Rob Jerrard's Royal Naval Book Reviews

Langsdorff of the Graf Spee, Prince of Honor, THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE

Langsdorff of the Graf Spee - Prince of Honor

Author: Joseph Gilbey

ISBN: 0968599400

Publishers: Self Published

Price £9.50 RRP UK

Publication Date: 1999


Built:   Keel laid down Wilhelmshaven, 1 October 1932, launched 30 June, 1934, commissioned 6 January, 1936.

Displacement: 12,100 tons

Armament: 6 x 11-inch, 8 x 5.9-inch, 6 x 4.1-inch, 8 x 37mm, 8 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, 2 x Arado 196 aircraft (1 knocked down)

Power: 8 Mann Diesel Engines - 54,000shp Speed: 26 knots

Dimensions: 187.9 x 21.6 x 7.4 m

Protection: sides 80mm, longitudinal torpedo bulkhead 45mm, transverse bulkhead 50mm, deck 45mm, turrets 140mm, barbettes 100mm

Author's Notes

Theme: Langsdorff of the Graf Spee, Prince of Honor is a true story. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy in all historical detail. Dialogue, by necessity, employs some poetic licence.

Time: In the Battle of the River Plate the British and German ships used 'zone plus 2' naval time. Any naval times quoted in this book, using the 24-hour clock, comply with this formula. Other times stated, using the 12-hour clock, refer to local geographical times.

Distance: All sea distances stated in this book are nautical miles (2,014/2,035yds).

Rank: German naval ranks are translated into United States naval equivalents.

Joseph Gilbey

Foreword by

Captain F W Rasenack (Senior Gunnery Artificer Graf Spee, 1939).

On December 20, 1939, I was shocked when I heard Captain Langsdorff had committed suicide, following the scuttling of his ship, to preserve the honor of the flag and his crew. I felt like I had lost my father and I think all of the ship's crew felt the same. We trusted Captain Langsdorff like our own father and knew he would always decide in our best interests in any situation.

Since sixty years, many books have appeared writing about the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, and the Battle of the River Plate, but none have been written about the noble character of Captain Langsdorff. Our Captain commanded his ship in a very honorable way: Nine merchant ships were captured but no one lost their lives - a very rare example in the Second World War.

Joseph Gilbey has now written about the life and career of Captain Langsdorff. In Prince of Honor Mr Gilbey expresses the noble, gentle­manly personality of Captain Langsdorff and the high esteem and admiration held by Graf Spee's crew for their captain.

Captain F W Rasenack

La Falda, Argentina(1999)


In the Second World War mankind sank to abysmal levels of inhumanity. But, in the first months of the war, Captain Hans Langsdorff gave the World a matchless example of courage, personal integrity and human compassion.

On December 13, 1939, a great sea-battle in the South Atlantic captured international news headlines. One of Germany's fabled pocket battleships, Panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee, had engaged three British cruisers in the South Atlantic, off Uruguay.

Six decades after the Battle of the River Plate significant details remain obscure. Captain Langsdorff's major role is misunderstood and unexplained. History recognizes his impeccable compliance with the Hague conventions but casts doubt on his martial qualities. Today, an objective analysis of the facts shows clearly that Langsdorff's military decisions were justified.

This exceptional officer gave his life in an honorable way but suffered discredit. For the first time his story is revealed in detail. He deserves his day in court.

Joseph Gilbey


I found this book fascinating and read it in one and a half sessions! I was enthralled by the level of detail that Gilbey assembled and the manner in which he developed the story. It provided a most interesting account of the classic surface action at the beginning of the Second World War between the pocket battleship Graf Spee and the Royal Navy cruiser squadron that was under Commodore Henry Harwood.

The book appears to provide just the right level of balance to this classical sea battle between Graf Spee and the three British cruisers - HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles.

From the detailed bibliography it can be seen that much has been written about this engagement, but most of the books have been written from the British perspective. This book looks at the action from the perspective of the Graf Spee's crew and in particular that of her captain - Langsdorff. In researching the book, the author used much, previously unused material from civilians and combatants, including Langsdorff's daughter, Elizabeth, his adjutant (Lieutenant Diggins) who was at his side throughout the engagement, and the ship's Chief Gunnery Artificer, Lieutenant Rasenack.

The book is really in three sections - the first deals with the activities of Graf Spee prior to the battle, the middle section (and obviously, the shortest) covers the brief battle and the last part provides a gripping account of the intense diplomatic activities while she was in Montevideo harbour.

