Just before he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, the German officer penned a final note.
"For a captain with a sense of honor, it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship," wrote Hans Langsdorff on December 19, 1939, in a hotel room in Buenos Aires. Langsdorff finished his letter to the Nazi ambassador to Argentina, lay down on a German battle flag, and shot himself.
Langsdorff had been the commander of the Admiral Graf Spee, which had been prowling the South Atlantic the week before, and now was resting on the bottom of the harbor at Montevideo, Uruguay. Many a captain has chosen to atone for the loss of his ship by going down with it. Langsdorff had suicide with a pistol two days after he had ordered his ship to be scuttled.
"I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honor of the flag," he wrote.
But what had led Langsdorff to kill himself? Why meet death in a hotel room instead of at sea? Therein lays one of the most remarkable sea battles of all time: how the Royal Navy bluffed a German battleship into sinking itself.
Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk inspired new attention to the famous evacuation by sea, in 1940, of four hundred thousand British troops under harrowing air attack. Had that evacuation failed, the United Kingdom would have been deprived of a land army to oppose Nazi Germany. But before Dunkirk, British and French troops fought desperate last stands in the channel ports of Calais and Boulogne that bought vital time for the evacuation in the Belgian Port. The situation grew so desperate at Boulogne that Allied destroyers were forced to blast their way into and back out of the harbor, using naval guns to duel with tanks, field guns and even snipers while evacuating panicky mobs of British soldiers.
Of all the harrowing, intimidating arms and artillery dreamed up by military engineers over the last few centuries, few induce the instinctive evacuation of enemy bowels like the sight of a heavily-armed battle tank rolling up on a fortified position and crushing everything in its path. There’s a reason the M1 Abrams and its various iterations have remained a staple of the U.S. military’s front-line deployments: They’re big, they’re effective, and they scream “game over, man, game over!” the minute they rise over the horizon.