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This tale of the Battle of the River Plate follows the machinations of the German war machine as Kapitan zur See Hans Langsdorff commands the pocket battleship Graf Spee on a mission to cripple British shipping. Through clever subterfuge and daring, the Graf Spee takes ship after ship, ultimately forcing the British Navy to send twenty ships in search of the elusive Spee.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Dudley Pope, a naval defense correspondent of the London Evening News, progressed to writing carefully researched naval history. C.S. Forester urged Pope to try his hand at fiction and saw the younger writer as his literary heir. Pope began what was to become an impressive series with Ramage (1965) and, over the next 24 years, produced 17 more novels tracing Lord Ramage's career. Pope died in 1997.
Read an Excerpt
Battle of the River Plate
The Hunt for the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee
By Dudley Pope
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1956 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
Loading the Dice
On 6 January 1936 rain was falling over most of Europe, and the suave voices of radio commentators speaking in many languages had warned of gales sweeping the coasts. In France the rain was torrential; in Paris fire pumps stood by as the Seine rose three feet and work stopped when many commercial quays flooded. Swollen rivers teeming through other parts of Northern France damaged road and rail bridges, and at Poitiers flood waters submerged the station amid much shrugging of Gallic shoulders.
Apart from the weather, London was a cheerful city; people wanting to see a good film at a West End cinema that evening had the usual moments of indecision while choosing between Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty at the Empire, Leicester Square; George Arliss in The Governor at the Rialto; or Conrad Veidt and Helen Vinson in King of the Damned at the Tivoli.
Those who preferred a play were trying to get seats for Bobby Howes in Please Teacher at the Hippodrome or the Old Vic's inevitable School for Scandal in the Waterloo Road. For the millions staying at home beside the fire there was always the wireless, and Claude Hulbert was due on the Regional Programme at 7:45 in The Scarlet Caramel, a gentle skit on Baroness Orczy's elusive hero.
There was not much of interest in the evening newspapers: Lloyd George was planning to sell 3,000 head of poultry at his farm in Churt; gossip-writers were describing the interior of the new liner Queen Mary, due to sail shortly on her maiden voyage; Sir Alan Cobham had a new scheme for refuelling aircraft in mid-air; and Mr Anthony Eden had been elected president of the London Naval Conference which had just started meetings. Radiograms were advertised at ten guineas each.
Although it was not reported in the evening papers, it had been quite a stirring day for the German Navy at Kiel, where Hitler's third and latest pocket battleship, the £3,750,000 Admiral Graf Spee, had been ceremonially commissioned amid rain, Nazi pomp, and noisy circumstance.
She was a ship of which Germany could be justifiably proud: as the world's latest capital ship she incorporated many new ideas. The plates and frames of her 609-foot hull were electrically welded and, in a vessel of her size, that was something new and showed daring on the part of her designers. In addition she had diesel engines instead of steam turbines, and these gave her a relatively high economical speed and increased her radius of action.
Her 11-inch guns were the new Krupp model which fired a 670-pound shell and had a range of fifteen miles; her rangefinders and other such gear were the finest that German technicians could devise. A radar set for obtaining accurate ranges was being secretly developed. Altogether, the builders at the Wilhelmshaven yard where she was laid down in October 1932 and launched on 30 June 1934 were proud of the Panzerschiffe which they had created.
But perhaps the proudest man in Germany on that wet day in January 1936 was Captain Patzig, the Admiral Graf Spee's commanding officer. He paraded his crew of just under a thousand men on the quarterdeck and read a message from Admiral Erich Raeder, the Navy's Commander-in-Chief.
The uninhibited message pointed out that the ship bore the name of the Admiral who commanded the German Cruiser Squadron "on the glorious day [of] Coronel and in the heroic battle at the Falkland Islands." It added that "the motto of the battleship's complement, like that of Admiral Graf von Spee and his men, would be now and for all time 'Faithful unto Death.'"
