Kerry has promised more writing on this and other topics surrounding World War II. I look forward to the discussion that naturally follows, as our readers are well-versed on this topic as well.
The Battle of the Atlantic (By Kerry Anderson
After the fall of France, The Kriegsmarine now had access to the French ports. This was advantageous for a number of reasons.
- Safer access without having to run the gauntlet of the English Channel.
- Convenience to the Atlantic shipping lanes.
- Easier to repair and supply their naval vessels.
However, the policy of raiding and submarine warfare was a controversial one. Erich Raeder, a veteran of the First World War, was a detractor, believing it to be a flawed strategy, which of course it was. In 1939 he approved a change in the German shipbuilding schedule, abandoning capital ships for submarines. In conflict with his earlier beliefs. The problems with such a strategy were as follows.
- Any ” Happy Times”, would most likely be short-lived. Once convoying began, it would turn into a war of attrition, one the Kriegsmarine was bound to lose.
- The vessels would have to operate in the North Atlantic, giving England the chance of deploying her superior naval assets to the full advantage.
- The German ships would have to operate without land based air cover, a not insignificant disadvantage. They would also have to operate alone, making any engagement far more risky.
- They would also be trading their valuable capital ships for merchant tonnage. Playing into the hands of the British.
But there was an even possibly better reason, which seems to have eluded historians. Not to say that all of the actions of the Graf Spee escaped scrutiny. It is the sum of these events which appear very suspicious under closer examination.
The Graf Spee was one of three ” Pocket Battleships”, basically a heavier gun placed on a heavy cruiser frame. The logic was that it could out-shoot any vessel that had the speed to catch it. While not as effective as the 15″ guns of the Bismark and Tirpitz, they could out-range any heavy cruiser of the day. Their best technological asset was however, the reloading speed, able to fire 3.5 rounds per minute. They also had gunnery radar, making them a formidable opponent by any standard.
Before the invasion of Poland, The Graf Spee was ordered to sea off the Cape Verde Islands to await further instructions. After England declared war on Germany, Hitler called a “Time Out”, giving England a little over 3 weeks time before giving the Graf Spee authorization to proceed on the 26th of September. Even though it was already online and ready to begin operations, she was also ordered to abide strictly by ” Prize Rules “, requiring her to stop and search ships before sinking them, and giving the seamen the ability to safely evacuate. She was also ordered to decline any engagement even with inferior forces, as any real damage could only be repaired in Germany.
The standard procedure at the time, was that any merchant vessel would not use the S.O.S. signal, but would use a 3 letter code 3 times to identify the attack. R, for surface vessel, S, for submarine, and A, for air attack. So a vessel attacked by the Graf Spee would signal…RRR-RRR-RRR, ships location, ships name, and any other pertinent information. The challenge signal was W.B.A., this meant a series of commands. Stop ship, do not use radio, do not lower lifeboats, and do not scuttle. Any failure to obey would result in immediate action, releasing the raider from any responsibility from firing on them. In all of the engagements it appears the Graf Spee does not use the challenge signal.
On Sept 30, Graf Spee encountered the first of nine merchant vessels that would be sunk on her voyage. The Clement, would have time to get off the RRR signal though. This makes little sense as she should have been spotted first by the Graf Spee. Captain Langsdorff took the captain and 1st engineer prisoner and put the rest of the crew into life boats. Why he did not use one of his prize crews to take over the vessel is unclear. This was their purpose after all.
His next action is even harder to understand, he radioed Permabucco and informed the British of the location of the crew in the lifeboats. Giving his position away (In case they didn’t get the message the first time?). He then proceeded to use up 30 rounds from his 11 and 6 inch guns to sink her, along with two torpedoes. This was completely unnecessary and makes little sense. It could have been scuttled by opening the seacocks or just placing a few charges on board. Or, if he was in a hurry, a single torpedo should have sufficed. It was, dead in the water after all.
This same story would be repeated on the other 8 vessels she would encounter, really inexcusable. In the meantime, England would sortie 30 vessels to locate and sink the Graf Spee, Including 4 carriers and 2 battleships. They would divide into 8 or 9 groups. So, the chase was on like donkey kong.
The Graf Spee and Langsdorff would then head into the Indian Ocean, her last victim being the Streonshalh. Secret documents were captured which had the location of England’s convoys in the area off the coast of South America. Captain Langsdorff’s next move is even harder to explain. He heads to the area off of Montevideo, good pickins, no doubt, but also a good chance of meeting British warships which he was ordered to avoid. He also had another good reason to call it a good voyage and return to Germany. The Graf Spee had now 30,000 nautical miles on the engines and was losing speed and blowing white and orange smoke. She was overdue for a rebuild.
On Dec 13, his lookouts spotted the masts of the British cruiser Exeter and 2 other vessels. He then does the unthinkable, instead of backing off, he charges full speed ahead at them. Giving up his advantage in range and risking his ship not only to the cruiser’s guns but putting himself in range of the torpedoes. To make a long story short, the British cruisers were heavily damaged but so was the Graf Spee. Captain Langsdorf also failed to sink them even though he could have easily done so.
He then headed for Montevideo, a stupid move as even though all of the South American countries were nominally neutral, Uruguay was highly inclined towards Britain. Puerto Belgrano was a much better choice and he had the ability to make it there. He then ended up scuttling it in shallow water in Montevideo in direct violation of his orders. Allowing the British to examine his radar system as it was above water in the shallow channel. He then, after burying his deceased crew members was said to have committed suicide.
Although I cannot confirm it, there is supposedly a book called la Vrai Vie d’ Eva Peron. The author, Silvain Reiner, claims that Hans Langsdorff faked his death for the following reasons.
- There was no doctor present, only a crewman ” Fisher ” and the German naval attache, Dietrich Niebuhr. (Photo exists of Dietrich with Langsdorff on the G.S. with his hand in vest. Sigh.)
- British officers after the war visited Langsdorff’s grave in Gorlow, East Prussia. The casket was said to be empty.
- Juan Peron had him as his guest (permanent?) in Calle Posada
Pictures of Langsdorf at the funeral of his crewmen killed during the Battle of the River Plate show him not giving the Nazi salute. His crewmen, no salute at all. (Weird.)
The Battle of the Atlantic was only just beginning, but this was certainly not an auspicious start. The events of 1941 will be even more suspect. But we will hit on them later as Hitler had quite a few more mistakes to make on not only his naval policy but the Blitz, and his next moves concerning the future of armored warfare.
I may have to retract my claim that we can’t prove the war was managed. This looks really bad. More to come…