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Survivors of Graf Spee Battle Mark 50th Anniversary

December 13, 1989

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) _ About 100 survivors of the German battleship Graf Spee that lost one of the first major naval battles of World War II attended Mass Tuesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the encounter.

″It’s emotional and painful to remember,″ said former German sailor Bernard Schmitz, 72, of Duisburg, West Germany. ″How did I feel? I was tremendously afraid. It was a lucky thing to have escaped alive.″

The survivors, most of whom came from Germany for the memorial ceremonies, also visited the graves of comrades who perished in the battle. Thirty-six Germans died in the clash, as well as 72 British sailors.

British and New Zealand navy veterans who were in the battle were invited to the reunion that will continue with events for the next two days in Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital across the River Plate from Montevideo.

″The war is a thing of the very distant past,″ said Maximo Umbreit, 72, who came from his village near Heidelberg, West Germany. ″At that moment, everyone did what they had to do. We feel sorrow for our dead, but also for the British.″

On Dec. 13, 1939, the Graf Spee, which sank nine British merchant ships at the outset of the war, approached what it thought was a convoy carrying beef and grain to Britain from Uruguay and Argentina.

Instead, the ships were the British cruisers Exeter and Ajax and the New Zealand cruiser Achilles.

After a battle in which the Exeter and Graf Spee were severely damaged, the German ship entered the neutral port of Montevideo for repairs.

Under pressure from Britain and the United States, the Uruguayan government gave Capt. Hans Langsdorff 72 hours to make repairs and put to sea.

That was impossible and Langsdorff put most of his 1,100-man crew ashore, sailed the Graf Spee into the River Plate and blew it up. Most of the survivors went to Argentina and many made that country their permanent home.

Langsdorff shot himself to death three days later in a Buenos Aires hotel.

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