Graf Spee was one of three pocket battleships built by the Germans in the thirties with the perceived role of commerce raiders - the others being Deutschland and Admiral Scheer. What I found most illuminating about this book was the ridiculous concept, in my view, of commerce raiders. Graf Spee was a beautiful ship with massive firepower for her size and most impressive machinery, but she was seriously flawed in her terms of her armour. The German concept appeared to be that she didn't need heavy armour as she could out-run our slower battleships that had bigger guns, and she could beat off our faster cruisers with her superior firepower. Commodore Harwood was to soon disprove that! The Germans had used commerce raiders successfully in WW1, but by 1939, communications had significantly improved. Therefore, the prospect of a commerce raider being able to operate successfully 6-7,000 miles from home, and then evade the massive British fleet, to get home for much-needed maintenance, was virtually nil.

In a brief period in the autumn of 1939, Graf Spee had embarked on her commerce raiding - sinking nine ships without the loss of a single life, an amazing occurrence in wartime. She had roamed undetected in the South Atlantic and had even ventured into the Indian Ocean to find victims and as a result had caused the Admiralty to commit a large level of resource to finding her. In addition to Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, HMS Cumberland was also in the South Atlantic and the carrier Ark Royal with the battlecruiser Renown were somewhere between South Africa and Brazil.

Captain Langsdorff's compassion for his fellow man during this commerce-raiding period, despite years of martial training, came from his Christian upbringing and the fact that he was an honourable man of the "old navy" and not a Nazi. So he was unlike many of the newer generation of U-boat skippers, that showed no compunction in machine-gunning survivors after they had sunk their ship!

The Action

On sighting Harwood's cruiser squadron Langsdorff and Diggins had proceeded to the foretop, the highest platform position in the ship, where the main optical gun sight was located. It afforded the best view but had no armour protection.

During the initial action Exeter's guns were silenced and she had a 7º list as a result of hits from Graf Spee's 11-inch shells. Langsdorff appeared to have a small window of opportunity to finish off Exeter before Ajax and Achilles got close enough to bring their smaller 6-inch guns into action. Senseless slaughter was not Langsdorff's aim and he therefore diverted his fire to the two light cruisers, which were rapidly closing range. At the height of the action, while still in the foretop, Langsdorff was injured by shrapnel and was knocked unconscious. Diggins called for the executive officer (Commander Kay) to take control of the ship, but by the time he arrived in the foretop, Langsdorff had recovered consciousness and said he would continue in command.

At this time Harwood, with ammunition running low, broke off the action and opened range to survey the damage. In addition to the extensive damage to Exeter, Ajax had lost her top mast and both "X and "Y" turrets and Achilles had suffered casualties due to shrapnel from near misses.

On Graf Spee, Langsdorff learned that the high-pressure steam system, used to clean the fuel and lubricating oil and generate the fresh water supplies, had been severely damaged when Exeter had landed an 8" shell in the unprotected mid-ships funnel area. As the ship only had one day's pre-cleaned fuel remaining in a holding tank, the Engineer advised Captain Langsdorff that the system could not be repaired, with materials held onboard - thus, the fateful decision was made to proceed to Montevideo.

The Diplomatic Battle

The emphasis now shifted from the sea battle to more cloak and dagger activities on the diplomatic front. The head of the British delegation in Montevideo, Eugene Millington-Drake called for the assistance of the British Naval Attaché in Buenos Aires (Captain H. McCall), who proceeded immediately to Montevideo.

The Germans had requested a 14-day stay in order to make Graf Spee seaworthy again but were only able to obtain 72 hours, as the neutral Uruguayan government did not want to become embroiled in a diplomatic row.  The Germans had also tried to infer that the British ships had fired shells loaded with mustard gas, as some of the injuries to her crew were consistent with such burns (but this propaganda was soon discounted).

While all the political activity was underway, Langsdorff learned that Ajax and Achilles had been reinforced at the mouth of the River Plate by the arrival of HMS Cumberland - a heavy cruiser with 8 x 8" guns (replacing Exeter, that had proceeded to the Falklands for much-needed repairs).

With time running out and knowing that Graf Spee had to soon leave Montevideo, he spent many hours wrestling with the problem of which course of action to take. With the restricted sea room in the estuary and his natural reluctance to throw away the lives of his crew in a senseless gesture, Langsdorff decided that scuttling his ship was the only real option open to him. The high command in Germany had decreed that the ship must not be interned and either had to fight its way out or to be scuttled.

