On this day, the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee captured the British supply ship SS Huntsman by using a series of tricks to fool both the crew of the Huntsman and potential rescuers.
The Admiral Graf Spee approached the SS Huntsman, and was able to get close to the British ship by flying a French flag. There are differing reports about whether the Graf Spee did this, or whether the captain of the Huntsman mistakenly assumed the approaching warship was French. At the last moment, as the Graf Spee came alongside, the captain of the Huntsman realised his mistake and broadcast a ‘May Day’ radio message, calling for assistance. The radio operator of the Graf Spee immediately broadcast a second message, pretending to be from another British ship, and stating the attack was by a u-boat and providing an intentionally false location. Doing this enabled the Graf Spee captain to board the Hunstman and capture it.
There were 84 crew members aboard the Huntsman and the captain of the Graf Spee transferred them aboard his warship. He then sent a small detachment of Graf Spee crew, called a ‘prize crew’, onto the captured British supply ship to sail it to a friendly port. The Graf Spee then departed, heading towards the German tanker Altmark, a ship which would take the 84 prisoners on board alongside prisoners from other ships sunk or captured by the Graf Spee.
The Admiral Graf Spee was a Deutschland-class warship, nicknamed a ‘pocket battleship’ by the British. The Altmark would play a significant role in the coming weeks as it steadily increased its load of British prisoners to 300, and it was hunted by British ships.