Key point: The Germans decided to sink their own ship rather than lose their crew to certain death and destruction.
When German dictator Adolf Hitler loosed his troops into Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939, he hoped that a lightning conquest would result in a negotiated peace with Great Britain and France.
Hitler’s previous territorial moves during the appeasement years had failed to provoke the two nations into action, so he was stunned when the British and French, honoring guarantees to Poland, declared war on Sunday, September 3. Two decades after the end of World War I, another bloodletting was about to engulf Europe.
But neither side was fully prepared. Britain had a small army and a partly modernized air force, and only her formidable navy was ready to confront an enemy. Germany, on the other hand, boasted a powerful army and air force, but her navy was not up to strength because Hitler, having no experience or interest in naval matters, had ignored the advice of his admirals. They knew that their fleet was hopelessly ill equipped for war. The Führer had, in fact, ordered Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the Kriegsmarine chief, to be ready for war with Britain by 1944 at the earliest.
When the hostilities started, the German fleet comprised three 11,700-ton pocket battleships, the Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee; two battlecruisers; eight cruisers; and 57 U-boats. The force was outmatched by the 23 capital ships, eight aircraft carriers, and 80 cruisers of the British and French fleets. Raeder had decided in May 1939 that the bulk of his fleet would be deployed in the North Sea and the Baltic and that enemy maritime trade would be attacked. As soon as he learned the date of the Polish invasion, he sent his ships to their war stations.
The Graf Spee, under the command of 45-year-old Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, sailed from Wilhelmshaven on August 21, and the Deutschlandfollowed her three days later. Undetected by the British Home Fleet or patrol bombers of Royal Air Force Coastal Command, the vessels slipped into the Atlantic, ready to raid merchant ships bound for Britain. On August 23, meanwhile, the British Admiralty ordered all warships in home waters to proceed to their war stations, and on August 29 the fleet was ordered to mobilize.
At 11 amon that fateful September 3, the Admiralty telegraphed all ships, “Commence hostilities at once against Germany,” and at lunchtime Berlin followed suit with a signal to Kriegsmarine units: “Open hostilities with England at once.” At the time, theDeutschlandand her supply ship were stationed south of Greenland, while the Graf Spee, with her supply ship and oiler, the Altmark, were west of the Cape Verde Islands and heading for the South Atlantic.
The Deutschland and Graf Spee were initially ordered to refrain from hostile acts, and it was not until September 26, when Hitler gave up hope of a quick peace with Britain and France, that they were released for the “disruption and destruction of enemy merchant shipping by all possible means.”
The raiders went into action, but the Deutschland was to prove more of an embarrassment than a help to Germany. After sinking a British freighter on October 5, she committed a major diplomatic blunder by seizing the neutral American merchantman City of Flint. She then sank a Norwegian freighter on the 14th. With two neutrals among her three victims in as many weeks, the Deutschland was ordered home.
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In sharp contrast, the Graf Spee proved to be the most destructive of the early naval predators as she preyed on Allied commerce in the South Atlantic. The neutral nations of South America had drawn a 300-mile safety belt that no belligerent warships were supposed to penetrate, but Hitler paid no attention to such restrictions.
Named for Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, who went down with his flagship, the cruiser Scharnhorst, in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on December 8, 1914, the Graf Spee was launched at Wilhelmshaven on June 30, 1934, and was the third and last of the pocket battleships designed to circumvent the arms limitations of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. She was the proud symbol of Nazi Germany’s resurgent naval power.
Armor plated, three city blocks long, and displacing 16,000 tons with a wartime load of fuel, ammunition, and stores, the Graf Spee mounted two triple turrets of 11-inch guns, eight 5.9-inchers, six 4.1-inchers, eight 19.7-inch torpedo tubes, and two small floatplanes. She had a crew of 1,150 men and a range of 21,500 miles without refueling. Able to cruise at 26 knots, she could outrun any ship she could not outshoot.
