Trumpeter 1/350 DKM Graf Spee
KIT #: 5316
PRICE: $84.00
DECALS: One option
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: Eduard and White Ensign Models photoetch used.


            DKM Admiral Graf Spee was a Deutschland‑class Panzerschiff - one of three, the others being Deutschland and Admiral Scheer - laid down at the Reichsmarinewerft shipyard in Wilhelmshaven in October 1932, launched June 30, 1934, and completed on January 6. 1936.  She was named after Admiral Maximilian von Spee, who commanded  the East Asia Squadron that fought the battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands in 1914, where the Admiral died in action.   

            Developed in the 1920s, the Panzerschiff concept was a response by the German Navy to the restrictions imposed on the size of warships allowed under the Versailles Treaty, which imposed a maximum size of 10,000 tons on any German warship. (Though with a full load displacement of 16,280 tons, she significantly exceeded the restriction).  The ship was essentially the size of a heavy cruiser, with the armament of a battle cruiser:  six 11-inch guns in two triple gun turrets, and thus able to outgun any cruiser fast enough to catch her, while the ship's top speed of 29.5 knots meant that only a handful of ships in the Anglo‑French navies would be able to catch them and powerful enough to sink them.

            The ships were primarily designed to operate as open ocean commerce raiders, powered by four MAN 9‑cylinder double‑acting two‑stroke diesel engines.  The fuel oil was extended by mixing it with desalinated water, utilizing some complicated machinery coupled to the ship's desalinization system, which would turn out to be the Achilles Heel of Admiral Graf Spee.

            After three months working up following her commissioning, Admiral Graf Spee became the flagship of the German Navy.  Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936, the ship participated in three “non‑intervention patrols” (in which the navies of Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy effectively cut off the legal Republican government from aid to oppose the illegal fascist revolt supported by Germany and Italy) between August 1936 and May 1937.  Returning from Spain, the represented Germany in the Coronation Review at Spithead for King George VI on May 20, 1937, after which she made a fourth non‑intervention patrol.  After fleet maneuvers and a brief visit to Sweden, Graf Spee made a fifth and final patrol in February 1938.  Kapitan zur See Hans Ludendorff became Graf Spee's third and final commander following her return from Spain.

            In the spring of 1939, Graf Spee became the first German warship equipped with radar, when a FMG G(gO) "Seetakt" set was mounted on the fire control tower. 

            On August 21, 1939, Graf Spee departed Wilhelmshaven bound for the South Atlantic, under orders to place herself in the shipping lanes following the possible outbreak of war.

            Hitler held off ordering the pre-positioned German warships to undertake commerce raiding until it was clear that Britain would not consider a peace treaty following the conquest of Poland.  Graf Spee was ordered to commence operations on September 26, 1939, strictly following the rules of the sea for commerce raiding, which meant ships were to be stopped and searched, and provision made for the crews before sinking them.  Graf Spee had narrowly avoided a fight with HMS Cumberland on September 11, when the British cruiser narrowly missed finding the German warship with her tender, the Altmark, off the Canary Islands 

            Between September 30 and December 7, 1939, Graf Spee stopped and sank nine ships totaling some 50,000 tons in the South Atlantic and southern Indian Ocean.  On October 5, 1939, eight Franco-British task forces were organized to hunt down  Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. The forces included the British carriers HMS Hermes, Eagle, and Ark Royal and the French carrier Béarn, the British battle cruiser Renown, and the French battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg.  Sixteen cruisers were assigned, including Force G, commanded by Commodore Henry Harwood, which patrolled the eastern coast of South America and comprised the heavy cruisers Cumberland and Exeter, reinforced by the light cruisers HMS Ajax (flagship) and HMNZS Achilles.   Cumberland patrolled the Falkland Islands while the other three cruisers patrolled off the River Plate, the border between Uruguay and Argentina. 

The Battle off the River Plate:

            Based on shipping intelligence taken by the prize crew from the S.S. Streonshalh, the last ship sunk by Graf Spee, Langsdorff headed for the area off the River Plate, where many shipping lanes across the South Atlantic converged, deciding to interrupt the Anglo-Argentinian beef trade.  At 0530, December 13, 1939, lookouts aboard Graf Spee spotted smoke on the horizon and a pair of masts off the starboard bow, which Langsdorff concluded was the escort for the convoy mentioned in the papers taken from Streonshalh.

