Vian: “I Ought to Be Shot Myself”

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.” Vian in his memoirs, Action This Day


The London Gazette   (Official newspaper of the British Government)

Admiralty, Whitehall. 12th April, 1940.
“The KING has been graciously pleased to give orders for the following Appointments to the Distinguished Service Order:—
To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order: Captain Philip Louis Vian, Royal Navy, H.M.S. Cossack;” 

“for outstanding ability, determination and resource in the preliminary dispositions which led to the rescue of 300 English prisoners from the German Armed Auxiliary Altmark, and for daring, leadership and masterly handling of his ship in narrow waters so as to bring her alongside and board the enemy, who tried to blind him with the glare of a searchlight, worked his engine full ahead and full astern, tried to ram him and drive him ashore and so threatened the grounding and loss of Cossack.”




The most famous of the Royal Navy’s Tribal Class destroyers: HMS Cossack underway at slow speed.

(Official Royal Navy photo courtesy IWM)


Captain Philip Vian, RN, commanded the 4th Destroyer Flotilla from his flotilla leader’s ship, HMS Cossack, one of the famous “Tribal Class” destroyers. In February 1940, Vian had been ordered to board the German ship Altmark, then anchored in neutral Norwegian waters. This particular ship had been a supply ship to the Admiral Graf Spee and had taken several hundred British merchant navy officers and men from the Graf Spee, who had captured these men when she sank their ships.

Vian’s men boarded the Altmark with their famous shout, “the navy’s here!” and freed more than 200 British merchant sailors being held prisoner. Captain Vian didn’t have instructions from the Admiralty on what to do with the German officers aboard the ship. Since Altmark was in international waters, Vian wisely decided to only bring off the British merchant sailors and leave the Germans on their ship.

Wrote Vian in his memoirs, Action This Day by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Philip Vian GCB, KBE, DSO & Two Bars:

“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.”





Philip Vian (2nd from left) with Admiral Halsey aboard USS Missouri, c. mid-1945. At that time, Vian was Commander-in-Chief of the British Pacific Fleet. Photo courtesy of US National Archives.


Vian was a tightly wound man, to put it mildly, and had a ferocious temper. He wasn’t a likable man. If you served with him over a period of time, knew your job and followed his orders precisely, then you at least won his loyalty. Whenever he was appointed to a new ship or position, he dismissed that ship’s senior officers and brought aboard his own men. This has always been the prerogative of an Admiral but it still rankled some.

Below is a passage from the obituary of Vice-Admiral Sir David Brown, published in the London Daily Mail of 21 July 2005:

“Later, in Portsmouth, Brown was summoned onboard the flagship of the Home Fleet, the battleship Vanguard, to receive a furious blast from Admiral Sir Philip Vian, the Commander-in-Chief, for failing to salute his flag. Others quailed before Vian’s outbursts, but Brown fearlessly pointed out that the flagship herself had committed a breach of etiquette by failing to pipe him onboard.”

This must have taken a certain fortitude on Brown’s part since he was then commanding a small minesweeper.

As part of honors received at the end of World War Two, Admiral Vian received the Legion of Merit of the United States, Degree of Commander, as well as the US Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal which is awarded for “exceptionally meritorious service to the Government of the United States in a duty of great responsibility.”

Upon his retirement in 1952 from active duty the Royal Navy (Admirals of the Fleet remain on the active list so technically don’t retire), after 45 years of service, he was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet to recognize his significant contributions to Allied victory in World War Two. One has to search diligently to find a British admiral who commanded as many engagements at sea as Vian did.



Admiral Philip Vian by Charles Wheeler, 1942.  National Maritime Museum, London. 

U-Boat Commander Complains of His Treatment by USA as POW


Jürgen Wattenberg, Kapitan zur See

During my research for my first novel, An Honorable German, I corresponded in 1980 with Jürgen Wattenberg because he had served as the Senior Navigation Officer of the German “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee. He was not an easy man to correspond with and he held to the view that Germans were more victims of World War Two than instigators. (A common view among many German war veterans and the older generation in the decades after the war).


Panzerschiff (translated means ‘armored ship’) Admiral Graf Spee (photo courtesy German Federal Archives) in 1936

There is no evidence that Wattenberg was an an active supporter of the Nazi Party and as a member of the military he could not have been a member of the Nazi Party since neither officers nor men in the German armed forces–known as the Wehrmacht (defense forces)— were allowed to join political parties.  This seems odd, I know.

However, exceptions were made and many high ranking officers were given party membership as an “honor.” The Nazi leadership had a contentious relationship with the German Army which was by far the largest of the armed services and commanded a very high prestige in German life. Had several stronger and more honorable men been Chief of the German Army General Staff in the first year when the Nazis came to power they could easily have executed a coup d’tat and simply shot Hitler and his gang.

