Thursday 22 December 2011

1939: The first wartime Christmas, The Phoney War and a victory at sea

The Graf Spee (Bundesarchiv)
The winter of 1939 was to prove one of the coldest for many years. In Germany there was thick ice in the Baltic, the Kiel Canal and the Rivers Elbe and Jade which hampered trade almost as much as the British naval blockade, which was beginning to affect the supply of food and essential products into the Reich. In France, the soldiers of the newly arrived British Expeditionary Force found the ferocity of the winter had frozen the ground so hard that they were unable to make much progress in digging the trenches and defensive systems that were seen as essential to the sort of war they were expecting to have to fight. In December 1939, the BEF introduced a forces’ leave service so that at least some of the men who had been in France since the previous September were able to spend Christmas at home with their families.

At home in Britain in December 1939, people were beginning to come to terms with the blackout. In September 1939, the casualty figures for road traffic accidents had increased by almost 100 percent over peacetime figures. This didn’t include people who suffered from other blackout-related mishaps, such as falling from railway platforms, walking into canals or falling down steps. By December, the imposition of more severe petrol rationing forced most private cars from the road, so traffic accidents began to decrease almost by default. A slight relaxation in the blackout also permitted civilians to carry hand torches, albeit masked but sufficient to help in finding one’s way around more safely. The dance halls, cinemas and theatres were packed out once again but the cold weather was beginning to play havoc with the public transport system; some main line express trains from Scotland and the north of England ran over a day late!

Although there had been no actual air raids over British cities by December 1939, there was no shortage of alerts, which showed up the many flaws and deficiencies in the ARP system, some of which were still apparent when the shooting war started in the spring and summer of 1940. This then, was the "Phoney War."

At sea however, this phrase was an anathema to the men of the Royal and Merchant Navies. The first ship to be sunk was the liner Athenia, torpedoed by Fritz Julius Lemp in the U-30 with heavy loss of life on 3rd September, just hours after the declaration of war. The Royal Navy had also suffered an early loss when the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous had been torpedoed by U-29 with the loss of 519 officers and men, including her captain. The Royal Navy had begun to sink U-Boats and was beginning the long and painful battle to overcome this menace but in December 1939, despite these and other high profile sinkings, the U-Boat was not a major threat. There were insufficient numbers of ocean-going submarines and without the French Atlantic coast bases that the Germans were later to capture, those submarines that were in commission did not yet have the direct access to the Atlantic convoys that was later to cause such carnage to Britain’s life lines.

In December 1939, the main threat to Britain’s merchant fleet came from the surface raider. Apart from the converted merchant vessels that tended to prey on vessels sailing alone, the Kriegsmarine had three specialised Panzerschiffen, known to the rest of the World as ‘pocket battleships’, so called because they were not armed quite to the same level as the conventional battleship but still powerfully equipped with six 11 inch guns and a heavy secondary armament. They were powered by diesel engines which gave a speed in excess of most British heavy units and more importantly gave these vessels a tremendous level of endurance, especially when operating in tandem with a supply tanker, meeting at pre-arranged rendezvous points in the open ocean.

One such vessel, the Graf Spee (pictured at top), under the command of Kapitan Hans Langsdorff (pictured below), had sailed from Wilhelmshaven shortly before the outbreak of war, on the 20th August 1939 and had been undetected as she sailed via the Norwegian coast and through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic and her war station in the South Atlantic. The British only realised that she had sailed on the 31st August, some eleven days after she had departed. By then it was too late; units of the British Home Fleet patrolled the area around Norway and the Shetlands but Graf Spee was long gone and especially in these pre-radar days, finding a ship in the Atlantic that did not want to be discovered was like the proverbial needle in the haystack story.

Hans Langsdorff (Bundesarchiv)
It was only when British merchant ships began to disappear in the South Atlantic, around the Cape, off the coast of Lourenco Marques and finally off the coast of South America that British suspicions of a raider at large were confirmed. Graf Spee was operating in tandem with her supply vessel, the tanker Altmark and proved to be a formidable and elusive enemy. The Royal Navy immediately mobilised hunting groups of warships to track down the enemy and one of those hunting groups was the South Atlantic Squadron under Commodore (later Admiral Sir Henry) Harwood, flying his broad pennant in the cruiser HMS Ajax with two further cruisers Exeter and the New Zealand manned Achilles. These vessels more than matched the Graf Spee for speed but were vastly outgunned by the German vessel. Nominally Harwood had a fourth cruiser, the Cumberland but she was at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands undergoing a self-refit, so already Harwood’s force was somewhat depleted. However, Henry Harwood was a shrewd operator and he had been using the intelligence available to him to try and calculate where he could intercept the raider. Many of the British ships sunk by the Graf Spee had bravely transmitted an ‘RRR’ signal together with a position, which indicated that the vessel had been attacked by a surface raider. It was doubly brave to send these warning signals as the Germans threatened dire consequences for any radio officers sending these messages. Fortunately for the British, Kapitan Langsdorff was an honourable man who did not take reprisals against his captives and was scrupulous in his fair and humane treatment of prisoners. The same could not be said of his counterpart, Kapitan Dau of the supply ship Altmark and the British merchant seaman held on board this vessel, whilst not physically harmed, were kept in squalid conditions in one of the ship’s holds. A number of British Merchant Navy officers were transferred to the Graf Spee for her anticipated voyage back to Germany and the difference in the treatment they received on the pocket battleship was notable.

