The Pocket Battleships
By Mike Creasy
In the early 1930s, German naval plans called for the development of a large combined surface/subsurface fleet, able to take on the British and restore German naval honour. Plan Z would have seen the construction of six 56,000 ton battleships and a host of smaller ships equipped with modern weapons and armour, to be ready by 1944.
Events moved more quickly than the Navy wanted, but Germany still had a formidable navy at the start of the war. One of the most interesting was the class of 10,000 ton panzerschiffes – the famous pocket battleships.
Deutschland, Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer were conceived as surface raiders, designed to disrupt British trade worldwide and thereby tie up valuable British naval resources. This strategy had been proven effective in WW1 when German cruisers and armed merchant ships caused havoc worldwide.
The Deutschlands were actually about 12,000 tons, 609 feet in length and sported six 11” guns. Completed between 1933 and 1936, they were probably the first major warships ever built with electro-welded hulls and diesel power. Diesels gave them phenomenal range – about 19,000 miles – and 26 kt top speed. They had light armour (4”max) but could outgun or outrun most enemy ships.
In late August 1939, Deutschland and Graf Spee (Capt. Hans Langsdorff) were positioned in the mid Atlantic, ready to strike with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st (Adm. Scheer was in for refit).
Hitler hoped that Britain and France would accept the German move and continue their policy of appeasement, and so would not release the navy to begin hostilities. History records that Britain declared war on September 3, but even then Hitler was reluctant to use naval power.
Finally, on September 23, the navy got the go ahead and on September 30, Graf Spee sank her first victim, the freighter SS Clement off Pernambuco. Over the next 2 1/2 months, Graf Spee sank a total of 9 merchant ships before being brought to battle on December 13th by Raider Hunting Group G, under Commodore Henry Harwood.
Deutschland’s cruise was much less successful; she sank only two ships in the north Atlantic before returning to Germany.
More important than the ships actually sunk, the Graf Spee and Deutschland between them managed to divert over a dozen British, French and New Zealander cruisers, plus a host of smaller ships, into the search for the two pocket battleships.
On December 13, the 8” cruiser HMS Exeter (Capt. F.S. Bell), in company with HMS Ajax (Capt. C.H.L. Woodhouse) and HMNZS Achilles (Capt. W.E. Parry), spotted the German ship. The four ships pounded each other for over an hour, inflicting serious damage to Exeter, and substantial damage to the 6” cruisers Ajax and Achilles. Spee herself took 20 hits and Captain Langsdorff withdrew towards the neutral port of Montevideo to effect repairs.
Like his ship, Langsdorff too was an interesting man. His officers and crew respected him as a true professional, concerned about human life and suffering. Naval traditions of honour and chivalry were strong within him, and he (like many of his brother officers in the German navy) was not a supporter of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
After anchoring in Montevideo roads, Langsdorff had few options. He had to leave within 72 hours, and shipyard repairs were not available. He had less than 40% of his 11” ammunition remaining, 37 dead and 57 wounded, and his ship was not seaworthy for the run home the north Atlantic in winter.
Facing him was a force of three cruisers, with other forces sure to be on the way. He had little information about the condition of his enemies and there were no other German forces within a thousand miles. He was trapped.
Hans Langsdorff decided he could not waste the lives of his 1,100 young crewmen in a battle he could not win.
On the afternoon of December 17, 1939 most of the crew were transferred to the German freighter Tacoma. A few minutes after 6pm, Admiral Graf Spee moved slowly into the shallows at mouth of the River Plate. Her few remaining crewmen and officers were taken off by a tug, and precisely at sunset, scuttling charges were fired. Three days later, Captain Zur See Hans Langsdorff wrapped himself in the flag of the Imperial German Navy and shot himself.
Admiral Graf Spee still lies in the shallow waters of the Plate, not far from the grave of her Captain. One of the British ship captains sunk by the Spee attended the funeral as a mark of respect for Captain Langsdorff.
Unfortunately, the story of the Graf Spee doesn’t end on this note of old world honour.
Spee’s supply ship Altmark was still on the loose with 299 captured officers and men. The Altmark’s Captain Dau shared little of Langsdorff’s sense of humanity.
Dau headed for Norway, intending to slip through the Baltic back to Germany. Prisoners were kept locked in the holds on a bread and water diet as Altmark evaded British forces along the way. Finally, on February 13, 1940, Altmark was cornered in a Norwegian fjord.
At the time, Norway was still officially neutral. Altmark had been “inspected” by the Norwegian navy and no weapons or prisoners found. She was then escorted by two small Norwegian destroyers to anchorage in Jussing Fjord to await further instructions from Berlin.
At 10 pm on the 14th, the destroyer HMS Cossack (Captain Philip Vian) entered Norwegian waters and freed the captured seamen.
The Altmark affair helped focus attention on Norway; both sides knew the strategic importance of this fiercely independent coastal nation and both suspected the other was trying to co-opt its government. Norway would soon be occupied by Germany, leading to some interesting naval manoeuvres.
History of the War at Sea, Volume 1, Capt. S.W.Roskill. HMSO, 1954
Hitler’s High Seas Fleet, Richard Humble. Ballantyne
Battle of the Atlantic, Barrie Pitt. Time-Life Books.