Yet another dramatic chapter in the history of the British Navy was written when on February 16 H.M.S. "Cossack" pursued the Nazi slave-ship "Altmark" into a Norwegian fjord and rescued 299 British prisoners at the point of the bayonet. Below is a recapitulation of the episode based on Admiralty statements and eye-witness stories.
The slave ship was almost home. Two months and more had passed since she parted company from the "Admiral Graf Spee" after receiving from the pocket battleship her last captures of British prisoners. That was on December 6, somewhere in the South Atlantic, and since then while the "Graf Spee" was resting and sinking ever deeper into the Montevidean sandbank, the "Altmark" had ploughed a zigzag course heading northward. She reached at last the cold waters of Iceland, and now turned south past the towering cliffs of Norway. On February 14 she got into Norwegian territorial waters of Trondheim Fjord and (according to the Norwegian Prime Minister) was stopped and "examined" by a Norwegian torpedo boat. She was allowed to continue her journey, but next day, 100 miles north of Bergen, was again stopped by a Norwegian warship, and refused a request that she should be searched. The afternoon of Friday, February 16, found her approaching Norway's southernmost point; a very short distance beyond lay the Skagerrak, safety, and home.
Captain P. L. Vian, R.N., was in command of H.M.S. "Cossack" when the "Altmark" endeavoured to escape to a German port with her load of British prisoners. His ship, a destroyer of 1,870 tons, one of the Tribal class, and, like her sister ship the "Afridi", a flotilla leader. She was completed in June, 1938. Photos, Wright & Logan and Tropical.
Down below in the darkness and filth of the overcrowded "flats" the 299 British prisoners must have almost lost hope as from their single peephole they watched the cliffs of Norway sail past, and heard blocks of ice crunching against the ship's side; on the bridge Captain Dau, a hard-bitten old Nazi, was no doubt congratulating himself that he had managed to evade the Allied patrols and that very shortly he would see on the horizon the squadrons of Nazi 'planes which were to escort him to port in triumph.
But the British Admiralty decreed otherwise. Ever since that glorious day in December when they had driven the "Graf Spee" into Montevideo the Royal Navy had been maintaining a constant watch for her auxiliary of evil repute, and now were close on her trail. It was an aircraft of Britain's coastal command that first spotted the "Altmark" as she crept past the Norwegian coast; for hours her commander had been sweeping the seas with his binoculars when he saw a smudge of smoke below him. He dived down to investigate, only to find to his intense disappointment that the ship was not the "Altmark". Just about to turn away for home he suddenly noticed that there was another ship in the near neighbourhood, the ship which – yes, it had its funnel far aft. It was the "Altmark"! Almost at the same moment two more British 'planes sighted the ship.
Swiftly the discovery was signalled to the Fleet, and in a very short time "certain of His Majesty's ships", to quote the dry phrasing of the Admiralty statement, "which were conveniently disposed rushed up at full speed". Leading the chase was the destroyer "Cossack" which at once attempted to head off the "Altmark", but the German steamer slipped into the little Joessing Fjord. Then the "Cossack" turned and made for entrance of the fjord into which her quarry had disappeared. The destroyer "Ivanhoe" was already there, together with two Norwegian gunboats who apparently had been escorting the "Altmark" along the coast.
The captain of one of the gunboats came aboard the "Cossack" and Captain Vian, who, meanwhile, had received instructions from the Admiralty, offered to place a joint British and Norwegian guard upon the "Altmark", and to escort her with British and Norwegian warships to Bergen where the search for the British prisoners could be conducted and the matter properly investigated according to international law. The Norwegian captain, however, refused; he declared that the "Altmark" was unarmed, that he knew nothing about any prisoners on board, that she had been examined at Bergen the day before and had received permission to use Norwegian territorial waters on her passage to Germany.
Although far from satisfied with these assurances the British destroyers withdrew and again got in touch with the Admiralty. It was not long before further instructions were received; in effect, Captain Vian was told to go in and get the prisoners.
It was now 7.30 or 8 o'clock in the evening and quite dark when H.M.S. "Cossack" headed for the entrance to the fjord. Gliding by the two Norwegian gunboats at the entrance, the British destroyer, with her searchlights blazing, crunched her way through the ice towards where the "Altmark" was silhouetted against the thousand-foot-high cliffs. On entering Captain Vian (in command of the flotilla) went on board the Norwegian boat "Kjell" and again asked that the "Altmark" should be taken to Bergen with a joint Anglo-Norwegian guard. The commanding officer of the Norwegian warship refused the request, although he agreed to take passage in the "Cossack" until her men boarded the "Altmark" when he declared that he had not come to look on at a fight and returned to his own ship.
