Monday, April 20, 2015

Raiders Out! October-December 1939

October was not a good month for the Allies. Quite apart from Prien’s stunning escapade at Scapa and the steady drip of mercantile victims succumbing to U-boat attacks along the trade routes, two of the German pocket battleships – the Admiral Graf Spee and the Deutschland – were out on the loose in the vastness of the Atlantic and threatening to create mayhem wherever they went. Churchill and the Admiralty wasted little time in forming hunting groups to tackle both menaces, but neither naval force remotely succeeded in homing in on their quarry or preventing them from doing what they wanted with whoever they pleased. While the Deutschland’s foray promised far more than it actually achieved, the same could not be said for the Graf Spee. Here was a commerce raider worthy of the name. Under her wily captain Hans Langsdorff, the Graf Spee adopted the classic technique of hitting and running and was highly effective in both phases of the game. Langsdorff revelled in his elusiveness and unpredictability. In order to achieve the element of surprise that he enjoyed so much, he was willing to cover vast tracts of the ocean, backtracking when necessary and lying low for long spells to refuel as well, so as to throw his pursuers off the scent. While he understood that his primary task was to destroy as much mercantile shipping as he could, he was under strict instructions not to get into a firestorm with heavier units of the Royal Navy that were vainly searching for him. If there was any danger of such a set-piece battle taking place, Langsdorff was supposed to employ ‘cut and run’ tactics, leaving the scene as quickly as he could so as to ensure that his ship could live to fight another day. These orders became chafing for a dashing man of adventure such as himself. Inspired by his own success, Langsdorff felt his ship had the firepower, speed and manoeuvrability to cope with anything the Allies might throw at him. A mixture of hubris and overconfidence has undermined many warriors in the past and Langsdorff was the latest to fall victim to it a few weeks later in the South Atlantic.

As the Allies cast around in growing agitation and frustration for either of the pocket battleships, the Germans stirred the mix by sending two of their battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau out into the Faroes–Iceland passage of the North Atlantic in late November to meddle with the Northern Patrol and complicate the search for the Graf Spee. They did both. Scharnhorst swiftly dispatched the auxiliary cruiser Rawalpindi in a hail of gunfire on 23 November and lured the Home Fleet into another vexatious search that was only finally abandoned several days later long after the ‘two sisters’ had used a spell of atrocious weather to make good their escape back into the North Sea and had regained the safety of their home base of Wilhelmshaven.

Germany’s commerce raiders.
Although Deutschland had escaped back to Germany and been renamed Lützow, the Graf Spee was still thought to be hiding somewhere in the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean and the vast Allied naval dragnet – consisting of no less than five aircraft carriers, four battleships, a battlecruiser, twenty cruisers, nine destroyers, a sloop and a submarine – was no closer to finding and destroying her at the end of November than it had been at the beginning of the month. Spread as they were across two oceans, the various Allied hunting groups desperately needed any shred of evidence that could help to pinpoint where Langsdorff and his pocket battleship might be or give them a semblance of a clue as to where he might strike next. A breakthrough was finally made when reports came in of attacks by an enemy warship on the Blue Star liner Doric Star and the British freighter Tairoa on 2–3 December in the South Atlantic between St. Helena and Cape Town. Both ships were sunk in these exchanges but not before they had sent out distress calls indicating that they were under attack from a large enemy warship. This looked like the handiwork of the Graf Spee and a hunting group was sent off to check on whether she was still at large off the west coast of southern Africa. What these reports did was to scotch any rumours that the Graf Spee had somehow managed to evade all of the search groups that were out looking for her and had left the region to return to her German base.

One of these groups – the depleted cruiser Force G under the command of Commodore Henry Harwood – was monitoring developments all the way down the South American coastline from Brazil to the Falkland Islands. In early December 1939 Harwood had only the heavy cruiser Exeter and the two light cruisers Achilles and Ajax at his disposal. His other heavy cruiser Cumberland was being repaired in Port Stanley. Knowing that he couldn’t afford to engage the Graf Spee on a one-to-one basis, Harwood decided to consolidate his group 150nm (278km) off the coast of Uruguay at 0700 hours on 12 December and wait to see whether Langsdorff would be attracted to the busy mercantile shipping routes extending north from the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires to the Brazilian coastline. It was an inspired decision.

After making good his escape from African waters, Langsdorff was intent on crossing the South Atlantic so that he could raid exactly the same trade routes that Harwood had identified. It was an option he liked even before he recovered some documents thrown overboard from the cargo ship Streonshahl which he had attacked and sunk on 7 December. These papers indicated that a convoy of four ships with few escorts worthy of the name was due to sail from the Uruguayan port of Montevideo on 10 December. In his eyes, it was too good an opportunity to miss even though he knew from the intelligence reports he had been receiving from the B-Dienst roughly where the Allied hunting groups were in their pursuit of him.

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