            At 0552 the other ship was identified as HMS Exeter, accompanied by what appeared at that moment to be two destroyers.  At 0608, Exeter spotted Graf Spee, and Commodore Harwood divided his force in accordance with plans made with his captains to allow the relatively light force to divide Graf Spee's attention and fire in action.

            Graf Spee opened fire on Exeter with her main battery and on Ajax with her secondary battery at 0617.  Exeter commenced return fire at 0620, with Ajax opening fire at 0621.  Achilles opened fire at 0623.  In 30 minutes of firing, Graf Spee hit Exeter three times, putting her two forward turrets out of action, destroying her bridge and aircraft, and starting fires aboard the ship.  Harwood, aboard Ajax, brought the two light cruisers in close to take pressure off Exeter.  Thinking the two were about to make a torpedo attack, Langsdorff turned away and made smoke, then commenced firing at the two light cruisers with his main battery.

            Exeter, having suffered 61 dead and 23 wounded, with only her after turret able to fire, returned to the action at 0700 and scored the most important hit of the battle when she struck Graf Spee just abaft her aircraft catapult on the starboard side.  This wrecked the machinery for mixing diesel fuel with desalinated water, as well as destroying the ship's desalinization system.  Graf Spee again hit Exeter, forcing her to pull out of the action altogether, with a list to port.

            At 0725, after approximately one hour in battle, Graf Spee hit Ajax and put her two after turrets out of action.  Harwood was forced to break off action, and Graf Spee turned away and entered the River Plate estuary, steaming toward the port of Montevideo, which she entered an hour later.  Graf Spee had suffered 70 hits of 8-inch and 5.7-inch shells, with 36 dead and 60 wounded, including Langsdorff.

            News of the battle flashed around the world as the German warship dropped anchor in the harbor.  International law required that she leave within 72 hours or suffer internment. Speculation was rampant as to when the battle would resume.  Harwood's battered force was incapable of stopping Graf Spee if she sortied, and the nearest British heavy force, HMS Renown and Ark Royal, was 2,500 miles distant.  Cumberland immediately left the Falklands, but it would take longer than 72 hours for her to make the River Plate.  

            Ashore, diplomats sparred, with the Germans requesting an extension of the time limit without informing anyone of the damage to Graf Spee that would actually make it impossible for her to go back to sea.  There was not enough fuel oil mixed to allow for more than an hour's steaming, and she had used up the majority of her ammunition.  Even if she could get to sea, without the desalinization system in operation she could never get back to Germany.  British intelligence began circulating rumors in Montevideo that there were massive naval forces gathering out at sea, and the Royal Navy broadcast messages from Renown, Ark Royal and Cumberland on frequencies the Germans were known to listen to. 

            The German authorities were determined that Graf Spee not be interned in pro-British Uruguay, and plans were made to move the ship if possible to pro-Nazi Argentina, to be interned in Buenos Aires.  On December 116, Langsdorff told Kriegsmarine commander Admiral Raeder that his ship could not survive a fight and he was unwilling to risk his crew in a battle that would be hopeless.  He also informed the high command that he could not make it to Buenos Aires with the fuel available. 

            On the afternoon of December 18, 1939, Graf Spee off-loaded most of her crew to a German ship that would take them to Buenos Aires, and Graf Spee got underway, moving out into the channel to the estuary under the view of 20,000 people gathered ashore.  Once in the roadstead, Langsdorff and the 40 crewmen set the charges and abandoned ship.  The explosions throughout the ship created a cloud of smoke that obscured her from view ashore.  Langsdorff and his men made their way to the German ship, which weighed anchor to cross to Buenos Aires.

            On December 20, dressed in full uniform and lying atop Graf Spee's battle flag, Langsdorff shot himself.

            In Germany, Hitler, fearful of what might happen if a ship with the name Deutschland were sunk, ordered her name changed to Lützow.                   

            HMS Exeter, which had survived being hit by seven 11-inch shells, managed to get to Port Stanley in the Falklands, where repairs necessary to allow her to return to Britain took until January 1940 to complete.  Escorted home by Ark Royal, Exeter underwent an extensive refit lasting from February 1940 to March, 1941.  In November 1941, she joined the Far East fleet. 

