Teams stand by to raise the 'Graf Spee'

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The Independent US

Strong winds in the river Plate, the estuary that divides Argentina from Uruguay, delayed attempts yesterday to recover the wreck of the Graf Spee, the 10,000-ton German warship scuttled after one of the first major naval engagements of the Second World War.

Although the vessel lies in only 25 feet of water and is just three miles fromthe Uruguayan port of Montevideo, the blustery wind has added to the difficulty of divers trying to attach cables to lift parts of the wreck.

The multi-million pound salvage operation, a private venture with German funding and backing from the Uruguayan government, is expected to last more than three years.

But it is hoped that cranes can be used fairly soon to raise the ship's 27-ton communications tower and sophisticated sighting equipment for the Graf Spee's powerful 11-inch guns.

The guns were responsible for the sinking of nine British merchant vessels in the Indian and South Atlantic oceans during the first three months of the Second World War. This was before the Graf Spee encountered three Royal Navy cruisers on 13 December, 1939.

In the ensuing battle of the river Plate, the Graf Spee was badly damaged and travelled to the neutral port of Montevideo for repairs. But the Uruguayan authorities allowed her captain, Hans Langsdorff, only 72 hours to bury his dead and refit. Convinced that the British were being reinforced and that to sail out again meant death for his 1,100 crew members, Capt Langsdorff scuttled his ship and shot himself.

Although it lies in shallow water, the Graf Spee is broken-backed and engulfed in thousands of tons of mud. Yesterday Hector Bado, the Uruguayan head of the recovery operation, said plans to start work in earnest had been pushed back to tomorrow or Monday. "It's incredible, but the river Plate is showing its colours and we might say it's rather tricky out there right now," he said.

Mr Bado hopes the salvaged ship will become a museum and a tourist attraction in Montevideo, where the battle is remembered with memorials, streets and graves. "The ship is a symbol for humanity in time of war," Mr Bado said. "The captain decided to save the lives of his crew by scuttling his vessel rather than enter a hopeless battle with British ships."

Fifty wounded German sailors were left behind in Montevideo after the battle. One of the survivors, Friedrich Adolph, 84, was a 20-year-old seaman in the battle. He remembers Capt Langsdorff as a father figure who felt he had "too many young lads aboard".

Mr Adolf said: "He didn't want us to be killed. But we respected his decision to take his own life. It's the tradition. A captain dies with his ship."

But German survivors in the Graf Spee veterans' association are not happy with the proposed salvage operation and think their former ship should be left to rest.

Kurt Wecker, the association's chairman, said: "Let's just keep it under water as an historical monument."