In Feb 1940, the German auxiliary ship, Altmark, which had served as supply ship and oiler for the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, had made its way from the South Atlantic to a fjord in what were then the neutral waters of Norway. In addition to her other functions, Altmark served as a floating POW camp for almost three hundred British merchant officers and men whose ships had been captured by the Graf Spee.
Tribal class destroyer HMS Cossack, under the command of Philip Vian, was sent to hunt for the Altmark. While the Germans and Norwegians denied it, the British knew from radio decrypts that a large number of British merchant sailors were being held aboard. Under orders from London, Vian was given discretion to violate Norwegian neutrality and free the British prisoners.
The biggest problem said Vian in his memoirs, Action this Day: A War Memoir, is that no one actually knew what the Altmark looked like.
HMS Cossack headed into the fjord to board the Altmark and get the British prisoners. Altmark trained her searchlight onto the bridge of HMS Cossack to blind the officers then came full speed astern down the channel in the ice she had made going into the fjord intent on ramming the Royal Navy warship.
Both ships maneuvered for advantage and seizing a clear moment, Vian lay Cossack alongside the Altmark and the order, “boarders away,” rang out for one of the few times in World War Two. Lt Bradwell Turner, RN, leader of the boarding party, proceeded to leap onto the Altmark.
In his memoir Vian described the scene: “Petty Officer Atkins, who followed him, fell short, and hung by his hands until Turner heaved him on deck. The two quickly made fast a hemp hawser from Cossack’s forecastle, and the rest of the party scrambled across. Turner, his men at his back stormed onto the bridge of the Altmark and found the engine telegraphs set to full speed in an endeavor to force HMS Cossack ashore. When Turner appeared, the Captain and other officers surrendered and Turner rang the engine telegraphs to ‘stop engines’.”
But the captain of the Altmark had not told the armed guards placed on his ship by the Graf Spee to surrender. As the boarding party carefully made their way through the German ship, one of the sentries opened fire and hit one of the British sailors, who fortunately was not killed. With that, the German armed guards went over the side fled across the ice toward the shore. Outlined by the white of the snow, they foolishly began firing at the Royal Navy boarders who returned fire, killing six Germans and wounding six more.
Admiral Vian continues the story in his memoirs:
“Resistance overcome, Turner was able to turn to the business of the day. The prisoners were under locked hatches in the holds; when these had been broken open Turner hailed the men below with the words, “Any British down there?” He was greeted with a tremendous yell of: “Yes! We’re all British!”
“Come on up then,” said Turner, “the Navy’s here.”
This last became one of the most famous phrases in Great Britain during the war. HMS Cossack took aboard 13 British merchant ship masters, and 286 officers and men.
It is worth noting here from my research into my novel, An Honorable German, that Captain Langsdorff of the Graf Spee had treated all prisoners with great courtesy and allowed them all they were due under international laws and conventions. Captain Dau of the Altmark was a vicious man, a convinced Nazi and a man who despised the British. Once the British prisoners had been transferred to him from the Graf Spee, his treatment of them was brutal and inhumane. When rescued, all of the British merchant mariners were half starved and malnourished although the Altmark had a huge amount of food in her cargo holds.
Vian had no specific orders about what to do with the German officers. He had rescued all the imprisoned British merchant mariners and since the situation seemed complicated enough as it was and HMS Cossack had violated the neutrality of Norway, he simply left the German officers aboard the Altmark.
He sums up the experience in his memoirs in classic British understatement:
I received many letters from the public after this affair: a number wrote to say that, as I had failed to shoot, or hang, the Captain of the Altmark, I ought to be shot myself.
[Source: Action this Day: A War Memoir by Philip Vian. Images courtesy of the Blitzwalkers, UK Imperial War Museums, Wikipedia, and Ahoy, Mac’s Web Log.]