Civil War Echoes: Graf Spee 1939


75 years ago today, the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee fought a British squadron off the River Plate on South America’s coast. After an hour of battle, the Graf Spee’s captain, Hans Langsdorff, ran into neutral Montevideo harbor for repairs.

The Civil War connection to this battle may not be completely apparent at first, but is found through Captain Langsdorff. A decorated veteran of the Kaiser’s navy in World War I, Langsdorff as a child lived next door to his ship’s namesake and his family. Kaiser Wilhelm II required his naval leaders to read Raphael Semmes’ Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between The States, and this book spread through the Imperial German Navy. In this way Langsdorff learned¬†the story of the CSS Alabama. It made a deep impression; in 1939 Langsdorff stated “Semmes is my inspiration!”

The example of Raphael Semmes would guide Hans Langsdorff for the rest of his life. World War II’s outbreak found him in the South Atlantic, and in the middle of September he was ordered to commence commerce raiding. In 10 weeks, the Graf Spee sank 9 British merchant ships totaling over 50,000 tons. Langsdorff did not kill anyone, and stopped and searched ships like Confederate raiders had done 75 years before. He treated all captive crews according to the laws of war – much as Semmes did during his career. Like Semmes, his humanity earned the respect of his captives. Langsdorff even used a vessel with a prize crew for a time, much like when Semmes commissioned the CSS Tuscaloosa.

By December, Langsdorff had ranged into the Indian Ocean and back again, through waters Semmes had sailed in 1863 and 1864. Graf Spee steered for a concentration of shipping lanes around the River Plate, which served Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Here Langsdorff encountered the British heavy cruiser Exeter and two light cruisers, who gave battle at dawn on December 13, 1939. Graf Spee gave better than she got, but suffered key damage to her galley and fuel system, forcing Langsdorff into Montevideo.

Like in 1864 at Cherbourg, an international diplomacy game now started while the British ships waited outside. Langsdorff was in a similar position to Semmes 75 years earlier, although it is not known if the parallels occurred to him. Unlike his idol, Langsdorff did not choose to sally forth and fight to the death; instead he sent his men to Argentina and scuttled the Graf Spee in the River Plate estuary on December 17.

Distraught over the turn of events and loss of his ship, Hans Langsdorff moved with his crew into a Buenos Aires hotel. On December 19 he wrote several notes to family, then wrapped himself in Graf Spee’s flag and killed himself.

Photo above: Graf Spee in Montevideo Harbor, 14 December 1939.

Photo below: Hans Langsdorff, taken from a newspaper.


4 Responses to Civil War Echoes: Graf Spee 1939

  1. The shallow wreck, marked by buoys, is still in Montevideo harbor. The rangefinder from the ship is on display in a small park in the dock area. The eagle from the bow was removed a few years ago.

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