On Dec 17th 1939 the first naval engagement of world war 2 ended with the scuttling of the Admiral Graf Spee after the Battle of the River Plate. This was a triumph of British Diplomacy and deception.
The diplomats put constant pressure on the Uruguayan government to force the German Heavy Cruiser to leave the port of Montevideo where she wished to remain to effect repairs. At the same time the British mounted a campaign of deception to convince Captain Langsdorff that the British had a fleet waiting in the estuary to destroy his ship. He knew that the Argentinians would give him a better welcome if he could cross the Plate to Buenos Aires.
The British had a squadron en route to the Plate, but they were days away. They had cargo vessels make smoke across the skyline to fool the Germans into believing that a large squadron was waiting for them. Langsdorff fell for the ruse and scuttled his ship.
A decent and honourable man, Hans Langsdorff adhered to the terms of the Hague Conventions and in the course of his commerce raiding campaign he killed none of the sailors on the ships he sank. After he sank his own ship he secured the safety of his own men before committing suicide, lying on the battle flag of his command. Symbolically he went down with his ship.
Some naval analysts criticize Langsdorff for squandering his advantage in the Battle of the Plate. His 11 inch guns were more than a match for the 8 inch guns of the Exeter and the 6 inch guns of the Ajax and Achilles. A more aggressive captain might have gone toe to toe with the British squadron and could have sunk all three ships. Langsdorff clearly saw his role as a raider of commerce. In this capacity it made sense to avoid engagements with battleships.
I think his strategy was to “run away and fight another day”. A battle cruiser at large on the open ocean is far more potent than a single victory in battle. While free the Graf Spee tied down 9 British forces which were assigned to hunt her down.
In the Battle of the River Plate a chance shot from the Exeter damaged the Graf Spee’s fuel cleaning system. It was unlikely that she would be able to operate effectively without significant repairs, and due to British pressure these repairs were never going to be made in Uruguay. His primary concern was clearly for his men and by scuttling the vessel he succeeded in getting them safely to Argentina.
O Captain! my Captain; by Walt Whitman
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.