Not all of the vessels intercepted by Graf Spee managed to send an ‘RRR’ report but enough did to allow Harwood to undertake some inspired detective work. Piecing together the reported positions of the sunken vessels, he was convinced that Graf Spee would return to the South Atlantic for one final tilt at the constant stream of British merchantmen heading from the River Plate with much needed meat for the home market.

Having made his dispositions accordingly, Harwood concentrated his three cruisers off the River Plate and waited for Graf Spee to appear. On December 13th 1939, the German pocket battleship obligingly sailed over the horizon. Harwood’s plan for this contingency was to split the enemy’s fire by dividing his own force; the two smaller cruisers Achilles and Ajax formed one division, whilst the more heavily armed Exeter was to fight alone. It was at this early point in the battle that Langsdorff made his first and ultimately fatal error. On approaching the British vessels, Langsdorff wrongly assumed that Exeter was the sole cruiser and that the two smaller vessels were escorting destroyers and closed accordingly to make a quick kill. Once he closed the range and had realised his mistake, it was too late. The three cruisers tore into the pocket battleship and harried her relentlessly. At first Exeter bore the brunt of the raider’s counter attacks and was soon turned into a blazing, sinking shambles with all of her main armament knocked out. At first Captain Bell of the Exeter considered ramming Graf Spee, but he was ordered by Harwood to retire from the battle and was soon heading towards the Falkland Islands which she eventually reached in order to lick her wounds. The remaining two lightly armed cruisers kept up the pressure, closing the range and hitting Graf Spee and hitting hard. Fearing that the two British vessels were leading him onto superior heavy forces, Langsdorff inexplicably turned and ran; heading towards the River Plate, he eventually reached the sanctuary of the River Plate within the territorial waters of the neutral country of Uruguay. She had suffered thirty seven men dead and fifty seven wounded and whilst the ship was in no way mortally wounded, she had been hit over fifty times and had suffered extensive damage. Unknown to the pursuing British forces, there were sixty one British Merchant Navy officers aboard who had fortunately been unhurt in the battle. Once the fighting was over, a different kind of battle was about to begin, involving diplomacy, bluff and counterbluff that was ultimately to cost Langsdorff his life.

Despite the strain he must have been under, Langsdorff once again proved his humanity and sense of honour by releasing his erstwhile prisoners according to international law. Afterwards, these officers to a man had nothing but praise and respect for their former captor.

It was estimated that Graf Spee’s battle damage would take fourteen days and during this time, Langsdorff knew that the British would be mustering reinforcements but what he was not to know was how long it would take for these reinforcements to arrive. It was now the 14th December and the nearest heavy British unit, the battlecruiser Renown and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal could not reach the River Plate until the 19th December but Langsdorff was not to know this. The British ambassador to Uruguary, Eugen Millington-Drake (pictured below with Harwood) and his naval attaché, Captain (later Admiral Sir Henry) McCall, used every trick in the book to conjure up an imaginary British fleet massing just over the horizon. German requests to charter light aircraft to survey this fleet were always rebuffed; no aircraft were ever available. The British also tried their hardest to get Graf Spee interned; Langsdorff must have been in mental turmoil.

Sir Henry Harwood
Faced with an impossible situation, he decided to scuttle his ship and on the 17th December moved his ship into the shallower waters of the River Plate and after evacuating the remainder of his crew, shortly before 20:00 she blew up; demolition charges had been set by the crew and the Graf Spee was no more.

The watching British on the two remaining cruisers, by now reinforced by the Cumberland, which had made a helter-skelter dash from the Falklands watched with incredulity and relief; they had expected another bloody battle and could not have been certain of the outcome. As it was they had won a great victory, partially through hard fighting and partially through bluff but the Royal Navy had won the first major engagement of the war.

For the crew of the Graf Spee, internment in Argentina was on the agenda but for Langsdorff, and honourable man to the end, there was to be no such escape. On the evening of the 19th December, after addressing his officers and men for one last time, he retired to his hotel room, wrote three letters to his wife, his parents and one to the German Ambassador to Argentina. He then shot himself whilst wrapped in the ensign of the old Imperial Navy, rather than the Nazi flag.

Back home, the victorious ships’ companies marched through London and Winston Churchill, not yet Prime Minister but still at that time First Lord of the Admiralty proclaimed that the victory “in a dark cold winter, it warmed the cockles of the British heart.”

For those at sea, there was no Phoney War; for those at home, the war was still distant but 1940 would see a change that would bring the conflict home to everyone.

Published Sources

BEF Ships before, at and after Dunkirk – John de S Winser, World Ship Society, 1999

London at War 1939-1945 – Philip Ziegler, Sinclair Stevenson, 1995
The Battle of the River Plate – Dudley Pope, Secker & Warburg, 1987

The People’s War; Britain 1939-1945 – Angus Calder, Jonathan Cape, 1969

War in a Stringbag – Charles Lamb – Cassell, 1977