Shrapnel

Enrique Rodolfo Dick
Enrique Rodolfo Dick

“On the morning after the battle”, my father said, “sailors they left their battle posts to breathe, and found items they would keep as souvenirs of that day of fire and steel. Steel is what they collected, pieces of shrapnel with strange appearance, that had left traces of the impacts of the artillery.” 

My father, Heinrich Rudolf Dick, “Hein,” joined the German Navy reporting to the Number 5 Training School of Seamanship in Eckernförde, Germany, the so-called 5 Schiffsstammabteilung. It was a bitterly cold day, he told me, lit only by a few apathetic rays from a watery sun, and there was a stiff breeze blowing, disrupting the otherwise stillness of that small coastal town on the Baltic Sea. He was posted to the Second Corps of the Fourth Korporalschaft. It was the first of April, 1938.

Heinrich Rodolf Dick, 1938
Heinrich Rodolf Dick, 1938

Between October 1938 and April 1939 all of his comrades were posted to various naval units in batches of thirty. One Tuesday in October 1938 Hein’s impatience to embark on his first proper voyage was unexpectedly fulfilled. He was to report to the battleship Admiral Graf Spee, currently docked at wharf A7 in Kiel. On board, he was assigned to the main gun tower “Anton,” with three 280 mm calibre barrels.

Before the battle, during the months on sea, he was awarded with the Iron Cross second class. He was 23 years old and was Matrosen-Obergefreiter. He told me a lot of stories and thanks to that, I wrote a book about him, In the Wake of the Graf Spee, in Spanish, with eight editions, 1995-2013. This book has been translated into English and soon it will be published by WIT Press (Southampton, UK).

I can remember three short stories related to shrapnel. My father, protected by the armour of the big tower during the battle, never saw the hits from the British cruisers, but he saw result.

Kurt Walther shrapnel
Kurt Walther shrapnel

“On the morning after the battle”, my father said, “sailors they left their battle posts to breathe, and found items they would keep as souvenirs of that day of fire and steel. Steel is what they collected, pieces of shrapnel with strange appearance, that had left traces of the impacts of the artillery.”

Kurt Walther, Mechaniker-Obergefreiter of the Graf Spee, born in October 1914, was one of these men Hein remembers. He wandered through the aft deck and picked up a piece of deformed steel full of edges, bright and fresh, like from the forge. It seemed a large gem, which radiated heat. But unlike the other pieces of shrapnel, this was a remnant of their own vessel. He got a piece of white silk cloth, wrapped it and put it in his locker. When the time came to re-embark in 1946 from Argentina to Germany as POW´s, he left it to my aunt, with their uniforms, equipment and a ring. Then Walther almost disappears from history. I inherited the shrapnel. Recently, a metallography showed the proper formation of the alloy, one called Wotan-hart, that matches with the armour of the Graf Spee.

Another sailor, the Matrosen-Hauptgefreiter Hans-Georg Krase, from the Third Division was my father’s closest friend. He found embedded in his cot a huge segment of steel with razor sharp edges and flat like a turtle. He imagined that trace armor penetrating the flesh…and trembled. He kept it wrapped in thick paper, afraid it might hurt someone. Today, thanks to his family, we can touch it, albeit carefully.

Hans-Georg Krase shrapnel
Hans-Georg Krase shrapnel

The third story relates the HMS Achilles. We can imagine after the battle, a sailor left his position under cover, half sleepy, tired and hungry. He found shrapnel studding the deck. One of them drew attention for it was the shape and size of a child’s fist. He looked at it for a while and put it in his pocket. A gunner mate told him it was probably a piece of a heavy gauge projectile from the Graf Spee. Returning to his homeland years later, after extensive voyages across the Pacific, he kept that piece of hard steel in a cardboard box until he died. Thanks to my friend Phillip James, who lives in New Zealand, the shrapnel came into my hands in the same old box.

Today these pieces of shrapnel enrich my collection and I am proud to have these memories 75 years after the battle that was fought in the South Atlantic.

Enrique Rodolfo Dick

 

Enrique Rodolfo Dick was born in 1950 in a beautiful hilly area at the geographical heart of Argentina.

He studied at Military Lyceum and Army Military College from where he graduated with the rank of Second Lieutenant. He went on to serve with several parachute units and later graduated as a Mechanical Engineer from the Army University in Buenos Aires.

Continuing his studies in France, he was awarded a degree in Aeronautics from ENSAE (the National Higher School of Aeronautics and Space) in Toulouse. After his return to Argentina in 1986 he worked first at the Argentine Armed Forces Institute for Scientific and Technical Research (CITEFA) and was then promoted to Director of Research, Development and Production for the Argentine Army.

He was promoted to the rank of Major General at the end of 2003.

Enrique has authored four books. In 2013 he was awarded a PhD in History from the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires.

These days, now retired from the Army, he continues to teach at the Military University in Buenos Aires. He is currently the head of an Old Comrades Association whose membership includes the very last veterans of the Graf Spee still alive in Argentina.