Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseThe German tanker and supply vessel Altmark, formerly under service with the pocket battleship (later re-classified as heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee, had been in hiding in the vast Atlantic Ocean after Graf Spee had been defeated by an Allied task force at Montevideo. Though she successfully evaded detection for the nine weeks after Graf Spee's destruction, she was running low in fuel and must make port call to re-supply. On 16 Feb 1940, she was found by Royal Air Force pilots off Norway. Upon hearing the news, Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill jumped on the opportunity to bring good news to the people of Britain. Thus far, Britain had been fighting what William Manchester called a "Bore War". The British people had been keeping strict blackouts and enduring other war-time restrictions, but because the war had not been brought to them, the British people were suffering in morale. Knowing Altmark carried the crew of the merchant vessels Graf Spee had sunk, Churchill wanted to use this for boosting British morale as well as his own political popularity. He left word that any news regarding Altmark was to be sent to his office immediately, and that was what Captain Philip Vian did.
ww2dbaseVian was the captain of the British destroyer Cossack. Cossack caught up with Altmark near Jøssingfjord, and Altmark prompted retreated into the fjord under protection of two Norwegian gunboats. Though officially neutral, Norway adopted a policy to appease the Germans to avert the spread of war into Scandinavia. The two gunboats, claiming that Altmark was unarmed and did not carry any prisoners, was a neutral civilian ship, therefore would not allow Cossack's crew to board her. From London, orders arrived for Vian to offer his Norwegian counterpart to jointly escort Altmark to Bergen, but the Norwegians refused. Churchill's next order was for Cossack to forcefully board Altmark, though attempt to avoid combat with the neutral Norwegian ships even if the Norwegians fired on them first. Cossack steamed into the fjord, happy to see that although the Norwegian ships refused to accompany the British destroyer on a joint boarding, they did not interfere, either. Very quickly, Altmark revealed that she was in no way "unarmed" as the Norwegians claimed. Firing two "pom-pom" guns and four machine guns at Cossack, Altmark made a turn for Cossack and attempted to ram her. An unskillful maneuver, however, caused Altmark to run aground, effectively ending the incident. The boarding party opened the hatches of the empty oil tanks and yelled "are there any English down there?" A collective response from 299 captives was heard. "Well, the Navy's here!", exclaimed the boarding party. The prisoners were transferred onto Cossack, and the German vessel was allowed to resume her journey back to Germany.
ww2dbaseChurchill did all he could to publicize this "victory" to boost morale. He had no jurisdiction over the Royal Air Force, and the French held the key to ground combat, so when his Royal Navy met success, he squeezed every ounce out of it. On 23 Feb, he gathered the heroes of the Battle of the River Plate at Guildhall, comparing them to Horatio Nelson in his "the Navy's here" speech that made its way around all major British newspapers. Although the prisoners were not abused aboard Altmark, their conditions were exaggerated to add fire to the rumors of Nazi atrocities in Poland. Even King George VI sent Churchill a personal note to congratulate him on the successful rescue mission.
ww2dbaseIn Germany, this relatively small incident changed the direction of how Adolf Hitler wanted to conduct his war. Upon hearing the news that the 299 British prisoners were lost at the cost of four German lives, he was reported to be mad that the crew of Altmark did not fight harder against the British boarding party. Until this point, he had wanted to keep Norway a neutral nation so that Germany's need for Swedish iron ore, which must be transported through Norway, could remain uninterrupted. If Norway entered the war, regardless of on whose side, Norway ran the risk of being occupied by Allied forces, and the supply route would come under risk. While prior to this incident he was already presented with the Kriegsmarine plan to invade and occupy Norway, he had personally ordered a halt on such a plan; that was so until the Altmark incident, said General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst during the Nuremberg trials. After the incident, Hitler was convinced that he could no longer trust Norway's neutral position, and action might need to be taken to safeguard the 11 million tons of iron ore that Germany needed from Sweden annually.
ww2dbaseSources: the Last Lion, Wikipedia.
Last Major Update: Jul 2006
Altmark Incident Interactive Map
Altmark Incident Timeline
|28 Oct 1939||German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee received fuel from and transferred British prisoners to tanker Altmark near Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic.|
|16 Feb 1940||German freighter Altmark, former supply ship for pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, was found by Hudson aircraft of No.233 Squadron RAF in Jøssingfjord, Norway. HMS Cossack captured Altmark and rescued 299 British prisoners of war aboard.|
|17 Feb 1940||Norway protested British neutrality violation of attacking the German ship Altmark in Norwegian waters.|
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