Unfortunately, they did not. However, deep opposition to Hitler remained in the General Staff and to their credit conspirators in the German Army (as well as the Abwehr—sort of the German CIA), made numerous attempts on Hitler’s life, the most famous being the bomb set off at Hitler’s field headquarters in Prussia on 20 July 1944.


Caption and photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum:  17 May 1937 WARSHIPS AT THE SPITHEAD FLEET REVIEW OF 1937. (Held in honor of the coronation King George VI). The German heavy cruiser ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE anchored off Spithead for the 1937 Fleet Review. In the background are the battleship HMS RESOLUTION and the battlecruiser HMS HOOD.

As recounted in my novel, An Honorable German, the “pocket battleship” Admiral Graf Spee was badly damaged in December of 1939 in the Battle of the Rio Plata. The Captain later blew up the ship.

As to Wattenberg, like many of Graf Spee’s officers, he had effected his escape from internment in Argentina and returned to Germany whence he was given command of U-162. About 45 years old at that time, he was a little old to hold command of a U-Boat but there was a shortage of trained and experienced sea officers in the German Navy and Wattenberg was certainly an experience sea officer (offizer zur see).  Jürgen Wattenberg,

Wattenberg was in the Caribbean, a dangerous assignment because the water is shallow and even when the u-boats were underwater they were visible. But there was “good hunting” in the Caribbean, particularly tankers proceeding to the United States and other countries from oil refineries in Trinidad. (Oil was discovered in Trinidad in 1857 with commercial production beginning in 1913 according to the report “100 Years of Petroleum in Trinidad and Tobago” issued by the government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago).

(the steel drum music originated from people playing on the empty 55 gallon barrels left after the war was over).

Although this would usually be something a U-Boat commander would have avoided unless he had no other choice, in September of 1942 off the Bahamas, Wattenberg fired torpedoes at a British destroyer which wasn’t the smartest thing to do.   U-162 was quickly sunk by three Royal Navy destroyers.  Most of the crew including Wattenberg survived.

Like all captured U-Boat officers he was first taken to an interrogation facility known as Ft. Hunt just outside of Washington DC. There, German speaking US navy officers interrogated the German officers over a series of days. I’ve read transcripts of many of the interviews and they are boring. The men were treated to the letter of the Geneva Convention of 1929 on Treatment of Prisoners of War.

From the minute he arrived at Ft. Hunt, in late September of 1942, he started to complain and complain. In 1980, when I first began to research my novel, I corresponded with him. He was a jerk. His main complaint: while being repatriated after the war ended, American GIs stole his scrapbook. Aw, too bad. The Nazis had just murdered millions including most of European Jewry and he was pissed because some American soldiers took his scrapbook? Yes, he was.

I was able to get his declassified information from the time in which he was a POW from the National Archives and one of the items in the stack was a letter of complaint in English he had sent to the Swiss. As something of a cottage industry, the Swiss government was appointed as the protecting power by the Germans, the Americans and the British and representatives of the Swiss Red Cross inspected all POW camps. Wattenberg, like many German naval officers of the time, was fluent in English. (I sent copies of all his POW records to him.)

Wattenberg wrote in a complaint to the Swiss:

…daily officers and men were subjected to the grossest acts of despotism on the part of their American guards. One sentry demanded of me on the first day that I clean up my own room and shoved at my feet a pail and mop for the purpose. When I refused, with reference to the Geneva Convention, and demanded an officer I received this reply, ‘Do you like this room?’ by which he obviously meant to imply that I would get a worse room at further complaints.

Wattenberg was within his rights under the Geneva Convention. Officers retained their authority and could not be compelled to do anything such as clean their rooms. This was for their orderly to do.

Nonetheless, this seems a harsh complaint to make that on his first day of being a POW or PW as they were known at the time. Many of the men who served as sentries in POW camps in the US were often men who were extremely young or much older and didn’t meet the physical or IQ requirements to be sent into the US Army fighting overseas.

All prisoners of war in the United States in World War Two were in the custody of the Provost Marshal of the US Army–that is the general commanding the military police and all prisons and stockades for the US Army in the US. (Military police in the US Army overseas came under the authority of the respective provost marshal in their higher echelon command. Hence they reported outside the chain of command so officers who were not in the military police could not countermand their orders).

Wattenberg was released at the end of the war and returned to Germany. He eventually became the manager of the St. Pauli Girl Brewery in Bremen.



18 December 1939:  Admiral Graf Spee in the Rio Plate off Montevideo after being blown up and scuttled by Captain Hans Langsdorff who shot himself two days later.