Scrap Metal Spies

By Roger Davies / 13 March 2015 / Insights

In 1939 the German “Admiral Graf Spee” pocket battleship was scuttled off the port of Montevideo in neutral Uruguay following the Battle of the River Plate.  In a very melodramatic fashion the Captain, Hans Langsdorff, committed suicide by shooting himself in full dress uniform, in a hotel room, while lying on the ship’s battle ensign.


Looking at the photos he did a poor job of scuttling the vessel. The ship settled on the bottom, but with significant proportions of her superstructure protruding through the surface of the sea.  The German crew were interned in Argentina for the rest of the war.  The British however retained an ongoing interest in the vessel and saw it as an opportunity to gather technical intelligence. The British Naval Attache in Montevideo had the ship under observation before it was scuttled and noted a component on the superstucture which rotated constantly, and assumed it was some form of range finder.  There was particular interest in assessing the German use of radar, suspected as being key to the Graf Spee’s earlier successes.    The scuttled wreck was guarded by the Uruguayan Navy to enforce neutrality.

A TECHINT operation as therefore put into action.   The German Navy wanted to preclude exploitation of the wreck, so they sold it for its scrap value in the hope a local scrap dealer would dispose of it.  They sold it to a Montevideo engineering company.  That company used a “local gangster” Julio Vega-Helguara to negotiate the deal (he happened to be “friends” with the German Ambassador, which helped)  – but Vega Helguara was an agent of British Intelligence.   On February 23rd, 1940 a price was agreed of £14,000.  The Montevideo engineering company “just happened to have” a ship-breaking salvage expert, another “friend” of Vega Helguara from an associated sub-contractor “passing through” Montevideo.  That sub-contractor was a British scrap metal company, T W Ward Ltd.   Their “expert” had been sent out by Sunderland flying boat to Montevideo – but this expert was not a ship breaker , but a Mr Bainbridge-Bell, a British government scientist working in the field of radar.

In March 6th and 7th, Bainbridge-Bell rowed out to the scuttled vessel and because he was acting for a Uruguayan company who owned the vessel now he was allowed access by the guard force. He clambered up the exposed super-structure, taking notes and measuring, taking photographs and obtaining “samples” including parts of the antennas as well as some electrical components from the radar’s display system.  His measurements of the antennas allowed him to derive the wavelength of the radar as 57cm. Other “representatives” of T W Ward sent to Montevideo included Mr M K Purvis (whose real occupation was a Naval construction designer from the British Admiralty), and Lt G P Kilroy, an undercover British Royal Navy torpedo officer.   The undercover team narrowly escaped death when part of the range-finding superstructure fell as they were working from a small boat below – one wonders if they were trying to remove the whole part of that superstructure.  I have some reports that an entire anti-aircraft gun system was also recovered to the UK, and other reports suggest that their activities in April/March 1940 included getting two divers into the forward magazine. All in all a very cheeky operation in a neutral country.

The Royal Navy allocated funds for this operation via T W Ward Ltd for this operation, and in true bureaucratic fashion had to justify every penny of that to the Treasury. That resulted in two years of paperwork exchanges as the Treasury queried the expenses and the unusual processes involving Wards and the gangster.  The insights into German technology were very significant though.  This final justification for the operations expenses was made, calmly by the Royal Navy Director of Signals:

“The examination of the Graf Spee by our representative was most valuable in establishing the use of RDF by the enemy.  It also provided sufficient technical detail in this matter to guide us in the search for enemy RDF in general and in the devising and preparation of equipment for countermeasures.”

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