So the Admiral Graf Spee2 joined her two sister ships, the Deutschland and the Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Raeder was satisfied. He had explained to Hitler that building up a balanced fleet from nothing was a slow process, but unfortunately the Fuehrer did not understand naval strategy. Still, like the build-up of the entire German armed forces, it was at least a steady one.
Germany had been — at least ostensibly — limited by the Treaty of Versailles, and the naval clauses held her to a navy comprising a maximum of 15,000 men, with six heavy ships, six light cruisers, twelve destroyers, and twelve torpedo boats, with a limit on displacement in each class. The construction of U-boats was entirely forbidden. But Germany had been secretly breaking the Treaty for some years.
In 1928, for example, within ten years of the end of the First World War and five years before Hitler came to power, the construction of a pocket battleship had begun. She would be much larger than allowed under the Treaty, but by then the former Allies were complacent in enforcing its terms, and by using the description "pocket battleship" and giving false displacement figures, with the explanation that new methods of welded construction and diesel propulsion saved weight, the Germans had made sure no awkward questions were asked.
When Hitler was appointed Chancellor he had given Raeder a free hand to go ahead with his construction plans and set about ridding himself of the terms of the Versailles Treaty, which was repudiated in 1935. This was little more than a formality — although the Treaty limit for capital ships had been 10,000 tons, the pocket battleships exceeded that and Raeder already had under construction the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each of 32,000 tons, while submarines were built secretly in Holland and Finland.
In 1936 the Anglo-German Naval Treaty was signed. Although he had seen that Britain and France had shown an almost lackadaisical unconcern about enforcing the naval clauses of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler was careful to make sure the British negotiators left the conference table content. It was agreed that Germany could build to 35 per cent of British naval strength, and could have submarines. In terms of ships it meant five capital ships, two aircraft carriers, twenty-one cruisers, and sixty-four destroyers. Hitler was quite content because it was the maximum number that German shipyards could build for the next few years, and by then he knew he would be in a position to repudiate that Treaty too.
But Germany was not a party to either the Washington Naval Agreement or the London Conference, under which Britain, France, and the United States could not — and did not — build battleships of more than 35,000 tons. Meanwhile Hitler allowed Raeder to build the Bismarck and Tirpitz, each of 45,000 tons ...
Thus by early 1937, while Britain, France, and the USA had voluntarily tied their own hands by treaties, the great expansion of the German Navy went ahead. In making his long-term plans, Raeder had two courses open to him:
(a) Build up to the Treaty limit of 35 per cent of the Royal Navy, planning to reach that total in 1940, on the assumption war would break out then.
(b) Assume war would start later — possibly in 1944–5 — and plan a more balanced fleet. This would mean having a weaker fleet in the meantime.
Although Raeder chose the second course, by 1938 he felt that Britain's reaction to the European crisis caused by Hitler's activities was stiffening (a view not shared by Hitler) and drew up the so-called Z plan, which provided for a more immediately powerful offensive force and to a certain extent abandoned the idea of a fully balanced fleet.
Since the actual strategy that a navy can follow is governed by the types of ships it has, Raeder visualized that under the Z plan Germany's naval operations against Britain would be directed more against the merchant shipping in her sea lanes than Britain's fighting fleet. In the circumstances this was sensible strategy, particularly since the U-boat arm was being built up.
By the time it was completed in 1945, the Z plan was intended to provide Germany with a formidable navy comprising thirteen battleships, thirty-three cruisers, four aircraft carriers, two hundred and fifty U-boats, and a large number of destroyers. And every ship would be of a modern design, compared with the majority of the larger ships of the Royal Navy which dated from the First World War. The Anglo-German Naval Treaty would, of course, have long since been repudiated by Hitler.
