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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 18:05 GMT
Bad weather delays Graf Spee dive
Graf Spee
The Graf Spee wrought havoc among allied merchant vessels
An operation to raise the German World War II battleship Graf Spee from the mouth of the River Plate in Uruguay has been postponed due to high winds.

Divers now do not expect to be able to begin the long and complicated project until Sunday at the earliest.

The vessel was scuttled more than 60 years ago after sustaining damage in a confrontation with allied forces.

The recovery effort is reported to be privately funded and will cost millions of dollars.

Pride of the navy

The Graf Spee was once a symbol of German naval might.

In the early days of World War II it roamed the South Atlantic, sinking as many as nine allied merchant ships.

But the vessel was scuttled by her captain after it was damaged in the Battle of the River Plate, one of the earliest and most important naval confrontations of the Second World War in December 1939.

Now it lies in pieces just eight metres (26 feet) below the waters outside the Uruguayan port capital of Montevideo.

When BBC News Online interviewed the project spokesman Hector Bado, he was with the salvage team surveying the site of the operation.

Winds of 40 kilometres per hour (25mph) could be heard whistling down the telephone.

The team's first task, he said, was to bring up the ship's communications tower, which held its early radar system - and weighs 27,000 kilograms (60,000 lb).

"To do that, we need a crane," he said, "but we can't even get near the site of the wreck at the moment."

Once the 12-hour operation to raise the communications tower is over, it will be put briefly on display to the public before undergoing restoration.

Then the work to retrieve the other pieces of the boat will begin - estimated to take between two and three years.

"Survivors have told us that there are live munitions down there," Mr Bado said.

"But we've looked, and we haven't seen any."

The 15-person team undertaking the work includes Uruguayans, Argentines, Germans, and Americans, and is expected to grow as the project takes shape.

Once restored, the vessel is eventually expected to become a tourist attraction in Montevideo.

Surrounded by enemy

The Graf Spee was called a pocket battleship because it carried less powerful guns than its larger counterparts such as the Bismarck.

But that did not stop it from wreaking havoc among allied merchant shipping.

So serious was the threat it posed that it was pursued by a group of battle cruisers in what culminated in the Battle of the River Plate.

Accounts of the time say that thousands of Uruguayans witnessed the battle from cliff tops along the coast.

The Graf Spee was crippled in the confrontation and after taking sanctuary briefly in Montevideo, the captain felt he had no choice but to scuttle her near the port because he was surrounded by enemy ships.

The crew was taken to Buenos Aires and the captain committed suicide a few days later.

The BBC's Peter Greste
"The wreck is unique among World War II battleships"

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