Part of the Acorn Archive

Hearts of Oak



GRAF SPEE and ALTMARK in the South Atlantic 1939

Merchant Ships Sunk

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1st September 1939 - German ship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE refuels from the tanker ALTMARK SW of the Canary Islands.  ALTMARK obtained the fuel oil in Port Arthur, Texas, USA in August. Outbreak of War 3rd September 1939.


11th September 1939 - ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE gains provisions from tanker ALTMARK. 


26th September Langsdorff received orders to commence raiding operations and the Admiral Graf Spee moved off towards the Brazilian coast.



Booth S.S. Co.

Built 1934  Cammell Laird & Co.

5,051 tons

412ft 2ins x 55ft 7ins x 26ft

652 nhp; 13 knots; triple-expansion engines & L.P. turbine.

Capt. F. C. P. Harris, O.B.E.

30th September 1939  She was intercepted by GRAF SPEE 50 miles SE of Pernambuco. GRAF SPEE gave orders not to operate the radio, but the wireless operator sent the distress signal and ship’s position.

Passengers and crew were taken off as prisoners, CLEMENT was sunk by gunfire.

The crew were sent to the the boats and were left to make their way to land, having been given the correct course back to the South American port of Maceio. They all reached Maceio safely on the 1st October.

The master and the chief engineer were taken prisoner. There was also a deck hand that had received injuries whilst abandoning ship.  The man received treatment for his wounds. Captain Harris was questioned.

The Greek steamer SS PAPALEMOS was stopped. Her captain promised not to send a signal until reaching the Cape Verde Islands, so Captain Harris, the chief engineer and the deck hand were transferred to the SS PAPALEMOS and GRAF SPEE continued her raiding operation.  


SS Clement

Photograph Courtesy of Joe McMillan



Tyneside Line : John Ridley, Son & Tully, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Built 1925  W. Pickersgill & Sons, Sunderland

4,651 tons

372ft 8ins x 54ft 6ins x 26ft 8ins

346 nhp; triple-expansion engines.

5th October 1939 : On voyage from Table Bay to London with 7,080 tons of maize.

She was stopped by GRAF SPEE, 480 miles east-south-east of Ascension Island.  The wireless operator managed to get an SOS distress signal off, instead of the raider RRRR report; the message was received by the MARTAND.

7th October, SS ASHLEA was captured and the crew placed on the NEWTON BEECH. After the combined crews were again transferred, this time to the GRAF SPEE, NEWTON BEECH was sunk by GRAF SPEE on October 8th 1939, in position 09.35S : 06.30W, off the coast of Angola.



Cliff side Shipping Co.

Built 1929  Sir J. Priestman & Co.

4,222 tons;

367ft 4ins x 51ft 5ins x 25ft 1ins

375 nhp; triple-expansion engines.

October 7th 1939  Captured by GRAF SPEE, between Cape Town

and Freetown. The crew of the ASHLEA was transferred to the NEWTON BEECH. After a small part of ASHLEA’s cargo of sugar had been removed, the ASHLEA was sunk; Position 09.52S : 03.28W.

8th October, all prisoners were taken on board GRAF SPEE and NEWTON BEECH was sunk.



Charente SS Co Ltd. ( T&J  Harrison ) Liverpool

Built  1921  Charles Connell & Company, Scotstown

Yard Nr 385

3 DR geared Steam turbines; 13 knots

8,196 tons

482ft x 58ft x 35ft

10th October 1939  On route for Liverpool with a general cargo from India and East Africa; Captured by GRAF SPEE. A Prize crew was placed on board. GRAF SPEE headed SW and joined the Altmark, from which she refuelled on 14 October. Used as a supply ship by GRAF SPEE and later sunk  5th December 1939, Indian Ocean;  Position 08.30S : 05.15W, about 650 miles SW of St. Helena.

18th October 1939 All captured British seamen were sent on board the ALTMARK, which then parted company again for ten days.

Neither ASHLEA or HUNTSMAN could send distress messages. Suspicion was not aroused until they became overdue at Freetown.


