Pursuit of the Graf Spee
By Inés Capdevila Posted Jan 1 2000
A key question in today's news business if whether journalists should involve themselves in the events they are covering. How proper is “advocacy journalism?” In the first months of World War II, 60 years ago, there was no question in the mind of Hugo Francisco Stunz, editor of El Día de La Plata in Argentina. Stunz had already used his newspaper to raise money to buy airplanes for Britain's Royal Air Force.
Nazism was to be resisted, and Stunz jumped at the opportunity to help the British and their allies sink an awesome German pocket battleship that was patrolling the South Atlantic.
From the first days of World War II in Sept., 1939, Hugo Francisco Stunz's paper supported the Allies, but there was strong support for Nazism in Argentina. The newspaper was founded by Stunz's father, Hugo Stunz, and an associate in 1884. They built it into one of the most important dailies in Argentina.
By December 1939, the German battleship Graf Spee made international headlines — it had already sunk nine British ships. Royal Navy pursuers found her in the South Atlantic and attacked on Dec. 13, 1939. The ship was seriously damaged and her skipper ran into the neutral waters of the River Plate to Montevideo, Uruguay, many miles up the river. The skipper hoped to make repairs there.
La Plate, Argentina, is situated just across the River Plate from Montevideo, and Stunz kept his yacht, the Achernar, there. He had sailed the boat from Amsterdam to La Plata in 1936. “My father-in-law always kept things to himself,” Jorge Fascetto, the current publisher of El Día de La Plata says, “so we don't know how he and British intelligence officers aboard while the Graf Spee was there.”
British diplomats pressed the Uruguayan government to force the Graf Spee to sail within 24 hours His Majesty's government was trying to convince the Graf Spee command that several warships were waiting for them. British intelligence planted stories in the domestic and international press about a great naval force lurking in the River Plate near Montevideo.
In Europe, the propaganda machines of both countries were on the job. The battle of the River Plate was seen as the most important naval fight since the war started. It captured the front page of newspapers around the world. On Dec. 14, the BBC reported that “the British victory was ample,” and that despite their smaller size, the British vessels “forced the pocket battleship to adopt the tactics they wished.” The report also started that “many British warships are patrolling the River Plate, ready for any move.”
Hours later, German audiences heard a different version of the battle. Radio stations aired a wire piece from the German news agency, lauding the “victorious battleship” for running to Montevideo with only “minor hits…for provisions.” The news story claimed that many of the 36 German casualties were due to the “British use of shells filled with mustard gas,” which was forbidden by international laws.
The Germans needed time to repair the battleship; the British needed time to reinforce their sea squadron.
On the following two days, the allied press created a threatening naval force in the River Plate. A special correspondent for The Time in London reported that a “squadron was waiting off Montevideo,” including the French battleship Dunkerque and a British aircraft carrier. The news vessels were nowhere in sight in the South Atlantic. Only the British cruiser Ajax, Achilles and Cumberland constituted the squadron. But on its front page, The New York Times' headlines said that a “reinforced allied fleet” awaited the Graf Spee. In Argentina. La Nación and La Prensa, the two largest newspapers, quoted “reliable sources” that said “ more than five cruisers were waiting for the German battleship.”
As the night of Dec.15 fell on Montevideo, diplomats were certain that the Uruguayan government would not allow the Graf Spee to remain in its port longer. The German ambassador and Graf Spee's Capt. Hans Langsdorff planned to dash to Buenos Aires where a friendlier government might grant them a longer period for repair. The bad news reached British intelligence, which had to deploy sea and land resources to prevent the Graf Spee from escaping again.
Stunz was ready and willing. “Despite his German last name, he was an ardent Anglophile,' Fascetto says. Moreover Stunz knew intimately the area of the River Plate through which the Graf Spee would have to sail out of Montevideo —either north to Buenos Aires or south to the open sea.
The German battleship was finally scheduled to leave Montevideo on the evening of Dec. 17. Stunz would shadow the battleship with the two British intelligence agents and a news photographer, Robert Dascanio, aboard. Their main task would be to fire a red or green beacon signaling the direction taken by the Graf Spee in her escape attempt. The beacon would point the three British cruisers in the right direction.
For Stunz, it was not only an opportunity to help the British Crown, it was also an opportunity to get a world scoop for El Día, “I think he was not even scared,” says his daughter Isabel Stunz de Fascetto.
The Graf Spee steered seaward on Dec.17 and stopped three miles out of the Uruguayan port. A crowd of local residents and correspondents watched from shore. The crew transferred to the Tacoma, a German merchant vessel. Once again the Graf Spee got under way. A few miles away, Stunz's Achernar followed.
An hour later, the Gaf Spee stopped for the last time. Capt. Langsdorff and the remaining crew left the ship on boats. Minutes later, Dascanio rapidly started photographing. There was an explosion, then another, and flames erupted over the warship. Facing the impossibility of escape, Hitler had ordered the Graf Spee scuttled.
Stunz and Dascanio sailed quickly back to La Plata with an exclusive set of photo. Copies of the pictures were soon delivered to the British naval attaché. The following day, El Día printed the pictures of the burning Graf Spee. In a matter of days, the pictures had circled the world. So did the news of the scuttled German warship and the suicide, two days later, of Capt. Langsdorff. The River Plate had been the filed of the first great naval victory for the Allies. The press had been a helpful weapon.
Sixty years later, a framed letter and the famous photographs hang in the Buenos Aires apartment of Isabel and Jorge Fascetto, daughter and so-in-law of the publisher. In the letter, the British Crown thanks Stunz for helping to silence forever the guns of the Graf Spee and giving the Allies the first major victory against Nazism.
Ironically, after the war, when Fascism and Nazism were destroyed in Europe, totalitarianism came to Argentina in the from of Juan Peron, who confiscated El Día and forced Stunz to go into exile in Uruguay. Stunz remained there until Peron was overthrown. Years later, Fascetto became publisher, and the paper continued to operate until a military junta took power in Argentina The paper once again threatened not only by the military government but also by guerrillas who killed its director. The Fascettos went into exile for a year.
When the British defeated Argentina in the three-month Falklands War in 1982, the military government fell, and democracy, as well as a free free, returned to the country.