Captain Langsdorff, born at Bergen on the Baltic island of Rügen in 1894, spent much of his youth in Düsseldorf before joining the Imperial German Navy in 1912. After active service during the Great War, he remained in the navy and ultimately became a torpedo specialist before accepting a senior administrative appointment with the Reichsmarine. Proving equally capable behind a desk, he was an obvious choice to command the new cruiser Admiral Graf Spee when she completed in 1936, a commission which eventually ended with him being accorded that remarkable reputation for chivalry in war which not only made him a household name at the time, but which has now endured for over fifty years.
When the Second World War broke out on 3rd September 1939, the "pocket battleship" Graf Spee was already in the South Atlantic although, despite Germany's invasion of Poland on 1st September, Hitler was initially convinced that Great Britain and France would negotiate for an early peace. To this end, he kept German warships away from the commercial shipping lanes as he awaited developments and Graf Spee stood off the South American coast in company with her supply ship Altmark for almost three weeks before finally receiving orders to assume the offensive. On 20th September Langsdorff sank his first victim, the Booth Line's steamer Clement, 60 miles off Pernambuco, and in just over two months, he sank a further nine British merchantmen. His dislike of unnecessary bloodshed however, coupled with the extraordinarily humane treatment of his prisoners whom he put aboard Altmark, earned him the grudging respect of even those captains whose ships he had sunk beneath them although it was not until Altmark herself was captured off Norway the following February that the full story emerged. The Admiralty meanwhile, realising that Langsdorff had to be stopped as much to allay public concern at home as to prevent further shipping losses, mounted an urgent operation to hunt and destroy Graf Spee as rapidly as possible. Commodore Henry Harwood, Senior Royal Navy officer in the area, was given command and his flotilla - designated Force 'G' - consisted of the heavy cruiser H.M.S. Exeter and two light cruisers, Ajax and Achilles, the latter seconded from the Royal New Zealand Navy. In theory at least Force 'G' was easily capable of dealing with a single enemy heavy cruiser; in practice however, the considerable strengths of the so-called 'pocket battleship' were such that Harwood knew he faced a formidable task even allowing for the fact that he would first have to locate Graf Spee and corner her somewhere in the vastness of the South Atlantic.
Intuition suggested the wide estuary of the River Plate, a vital crossroads for many South American trade routes, and Harwood's fitness for commnad soon proved itself when Force 'G' sighted the smoke of an unknown vessel on the horizon early on the morning of 13th December. Exeter approached to investigate and instantaneously with Harwood's confirmation that the stranger was indeed Graf Spee, Langsdorff had spotted his pursuers, rung up "battle stations" and was steaming into action at full speed. Harwood wisely divided his force so as to minimise the effects of the enemy's main armament but not before all three of his ships had become targets. Langsdorff opened fire at approximately 6.20am. and concentrated his port salvoes on Exeter whilst his starboard guns dealt with Ajax and Achilles. Exeter bore the brunt of accurate German gunnery and by 7 o'clock she had received between forty and fifty hits and lost two turrets. Half an hour later, her last turret was silenced and she was forced to withdraw from the action, severely damaged and with heavy casualties including 53 dead. The light cruisers fought on obstinately, despite the overwhelming odds, and even though they too were damaged - especially Ajax - their dogged tenacity probably saved Exeter and decided the outcome of the battle. Unknown to them, Langsdorff had become concerned that he was vulnerable to a combined torpedo attack and that fear coupled with the realisation that Graf Spee had actually been hit twenty times by British shells, provoked a surprising reaction and he broke off the engagement to run for shelter in the Plate Estuary 300 miles to the west.
Racing past and ignoring a homeward-bound British merchantman the Shakespeare, Graf Spee made the neutral port of Montevideo after a twelve hour dash pursued by Ajax and Achilles. Britain immediately requested the Uruguayan authorities to expel Graf Spee within 24 hours or intern her under the provisions of International Law, thereby initiating a frenzied burst of diplomatic activity worthy of the most popular fiction. Despite the best efforts of both Langsdorff and the German Ambassador, the permitted stay was only extended to 72 hours and Langsdorff, surrounded by rumours of approaching British reinforcements, was faced with a bitter choice. As the 8.00pm. deadline neared on 17th December, Langsdorff took his second fateful decision and having released the few British prisoners still aboard his ship, and bidding farewell to those who had given him sanctuary in Montevideo, ordered Graf Spee to make ready to sail. Clearing her moorings at 6.15pm., she made for the open sea followed by the German steamer Tacoma. With her battle ensigns flying, she stopped engines at the three mile limit and there, in full view of Ajax and Achilles, she suddenly and unexpectedly blew up and destroyed herself with pre-set explosives. Her crew were taken aboard Tacoma which proceeded to Buenos Aires where, on 20th December, Captain Langsdorff took his own life rather than face the ignominy of surrender and internment.
It was a tragic end for a man who, by then, had earned the admiration of those who were hunting him down as well a those who had suffered loss at his hands. To many he epitomised the chivalry of an earlier age and even though he had sunk over 50,000 tons of British merchant shipping, not a single allied life had been lost aboard any of those vessels. In fact, his conduct throughout the Graf Spee's final commission was such that he was, and still is, universally regarded as one of the last gentleman raiders in the history of war at sea.
Admiral Graf Spee, the third of the 'Deutschland' class cruisers [the so-called 'pocket battleships'] was laid down in 1932, launched in 1934 and completed in January 1936. Displacing 11,700 tons, she measured 610 feet in length with a 71 foot beam, and could make 28 knots under full power. Her design, as a fast heavily-armed though lightly-armoured long-range merchant raider, proved a triumph and had all eight of the class been built instead of three which were completed, the Royal Navy would probably have faced an impossible task given that it had only three capital ships capable of matching their speed