The scuttling of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee on December 17th 1939 and alleged suicide of her captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff captured worldwide attention. The Battle of the River Platte on December 13th 1939 was the first major sea battle of the Second World War. Commodore Harwood became a British national hero overnight and was promoted to Rear Admiral, although the German spy Sir Edward Bridges, the evil and supercilious Cabinet Secretary, if that’s not a tautology, shattered by the Royal Navy’s great victory, made sure that Harwood was denied the baronetcy which was his due.
For nearly 80 years naval historians and commentators have bought into the Kriegsmarine’s narrative that the Graf Spee was a raider and that her primary mission was the interception of Allied merchant shipping. To support the narrative Kapitän zur See Langsdorff stopped a few tramp streamers, such as the Streonshalh (3,895 gross register tons). The German narrative is bollocks of course. The Graf Spee was essentially a gold transport, although no doubt she had other intelligence tasks.
This column has been prompted in part by reading David Miller’s very readable work, Langsdorff And The Battle Of The River Plate (Pen & Sword, 2013). There are things happening in the world, mostly bad (apart from the death of Senator McCain), but I don’t like to have my columns driven entirely by events. The financing of World War II cannot be understood without grasping what Langsdorff’s true mission was.
Naval historians, including David Miller with respect, have been fooled. Like all narrative historians, they tend to be limited to the published record or private papers. Essentially this means that they are limited to what governments and key historical figures want them to know.
Intelligence historians like myself are not limited to the published record or self-serving diaries and private papers. We have privileged access to secret information and use our intellectual firepower to analyse events. We can connect dots which narrative historians miss.
How many log books did the Graf Spee have?
Miller, in common with all historians up until I came along, assumed that the KMS Graf Spee had only one log book. In practice German warships usually had two logbooks, one for Joe Public and naïve historians, if that is not a tautology, and one for the Seekriegsleitung (SKL, or Naval High Command) in Berlin. The latter shows where the U-Boat or surface warship in question really went.
Take the U-Boats based on the West Coast of Ireland as an example. Since the Irish Free State was officially neutral the official log-books had to show Brest, or La Rochelle, or wherever. In practice the subs would only go there to be refitted. The real log-book would refer to the temporary bases in Ireland. It would never be seen by the British.
To cover up the fact that Ireland wasn’t neutral and that their U-Boats were based there the Germans came up with the ‘milch-cow’ myth. This was the theory that German U-Boats somehow managed to rendezvous with tanker boats in the North Atlantic, without radar and with only primitive radio direction finding equipment, whilst trying to maintain radio silence, with very limited optical range (you couldn’t see very far from a U-Boat conning tower, even with Zeiss binoculars). They are then supposed to have surfaced in broad daylight and refueled, stern to stem, i.e. in the inefficient German way, very often in bad weather, without attracting the attention of Allied aircraft.
No doubt the odd U-Boat refueled at sea in this way, but not very often. With Irish bases they didn’t need to. There were very few tanker boats by the way, and they couldn’t carry that much diesel anyway.
The defects of the Deutschland class Panzerschiffe
David Miller is unusually objective for a naval historian, with respect. Most are in awe of the Kriegsmarine and think that their ships were wonderful. In fact most had serious weaknesses, even the Bismarck class battleships, which had inadequate deck armor and were under-gunned for their size. (American battleships of that era would typically have a main battery of 9 16”/45 cal. guns, with an effective, dual-purpose secondary battery of up to 20 5”/38 guns).
Amongst the design defects of the Deutschland class were:
(1) A serious weakness in the hull, at the break in the deck, which nearly caused the loss of the class leader.
(2) Vulnerable siting of the torpedo tubes, to the point where they could be damaged in bad weather and could barely be safely manned.
(3) Thin deck armor.
(4) A seriously defective main battery fire control system, which in practice prevented pocket battleships from engaging two targets simultaneously. This was a major tactical weakness, which contributed to the German defeat in the Battle of the River Plate.
