Monday, April 20, 2015

A Captain’s Sacrifice

An Honorable German: Captain Hans Langsdorff in Montevideo after the battle of the Rio Plata.

Knowing from the reports of his damage control parties that her oil purification plant had been ruined and the hole in her bows needed patching up before any sustained attempt was made to cross the Atlantic and return to German waters, Langsdorff suspected that he would need at least a fortnight in port to make good these defects. Even if the Uruguayan president Alfredo Baldomir could be persuaded to interpret his nation’s neutral status in a novel way so as to grant him such a respite, Langsdorff realised that the British would use the interval to bring up a host of naval reinforcements that would be waiting offshore for him once he emerged from the harbour once again. Entering the port of Montevideo at 2350 hours on 13 December, therefore, Langsdorff left himself with only two options: one was to remain there indefinitely – interned for the duration of the war – the other was to leave port after his ship had been patched up and fight his way out probably against overwhelming odds. Neither option looked particularly desirable, but he was soon left with yet a third that was easily the worst of them all. Assailed diplomatically on all sides, President Baldomir chose ultimately to grant the Graf Spee only a 72-hour stay in Uruguayan waters. As this wasn’t nearly long enough for her to be made seaworthy again, what would Langsdorff do to resolve his dilemma?

Matters were simplified somewhat by the diplomatic exchanges that took place over the next three days and by the fact that neither Hitler nor Raeder wished to see their pocket battleship permanently marooned in Uruguayan or Argentinean waters. Langsdorff was no fool. He recognised that he was in a trap of his own making. While he was prepared to pay the ultimate price for committing that cardinal error, he saw no earthly reason why others who were not responsible for making this mistake, namely, his ship’s company and their prisoners, should be forced to do the same. After deciding that the Allies should not have the satisfaction of sinking or capturing the Graf Spee, Langsdorff made meticulous preparations to ensure that his officers and men would have the final word in deciding the fate of their own boat. In a final defiant gesture, the pocket battleship that had caused the Allies so much agitation sailed out from Montevideo harbour in the early evening of 17 December with a skeleton crew on board. While four miles offshore, those aboard left her for the last time and at 2200 hours the scuttling charges they had laid now did their work and she was blown apart. Accepting the ultimate blame for the loss of his own ship, Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff committed suicide in Buenos Aires two days later by shooting himself in the temple with his own revolver. When told of Langsdorff death, Hitler is cruelly reputed to have observed: ‘He should have sunk the Exeter.’

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