Yet the Z plan was soon aborted by Hitler's changes of policy. Although a voracious reader, much of the material which Hitler read passed through his brain without leaving much impression. But he was an instinctive and effective politician, his major mistake being that he considered himself a statesman. He dreamed of himself as a master strategist, following great soldiers like Napoleon. And in some ways he did resemble Napoleon — initial successes on land in Europe led to the same suicidal attack on Russia, and at no time did he understand naval strategy. Nor was any member of the German Navy, least of all Raeder, among Hitler's "inner circle."
But for these factors, he might well have kept his hands off Poland until the Z plan was more advanced, if not completed. In addition he believed that Britain could be persuaded to stay out of a continental war. It is certain he never visualized a long war — yet, in the event, there were only two places where he could effectively attack Britain, the only enemy left in the field against him.
One was at sea, but his timetable wrecked the Z plan and prevented Raeder from building a navy capable of decisive action. The other was in the Mediterranean, the only area where he could bring Britain to battle on land. Of the two, Britain could only be defeated at sea.
Early in 1939 Admiral Raeder was still working to his Z plan when Hitler began planning the actual invasion of Poland and in April issued a directive to the Armed Forces to prepare the details. The directive said, "Policy aims at limiting the war to Poland, and this is considered possible in view of the internal crisis in France and consequent British restraint ..."
Raeder disagreed over Britain's probable role, quite apart from his dismay at being faced with a war for which he had a completely unbalanced navy. A month later another directive, indicating that Hitler too was now having doubts, gave instructions for "the economic war and the protection of our own economy," and said that the Navy and Luftwaffe were to prepare for the immediate opening of economic warfare against Britain and, as a second priority, against France. The Navy, Hitler added, was to plan for a war against British and French merchant shipping.
In fact, because of Raeder's doubts, the Naval War Staff was already drawing up its Atlantic Trade Warfare Plan, and in order to understand the significance of the subsequent operations by the Graf Spee, described in this volume, it is necessary to discuss briefly the strategy of commerce raiding as planned by Raeder.
There are two main objects of commerce warfare: the obvious one of the destruction of enemy ships, and the less obvious one of so disorganizing the sailing of merchant ships that restrictions on the enemy's seagoing trade become unbearable and finally impossible.
The surface raider can assist in three ways:
1. Sinking or capturing ships.
2. Dislocating normal traffic through the fear of her presence (or by minelaying), thus slowing up the regular arrival of food, supplies, and raw materials. This eventually cuts down imports so much that the blockaded country collapses economically.
3. By making the enemy so scatter his surface warships hunting for the raiders that other arms — the submarines and aircraft, for example — have a better chance of successfully attacking convoys whose escorts (both close escorts and the more remote patrols by larger ships) have been weakened.
So when one tries to estimate the value of a surface raider one has to take these three points into consideration: the actual total sinkings or captures is only a part — and a small part — of the story, as will be seen in the case of the Graf Spee.
In the First World War, as very few merchant ships had radio transmitters or receivers, the surface raider had it more or less her own way, especially as she used coal and could easily refuel from captured colliers. The task of discovering her whereabouts and destroying her was incredibly difficult. In August 1914 the Germans had in fact stationed their warships abroad in favourable positions. But although the losses inflicted by these raiders were not great, the potentialities of this type of warfare were enormous: and it was this which made a great impression on Admiral Raeder's mind when planning the course of a possible second war against Britain. The ships used in the First World War by the Germans had not been really suitable for the task of commerce raiding, and Admiral Raeder, reviewing the results, concluded that independence and deception were more useful qualities in a raider than speed and gunfire, and the cruiser designed for Fleet work was unsuitable. Some other design of warship was therefore needed.
While still outwardly limited by the Versailles Treaty, the German Naval Staff had decided to concentrate on the construction of a type of warship which, while ostensibly keeping inside the tonnage restrictions of the Treaty, would have long endurance and a reasonably high speed.
