their damage to the extent that is essential for the safety of their shipping, but not increase in any way their military strength. The neutral authority must determine the type of repairs to be made, which must be carried out as quickly as possible.