Breakout of the Admiral Graf Spee

5 August-29 September 1939: ‘The Curtain Lifts’

In his first War Directive, dated 31 August 1939, Hitler stressed the importance of leaving ‘the responsibility for opening hostilities unmistakably to England and France’, adding that should either country begin operations against Germany, German forces should simply hold the frontier and do nothing to compromise the defeat of Poland. Specifically, however, ‘The Navy will operate against merchant shipping, with England as the focal point . . .’ In fact contingent operations had already begun in late July, placing German naval forces in a position to respond to any hints that Britain might rally in support of Poland and to remove key units from the remote possibility of any enforced British blockade.

Secretly therefore, on 5 August, the German naval tanker Altmark, commanded by Kapitän zur See K.H. Dau and loaded with stores, food and ammunition, left Wilhelmshaven. The following day, in brilliant sunshine, she passed through the Strait of Dover, word of which was passed to the Admiralty, a first twitch of the curtain as it lifted upon the drama. The Altmark, a grey, black-funnelled tanker, was not a German-registered merchant ship, instead she flew the distinctive ensign of the Reich Service and was government owned. She doubled the South Foreland and Dungeness, then headed west, out of the Channel and across the North Atlantic, bound for Port Arthur on the Texan coast. Here she was to load 9,400 tons of diesel oil, ostensibly consigned to Rotterdam, but in truth to be held ready to operate in support of the Admiral Graf Spee.

The Panzerschiffherself was recalled from torpedo-firing exercises for a dry-docking on the 17th. While her bottom was cleaned and anti-fouled she was topped up with operational stores and a team of cypher decoding specialists from the B-Dienst service joined the ship, with some officers of the German naval reserve – men whose normal service in merchant ships had acquainted them with British trade routes, the nature of British-flagged shipping to be found on them and the familiarity to distinguish rapidly the identity, type and even the name of ships the Admiral Graf Spee would encounter.

Meanwhile, to augment this, on 19 August five U-boats sailed from Kiel, with a further nine leaving Wilhelmshaven; they had all been allocated ‘waiting positions’ in the North Atlantic.

Then, in the late afternoon of the 21st the Admiral Graf Spee, under the command of Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff, slipped seawards from Wilhelmshaven, heading north, to pass by way of the Iceland Faeroes Gap into the vast wastes of the Western Ocean. Two more U-boats, one of which was U-30 commanded by Kapitänleutnant zur See Fritz-Julius Lemp, and a second fleet-tanker, the Westerwald under Fregattenkapitän Grau, followed. She was intended to operate in support of Kapitän zur See Wennecker’s Deutschland, which left on 24 August and headed for a station off Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. Should any reaction emanate from London as events east of Germany unfolded, a show of muscle along Britain’s vaunted sea frontier might achieve a similar climbdown as had the Führer’s blandishments at Munich, but Hitler had taken no such precautions in the events leading to the Munich Crisis of 1938. In the operational orders issued to Langsdorff and Wennecker on 4 August it was clearly stated that: ‘The political situation makes it appear possible that, in the event of a conflict with Poland, the Guarantor Powers (England and France) will intervene’, and the Luftwaffe had been ordered to take advantage of any ‘favourable opportunities to make an effective attack on massed English naval units, especially on battleships and aircraft carriers’.

By the 25th, as the hours were counted down to the invasion of Poland, Norddeich Radio had transmitted a warning to all German merchant ships, alerting them to the possibility of war. The danger of British interception of German merchantmen on the high seas was critical. Two days later a second message followed, urging all merchant shipping to reach the Fatherland within four days, failing which they should head for a neutral or pro-German friendly port.

However, alarmed by intelligence, the British began seeking assurances that no military operations were in train. In Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy’s anchorage in the Orkney Islands, the Home Fleet was ordered to raise steam. Under Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes the battle squadrons slipped their moorings and headed seaward in a show of strength and determination. Britain’s traditional first weapon of defence was already mobilized. Hitler faltered as the possibility became a probability, postponing his invasion; but he was unable to stay his hand for long. German forces began their advance into Poland at dawn on the 1st September; that evening a first British ultimatum was delivered from London. During the 2nd, as the overwhelmed Polish forces fought valiantly, refusing to cave in, intense diplomatic activity sought to halt Hitler. Then, on the morning of the 3rd, Great Britain and France rallied to their Polish ally and declared war.

