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World War II: Altmark Incident

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Altmark Incident Conflict & Date:

The Altmark Incident occurred on February 16, 1940, during World War II (1939-1945).

Altmark Incident - Background:

During the early days of World War II, the German tanker Altmark cruised the South Atlantic serving as a supply and support ship for the commerce raiding pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. As British forces converged on the area, Graf Spee transferred 299 prisoners taken from British merchant ships to Altmark. Parting, Altmark remained at sea while Graf Spee engaged British ships at the Battle of the River Plate on December 13, 1939. Damaged in the fighting, Graf Spee was forced into port at Montevideo, Uruguay and subsequently scuttled.

Having dealt with Graf Spee, the British began a search for Altmark under the belief that the tanker would attempt to run back to Germany. Anticipating this, Altmark's commander, Captain Heinrich Dau, remained in the South Atlantic for several weeks and did not turn north until January 22, 1940. Avoiding the shipping lanes and with a bit of luck, Altmark passed between Iceland and the Faeroe Islands before reaching Norwegian territorial waters off Trondheim on February 14. As Norway was a neutral country, Dau hoped that he could pass through its waters and avoid attack by the British.

Altmark Incident - The Noose Tightens:

Through the course of the 14th, Altmark was stopped and searched three times by the Norwegian navy, however these searches were largely cursory and the Germans made successful efforts to hide the prisoners. Learning of Altmark's arrival and that it was passing Bergen, the Admiralty directed Captain Philip Vian's 4th Destroyer Flotilla to locate the tanker, force it into international waters, and free the prisoners. As the Royal Navy was unsure of Altmark's appearance, Vian's ships were forced to stop several merchant vessels along the Norwegian coast.

On February 16, Altmark was spotted by a Lockheed Hudson belonging to the Royal Air Force's Coastal Command. Receiving the report, Vian ordered the destroyers HMS Ivanhoe and HMS Intrepid to intercept Altmark with support from the light cruiser HMS Arethusa. Located further south, Vian ordered his own ship, the destroyer HMS Cossack, to rejoin the rest of the flotilla. Around 2:45 PM, the three British warships spotted Altmark and began closing. In London, the Cabinet met to discuss the situation and assess options.

If the tanker was carrying prisoners, Germany was violating Norway's rights a neutral, however if it was empty, any British effort to stop the ship would be a violation. At sea, Intrepid signaled Altmark to heave to but was ignored. Two warning shots also failed to stop the tanker. Beginning maneuvers to force Altmark out to sea, the two British destroyers found their efforts hampered by the Norwegian torpedo boats Kjell and Skarv as well as the patrol boat Firern which were shadowing the German ship. Their interference allowed Altmark to slip into the ice-filled Jøssingfjord.

Altmark Incident - The Royal Navy Moves:

Around dusk, Vian arrived on the scene in Cossack and began discussions with the Norwegian officials. In the ensuing conversations, the Norwegians repeatedly stated that Altmark had been searched several times and that no prisoners had been found. Reporting this to the Admiralty, Vian soon received new orders from the First Lord, Winston Churchill. Vian was instructed to offer the Norwegians assistance in escorting Altmark back to Bergen for a thorough inspection. If this was refused, Vian was to board the German ship with his men.

If the Norwegians fired on the British during the boarding it was not to be returned unless absolutely necessary. Ordering Cossack back into Jøssingfjord around 10:00 PM, Vian met with officers of Kjell and relayed the essence of Churchill's orders. The Norwegians declined the offer of a joint escort citing that their ships were not capable of negotiating the ice. As a result, Cossack moved through the darkness towards Altmark at 11:23 PM with a boarding party standing by. Spotting the British ship, Altmark directed high-power searchlights on the destroyer's bridge hoping to blind the crew.

As the lights came on, Dau attempted to ram Cossack with the stern of his ship. Adroit shiphandling allowed the destroyer to escape relatively unharmed and part of the boarding party jumped across as the ships passed. Closing back, the remainder of the party boarded. After a brief struggle in which four Germans were killed and five wounded, the British sailors took control of the ship. Taking the bridge, they were unable to prevent Altmark running aground in the fjord. Opening one of the holds, a British sailor called down, "Are there any Englishmen down there?"

Upon hearing a positive answer, he called "Then come up. The Navy's here!" Vian quickly moved to transfer the 299 captives from Altmark to Cossack while leaving the Germans on the ship. This complete, he departed Jøssingfjord at 11:55 PM and set course for Britain. While the Norwegian ships in the area protested, they did not intervene.

Altmark Incident - Aftermath

In the wake of the Altmark affair, Norway was angered that its neutrality had been infringed upon by both sides as the Germans had brought prisoners into neutral waters and the British had attacked the ship. While the decisive action of the Royal Navy brought accolades in Britain it spurred Germany to begin contemplating action in Scandinavia as Swedish iron ore was critical to its arms industry. Deciding that Norwegian neutrality could not be trusted to protect this vital supply line, Adolf Hitler ordered additional planning for Operation Weserübung on February 19. Moving forward in April, this operation saw German forces swiftly invade both Denmark and Norway.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1900-Today
  6. World War II
  7. World War II at Sea - Atlantic & Mediterranean
  8. Altmark - World War II Altmark Incident - Kriegsmarine

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