A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor

Author: James Bowen  | Date: December 17, 1939

Show Summary
National Broadcasting Company December 17, 1939

Nazis Scuttle the Graf Spee


BOWEN.—There’s been quite a little of excitement all day. It’s been going back and forth—being pushed around. I had to cut off of one broadcast, due to almost falling in the water with the amplifier and microphone and all the equipment—it’s being pushed by the crowd. There’s been a crowd of 70 to 100,000 people or more pushing around the dock in and around the Maldonado all day long.

It looks now that the War of Nerves is absolutely over. We just gave you the Flash News Report since the Graf Spee had scuttled the ship—as we call it—had blown itself up. What method was used we can’t tell you at the moment. The ship is 5 miles out, and all we can see at the present moment at the shore here is a lot of smoke and flame. The launches leaving the ship—we tried to get it with the glasses. The smoke seemed to overcast the action. She’s still afloat; pieces of her have gone up; the hull is still afloat, and the Tacoma which left, as we wired you a short time ago, left shortly after the craft, is trying to stand by her. It’s without doubt that the Tacoma, also being loaded with fuel oil, will very possibly take fire and also go up.

The launches trying to get away. Evidently, the report that we gave you of scuttling the ship was the truth, and the crew being transferred suddenly seemed to be in a terrible position being aboard the Tacoma.

The question of burning to death instead of being blown to death. It’s been quite a time down here. A question of nerves—postponements of sailing hours, incoming ships, outgoing ships, everything being used as a method of postponing the inevitable.

The Graf left here a short time ago this afternoon before it began to get dusk and dropped anchor 5 miles off the coast. At that time there were two Argentine ships very close to the entrance of the La Plata River. The crew was standing off. The cruisers were known to be very close to the English banks just to the South.

The ship is moving—rolling from side to side. There goes another explosion! The bow is brought up. Evidently, the powder magazine has caught fire. She’s going down! She’s going down by the stern! The stern is completely under water! Flames are still shooting up in the air! Smoke! Evidently, this wasn’t what we call exactly scuttling the ship, because the nautical term "scuttling a ship" is opening the sea valves and letting in the water. These boys evidently are making a good job of it and leaving nothing but the pieces. They aren’t going to leave anything anyone can reclaim whatsoever.

Without a doubt there’ll be no reclamation for any of the sailors. This afternoon in our broadcast we told you of the transfer of some of the sailors to the hospital, a transfer of 31 sailors to the hospital. It may be possible that those are the only sailors who’ll remain of the pocket cruiser Graf Spee.

She’s going down by the fore part. The bow is under! She seems to raise a little bit at the stern. That is possibly due to seeing it from here. Naturally, that would throw her bow a little bit in the air. Now she seems to be settling—going down a little bit. She’s just about where we can see the aftstern gone completely. Part of the superstructure is gone. The stack is still there. She’s down ha the water due to the low depth of water. Her superstructure is out of the water. She is absolutely on the bottom. Only thing showing now is her superstructure, her stack, and part of her battle tower above water.

We have just received information which is not official and will probably need a long time to be confirmed. The confirmation or rumor is, or the advice which we’ll have to accept as the rumor at the moment, the advice is that the explosion of the Graf Spee was done at the dictation of Mr. Hitler—absolutely. That of course will have to be proven in time like a number of things in the last war that we waited 20 years to find the truth. However, the first naval battle in this war fought in South American waters has probably come to its conclusion. And the heroism of all the sailors who took part in that battle is very well-known, especially the boys who are now in hospitals. They will have some memory, and the other boys will have none. We may possibly have another battle, if maritime reports are correct. that the Admiral Scheer and the Deutschland are enroute to South American waters with a convoy of submarines and will be met by at least one-third of the British Fleet.

The flame—the Graf Spee is still a-flame so it’s very hard to say whether or not anything will be saved due to the water action—possibly the action of the water will save something. It’s a very strange sight having, as I have, seen the Graf Spee about 4 hours after her arrival in Montevideo, having made at least 10 trips around the Graf Spee in the last 3 days—noticing the changes and the checking up of the shell holes, repainting—and as we described last night, the work, the welding of plates. It brings about the logical suggestion that the decision to blow up the Graf Spee must have been made as a last-minute resort.

We are unable at the moment to determine what is happening to the crew even with glasses, due to the movement of launches and the movement of two or three tugs which left the harbor here after the Graf Spee had gone out. All the launches seem to be getting to the Tacoma. Whether the Tacoma is unloading the sailors that were transferred to her to the launches, it’s impossible to define at the moment even with glasses. There’s a lot of action, and the crowd around here are just about crowding us into the water. We are in a very bad way. However, we’ll do the best we can. It’s awfully hard to describe this. We know more or less what is going on, hut we don’t want to tell you what we think is going on. We want to tell you what we can see, and we can’t see a great deal, due to the excessive action and movement. At least 300,000 people are here on the "rambler" as we call it—a wide highway wider even than the boardwalk at Atlantic City—and it’s absolutely blocked—it’s impossible to move.

You can’t walk in one direction or another—you just have to follow the swing of the crowd. It’s completely full of automobiles and people—accidents are happening. Now here come the tugboats from Montevideo. All the tugboats that have fought are borrowed to go to the assistance of the sailors. It’s very hard for the tug to go on after the search. They’re doing what they can, I think they’re going to get very little myself, because I don’t think they’ll pick up much except pieces. It’ll be sometime before there’s anything done about the hull unless she’s a menace to navigation. If she is, at that time they’ll just give her a little more dynamite, and that will be all.

The Graf seems to be settling a little bit at the moment. It may be possible that the rest of her may go.

ANNOUNCER.—This is NBC in New York. You’ve been listening, ladies and gentlemen, to another in the series of the NBC On the Spot broadcasts. James Bowen, NBC’s representative in Montevideo, Uruguay, has told us of the sinking of the Graf Spee and of the condition of the German supply ship Tacoma. The voice of Mr. Bowen was heard in the United States via RCA Communications.

Keep tuned to your favorite NBC station for the latest news. This is the National Broadcasting System.


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Chicago: James Bowen, "Nazis Scuttle the Graf Spee," A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UI5PYK2NDMESV1M.

MLA: Bowen, James. "Nazis Scuttle the Graf Spee." A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UI5PYK2NDMESV1M.

Harvard: Bowen, J, 'Nazis Scuttle the Graf Spee' in A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor. cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UI5PYK2NDMESV1M.