There’s an odd truth about us human beings. When we are at war, we do our best to hate each other, often succeeding altogether too well. But when the shooting, and the suffering, and the dying are over, no matter how hard we try to keep on hating, the anger and bitterness drain out of us, slowly ebbing away until we once again come to see each other as we did before — as ordinary people.
This is a tale of such a transformation, the tale of a man who was viewed during a great sea battle as a hated Nazi enemy, but who was seen immediately afterward, and is now seen, as what he truly was, a brave man who fought for his country — and fought well — but who proved himself to be one of the most human among us.
That man is Captain Hans Langsdorff of the pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, who gave his life on 20 Dec 1939 in honor of his cherished beliefs — and ours.
In truth, this is a tale of two brave men. The second man is Commodore Henry Harwood, commander of three smaller British ships. Pitted against each other in a deadly game of hide-and-seek during the first days of World War II, these two men had every reason to be proud of the way they handled themselves — and their ships.
At dawn on Sept. 1, 1939, with no declaration of war, the German juggernaut flung itself across the borders of Poland. Nazi planes destroyed most of the Polish air force on the ground. Nazi tanks and armoured columns brushed aside the Polish border guards and rolled across a doomed nation. By the end of the second week the 2 million man Polish Army ceased to exist as an organized force. A week later it ceased to exist at all, along with a large percentage of its men. By the end of the month Poland was erased from the map of Europe, and France and England had declared war on Germany in honor of their treaty with Poland. WWII had begun.
Germany had a subtle advantage. It alone knew when war would break out. And so, aware that winning meant breaking the British by starving them into submission, Germany very slyly took action a week before the first shot was fired. It issued sailing orders to a very special ship. Out of Wilhelmshaven on 21 August 1939 sailed a powerful battleship. Taking advantage of weather, night and fog, it sailed north of Iceland, then south through the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, and out into the broad Atlantic.
Here in part are its orders: “Disruption and destruction of enemy merchant ships. Frequent changes of position to create uncertainty and restrict enemy merchant shipping. If the enemy protects his shipping with superior forces ... the mere fact that his shipping is so restricted means that we have greatly impaired his supply situation.” Reading these orders after the war, Winston Churchill commented, “Had the British Admiralty known [what was in those orders] it would have been in rueful agreement.”
The battleship Graf Spee was not a large ship as battleships go, but it was a very special one, one designed for a specific mission and built with all the ingenuity of German engineering and all the skill and craftsmanship of German workers. It was, in fact, in a class of its own, a pocket battleship, designed as Churchill put it, “with profound thought as a commerce-raider.”
It carried six 11-inch guns, made 26 knots, and was well armored. It could outrun any ship that could outgun it, outgun any ship which could match its speed, and sail great distances on a single fueling. It was the ideal killer of merchant ships.
To the British, the Graf Spee and other commerce raiders, added to the Nazi submarine fleet, spelled almost certain doom. Though England swore to fight on when France fell in a few short weeks, you cannot eat courage or fight without arms. Brave words mean a lot. Guns and tanks and planes mean more. So does food.
In a time before effective radar or other means of tracking enemy warships, the oceans were an area in which a commerce raider could appear out of nowhere, wreak havoc, disappear into the vast reaches of open ocean, show up thousands of miles away a few days later, and sink more ships. And do it over and over again.
The first warning that England received that something was amiss came in the form of negative news. British merchant ships simply began to disappear.
The British liner Clement faded from sight near Brazil. Three ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa vanished. Next a British tanker far out in the Indian Ocean disappeared. All of them dropped out of sight without distress signals. They simply vanished.
Realizing a commerce raider must be loose on the high seas, the British reacted. Churchill ordered out, “All of our available aircraft carriers, supported by battleships, battle cruisers, and cruisers. Nine hunting groups in all, 23 powerful ships. In addition, we were compelled to provide three more battleships and two more cruisers as additional escorts for Atlantic convoys.”
And so began the hunt for the Graf Spee. Twenty-three British ships sailed forth to track her down in the vast oceans. But where was Captain Langsdorff and his ship? As Winston Churchill put it, “The Spee’s practice was to make a brief appearance at one point, claim a victim, and vanish into the trackless oceans.”
Where to look? Where to start?
Convinced that it was the Graf Spee which had sunk the tanker in the Indian Ocean the British Admiralty moved quickly to catch up with her in the seas off Cape Hope. But Langsdorff, foreseeing their move, was too quick for the British ships. He doubled back, sinking two more ships on the Cape route in the process. His move was so quick the British feared that Germany had ordered out the Scheer, sister ship of the Graf Spee, and just as powerful.
Commodore Harwood, however, had another idea. Certain it was the Graf Spee alone and that she would now sail toward Montevideo where rich prizes awaited, he turned to meet her head on. With his three smaller ships, the 8-inch cruiser Exeter and 6-inch cruisers Ajax and Achilles, he sailed toward Africa on the route the Graf Spee had to take to reach Montevideo. Sure enough, at 6.14 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 12, 1939 he spotted smoke off to his east.
Next week, the Battle of The River Plate, a classic of sea warfare unlike no other. And the tale of two brave sailors.