Hans Langsdorff PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 03 June 2009 21:03

 Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff

Born: 20 March 1894, Rügen, Germany

Died: 19 December 1939, Buenos Aires, Argentina

AGe: 45

Cause of death: Suicide by gunshot.

Notable because: Captain of the pocket battleship Graf Spee, which he scuttled before killing himself.

Hans Langsdorff was a German naval officer, most famous for his command of the Panzerschiff (pocket battleship) Admiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate.

Langsdorff was born in Bergen on the island of Rügen in 1894, the eldest son of a family with legal and religious traditions rather than a naval tradition. In 1898 the family moved to Düsseldorf, where they were neighbours of the family of Count (Graf) Maximilian von Spee, who was to become a German naval hero (while losing his life and entire command) in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914. Influenced by his honoured neighbours, Langsdorff entered the Kiel Naval Academy against his parent's wishes in 1912. During the First World War the then-Lieutenant Langsdorff received the Iron Cross 2nd Class at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and subsequently worked in minesweepers for the rest of the war. He received the Iron Cross 1st Class sometime during the remainder of the war, but the exact date is unknown.

In 1923 while he was posted to the navy office in Dresden he met Ruth Hager, whom he married in March 1924, with their son Johann being born on 14 December. In October 1925 he was posted to the Defence Ministry in Berlin to co-ordinate relations between the navy and the army. In 1927 Langsdorff was posted to the command of a torpedo boat flotilla and in April 1930 he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. In 1931 he was recalled to Berlin as his administrative abilities were well-known and appreciated. Following the coming to power of the Nazis, Langsdorff requested duty at sea in 1934 but was instead appointed to the Interior Ministry.

In 1936 and 1937, while on board the new Admiral Graf Spee while on the staff of Admiral Bohen, Langsdorff participated in the German support of the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. On 1 January 1937 Langsdorff was promoted to Captain, being given command of Admiral Graf Spee in October 1938.

On 21 August 1939 Admiral Graf Spee left port with orders to raid enemy commercial shipping in the South Atlantic following the outbreak of the Second World War. For the first three weeks of the war the ship hid in the open ocean east of Brazil while the German government determined how serious Britain was about the war. On 20 September 1939, Admiral Graf Spee was released to carry out its orders.

Over the next ten weeks, Langsdorff and Admiral Graf Spee were extremely successful, stopping and sinking nine British merchant ships, totalling over 50,000 tons, while avoiding killing anyone.

However Langsdorff's luck ran out on the morning of 13 December 1939 when his lookouts reported sighting a British cruiser and two destroyers. 'Admiral Graf Spee' now suffered engine fatigue that reduced her top speed to 23kn. After Langsdorff had committed his ship to the attack it became apparent that the destroyers were in fact light cruisers (HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles) in addition to the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter. Naval analysts claim that Langsdorff then committed a grievous tactical error. His ship outgunned all his opponents (having 11 inch (280 mm) caliber main guns, to Exeter’s 8 inch (200 mm) and Ajax and Achilles’ 6 inch (150 mm) guns). They say he should have concentrated his fire on Exeter first, before Admiral Graf Spee came within range of the lighter ships. Instead, it seemed that Langsdorff split his fire between the three targets. In fact, Langsdorff attacked Exeter with all main guns but a minor fault in the forward turret caused a brief interruption. Exeter was severely damaged and forced to withdraw within half an hour. But she had sent an 8-inch shell into the German warship that won the day. This shell destroyed steam boilers needed to operate the ship’s fuel cleaning system. Langsdorff learned that he had 16 hours of pre cleaned fuel in his ready tanks—with no hope of replacement or repairs to the system at sea. Soon, the two light cruisers got into range and scored 20 hits on Admiral Graf Spee, including the food stores and bakeries. Simultaneously, Langsdorff and the British commodore decided to break off the action, Langsdorff heading for the neutral port of MontevideoLangsdorff of the Graf Spee in Uruguay to make repairs.

The Uruguayan authorities followed international treaties and, although granting an extra 72 hours stay over the normal 24 hours, required that Admiral Graf Spee leave port by 20:00 on 17 December 1939 or else be interned for the duration of the war. Langsdorff sought orders from Berlin, and was given instructions that the ship was not to be interned in Uruguay (which was sympathetic to Britain); he could try to take the ship to the friendlier Buenos Aires in Argentina although it was thought that the channel was not sufficiently deep for the ship; he could take the ship out to sea to battle the British forces again (though British propaganda was trying to persuade people that a large British force already lay in wait for him—though in fact it would not be able to arrive for five days); or he could scuttle the ship. However, on reaching the limit of Uruguayan territorial waters she stopped, and her crew was taken off by Argentine barges. Shortly thereafter, planted charges blew up Admiral Graf Spee and she settled into the shallow water (today she has settled in the mud and lies in 7–8 meters of water, depending on the tide).

Langsdorff was taken to the Naval Hotel in Buenos Aires, where he wrote letters to his family and superiors. He wrote on the 19 December 1939:

I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honour of the flag. I alone bear the responsibility for scuttling the pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee. I am happy to pay with my life for any possible reflection on the honour of the flag. I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Führer.

He lay on Admiral Graf Spee's battle ensign and shot himself, forestalling any allegations that he had avoided further action through cowardice. Another motivation was Langsdorff's desire to go down with the Graf Spee. He was talked out of such an action by his officers, who convinced him that his leadership was still needed in seeking amnesty for his crew. Once the fate of the Graf Spee's crew was decided, Langsdorff killed himself over her ensign as a symbolic act of going down with his ship.

Hans Langsdorff was buried in the German section of the La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina and was honoured by both sides in the battle for his honourable conduct.

the Graf Spee in Montevideo

Langsdorff's role in the Battle of the River Plate, and the fate of the Graf Spee has remained obscure. Historians have described him as a "high-class person", but have occasionally suggested that as a commander he was somewhat unimaginative. Admiral Raeder left a black mark on Langsdorff's record in his post-war writings when he blamed Langsdorff for losing his ship by attacking three cruisers and going against general orders. Others say the evidence shows clearly that Langsdorff followed his orders, faithfully fulfilled his duty and maintained his personal code of honour and decency.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 June 2009 21:09
 

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