Sunday, May 10, 2015

Destiny’s Collision 1939

Admiral Graf Spee (German Navy, Pocket Battleship, 1936)
German pocket battleship in World War II. Commissioned on 6 January 1936, Admiral Graf Spee constituted one of the three capital ships of the Deutschland-class. Constructed under post–World War I restrictions, Admiral Graf Spee had unique characteristics. She was designed to be “stronger than anything faster and faster than anything stronger.” She soon acquired the name “pocket battleship” because of her relatively small maximum displacement of 16,200 tons. She had a crew of 1,124 men. Notwithstanding limitations in size, her eight 9-cylinder diesel engines could drive her at 26 knots. She mounted 6 × 11-inch main guns in two turrets, 8 × 5.9-inch guns, antiaircraft batteries, and torpedo tubes.

In September 1939 Admiral Graf Spee prowled the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean sea lanes, having been deployed prior to the war’s beginning. Her mission was to disrupt British shipping and divert units of the Royal Navy from the North Atlantic. But Captain Hans Langsdorff, her commander, was under orders to avoid contact with British naval units. Cornered in December by the British cruisers Achilles, Ajax, and Exeter, Admiral Graf Spee suffered damage and put in at Montevideo, Uruguay, for repairs. Rather than lose her in battle, the ship was scuttled. The order was carried out off Montevideo on 17 December 1939. Admiral Graf Spee’s crew, minus Captain Langsdorff, who committed suicide, were interned for the duration.

Exeter (British Navy, Heavy Cruiser, 1930)
One of two York-class heavy cruisers, the last built for the Royal Navy. The York ships were an attempt to improve on the 10,000-ton Treaty cruisers, the displacement of which was specified in the 1922 Washington Treaty. They differed only slightly in design, carrying two fewer 8-inch guns and with a structure that was 1,600 tons lighter.

The York-class ships were 575′ × 58′ × 16.4′ (average draft). The two are generally considered half-sisters, as they differed markedly in appearance. Standard displacement was 8,555 tons, and full displacement was 10,645 tons. Their geared steam turbines drove them at a maximum speed of 32 knots. They were armed with 6 × 8-inch guns (two turrets forward, one aft). Secondary armament consisted of 4 × 4-inch, later 8 × 4-inch guns. Antiaircraft armament was 16 × 40 mm and 2 × .50 caliber machine guns. They also had 6 × 21″ torpedo tubes located above water in two triple mounts (the tubes were removed in 1938), and they carried two Fairey IIIF catapult-launched aircraft and had a crew size of 850–950 men.

Damage to Exeter after the Battle of the River Plate

Built at Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth, the Exeter was launched in July 1929 and completed at the end of 1930, six months after her half-sister, the York, which was sunk off Crete in May 1941. Exeter took part in the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December 1939, then served in the Pacific off Java in January and February 1942. She was sunk on 1 March 1942, in a battle between Japanese cruisers and destroyers north of Bawean Island after the 27 February Battle of Java Sea

Harwood, Sir Henry (1888–1950)
British admiral. Born in London on 19 January 1888, Henry Harwood entered the HMS Britannia Royal Navy training college in 1903, going on to specialize in torpedo warfare. As a lieutenant, he served with the Grand Fleet in World War I. After the war he became fleet torpedo officer in the Mediterranean. Promoted to commander in 1921 and to captain in 1937, he served in a variety of peacetime assignments and was an instructor at the Naval War College (1934–1936). In 1936 he became commodore of the South America Division of the American and West Indies Station, a post he was still holding at the outbreak of World War II in September 1939.

In the cruiser Exeter, Harwood led the search for the German commerce-raiding pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, which had left its home port in August. Harwood positioned his cruiser squadron where it was able to intercept the Admiral Graf Spee on 12 December. Aware that the German raider had sunk her last victim while en route for the South Atlantic, Harwood’s centrally located position off the River Plate was the only logical point of rendezvous for his three cruisers.

In the resulting engagement, Harwood divided the fire of his opponent by separating his squadron into two units and attacking simultaneously from different directions. These attacks inflicted sufficient damage on the Admiral Graf Spee to lead Langsdorff to take her into Montevideo Harbor. Fooled into believing that a reinforced British squadron awaited, Langsdorff subsequently scuttled his ship and then committed suicide.

For his success Harwood was immediately awarded a knighthood and promoted to rear admiral. He then served as assistant chief of the naval staff. In April 1942 he succeeded Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham as commander in chief in the Mediterranean, a post for which he was generally considered to lack the necessary expertise. Most certainly this posting was an unhappy experience. Harwood inherited a crisis situation in which the navy had few active ships and the Royal Air Force had insufficient aircraft to provide air cover. Unable to mount an offensive strategy, Harwood was criticized by, among others, General Bernard Montgomery, but he retained the support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the end, Harwood held the post only 10 months, giving it up in early 1943 because of ill health. He served out the war on the Orkneys station, before being invalided out of the navy in October 1945 with the rank of admiral. He died in Goring-on-Thames on 9 June 1950.

Langsdorff, Hans (1894–1939)
German naval officer. Born 20 March 1894, in Bergen, Hans Langsdorff served with distinction in the German Navy during World War I and remained in that service following the war. Promoted to captain in January 1937, in November 1938 he took command of the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.

When World War II began, in September 1939, Langsdorff and his ship were already at sea. The Admiral Graf Spee had left German waters for the South Atlantic on 21 August. Langsdorff’s first combat orders were to attack merchant shipping, and he was immediately successful. In less than three months in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic, his ship sank nine British merchantmen totaling more than 50,000 tons.

On 13 December the Admiral Graf Spee was off the mouth of the River Plate, Uruguay, when crewmen sighted masts on the horizon. Believing this was a merchant convoy, Langsdorff steamed in for the kill. Instead the German ship encountered cruisers HMS Ajax, HMNZS Achilles, and HMS Exeter. The ensuing engagement lasted nearly two hours, when Langsdorff broke contact and steamed to Montevideo to effect repairs. He was allowed a stay of only 72 hours, which was later extended. During this time, Langsdorff and an honor guard went ashore to bury 37 dead crewmen.

The deadly saga came to an end on 17 December. HMS Cumberland arrived, but she replaced the Exeter, which limped away to the Falkland Islands. Langsdorff, however, believed British propaganda that a far superior force lay in wait, and he decided to scuttle his ship. The Admiral Graf Spee steamed out, the crew abandoned her, and the ship was scuttled in the mouth of the River Plate.

Langsdorff took a hotel room ashore. It was there that he committed suicide on 20 December 1939. He was given a hero’s funeral in Buenos Aires, and the surviving crew members were interned in Argentina.

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