The Graf Spee – The Hunt Begins I

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SS Clement

The first victim was the S.S. Clement, Booth Line, 5,050 tons, an ocean-going tramp steamer bound for Bahia, Salvador. It was September 30, 1939; the time mid-morning. The weather was good, the Brazilian coast west of them; they were near to yet another journey’s end for the old ship, with nothing to tell them that within minutes they were to be involved by the hazards of war.

Third Officer H.J. Gill was on watch when the lookout called, “Ship on the port bow.” Gill trained his glasses on the horizon and studied the distant vessel.

For over three weeks now his country and Germany had been at war. True, so far as the Clement was concerned, the declaration of war had made no difference to them – no submarines had chased them, no aircraft or armed merchant raiders had gunned them. War seemed remote here, off the coast of South America, not really comprehendible, something which in their hearts they discounted. The sun shone, the day was glorious. Though their ship zig-zagged, as a gesture to war-time safety demands, no one really believed that war could come to them so soon after the declaration of hostilities.

But – “Ship on the port bow!” A good officer took no chances. Now Gill kept his glasses on the distant vessel, waiting until it came close enough to be identified. He didn’t have long to wait. The unknown ship was heading straight for them, and they could tell she was travelling at high speed by the way she came over the horizon.

About 11.15 the Third Officer picked up the speaking tube and called the ship’s master, Captain F.C.P. Harris, who had just gone below to his cabin. “Captain, there’s a man-o’-war bearing down on us fast, about four points on the port bow.”

“I’ll come right up.”

Captain Harris quickly climbed to the bridge and looked towards the approaching warship. It was still several miles distant, and because it was bow on to them was difficult to identify. It was making no signals and they were unable to discern any flag.

Captain Harris said, “It could be the Ajax.” It didn’t seem possible for an enemy warship to be at large, with the might of the Royal Navy between them and Germany. And H.M.S. Ajax was known to be in South American waters.

For a few minutes the two officers watched the approach of the warship, still trying to identify it. It was throwing up enormous bow waves, so that Gill estimated – “She must be making thirty knots.”

Captain Harris said, “Looks as though we’re going to have visitors. Put up the ensign. I’ll put on another jacket.” He went below. He still believed the approaching vessel to be the Ajax, racing in at speed, probably hoping that she had intercepted a German merchantman who would scuttle herself if given enough time to do so.

When Captain Harris returned to the bridge, smart now in a clean white uniform jacket, the unknown warship was only three or four miles away and looking huge in the clear light of the tropical sun. But still she flew no flag and made no signal to them. It was beginning to be perplexing, and perhaps at that moment unease came to the watching officers.

Someone on the deck below shouted, “A plane’s taking off!”

A seaplane suddenly hurtled off the deck of the warship, catapulted into the air. But the Ajax also had a seaplane …

The Chief Officer came running up as the seaplane swept round towards them. He asked his captain, “Shall we show our name board?” Captain Harris nodded and the Chief Officer started away. He had only moved a few paces when the plane came roaring down at them. Fascinated, officers and crew stared up at the noisy aircraft as it began to dive the length of the ship.

Then things began to happen at bewildering speed. Woodwork seemed to erupt and splinter around the officers on the bridge. They heard the rattle of a machine-gun above the deafening roar as the aircraft shot by overhead.

They caught a glimpse of markings under the wings of the seaplane. They were German, and the plane was strafing them with machine-gun fire.

Captain Harris heard Chief Officer Jones exclaim, “My God, it’s a Jerry!” The Clement’s master was already stopping the ship. There wasn’t a gun aboard, and that was all he could do in an effort to save their lives. “Shall I get the boats ready, sir?” the Chief Officer asked.

Captain Harris nodded, though his eyes were set grimly upon the seaplane. It was turning, heading straight for them again. “All hands on deck,” the captain ordered, “And swing out those boats.”

The ship was losing speed, and it should have been noticeable to the pilot of the aircraft, but it seemed to make no difference to him. He dived upon the ship again, raking it with machine-gun bullets. The Chief Officer staggered suddenly and blood spurted from his right hand and forearm. On deck men were shouting their anger at the attacker, and racing to get the boats into the water.

Again the seaplane came round, and again bullets flailed the boat-deck and bridge. But now they were ready for it and dived for cover, so that no one was hurt this time as it passed, though the wheelhouse was wrecked by bullets.

Below, following upon an instant instruction from Captain Harris, the radio operator had begun to send out a distress signal. It began “RRR.” That was a code signal meaning, “I am being attacked by aircraft.” The operator managed to get out the ship’s position before a signal went up on the battleship – “Stop. No wireless transmitting.”

