A great "naval occasion" was the dramatic engagement between the "Admiral Graf Spee" and the British cruisers on December 13, in which the British ships, thought outclassed, showed a seamanship and fighting spirit worthy of the best traditions of the British Navy. The gallant "Exeter" was hit from 40 to 50 times by shells three times the weight of those she could herself discharge. Nevertheless, she returned shot for shot till three of her 8-in. guns were smashed and only one could be fired, and that by hand. Her steering gear was damaged, she sustained nearly a hundred casualties and numerous fires broke out on board, but she continued in the wake of the speeding battle and took up station at the mouth of the estuary until relieved by the arrival of the "Cumberland". Officers and men were, in the words of her captain, "superb".
This extraordinarily dramatic photograph sent from Montevideo by wireless was taken as the "Admiral Graf Spee" was sinking in flames. She was destroyed by a number of bombs placed in different parts of the hull. They exploded with terrific force, columns of flames and clouds of smoke arose from the ship and five minutes later there was another explosion when the flames reached the magazine. For a week she continued to burn and smoulder until only a broken hulk remained of the once proud ship. Photo, British Official: Crown Copyright.
Dramatic as was the end of the "Graf Spee", yet another sensational element was added to the story by the suicide of her commander, Captain Hans Langsdorf, on December 20. He was found shot in the naval arsenal at Buenos Aires, and a significant fact is that, according to reports from reliable sources, he was discovered lying on the German Imperial flag, not the Swastika of Hitler, whose instructions were "Scuttle, don't fight". He was buried the next day with full naval honours, and his funeral was attended by Captain Pottinger, of the steamer "Ashlea", as representative of the British merchant seaman released from the "Graf Spee" before her end. When the news of the suicide was released in Germany the Nazi propaganda machine was hard put to it to explain what all the world realized was a gallant seamen's protest against the Fuehrer's order.
Captain Langsdorf committed suicide on December 20 and was buried on the following day. During the night his body lay in state in the Buenos Aires Arsenal guarded by members of the crew of the "Graf Spee". The Nazi flag, as can be seen in the photograph, hung in the background and another draped the coffin. Photo, Planet News.