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Five Economics Paragraphs Worth Reading: December 17, 2009

Winston Churchill Liveblogs World War II: December 17, 1939

December 17, 1939:

Force K, comprising the Renown and Ark Royal, was completing a sweep which had begun at Capetown ten days before and was now six hundred miles east of Pernambuco and 21,j00 miles from Montevideo. Farther north still the cruiser Neptune, with three destroyers, had just parted company with the French Force X and was coming south to join Force K. All these were ordered to Montevideo;.they had first to fuel at Rio. However, we succeeded in creating the impression that they had already left Rio and were approaching Montevideo at thirty knots.

On the other side of the Atlantic Force H was returning to the Cape for fuel after an extended sweep up the African coasts. Only the Dorsetshire was immediately available at Capetown, and she was ordered at once to join Admiral Harwood, but she had nearly 4,000 miles to travel. She was followed later by the Shropshire. In addition, to guard against the possible escape of the Spee to the eastward, Force I, now comprising the Cornwall, Gloucester, and the aircraft-carrier Eagle from the East Indies station, which at this time was at Durban, was placed at the disposal of the C.-in-C. South Atlantic.

Meanwhile Captain Langsdorif telegraphed on December 16 to the German Admiralty as follows:

Strategic position off Montevideo. Besides the cruisers and destroyers, Ark Royal and Renown. Close blockade at night; escape into open sea and break-through to home waters hopeless.... Request decision on whether the ship should be scuttled in spite of insufficient depth in the estuary of the Plate, or whether internment is to be preferred.

At a conference presided over by the Fuehrer, at which Raeder and Jodl were present, the following answer was decided on:

Attempt by all means to extend the time in neutral waters.... Fight your way through to Buenos Aires if possible. No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled.

As the German envoy in Montevideo reported later that further attempts to extend the time-limit of seventy-two hours were fruitless, these orders were confirmed by the German Supreme Command.

Accordingly during the afternoon of the 17th the Spee transferred more than seven hundred men, with baggage and provisions, to the German merchant ship in the harbour. Shortly afterwards Admiral Harwood learnt hat she was weighing anchor. At 6:15 p.m., watched by immense crowds, she left harbour and steamed slowly seawards, awaited hungrily by the British cruisers. At 8.54 p.m., as the sun sank, the Ajax's aircraft reported: "Graf Spee has blown herself up." The Renown and Ark Royai were still a thousand miles away.

Langsdorif was broken-hearted by the loss of his ship. In spite of the full authority he had received from his Government, be wrote on December 19:

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 my Fuehrer.

That night he shot himself.

Thus ended the first surface challenge to British trade on the oceans. No other raider appeared until the spring of 194o, when a new campaign opened, utilising disguised merchant ships. These could could more easily avoid detection, but on the other hand could be mastered by lesser forces than those required to destroy a pocket-battleship.

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