In the fall of 1939 the second world war has already begun, however after the campaign of Poland (September) the axis and the allies were idle in what has been called the “phoney war”.
Most of the operations were naval, with Germany aggressively attacking the allies shipping lines. The German were having 3 different strategy:
Surface raiders, the “Panzerschiff” of pocket battleship, there were heavy cruisers fitted with diesel engines. At the outbreak of the war 3 were operational: the Deutschland, the Graf Spee and the Admiral Scheer.
Corsairs, armed cargo “Hilfskreuzer”(HK), the auxiliary cruisers, commerce raiders 12 of them were patrolling far seas.
The submarine fleet (U-Boot), which will be the most successful attempt to disrupt the British line of communication.
The DKM Graf Spee was already at sea when WWII broke out, the cruiser was operating with the help of the tanker Altmark raiding the South Atlantic and even South Indian Ocean. The allies did know one or multiple pocket battleships were operating in the South Atlantic and they created several group to chase them down. However their intelligence was limited. They did not know which PanzerShifts were at sea and how many they were.