The three 28-knot pocket battleships — with six 11-inch, eight 5.9inch, and six 4.1-inch (high-angle) guns; torpedo tubes, and two aircraft — were the result. Their power was underestimated by the British, who assumed they were inside the then Treaty limit of 10,000 tons. If this had been the case, either operational range, speed, or armour would have had to be sacrificed. As it was they were of more than 12,000 tons and had a great range, sufficient armour, and a speed appropriate to their role.
With an OKW directive of 3 April setting down the date for the attack on Poland for any time after 1 September, events moved fast in Germany. While the Operations Division of the Naval War Staff drew up detailed plans for commerce raiding by the Admiral Graf Spee and the Deutschland, Raeder was not unnaturally far from satisfied with the Navy he had created.
The 45,000-ton Bismarck and Tirpitz, of advanced design and the most powerful warships under construction by any European power, were not yet completed; the 32,000-ton battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were neither operationally satisfactory nor fully worked up. The new 8-inch heavy cruisers Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen were not yet available, and by August one of the three pocket battleships, the Admiral Scheer, would be in need of a long overhaul.
However, he had the consolation that the pocket battleships were brilliantly conceived ships. He considered that the combined British and French Navies had only five or six ships individually capable of both catching and sinking any one of them.
The odds against the pocket battleships in ocean raiding against British and French merchant shipping were not as heavy as Germany's numerical weakness and lack of foreign bases might suggest. The sheer vastness of the oceans is not often fully appreciated: the Atlantic comprises more than 34,000,000 square miles and the Indian Ocean 28,000,000 compared with the area of Europe (3,947,000), South America (6,970,000), Africa (11,688,000), and Asia (17,276,000). Any British warship searching for a pocket battleship in perfect visibility could at best hope to sight her at a range of about twelve miles, so the problem in the Atlantic was finding a ship while looking round a circle with a diameter of 24 miles in an area twice the size of Asia and its offshore islands.
In addition, the raider inevitably enjoys the initiative. To fulfil her objective of disrupting trade — far more important than actually sinking ships — she need do little more than make her presence known in one area and move swiftly to another.
After sinking a ship in one position, the Graf Spee could be 500 miles away within 24 hours without using up fuel at an excessive rate. Cruising at twenty knots, she could easily travel in a week the distance between London and New York.
The German plan, as yet untried, for operating the pocket battleships at sea for long periods anticipated using auxiliary vessels specially designed for fuelling, supplying, and prison-ship duties. These supply ships, usually disguised as neutral tankers, were to cruise in the general area of the raiders' operations, making rendezvous as ordered and when possible waiting in unfrequented areas of the ocean.
So the spring of 1939 gave way to a lazy summer. "Munich," with all that it implied, had passed and British public opinion was rapidly realizing that Neville Chamberlain's "Peace in our time" was to be measured in months rather than years. In Berlin the Naval War Staff had completed its Atlantic Trade Warfare Plan and, because of the increasing international tension, put it into operation.
Excerpted from Battle of the River Plate by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1956 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter One Loading the Dice,
Chapter Two "Total Germany",
Chapter Three "Make the Challenge",
Chapter Four Sinking the Clement,
Chapter Five "RRR — Clement Gunned",
Chapter Six Prisoners in the Altmark,
Chapter Seven Nine Ships Sunk,
Chapter Eight Achilles Joins the Party,
Chapter Nine Casting the Net,
Chapter Ten Sums on a Signal Pad,
Chapter Eleven Graf Spee Is Trapped,
Chapter Twelve "Open Fire. G 25",
Chapter Thirteen "Broadsides ... Shoot",
Chapter Fourteen Seven Hits on Exeter,
Chapter Fifteen Shells and Snowballs,
Chapter Sixteen Graf Spee Runs Away,
Chapter Seventeen Guarding Achilles' Heel,
Chapter Eighteen No Help at Hand,
Chapter Nineteen Langsdorff Decides to Scuttle,
Chapter Twenty Graf Spee Scuttles Herself,
Chapter Twenty-One Langsdorff Shoots Himself,