MONTEVIDEO -- I watched from the vantage point of an airplane while explosions wrecked the doomed German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee and she sank in the estuary of the river Plate.
The pilot with whom I flew risked his life and mine to get as near the Nazi sea raider as possible. We were about 2,000 feet high and less than half a mile from the Graf Spee when the first explosions came apparently from time bombs placed in the ammunition magazines.
We were drawing nearer the Graf Spee, after a dash out over the sea to re-check the location of waiting British warships, when the battleship exploded.
I was looking directly at the ship which floated to all appearances peacefully, on the water.
Great Flash of Flame
Suddenly a great flash of flame leaped high in the air from her single funnel amidships.
A column of thick black smoke belched up after the flame.
I had just looked at my watch, which read 7:52 p.m. (5:52 EST).
Because of the roar of the plane's motors we could not hear the explosions which we knew were taking place.
We had followed the Graf Spee's every move from the moment she pulled her anchors and put out towards the sea.
I was at the Montevideo airport when word was telephoned the pocket battleship would leave the harbor as ordered by the Uruguayan government.
We went aloft, at 6:30 o'clock and circled over the warship as she began to ease down the harbor channel.
Seemed in Good Condition
So far as we could tell from the air the Graf Spee was in perfect condition. There was no sign of the shell scars of her encounter with British cruisers whose murderous fire had driven her into this neutral refuge.
We dipped low and waved to German sailors on the decks who were passing to and fro on final errands.
A number of launches filled with sailors apparently from the Spee's crew followed the warship down the channel.
I trained my glasses, east and saw, far away, the outline of a waiting warship -- presumably a British vessel waiting with guns ready for battle.
We flew out about 10 or 15 miles, dipped, and discovered that the ship was the Uruguayan cruiser Uruguay which had the Spee under observation.
We flew back to the entrance to the harbor and picked up the pocket battleship again.
At the entrance to the breakwater we saw a second vessel the German merchantman Tacoma which was going out with the war vessel. Lining her starboard deck and standing stiffly at attention were scores of youthful German sailors.
Propellers Kick Up Mud
We passed the Tacoma, circled her, and then overtook the Spee again. She was in shallow water and her propellers were kicking up mud. A long, brown wake trailed behind the warship and for a time we thought she must go aground.
Then she veered southward into deeper water and we flew east to look for signs of the British warships. At 7:15 we sighted a cruiser well out at sea possibly the Cumberland. She was about 15 miles from the Spee which then was about four or five miles from the coast.
We headed back towards the Spee and circled her. Her engines had stopped and she was idling on a calm sea. As we came over her, some 3000 feet up, a small boat put off from the warship and headed toward Montevideo. Then we saw that the Tacoma also had stopped about two miles away from the Spee.
The Cumberland Approaches
The strange cruiser -- apparently the Cumberland -- was approaching slowly from the east.
As we passed again between the Spee and the Tacoma, another large launch put off from the warship and, with motors wide open, sped toward the Tacoma.
These launches apparently were taking off the skeleton crew which had taken the warship out of the, harbor and set the time bombs which were to bring about her destruction.
We circled low over the Spee again. There was no sign of life on her decks. No smoke came from her funnel but her guns still pointed toward the sea.
Then the First Blast
We were Just opposite her midship section when the first blast occurred.
It reminded me of a blast furnace I used to see when I lived in Pittsburgh.
Our plane rocked and we veered sharply to avoid the effects of the concussion.
A second blast then tore at the battleship, sending a cloud of black smoke from her bow.
My pilot, who had been fearless throughout, dived straight toward the smoke-covered vessel.
It seemed the right wing of our plane wolud touch the stern of the Spee as we passed.
Then a Third Blast
Then a third blast tore through the after-deck of the Spee and covered the entire hulk with smoke.
We turned and circled a last. time but the smoke was so thick we could see nothing.
We make a final lap. The Spee still was covered with dense smoke which was spreading over the water.
We circled towards the Tacoma. The last of the small boats that had left the Spee was alongside the supply ship and sailors were clambering on to the merchantman.
On the deck of the Tacoma scores of sailors from the Spee's crew still were standing at attention, facing the sinking ship and the setting sun.
We circled around once more. We could see nothing for the smoke but subsequent events showed it was at that moment the Graf Spee was settling under the sea.