While Forbes was ordered to carry out a sweep in the Iceland/Faeroe Gap in search of German merchant ships, particularly the liner Bremen, and HMS Somali, Captain Nicholson, of the 6th Destroyer Flotilla captured the Hannah Boge 350 miles south of Iceland, the waiting Panzerschiffs and U-boats, by a conspicuous and swift interdiction of British merchant shipping, might still prevent a declaration of war in support of a dying ally amount to full-blown hostilities. But then, on the very evening of the day on which a betrayed Neville Chamberlain had declared Britain and her empire at war with Germany, Lemp sank the British passenger liner Athenia off Malin Head.

Hitler had expressly forbidden the sinking of passenger liners and although Lemp was afterwards exonerated from charges of disobedience on the grounds that he believed the Athenia to have been an Armed Merchant Cruiser, the attack convinced the Admiralty that the Germans had embarked on unrestricted submarine warfare. Although initially far from perfect, merchant shipping was immediately organized in convoy, as much against the firepower of surface raiders, Hilfskruizers (fast cargo liners heavily armed as commerce raiders) and Panzerschiffs, as against the torpedo of the U-boat. But convoy could only be extended across the North Atlantic and south to Gibraltar and Sierra Leone. British merchantmen, owned by hundreds of private shipping companies, traded worldwide. For a sea officer of the Third Reich determined to interdict the enemy’s supply routes, there were opportunities galore not in the North, but in the South Atlantic.

In contact – but not in company – with Dau, Langsdorff headed south for his ‘waiting station’ off Pernambuco (modern Recife) on the shoulder of Brazil but adjacent to the so-called Atlantic Narrows.

Grossadmiral Raeder had prepared his small but modern navy for a war on trade to the best of his ability and in spite of the shortfall in time the Führer had assured him he would have. He knew, as Stephen Roskill pointed out after the war, that: ‘The effectiveness of surface raiders depends not only on the actual sinkings and captures which they accomplish but on the disorganization to the flow of shipping which their presence, or even the suspicion of their presence, generates’. Raeder’s first principle was, therefore, concealment; his second deception. Langsdorff and Wennecker were expected to take advantage of the vast areas of open ocean uncrossed by the traditional trade routes and far beyond the reach of air reconnaissance. It would be in such wild spots that the Panzerschiffs would rendezvous with their supply tankers. For the Admiral Graf Spee, a cruising ground in the South Atlantic had been chosen. Here two major British supply routes offered alternative targets. The route from the Rio de la Plata, much favoured by fast, frozen meat-carrying ships, would prove one area rich in pickings. The other, to and from the Cape of Good Hope, not only exposed the traffic to Cape Town, but also some services from Australia and India which, by taking in East African ports, favoured the Cape route rather than the transit of the Suez Canal. Not only did these twin major arteries of British imperial trade allow Langsdorff a choice of targets, but they could be struck anywhere along their attenuated lengths. He was to avoid their concentrated choke-points, for at such foci strongest naval protection would most likely be found. But both routes bore a mass of shipping, from the fast reefers, mentioned earlier, to the equally fast passenger and mail liners, cargo liners with valuable ladings of outward general cargo and homeward loads of produce from all over the world including tanks of Tung and palm oils, latex and tallow. There were also the heavily burdened tramp ships with their homogenous bulk cargoes of coal, steel, sugar, wheat, iron and manganese ore, loads of flax and rubber, their deck-cargoes of flammable esparto grass and timber. Nor did these ships trade directly between Great Britain and her partners, but provided shipping services to other nations. Disruption of these would have wider political implications detrimental to invisible earnings for the British economy. Moreover, to throw any pursuit off his trail, Langsdorff could disappear into the Southern Ocean and double either of the great capes, to reappear in the Pacific or the Indian Oceans, or to descend on the British and South African whaling fleet in the waters south of the Falklands. As his operational orders summed up: ‘The enemy is not in a position to carry his complete import requirements in escorted convoys. Independent ships can therefore be expected.’