A man of intellect and social grace, her captain was a graduate of the Kiel Naval Academy and a cruiser torpedo officer before distinguishing himself aboard the battleship Grosser Kurfurst at the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. Awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, he later commanded a minesweeper flotilla and torpedo boats in Spanish waters. A comrade cited his “calm and well balanced personality, together with his keen sense of humor and his tactical and strategic training.”
Five days after sinking a British freighter off Pernambuco on September 30, 1939, the Graf Spee seized another and then sank two more. After refueling, she dispatched a freighter on the Cape Town-Britain route and then moved into the Indian Ocean. Ten days produced no prey, so Langsdorff headed into the Mozambique Channel and sank another freighter. After respecting the neutrality of a Dutch vessel the next day, he concluded that enough had been done to alert the British of his presence. So he steered back to his refueling area in the South Atlantic.
Leaving the victim ships’ prisoners aboard the Altmark, Langsdorff headed back to the African coast in November and swiftly dispatched three more merchantmen. By December 7, 1939, in nine weeks of cruising thousands of miles, the Graf Spee had sunk nine merchant ships totaling 50,000 tons. To the credit of her captain, a relentless foe yet honorable man, not one life had been lost.
Because of scant news of the merchant ships’ fate, it was not until early October that the Admiralty became aware of the mercantile marauding by Raeder’s pocket battleships and cruisers. On October 5, the British and French formed nine small hunting groups to track and intercept the raiders, with the deadly Graf Spee as the primary target. The first of several dramatic Royal Navy pursuits during World War II was underway.
The squadrons included a French battleship, British and French cruisers, and aircraft carriers. For several critical weeks, the Allied ships were searching for a needle in a haystack. The hunting groups sailed to the last reported positions of merchant ships sending out “raider” distress signals and then raced to the attacker’s last reported position. The elusive Graf Spee, meanwhile, had slipped back into the Atlantic.
The Allied ships kept searching, and the shrewd Langsdorff continued to elude them. Finally, on December 2, the Graf Spee seized the British freighter SS Doric Star, which was able to transmit a signal that was picked up. It indicated that the general area of the pocket battleship’s operations was off northern Brazil. Vice Admiral Sir G.H. d’Oyly Lyon, the commander of South Atlantic operations, immediately ordered a search northward, while Commodore Sir Henry Harwood, the 51-year-old leader of Force G, surmised that the Graf Spee would make for the rich shipping lanes south of Brazil, off the mouth of the River Plate between Uruguay and Argentina.
A thickset and brave officer with a flair for innovative tactics, Harwood hoped to deal with the Graf Spee himself. He had trained his squadron to divide the pocket battleship’s fire, with two divisions attacking from separate directions. Like his foe, Harwood had been a torpedo officer in World War I and served aboard the armored cruiser Sutlejand the battleship Royal Sovereign. He later commanded the destroyer Warwick and the cruisers London and Exeter before being promoted to commodore. He was described by fellow officers as a man of energy, cool nerve, and cheerfulness. He “had a gift for winning the confidence and esteem of all he met,” said one.
Harwood assembled his squadron off the River Plate on December 12. It comprised the 8,390-ton heavy cruiser HMS Exeter with 8-inch guns and the 7,270-ton Leander-class light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealand-manned HMNZS Achilles, each with 6-inch main guns. His fourth cruiser, the 9,870-ton HMS Cumberland with 8-inch guns, was refitting in the Falkland Islands.
Shortly after daybreak on Wednesday, December 13, the Ajax sighted a plume of smoke to the north. The Exeterwas sent to investigate, and at 6:15 amher skipper, Captain F.S. Bell, signaled, “I think it is a pocket battleship!” It was, in fact, the Graf Spee, east of the River Plate estuary. The British ships, though heavily outgunned, immediately began to pursue her. The Exetershadowed her from the south, while the Ajax and Achilles shadowed from the east. Flying his flag on the Ajax, Commodore Harwood was implementing a preconceived plan designed to divide his powerful opponent’s attention and prevent her from training her big guns on each ship in turn.