Captain Harris had no alternative but to obey. He could see 11-inch guns trained upon them, sufficient to blow them out of the water if he so much as hesitated. He ordered the radio operator up on deck and shouted to the crew to get into the boats and abandon ship. The Clement was going to be destroyed, and he knew it. The one consoling feature was that their message had got through; the wireless operator reported that his signal had been picked up by a Brazilian steamer, which presumably would relay it and bring help up to them.

Hurriedly putting the ship’s confidential papers into a special weighted canvas bag, Captain Harris disposed of them over the side and then joined his men in one of the boats. As they pulled away, a piquet boat came across from the battleship. Silently, sullenly, the British seamen looked into the faces of enemy sailors. Young men, they were, flushed and excited by their victory. They took the Clement’s captain and Chief Engineer aboard, and returned them to the abandoned tramp. The Britishers would open the sea valves and scuttle the ship, the Germans told them. Obligingly, Chief Engineer Bryant opened some valves but they only flooded the ballast tanks and hours later the Clement had to be sunk by 6-inch gunfire from the battleship.

The Germans, in spite of their gun-strafing episode, were most courteous to their first victims. They radioed, “Please save the lifeboats of the Clement, 0945 south, 3404 west.” The call was picked up and the following day one of the lifeboats was found by a Brazilian steamer. Three other lifeboats landed at Maceio the day after. Captain Harris and Mr. Bryant were put aboard a Greek vessel, the Papalemos, by the German warship commander which left them at the Cape Verde islands on October 9.

Soon reports were winging their way to the Admiralty in London. A pocket battleship, the Admiral Scheer, had claimed her first victim of World War II, unexpectedly in South American waters.

The officers and crew of the Clement knew it was the Admiral Scheer, for that name had been on the hat-bands of the German sailors in the piquet boat and aboard the warship. More, it was the name painted on the bows and stern of the German raider. Undoubtedly the pocket battleship was the Admiral Scheer.

And so began a deception by the enemy that was to puzzle the British Admiralty for over two months.

Within hours of the distress call from the Clement, word was flashed to a not altogether unprepared Admiralty in Whitehall that a British merchant ship had been sunk by enemy action off the coast of Brazil. At first that was all they knew – just that the Clement had been sunk – but whether by armed merchantman or something more formidable was not known until October 2. Then a dramatic message was radioed by the Brazilian ship which had picked up one of the Clement’s lifeboats that the Atlantic raider was the German pocket battleship, the Admiral Scheer. A pocket battleship, one of Hitler’s not-so-secret weapons, was loose in the South Atlantic and on the rampage. It was grim news, though expected by the British Admiralty. The design of the ships had indicated their rôle in an eventual war, and long before the outbreak of hostilities tactics had been evolved to counter, so far as possible, the maraudings of the big, powerfully armed German raiders.

Not forgotten in the memory of Their Lords of the Admiralty was the success of the German raider, Emden, in the 1914-18 war. By November 9, 1914, this solitary light cruiser had accounted for no less than sixteen merchant ships in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, a total of 66,146 tons. She also captured and released one Allied and twelve neutral ships, with a total tonnage of 53,000.

All that was achieved by a comparatively small ship, insignificant in size compared with the pocket battleships, and with nowhere near the same formidable armament. The Emden had a displacement of 3,592 tons only, carrying ten 4.1-inch guns, and with a maximum speed of 24 knots. If a ship as small and as slow as that could wreak such havoc in such a short time, what appalling damage to the Allied war effort could Hitler’s pocket battleships do? That was the worry in the Admiralty even before the declaration of war, but fortunately the great British public was not asked to share it.

True, the Emden had had a short life, being finally brought to action by the Australian cruiser, Sydney, 5,600 tons, armed with eight 6-inch guns, and outspeeding the German by two knots. The Sydney’s superior firepower quickly disposed of the raider, but experts did not feel that the pocket battleships could so easily be tracked down and sunk.

They weren’t designed to be tracked down easily, and they had a firepower which said their opponents would sink first if it came to a battle. It wasn’t altogether the problem of search that worried the Admiralty, however – and to locate a fast-moving battleship in the vast expanse of an ocean was a proposition not lightly to be entertained. It was what happened when she was located.

For in all the British Navy were only three battle cruiser – Hood, Repulse and Renown – considered fast enough and powerful enough to take on a pocket battleship with any hope of success … in the combined fleets of France and Britain, there were only five of such might. If other ships sought and found them, advisers told Hitler, they would merely commit suicide; for the pocket battleships could out-range and out-gun anything fast enough to come up with them, and were so heavily armoured it seemed they were invulnerable.

The pocket battleship was the logical answer to attempts by Allied Powers to keep Germany, between the two world wars, in an inferior position so far as sea power was concerned. If Germany was not to be allowed a fleet of big and powerful ships, then what she built would outclass any comparable ships in the world. Thus the German Naval Chief, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, caused the pocket battleships, as they became known, to be built, and accordingly he introduced a new factor into the calculations of opposing sea powers.