Meanwhile the "Altmark" which was jammed in the ice in the inner end of the fjord began to work her engines, and in spite of an order to stop, broke free and attempted to ram the "Cossack" as the destroyer came alongside. The only result of the manoeuvre, however, was the grounding of the "Altmark" herself by the stern. The two ships were now only about 8 feet apart and grappling irons were at once thrown out from the "Cossack", and a boarding-party leaped the gap and drove the German crew before them. For a few minutes hand-to-hand fighting was going on in many parts of the ship and the Germans suffered casualties amounting to seven dead and several wounded. The only British casualty was Mr. J. J. F. Smith, gunner in charge of one of the boarding parties who was severely wounded.
Some of the Germans jumped overboard and ran across the ice and opened fire with rifles on the ship from a small eminence. The fire was returned by the British and two Germans who were scrambling across the ice were hit. Another fell into the water, whereupon two of the "Cossack's" officers plunged in and brought him aboard. It was found that he had been severely wounded and he died later in the ship's hospital.
By now the prisoners in the "Altmark" were being liberated: members of the boarding-party tried every door and hatchway, shouting "The Navy is here!" The answer was a roar of cheering, and in a few minutes the holds had been broken open and the prisoners, many of whom had not seen daylight for the last fortnight, ran on deck, where they were passed on to the waiting destroyers. When the boarding party were satisfied that every prisoner had been released they withdrew and shortly afterwards the "Cossack" joined the rest of the British forces waiting outside the fjord. On the afternoon of the next day 299 deliriously happy seamen were landed at Leith and in a few hours most of them were on their way to their homes.
From the Log kept by Seaman Swaby
Oct. 5. - Crew of 34 captured by "Admiral Graf Spee".
Oct. 7. - S.S. "Ashlea" caught and sunk. Crew of 35 put aboard.
Oct. 8. - "Newton Beach" sunk. Both crews put aboard "Graf Spee".
Oct. 10. - S.S. "Huntsman" caught.
Oct. 17. - S.S. "Huntsman" sunk and crew of 84 put aboard tanker.
Oct. 18. - "Newton Beach" and "Ashlea" crews put aboard tanker and find she is "Altmark" of Hamburg.
Oct. 21. - M.V. "Trevanion" sunk. Crew aboard "Graf Spee".
Oct. 28. - "Graf Spee" bunkered by tanker, and crew of "Trevanion" put aboard. Total prisoners, 186."
Nov. 28. - "Graf Spee" back. Stored and took aboard captains, first and second mates, chiefs and seconds.
Dec. 6. - "Graf Spee" back with crews. 150 from "Doric Star" and "Tairoa", sunk on Dec. 1 and 3. Total prisoners aboard now more than 300.
Dec. 16. - Name of tanker changed to "Haugsund".
Dec. 17. - Ship painted grey. Name changed to "Chirqueue".
Jan. 22. - Left on mad run up north on zigzag course.
Feb. 14. - Made Norse port. Believe Bergen. Our look-out very small hole, vision limited. Attempt break out. Failed.
Feb. 15. - Left port. Stopped by Norwegian destroyers. No search of ship. Made all the noise possible whistling and sending out S O S calls on officers' whistles.
Feb. 16. - Bread and water for attempts to escape. Tea-time our look-outs believe we have been stopped by one of our 'planes. Still battened down. Waiting daylight to see what happens.
An hour later Seaman Swaby and his companions were aboard the "Cossack".
The news of the rescue was received in Britain and throughout the Empire with tremendous enthusiasm. Germany, for her part, lost no time in expressing her indignation at the boarding of "a peaceful German merchantman" in neutral waters, and the "brutal murder" of German seamen, while Norway's reactions can be summed up in the words with which the Norwegian Prime Minister greeted the British Minister in Oslo: "I have asked you to come to express the strong consternation and indignation that we feel at this gross violation of Norwegian territorial waters... we cannot doubt that the British Government will give full satisfaction at once."
The British Government were as unperturbed by Norway's protests as by Germany's screamings. They at first complained of the "perfunctory manner" in which the vessel had been searched, but it was later admitted by Norway that, owing to the "Altmark's" status as a German warship, she had not in fact been searched. On February 20 Mr. Chamberlain stated that the Norwegian Government's interpretation of international law would legalize abuse of neutral waters by German warships, and that Norway's "indifference" was not consistent with neutral obligations to Britain as a belligerent; it would create a position which the British Government could in no circumstances accept.
This question of the use of neutral territorial waters by Germany seemed likely to provoke a stormy controversy. Even in Scandinavian circles there was some misgiving about tolerating the abuse of neutrality by a nation which had deliberately sunk so many Norwegian and Swedish merchant ships. Opinion in the United States was frankly enthusiastic in support of Britain's action.
The brief but splendid sage of Joessing Fjord was complete – the "Nelson touch" had once again triumphed.