(5) Wholly inadequate fire control for the 5.9” secondary battery – it was so bad that not one of the 377 5.9” rounds fired during the Battle of the River Plate actually hit its target, indeed they were so far off Commodore Harwood probably had difficulty working out which ship Jerry was aiming at.
(6) Mounting of the main galley and lubricating oil purification system in deckhouses, i.e. above the splinter deck, which was ludicrous.
(7) Use of diesel propulsion, which whilst it gave good fuel economy and saved weight and space, was unreliable and could not sustain high-speeds for any length of time, nor operate for lengthy periods without dockyard attention.
(8) Poor sea-keeping, particularly before the Atlantic bows were fitted (Graf Spee was never fitted with hers, although there were plans to).
(9) Lack of a suitable hangar for their aircraft, which were mounted in an exposed position.
(10) Lack of a suitable aircraft – the Arado Ar-196 floatplanes had floats designed for shallow water, which tended to throw sea spray onto the engine cylinders in an ocean landing, cracking the blocks (this was why Langsdorff had no aerial reconnaissance during the battle) and
(11) A woefully inadequate AA fit. Even though the weapons were tri-axially stabilized there weren’t enough of them and the AA fire control was poor.
Miller attributes these serious deficiencies to both a desire to save weight and stay within the 10,000 ton limit set by Article 190 of the Versailles Treaty and an original requirement for service in the shallow and confined waters of the Baltic. With every respect to David Miller neither of these arguments holds any more water than the Graf Spee did after she was blown up.
The Germany Navy never had the slightest intention of complying with Article 190. Working closely with Admiral Canaris German Naval Intelligence knew full well that the then Cabinet Secretary, Maurice Hankey, was a notorious pedophile who was working for the Germans. They would also have known that Foreign Office head Sir Robert Vansittart was working for the Bad Guys. (It stands to reason of course – the Foreign Office have never worked for us Brits. The Permanent Secretary is invariably either an enemy agent or a useful idiot.) France was increasingly coming under German control, which was to eventually lead to her humiliating collapse in 1940.
Article 190 was a dead letter before the ink was even dry. There was not the slightest prospect of either London or Paris objecting to the construction of the Deutschland class or enforcing it. Unusually, in a case where Germany has an interest, the Wikipedia entry about the Graf Spee is broadly accurate. It gives her standard displacement as 14,650 long (Imperial) tons, with a full load displacement of 16,020 tons. Those weights seem to me to be about right. Her standard displacement was nearly 50% above the treaty limit. I doubt that those figures would have come as a surprise to the Admiralty’s brilliant former Director of Naval Construction, Sir Tennyson d’Eyncourt, indeed his starting point was probably about 14,000 tons. (As Britain’s foremost naval architect he was bound to have been consulted.)
The selection of diesel power and the long range of the pocket battleships suggests that they were never intended for Baltic operations. The design of the Atlantic bow started several years before Germany started World War II. The ships’ refrigeration capacity alone suggests that they were designed for operations in the tropics.
An enemy’s intentions can often be gleaned from his equipment choices. The Deutschland class were intended for lengthy sea voyages but were not designed for combat.
There were simply too many weaknesses in the design for a combat vessel. Everything about them suggests that their main battery was there to deter attack. The ships were not actually designed to engage an enemy able to hit back and when on December 13th 1939 she encountered determined opponents the Graf Spee was soon rendered un-operational.
By December 17th there was so much marine growth on her hull and so many defects in her MAN diesel engines that her chief engineer was forced to advise Captain Langsdorff that her safe maximum speed was 17 knots. That was slower than an R class battleship!
The diesels were simply not up to sustained operation. The intent, clearly, was that the class would make lengthy ocean voyages and then be put into dockyard hands for attention. That ruled out raiding. It was always a cover story, which partly explains why no thought was given to the accommodation of prize crews or prisoners, the housing of which caused major problems, not only for Captain Langsdorff, but for Captain Dau aboard the purpose-built supply ship, the Altmark. The expense of the war cruise of the Graf Spee and the costs of her supply ship were out of all proportion, not just to the value of her prizes but to the value of the potential prize she might have seized had her mission lasted longer.