German naval power had been destroyed in the 1914-1918 war. In 1914 her fleet had been the second most powerful in the world, but defeat left her with only six obsolete battleships of the Deutschland type – her more modern warships being ordered into Scapa Flow when a humbled Germany applied for Armistice, later to be scuttled by their own crews rather than permit them to be taken over by the British and Allies.

The trouble began with the signing of peace terms between the warring nations. France, who knew more than any other country the horrors of war, wanted total German disarmament, but Britain, uneasy about the new republic of Russia, wanted to keep a partially armed Germany to act as a bulwark to any Communist moves westward.

The usual compromise was effected and the celebrated (in some eyes, notorious) Treaty of Versailles agreed to. Germany was not to be allowed to build or maintain submarines – Britain also insisted on that. She could, however, maintain a small surface fleet to protect her if attacked in the Baltic by Russia. This would consist of the six pre-dreadnought, obsolete battleships referred to, six light cruisers and a few torpedo boats. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited the building by Germany of any warships displacing more than 10,000 tons, such warships being expected to be coast-defence in character.

In fact for about a decade the Germans did not attempt to build any warships up to this limit, suffering as they were as a result of the long and terrible war, sick with defeat and torn inwardly by political parties seeking to gain power.

It was during this time that the victorious Powers also voluntarily imposed limitations on their own naval programmes, to prevent an armaments race which would cripple the economy of the countries concerned. In 1921, representatives of five sea powers, Britain, the United States, France, Japan and Italy, met at a Naval Conference in Washington, where they agreed to certain restrictions in the building of new warships. Each, it was decided, would retain their big battleships and battle-cruisers, but would in future not build cruisers exceeding 10,000 tons displacement. This put them on a level with the German limitations, but with an important difference, as will be seen later.

It is true that at a later conference the Big Five sea powers agreed to the building among themselves of certain battleships, but here it was decided that no war vessel below a certain tonnage would be laid down. Admiral Raeder’s post-war naval policy was to provide Germany with battleships which appeared to conform to the 10,000-ton limitations, but which, in fact, were between the conventional cruiser of that size and the more powerful battleships. The result – his pocket battleships occupied a unique position.

Raeder wanted the best of two worlds and he saw that he got it.

While at first these five sea Powers made no restriction upon the number of cruisers which might be built, within the limitations stated, in 1930 and again in 1935 they also agreed to limit the number of cruisers armed with 8-inch guns. All this especially suited Britain, who had a greater need for numbers of smaller warships rather than for a few mighty battleships; but though the limitations thus imposed were laudable in their intention to save tax-payers’ money, they gave a further advantage to the unscrupulous, power-crazy German dictator.

Even before Hitler came to power, however, the Germans had begun to build ships which were an evasion of the terms agreed to in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Ostensibly they complied with the agreed limit of 10,000 tons displacement, but very soon naval experts began to suspect that, in fact, Germany had built in excess of that tonnage.

In 1929 a vessel was laid down to replace one of the old Deutschland-class dreadnoughts, doomed for the scrap-heap. She was, in fact, to be named Deutschland. In 1931 Admiral Raeder began the construction of a second replacement vessel, the Admiral Scheer, and in 1932 work was begun on a third warship, the Admiral Graf Spee.

These three ships astonished the world when they were launched – ominously flying the flag of the new German Republic, the swastika, incidentally. They were far ahead of contemporary warships in design, and were immediately recognised as upsetting conventional naval strategy.

Each vessel had cost £3,750,000 to build, a fantastic amount by 1930 standards to spend on a warship of such size and, in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, their displacement approached 13,000 tons rather than remaining within the 10,000-ton limit agreed to.

But it was not so much their size that caused them to be dubbed “pocket battleships” as the power that was concentrated within their 609-foot hulls – hulls welded, incidentally, and using aluminium wherever possible. No old-fashioned riveting for Admiral Raeder!

In place of the conventional steam turbines, the pocket battleships packed 54,000 horsepower diesel engines, capable of 10,000 miles cruising at 15 knots before refuelling, and with a speed, remarkable for ships of their size, of 27.7 knots.

But it was their armament which staggered the naval experts. The pocket battleships carried six 11-inch guns mounted in two triple turrets, eight 5.9-inch guns, six 4-inch anti-aircraft guns and eight torpedo tubes. They also carried two aircraft which could be catapulted from their decks. Their deck and side armour was remarkably thick, so much so that it was not considered possible for the shells of our 8-inch cruisers to be able to penetrate it, except at very close range.

They had the firepower and defensive armour of a battleship, with the speed and manœuvrability of a large cruiser. As Raeder boasted at the time, they could out-sail any more powerful ship, and out-gun anything that could catch up with them.

Clearly they were designed for a purpose. That purpose – to make up for the limitations in naval strength of post-war Germany … to make a few powerful ships serve the purpose of many.

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