Saturday, 24 January 2015

Langsdorff and the Battle of the River Plate - David Miller

This review was written by Chris Buckham and is published in the Canadian Naval review. Editor of the journal is Dr Ann Griffiths (Ann.Griffiths@Dal.Ca ). The website for the journal is:

Title: Langsdorff and the Battle of
 the River Plate
Author: David Miller
ISBN: 978-1-84884-490-2
Pages: 189
Illustrations: 19 B/W, 4 maps
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing 

Images of the German Panzerschiff Graf Spee scuttled in the River Plate estuary outside the Uruguayan port of Montevideo are some of the most well-known photographs of the Second World War. Debate has raged ever since amongst historians and scholars surrounding the decision making process that led the highly respected and competent Captain of the Graf Spee, Kapitan-zur-See Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff, to reach the conclusion that scuttling his ship was the only honorable course of action available to him. David Miller has undertaken to shed light on the ship, the man and the factors that influenced his decision and, in doing so, provide insight into Langsdorff’s decision. 

Starting out by providing historical context to the tradition of independent surface raiders as a doctrinal concept in the German Navy, Miller creates, for the reader, a sense of the degree of independence afforded to these Captains in the execution of their duties. Also, he provides a clear indication of the difficulty in strategic communications in the days before radar and adequate radio systems. 

Following this, Miller looks at the design features of the Panzersciff (armoured ship) of the Deutschland–class warship. Much has been written about the capabilities of these ships and the ingenuity of the design falling within the 10,000 ton Versailles Treaty limit. While much is true, this class of ship also had significant shortfalls including armour, hull design, galley location and command and control structures that made themselves readily apparent only after Graf Spee was well into her operational cruise to the south. 

The real central focus of the book follows with a detailed study of Langsdorff the Officer and career Navy man and a very comprehensive synopsis of Graf Spee’s first operational cruise culminating in the Battle of the River Plate. This is critical as the author not only provides an excellent summary of the significant events of the cruise and battle but also an evaluation of Langsdorff’s actions within the context of these activities. What information was he provided/have access to? What were the misinformation activities of the British and how successful were they? How did international law and the role of neutral countries affect his freedom of action? How effective was the support and direction given to him by the Reichsmarine? How did the damage to the ship and crew casualties affect decision making? What was his frame of mind and how was he affected by injuries sustained during the Battle? All of these questions are reviewed and answered in a balanced and even-handed manner utilizing an in-depth review of primary source material. 

The author does not passively summarize information that he has gleaned from source material available. Each section is analyzed with a view towards understanding why Langsdorff made the decisions that he did. This is the primary strength of this book and the reader can easily follow the logic applied by the author to reach his conclusions. 

This is a fascinating study into this famous battle. Without doubt, the decision to scuttle one’s ship has to be the loneliest and most difficult decision that a Captain may have to make. Why an officer, with the sterling reputation and obvious capability of Langsdorff, would take such a step is a question only he can answer with any degree of clarity; however, Miller has done a noteworthy job of shedding light upon the ship, crew, Captain, battle and environment that influenced the final fate of the Graf Spee. This is a book well worth reading.  

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