In my analysis the real raison d’etre of the pocket battleships was the long-range transport of high-value cargoes such as gold and technology. The guns were for self-defense only. We know that our community partners the Jerries had a trans-shipment point in the Antarctic. We also know that the Graf Spee ventured far south and that there were extended periods in which her prisoners were not allowed on deck and needed their winter woollies.
Why did Germany need gold, and where did it come from? World War II, like World War I, was largely funded offshore, using high-yield trading programs, which in turn were backed by gold. That’s why they had to murder the financiers aboard the Titanic, who were opposed to German control of the Fed, which in turn permitted US banks to engage in German-controled high-yield programs, before starting World War 1.
The gold came mostly from China and Japan, hence the usefulness of the Antarctic trans-shipment facility, which I think you’ll find was visited after World War II by Admiral Byrd. There is far more gold in the Far East than you might imagine, most of it controled by very old families. There is almost no transparency in the Far East at all – governments tend to be secretive, even nominally democratic ones like Japan. Power structures are opaque and difficult to penetrate, and gold holdings are the key.
If, as I believe, the Graf Spee was carrying gold, her run into Montevideo made sense. Langsdorff was a brilliant naval intelligence officer, and a fine skipper. He must have known that he was heading into a trap. He had an intelligence report that HMS Renown, HMS Ark Royal and FS Dunkerque had sortied from Freetown in Sierra Leone. (In fact, as Miller points out (page 149) Renown and Ark Royal had left Cape Town on 4th December and were off Pernambuco.)
The German boast that the pocket battleships could outrun any ship which could sink them and sink any ship which could catch them, like most German boasts, was hollow. In 1939 there were in fact five ships, each of them a battlecruiser, which could both catch the Graf Spee and blow her out of the water: the Royal Navy’s HMS Hood, HMS Renown and HMS Repulse and the French Navy’s FS Strasbourg and Dunkerque. The latter had in fact been designed to outgun the pocket battleships, which they did.
Graf Spee was no match for Renown. She had a powerful main battery of 6 15”/42 cal guns, with modernised fire control.
Ark Royal was, then, the world’s most modern and powerful aircraft carrier, with an air group of 60 aircraft. She could keep up with Renown and had both torpedo and dive bombers in her air group. Against that task group, even without Dunkerque, the Graf Spee would have been toast.
Langsdorff had to have had powerful motivation for going into Montevideo and sacrificing his ship. Offloading gold needed by the Abwehr to underpin its trading programs makes sense. Graf Spee would have struggled to reach Buenos Aires from where she was, given the danger of fouling her intakes on the shoals in the Plate Estuary, but moving gold from Montevideo into the German client-state Argentina would have been fairly straightforward, especially if the shipments were staged over a few weeks.
How might the gold have been shipped ashore? In the coffins, I suspect. Nobody checked the coffins for bodies – nobody ever does. The naval tradition is to bury your dead at sea, not least if you’re in the tropics and there are problems with your refrigeration plant. Armored warships can get pretty hot below decks in the tropics – just ask anyone who served in the Pacific on HMS Victorious! The bodies would have been getting a trifle ripe by the time they were officially off-loaded. It’s an old German ploy, indeed we’ve used it ourselves a couple of times. You can bury all sorts of things in coffins, not just bodies. Digging them up later isn’t difficult.
How did Langsdorff die?
We know he died of a gunshot wound to the head whilst in his hotel room in Buenos Aires. The question is, who pulled the trigger? It might have been suicide, and the suicide note probably was written by Langsdorff, but there is such a thing as murder with the option: get your head blown off without a note, or go down in history as an honorable man and write yourself a note. It’s been done before.
I rather suspect that Langsdorff was whacked on the orders of the murderous Admiral Canaris, but we’ll never know. The Argies didn’t exactly hold a coroner’s inquest and their pathologists were worse than the Home Office’s.