Although specifically ordered to obey the Hague Convention and respect the Prize Regulations applied to cruiser warfare against unarmed civilian merchantmen, Langsdorff was to strike and withdraw, to keep the enemy guessing, to disguise his ship by means of wood, canvas and paint. The hoisting of neutral naval ensigns as they approached a victim was approved under international law, provided the belligerent ensign was run up prior to fire being opened. Above all, Langsdorff was to avoid any contact with British naval forces. If these should be encountered by accident and ‘even if inferior, are only to be engaged if it should further the principal task (i.e. war on merchant shipping)’. This, Langsdorff was to discover, was not merely more difficult than the staff officers in the Seekriegsleitung supposed when drafting his instructions, but would prove the very crux of the matter and the cause of his undoing.

His master, Erich Raeder, sensed this, and presciently wrote a reflection on the situation on 3 September, the very day that war broke out. Of his surface forces, the Grossadmiral said that they could ‘do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly . . .’ Specifically the achievements of the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee, ‘if skilfully used, should be able to carry out cruiser warfare on the high seas for some time’. He added, just before he asked Korvettenkapitän Heinz Assman to countersign the document: ‘The Panzerschiffs, however, cannot be decisive in the war…’

Despite – or perhaps because of – these misgivings, Raeder had given his commanders the greatest possible latitude, allowing them the untrammelled judgement of the man-on-the-spot. Moreover, by way of encouragement, provided ‘operational possibilities were exhausted’ they might, in extremis, run into a neutral port where, however, they must ‘without fail [. . .] ensure that on no account the ship falls into enemy hands’. Having held out the carrot, Raeder could not conceal the stick: ‘I shall act without mercy against any commander who compromises the honour of the Flag and is found lacking in that energy which alone can bring success and achieve a position of respect for the Kriegsmarine. Rather death with honour than strike the Flag!’

Langsdorff’s escape undetected into the Atlantic was a model of careful navigational passage-planning, hugging the Norwegian coast as though on an exercise, taking a wide sweep north of Fair Isle and the Shetlands and passing through areas where shipping might be encountered during the hours of darkness. In this he was fortuitously assisted by a suspension on the 21st of the North Sea air patrols which had been a feature of British naval exercises during August. On the 23rd the Admiral Graf Spee was north-west of Bergen, she then slowed down until, on the 24th off Stokksnes, Iceland, she increased speed and swung south and west. Four days later, east of Cape Race, Newfoundland, she was heading due south, to meet the Altmark. Securing to a line trailed astern of the tanker, they passed a hose and topped up with fuel. Some unwanted material was disposed of and two 20mm guns were transferred to the tanker for her own defence. The two ships then proceeded south in company, sing-songs being organized to raise morale so that, by Sunday, 3 September, the Admiral Graf Spee was north-west of the Cape Verde Islands, adjusting her speed and making small and local alterations of course to avoid being seen by any merchantmen.

The first positive news of war came from a B-Dienst intercept of the BBC’s broadcast from Rugby. Langsdorff had forbidden his officers to listen to the BBC but the German signal notifying them of war arrived within the hour. Soon afterwards came an instruction not to attack French shipping – by which his ship would assuredly be reported – in an attempt by Hitler to divide the Western Allies. B-Dienst intercepts also informed him that British naval precautions were in hand, convoy arrangements were already made and naval forces were being built up at Freetown, Sierra Leone, the southern rendezvous point for North Atlantic convoys. Finally, further disheartening news came in the wake of Lemp’s precipitate action in sinking the Athenia: the immediate organization of convoy, but the otherwise quiescent attitude of the British and French persuaded Berlin – still trying to avoid a hot war with Britain – that commerce raiding was ‘inadvisable at present’. Maintaining radio silence the Admiral Graf Spee was to move father south, to ‘hold back and withdraw . . .’

