The Altmark Incident
The Altmark Incident The last time a ship of war chased down another ship and attacked with a boarding party and the last time cutlasses were used in naval combat
The Altmark incident was a naval incident of World War II between British destroyers and the German tanker Altmark, which happened on 16–17 February 1940. It took place in neutral Norwegian waters.
On board the Altmark were some 300 allied prisoners, whose ships had been sunk by the German warship Admiral Graf Spee in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
British naval forces cornered the tanker and later the destroyer Cossack attacked the German ship near the Jøssingfjord and freed all the prisoners, killing eight German seamen with firearms and wounding ten others, five of them seriously
In February 1940, the German tanker Altmark was returning to Germany with 299 British merchant sailors on board. These were prisoners of war who had been picked up from ships sunk by the Admiral Graf Spee that was sunk in 1939.
Altmark was then spotted off Egersund later that same day by British aircraft, which raised the alarm in the Royal Navy. The aircraft were stationed at RAF Thornaby, in the North East of England.
After being intercepted by the destroyer HMS Cossack, captained by Philip Vian, Altmark sought refuge in the Jøssingfjord, but Cossack followed her in the next day. The Altmark’s Norwegian naval escorts blocked initial attempts to board the ship, and aimed their torpedo tubes at the Cossack. Captain Vian then asked the admiralty for instructions,the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill who later in the year would become prime minister stated..
“Unless Norwegian torpedo-boat undertakes to convoy Altmark to Bergen with a joint Anglo-Norwegian guard on board, and a joint escort, you should board Altmark, liberate the prisoners, and take possession of the ship pending further instructions. If Norwegian torpedo-boat interferes, you should warn her to stand off. If she fires upon you, you should not reply unless attack is serious, in which case you should defend yourself, using no more force than is necessary, and ceasing fire when she desists. Suggest to Norwegian destroyer that honour is served by submitting to superior force.”
The British government made no particular objection to the fact of a prison ship traversing neutral waters. In fact, in official papers regarding the incident, they noted the fact that the Royal Navy had done the same, for example in December 1939, when the cruiser HMS Despatch passed through the Panama Canal, which was neutral waters, with German prisoners on board from the freighter Düsseldorf.
But the crew of the Altmark had gone hundreds of miles out of their way to make the long run through Norwegian waters to Germany.
Besides, the Norwegian government had not permitted the Germans to transport prisoners through Norwegian waters (the Altmark having falsely claimed to be carrying none), nor had the crew been truthful regarding the nature of their cargo and voyage.
However, international law was only broken by the British military action within the waters of a neutral country, as the transfer of prisoners of war through neutral waters was not banned.
In the ensuing action, Altmark ran aground. The British then boarded her at 22:20 on 16 February, and – after some hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets – overwhelmed the ship’s crew and went down to the hold.
One of the released prisoners stated that the first they knew of the operation was when they heard the shout “any Englishmen here?” from the boarding party. When the prisoners shouted back “yes! We are all British!”, the response was “well, the Navy’s here!” which brought cheers.
This incident is the last ever naval action with cutlasses and a naval boarding party taking a ship at war. HMS Cossack left the Jøssingfjord just after midnight on 17 February. The Norwegian escorts protested, but did not intervene.
The Altmark Incident Written by Harry Gillespie
Harry Gillespie is a military historian who resides with his wife in the United Kingdom.
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Thank you Imperial War Museum for the generous use of the pictures!