Miller has a fascinating section on captains who have gone down with their ship. He cites examples from the Kriegsmarine in World War II, one being Korvettenkapitän Georg von Wiliamowitz-Möllendorf. He went down with U-459 on July 24th 1943, bravely saluting his crew before going below to open the sea-cocks. He was clearly a courageous and honorable man, but also one in possession of valuable classified information. U-459 was a Type XIV ‘tanker’ boat, i.e. a long-range transport U-Boat which did the odd bit of tanking for the sake of appearances.
I am aware of course that the good captain was German. The facts that his surname was von Wiliamowitz-Möllendorf and that he a was U-Boat commander are what we in the intelligence community call clues. I have no problem whatsoever in praising the courage and decency of this fine German naval officer.
Some people think that I am anti-German (I have no idea where they get it from!) but it is just a lie and a rumor spread by my competitors. In fact my personal relations with Jerry tend to be quite warm. I am opposed on their merits to the policies of the German government and the practices of German intelligence. I do not allow my analysis to be clouded by anti-German sentiment, indeed I rather enjoy my visits to Germany, as anybody who saw me roaring around the Black Forest in a nice Porsche driven by a nice, gay German guy earlier this year can testify.
I know enough about Germany to know that she isn’t a functioning democracy and that the German people, who are quite nice, have almost no say in the policies of their government and no say whatsoever in the way in which German intelligence is run. That has always been the tragedy of Germany.
The shenanigans in Washington
Nothing much has actually changed this week. ‘Von’ Mueller’s still on a witch hunt and still hasn’t proved Russian involvement in the 2016 election, let alone collusion with the Trump campaign. A lady lawyer with tenuous links to the Kremlin at best is still being touted as “the Russians”, whereas if anything she was working, as a useful idiot, for the Germans.
‘Von’ Mueller and the MSM keep banging on about the ‘hacking’ of the DNC as though it were an established fact, long after that particular conspiracy theory has been blown wide open. The President needs to fire Mueller, and Rosenstein, asap. Paul Manafort should be pardoned, promptly.
The President has spotted the perjury trap. Unable to prove Russian involvement or collusion ‘von’ Mueller has resorted to the classic sleazy prosecutor’s gambit of resorting to auxiliary allegations like perjury. All you need is to bully someone into contradicting the President and you have a perjury charge if you can trap the President into making statements on oath.
The Aussie ‘spill’
There’s been another foul-up in Canberra. There was a party spill this week which saw left-wing loony Malcom Turnbull ousted at long last. However the conservative challenger Paul Dutton failed in his bid to replace him. Instead Turnbull, working closely with Martin Parkinson, head of Australia’s sleazy Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, maneuvered Turnbull loyalist Scott Morrison into the top job.
I’m not saying that Morrison is on China’s payroll. Let’s just say that if he and his team, including Parkinson, had a celebratory dinner, Peking Duck was probably on the menu.
Sadly, Peter Dutton has joined a long list of failed conservative politicians who have little grasp of intelligence matters and almost no understanding of the forces arrayed against them. If you haven’t got brains yourself – and it’s almost impossible for a highly intelligent person to get elected – you’ve got to select smart advisers. Dutton simply didn’t have the intellectual firepower to get the job done and was too egotistical to consult people who did. The inevitable result was that he was humiliated.
Conservatives in Oz need to unseat Morrison before the next federal election. They will need a new standard bearer to replace Paul Dutton. They will also need to smack Martin Parkinson about, badly. He’s got to be fired. Conservatives need to jump all over him, and make sure that his successor isn’t one of his protégés.
In the meantime Australia will effectively remain a ChiCom client state. One thing that you can bet that Morrison will not be doing is telling the truth about MH370. It would seem that the mass-murder of innocent passengers on a civilian airliner in international airspace is fine by Canberra, as long as it’s done by the Chinese. If the Russians were to start doing it, of course, all hell would break loose!
Michael Shrimpton was a barrister from his call to the Bar in London in 1983 until being disbarred in 2019 over a fraudulently obtained conviction. He is a specialist in National Security and Constitutional Law, Strategic Intelligence and Counter-terrorism. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Intelligence Studies at the American Military University.