             On February 27, 1942, Exeter was damaged in the First Battle of the Java Sea and ordered to Surabaya for repairs. On March 1, attempting to reach the Sunda Strait, Exeter was intercepted by the Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi, Haguro, Myoko and Ashigara and the destroyers Akebono, Inazuma, Yamakaze and Kawakaze. In the Second Battle of the Java Sea, now called The Battle of Bawean Island, Exeter was soon badly damaged, one hit stopping all power. Scuttling charges were set and she began sinking, only to be hit by a torpedo from the destroyer Inazuma before she finally sank about noon. The  escorting destroyers HMS Encounter and USS Pope were also lost. 800 Allied seamen, Captain Oliver Gordon, were picked up by the Japanese and became prisoners of war.  Exeter was discovered in 200 feet of water off Bawean Island in 2007 and is now a War Grave.

             In 1956, British director Michael Powell, working from a screenplay by himself and Emeric Pressburger, made “The Battle of the River Plate,” starring Peter Finch in his first motion picture role as Langsdorff, with Anthony Quayle as Harwood. HMNZS Achilles, by that time the Indian Navy's Delhi, played herself, as does HMS Cumberland; USS Salem played Graf Spee and HMS Jamaica stood in for Exeter, while HMS Sheffield is seen as Ajax.  The battle scenes, using real ships that are correct for the period, makes this the only movie to ever accurately portray a real sea battle from the days of big gun ships; the initial encounter between Graf Spee and Force G is done in real time.  The film is overall historically accurate, and was restored in 2009, the 70th anniversary of the battle.  It is available on DVD and highly recommended.

             The remains of Graf Spee lie in 36 feet of water in the roadstead off Montevideo and are still visible from the shore.


             Trumpeter's Graf Spee was released in 2009, the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the River Plate, shortly after the release of another 1/350 kit of the ship by Academy.  Overall, the Trumpeter release is more detailed than the simpler (and cheaper by half) Academy kit, though there was a lot of initial discussion among ship modelers as to which kit was more accurate in shape and dimensions, with Academy's kit winning by a nose, though the more extensive detail of the Trumpeter kit gives the final product a better look.

             The kit features the now-standard Trumpeter choice of a full hull or a waterline kit, with the two part hull divided on the waterline with the lower part molded in dark red plastic.  Photoetch railings are provided, but no other photoetch detail.  The Ar-196 is molded in clear plastic and features a choice of wings spread or folded.


            The first thing to do was to get the necessary information about how Graf Spee looked at the Battle of the River Plate.  Fortunately, Trumpeter provides an accurate painting guide for this.  I also discovered that the Ar-196 had been jettisoned overboard on December 6 after suffering damage in a heavy landing, and so was not aboard during the battle.                          

             For me, a ship model starts with painting various parts. I did all the superstructure parts in light grey, then painted the deck parts with Tamiya “Deck Tan.” 

             I then assembled the hull, including the main decks, and then painted that.  I hand-painted the “bow wave” camouflage.

           I hand-painted the boats as I assembled them.

             I proceeded to follow the instructions and assemble the superstructure, painting the decks dark grey, and repainting the parts as necessary as they were assembled.

             Once everything was assembled and the superstructure attached, I turned to the photoetch.  Eduard makes a nice photoetch set, as does White Ensign Models. I proceeded to use both sets, deciding on my own which bit was superior and using that.  I hate doing photoetch in 1/350 scale, but in that scale you really have to do it if you want to have a final result that looks realistic.  Take your time and work carefully.  I don't use all the photoetch, because much of it is too small for me to work with, but if you use at least the ladders and railings and various yardarms, the radar antenna and the airplane catapult assembly, you end up with a good looking model.  You definitely need an Opti-Visor when working in this scale.

             After all this was assembled, I attached the secondary armament and the anti-aircraft armament, which I glued in place, while leaving the main armament free to move.  I didn't fully rig the model.  Once I get a closed display case where certain felines cannot be attracted to such a delightful spiderweb as a rigged ship, this will be set right.


             The Trumpeter Graf Spee makes up into a beautiful model.  I only wish the company would now make some models of the winners; you know, British  County-class heavy cruiser, Leander-class light cruisers, a US Baltimore and Helena - the ships that won the war as well as all the ships of the German and Japanese navies that lost.

Tom Cleaver

November 2011

Thanks to Stephens International for the review kit.

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