Book Review: Command Decisions: Langsdorff and the Battle of the River Plate


by David Miller

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. Pp. xviii, 190. Illus., maps, tables, appends, notes, biblio, index. $39.95. ISBN: 1848844905

The Captain and the Graf Spee

In Command Decisions, noted British author Miller gives the reader an analytical look at the life and death of the “panzerschiffe” or “pocket battleship” Graf Spee, one which unusually is told from the German side of the storyUnlike most earlier works, Miller devotes just 14 pages to the ship’s 83 minute fight off the River Plate with three Commonwealth cruisers on Dec. 13, 1939. 

Miller actually beings by devoting quite a number of pages to a look at the work of German surface raiders during the First World War and on the impact of that war on the strategic thinking of the interwar German Navy.  That war and the limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles help explain the origins of Germany’s “pocket battleships” and how the Graf Spee ended up in the South Atlantic.  Miller discusses the design of the ships, their armament, their diesel engines, and more, such aircraft, communications, and particularly personnel, most notably her skipper, Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff. 

After a short discussion of Graf Spee’s prewar career, Miller then takes the shipto sea on her only war cruise.  He follows the ship’s movements, mostly in the South Atlantic, during which she took nine prizes totaling about 50,000 grt, while not injuring anyone in the process.  Then he gives us a short, concise account of the battle. 

The aftermath of the battle actually takes up more pages than the fight itself, as Miller discusses the state of the ship, having taken several hits, and then gives us a long discussion of  the battle’s implications, logistical, political, and strategic.  He follows this with an analysis of Langsdorf’s decision to scuttle the ship and then offers some thoughts on why the captain too his own life.  Miller then concludes the book with a short discussion of the effects of Graf Spee’s voyage and fate on the war at sea.

Miller’s analytical approach makes this a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in naval operations in the Second World War.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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