SS Huntsman

Photograph Courtesy Joe McMillan



In the afternoon of 22nd October 1939, about midway between St. Helena and the west coast of Africa, ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE captured and sank TREVANION, homeward-bound from Port Pirie, South Australia, with a cargo of zinc concentrates.  Position 19.40S : 04.02E.  Details of the MV TREVANION.

During the next six days GRAF SPEE steered to the south-west away from the trade routes and on 28th October met the ALTMARK near Tristan da Cunha, roughly midway between the Cape of Good Hope and the east coast of South America. After fuelling from ALTMARK, the crew of the TREVANION were transferred to ALTMARK, and GRAF SPEE set course to the Indian Ocean.

22nd October Union-Castle liner LLANSTEPHAN CASTLE reported that she had intercepted a signal from an unidentified steamer stating that she was being shelled in a position ‘16 deg. South, 4 deg. 3 min. East at 1400 G.M.T.’

This was the message from TREVANION.


Late on the 14th November the small Dutch steamer HOLLAND, 893 tons, was spotted by GRAF SPEE; boarding was impossible in the high seas she was not warned or stopped.



Shell Co. of East Africa

Built 1939  G. Brown & Co.

706 tons

184ft 8ins x 29ft 6ins x 11ft 5ins

162nhp; oil engines.

15th November 1939  Africa Shell was sighted by GRAF SPEE, on the northern approach to Delagoa Bay, 6 miles off Zabora Point. AFRICA SHELL was on passage from Quelimane to Lourenço Marques.

The crew were allowed off to get away on boats, the master was taken prisoner, and AFRICA SHELL was sunk, 160 miles NE of Lourenco Marques.

Position 24.41S : 35E


16th November 1939  about 350 miles SW of Madagascar, the GRAF SPEE stopped the Dutch motorship MAPIA, but released her.



ON 146193

Blue Star Line

Built 1921  Lithgows ( as DORICSTAR )

10,086 tons

529ft 8ins x 64ft x 37ft

1,398 nhp; 13 knots; turbine engines.

Capt. W. Stubbs

December 2nd, 1939  Doric Star was on route for home from New Zealand, via Sydney and Capetown, with a cargo of frozen meat, dairy produce, and wool.

She was was intercepted by GRAF SPEE about 500 miles W of Damara Land, SW Africa.  Passengers and crew were taken off, as well as some provisions, and the DORIC STAR was sunk by bombs and a torpedo, in position  19.15S : 05.05E.

Despite warnings, the wireless operator had managed to get off an RRRR ( raider distress ) call, with her position.


Pictures and Story on



Norfolk & North American S.S. Co.

Built 1920  Armstrong, Whitworth & Co.

7,983 tons

478ft x 63ft 2ins x 31ft 2ins

1,011 nhp; quadruple-expansion engines.

Shaw Savill and Albion Company

December 3rd 1939  Early in the morning, TAIROA, on voyage from Brisbane to London ( with a cargo of frozen meat, wool and lead ) was intercepted by GRAF SPEE. Captain Langsdorff hoped to capture her as a tender, but GRAF SPEE’s gunfire had damaged her rudder, and so TAIROA was sunk with a torpedo, after taking off all her crew.

TAIROA sank off the coast of SW Africa, position  21.38S : 08.13E.


SS Tairoa

Photograph from the Stuttgart Collection



[ Streonshalh was the old name for Whitby ]

Rowland & Marwood's S.S. Co.

Built 1928  W. Pickersgill & Sons

3,895 tons

349ft 4ins x 50ft 1ins x 23ft 8ins

315 nhp; triple-expansion engines.

6th December 1939  ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE met ALTMARK for the last time, most of the prisoners being transferred to the ALTMARK, and fuel was taken on by GRAF SPEE.

December 7th 1939, some 1,000 miles E of Sao Francisco, Brazil, STREONSHALH ( on a voyage from Rosario/Montevideo to London with wheat grain ) was stopped by GRAF SPEE. The crew was taken off and STREONSHALH was sunk Position 25S : 27.50W.  

Having read certain papers on the STREONSHALH, Captain Langsdorff felt his best course was for Montevideo and the River Plate.


The Battle of the River Plate ended with

the GRAF SPEE being scuttled 17th Dec 1939.





Raymond Forward