As the Graf Spee sailed out of Montevideo, hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans lined the foreshore. Today, there is nothing left of the Graf Spee apart from a single buoy that marks her final resting-place, and one of her anchors set up on a quay in Montevideo harbour as a memorial to those involved in the famous battle.

Some Imponderables

What if the Arado 196 spotter plane that was carried on the Graf Spee had been operative and had given them earlier warning of the cruiser squadron (which had, at first, been thought to been one cruiser escorting a small convoy)? If she had still been in operation, Langsdorff may have stuck with his original directive and avoided a confrontation with a naval unit. He could then have struck for home, hoping to avoid the massive naval force that Churchill had strung across the North Atlantic to try to avenge the sinking of the Armed Merchant Cruiser, Rawalpindi by Scharnhorst.

Why was the political intelligence that was available to Langsdorff so poor? With only two legations in South America, he elected to go to Montevideo, which was pro-British/French, when Buenos Aires, which was pro-Germany, might have been a better option? We will never know.

Mike Welfare

Other Books on this subject

Commissioned in 1933, the light cruiser HMS Achilles was attached to the Royal Navy's New Zealand Division in March 1936. In October 1939 Achilles joined Commodore Harry Harwood's South American Squadron; HMS Exeter and Ajax, which fought the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee on 13th December off the River Plate. When the Royal New Zealand Navy was officially formed, on October 10, 1941, she was recommissioned HMNZS Achilles. In 1948 she was recommissioned as RIN Delhi, flagship of the Royal Indian Navy. She also played herself in the 1956 film, Battle of the River Plate) before paying off in 1977.

Kriegsmarine: Admiral Raeder’s Navy

Author: Joseph Gilbey

ISBN: 0-9685994-1-9 232

Publishers: Joseph Gilbey

Price £9.50

Publication Date: 2006

Publisher's Title Information

Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933 while Admiral Erich Raeder was chief of the Reichsmarine.  Hitler authorized production of capital warships in 1937 to give Germany a powerful battle fleet.  If completed, the Z-Plan would restore Germany's naval prestige that deteriorated in the First World War.  Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 and demolished this dream.

'Kriegsmarine: Admiral Raeder's Navy' outlines the history of the Z-Plan.  The book records the fate of Germany's capital warships in the Second World War.  Bismarck, Tirpitz, Gneisenau, Scharnhorst, Lützow (formerly Deutschland) and Admiral Scheer gave important service in the war.  Graf Zeppelin, the aircraft carrier, remained unfinished. Admiral Raeder's Navy clearly resolves outstanding questions regarding the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.  Joseph Gilbey shows the history of the German navy, including the U-boat divisions, in a new perspective.


With the end of the first world war in 1918, Germany entered a period of political unrest with a severely restricted ability to provide for its people or even to protect itself. This was the Weimar Period, 1919 to 1933, a time when the country was trying to find its way as a newly formed republic and to re-define its place in the world. What had been the most efficient military machine in the world had crumbled in the face of a united world army, yet its admirals and generals still lived by the Teutonic/Prussian belief in their superiority.

Not willing to accept the restrictions of the Versailles Peace Treaty, the German military elite manoeuvred to rebuild its army and navy. In particular, between 1920 and the rise of the new National Socialist Germany in the mid 1930s, German admirals developed plans to circumvent the terms of Versailles. The fruits of their rebuilding dreams went through several forms, resulting eventually in " Z Plan ".

Joseph Gilbey’s account of Z Plan sets the stage by taking us through the navy’s successes and failures during the First World War and the admirals’ despair as their navy is virtually destroyed by the peace, a mutiny, the revolution and Versailles. He gives us a fact-filled record of the lead-up to the Second World War as Hitler’s sailors struggled to rebuild their pride and their ships. With Hitler’s rejection of Versailles, came the opportunity the admirals sought, a ship-building programme unfettered by foreign conquerors. But now they come up against the limitations of politics. Where in the earlier wars they could count on support from a Kaiser who believed in naval power, now they faced a political master who favoured a massive army - to the detriment of the navy’s budget.

Gilbey’s book gives us an overview of the two major wars from the German perspective. It is fact-filled and, in some areas, forces us to look again at the historical realities of the time. Unfortunately, this is an account that does not flow. It often presents facts followed by facts, followed by facts, making it difficult to follow at times. It would have benefited greatly from the eye of a publisher’s professional editor. There are several cases of footnote indicators for which there are no footnotes. For the reader looking for detailed accounts of famous naval battles, Gilbey disappoints. While his blow-by-blow details do reveal the flaws in Z Plan and Germany’s new navy, his accounts of the actual fighting are quite skimpy.

Phillip Day