Three days later, midway between Freetown and Trinidad, she altered course south-eastwards to her new ‘waiting position’, a vast scalene triangle with its dart-like and shallowest angle pointing at the Cape of Good Hope many miles away, but lying between the two major trade routes in the South Atlantic and where she and the Altmark arrived on 10 September. The two ships ran under reduced engine revolutions, biding the outcome of events upon the plains of Northern Europe. On 11 September Langsdorff secured his isolation by flying-off his Arado 196 floatplane to provide notice of any shipping and, with boats ferrying stores between the two ships, began a replenishment from the Altmark. While this was in hand the Arado sighted two vessels one of which they thought to be a British cruiser. To their horror it appeared to alter course and to head for the position of the Admiral Graf Spee and her consort. Hoping his aeroplane had gone unobserved but maintaining radio silence, the Arado pilot banked steeply and headed for home.

Immediately on receipt of this intelligence, Langsdorff aborted the replenishment and, recovering his boats and the Arado, sped away; Dau took Altmark on a diverging course. The alarm had been caused by HMS Cumberland, on her way from Plymouth to reinforce Commodore Henry Harwood’s cruiser squadron then off Rio de Janeiro. The abrupt and purposeful alteration of course had been merely a routine change from zig to zag as the Cumberland carried out standard anti-submarine procedure along a median rhumb-line. Langsdorff had no such comforting assurance, however, and his B-Dienst people were put to the task of diligent interception of British naval signals to discover whether or not their presence was known to the enemy.

Meanwhile, far away Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht vacillated over what to do next. On the 23rd the Führer, Keitel, Raeder and their respective staffs met at Zoppot to consider the situation vis-à-vis the Western Allies. Insofar as the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee were concerned it was appreciated that, despite the support of the Westerwald and Altmark, their supplies were finite and they could not be asked to remain undetected indefinitely. There was also the awkward question of morale. Against this the second wave of U-boats would shortly be sent to sea and therefore an intensification of ‘war against merchant shipping’ should be initiated ‘at the beginning of October’. To this the Führer agreed. Accordingly, on 26 September, the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee were ordered to operate against the British. French shipping – of less importance both to France and to the German war-effort – remained inviolate.

With the mask off, Langsdorff considered his position, helped by appreciations from Berlin and his B-Dienst specialists on board. He was aware that, on the 2nd October a Pan-American Neutrality Zone would be declared by the American government, warning the European belligerents that no attacks on shipping within 300 miles of the coast of the Americas would be tolerated. He also knew that Mussolini’s Italy would not, as she was bound to by treaty, come into the war at the side of her fellow Fascists, which meant that the British still had unrestricted access to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. He also learned of the dispositions of the British Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy was not far away. Prior to the outbreak of war, during an increase in international tension between the European powers, the Royal Navy had mobilized. As noted the Home Fleet was on a war footing prior to 3 September and, during extensive exercises in August, the Reserve Fleet had also been mobilized. Immediately on the outbreak of war, in addition to instituting convoy for all merchant ships on the home coasts and Western Approaches, the British declared a blockade of Germany. Its first acts were to intercept homeward-bound German merchantmen, hence Nicholson’s capture of the Hannah Boge off Iceland and Forbes’s unsuccessful sweep in search of the Nord-Deutscher Lloyd liner Bremen, which was already safe in Murmansk and from there by way of neutral Norwegian waters reached the Fatherland. Despite errors, such as that of the British submarine Triton sinking the British submarine Oxley, the blockade was effective, if only in that German ships preferred to scuttle themselves to avoid capture. Most notably, however, the liner Cap Norte, ‘which was carrying reservists from South America to Germany was successfully seized’, but not until 9 October (she afterwards became the troopship Empire Trooper). Farther afield, off the Rio de la Plata and in the first two days of the war, the British cruiser Ajax, flying the broad pendant of Commodore Henry Harwood, intercepted the German freighters Carl Fritzen and the Olinda. Off the West African coast the Neptune caught the Inn. Neither Harwood nor Vice Admiral D’Oyly Lyon, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, nor their masters in the Admiralty in London had an inkling that a powerful German raider lay in the offing between.

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