Friday, 15 February 2013

The Navy's Here!

Philip Vian (Official Photo)
This weekend marks the seventy second anniversary of what at the time was described as the 'Altmark incident', a bold rescue by the Royal Navy that made headlines around the World, partly because the land war was stuck in the period subsequently known as the 'Phoney War' but also undoubtedly due to the sheer panache and determination shown by the Senior Service in the execution of this adventure which would not have looked out of place on the pages of the Boy's Own Paper.

In the early months of the war, the German pocket battleship and commerce raider Graf Spee had been patrolling the South Atlantic taking a heavy toll of British merchant shipping which was described in the December 2011 edition of this blog. The Graf Spee herself was sunk in December 1939 by the British cruisers Ajax, Achilles and Exeter but during her earlier sinking spree, many prisoners from the sunken merchant ships had been taken and although they had at first been kept aboard the German raider, there was soon no room for any more, so the decision was taken to transfer the bulk of the prisoners to Graf Spee's supply ship, Altmark for eventual passage back to Germany and a prisoner of war camp. The Merchant Navy officers were the exception and remained aboard Graf Spee under the stewardship of her captain, Hans Langsdorff, a humane and honourable man who took pains to keep his prisoners in decent conditions. After the River Plate battle, when the pocket battleship fled into Montevideo, these officers were released unharmed and eventually returned home. 

In contrast with Langsdorff's prisoners, those merchant seamen unfortunate enough to be transferred to the Altmark found themselves in the custody of a committed Nazi Heinrich Dau, who despite Langsdorff's orders to the contrary, kept his almost three hundred prisoners in squalid conditions in one of the vessel's holds. Altmark had slipped away from her last rendezvous with the German raider before her final battle and was heading back towards Germany, hoping to do so undetected.

The prisoners released from Graf Spee in Montevideo had informed the British authorities as to the fate of their erstwhile shipmates and from that moment, the hunt was on for the supply ship. At first, Altmark eluded the British patrols; her guns had been removed and to all appearances, she looked like an innocent tanker. She arrived off Trondheim, in then neutral Norway on February 14th and having then entered Norwegian territorial waters, under international law, Dau was obliged to set his prisoners free, just as the honourable Langsdorff had done when his ship arrived in the neutral waters of Uruguay in the previous December. Dau, however was not Langsdorff and he kept his prisoners concealed below decks, hoping to get them back to Germany.

HMS Cossack (Crown Copyright)
Aided by a reconnaissance photo taken by a Coastal Command Lockheed Hudson aircraft, the Royal Navy by now had got wind of Altmark's arrival off Trondheim and a strong force under the command of Captain Philip Vian in the destroyer HMS Cossack was steaming to intercept the German vessel. After a fruitless chase of another vessel which turned out to be an innocent (and neutral) Swedish merchantman, a sharp-eyed lookout on the cruiser HMS Arethusa spotted the Altmark hugging the Norwegian coast inside Josing Fjord, well inside territorial waters. At this point, the Norwegians, anxious to preserve their neutrality, placed two of their patrol boats either side of the Altmark, in order to prevent the British from boarding her. The British, equally anxious not to provoke an incident but equally determined to get their prisoners returned to them, insisted that the Norwegians carry out an inspection of the German vessel.

On the 15th February, Norwegian Naval officers inspected the Altmark and despite the prisoners in the hold making a huge commotion, they failed to inspect the hold and indicated that they would allow the German vessel to proceed on her way. Whilst this inspection was taking place, Vian had radioed the Admiralty, then under the command of First Lord, Winston Churchill, for further instructions and received the following reply:

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. 

Altmark's dead being taken ashore (www.norgeslexi.com)
With these clear instructions, the die was cast and the following day, Vian made his move. He manoeuvered Cossack alongside the German vessel despite Dau's strenuous efforts to avoid being found out - Dau attempted to ram Cossack by moving full astern but all he managed to achieve was to run his own vessel aground. Vian sent a powerful boarding party under the command of Lieutenant Turner aboard Altmark, armed with rifles, bayonets fixed and cutlasses - it is thought to be the last time that the Royal Navy used cutlasses in action - and quickly overpowered the German crew. During the brief action, six of the Altmark's crew were killed and a further eight, fleeing across the ice, were shot and wounded by the British boarding party. Once the fighting was over, Turner and his boarding party was able to concentrate on the business of finding the prisoners, who were being held under locked hatches in the hold. When these had been broken open, Lieutenant Turner shouted down "Any British down there?" He was greeted with a tremendous shout of "Yes, we're all British!" Turner responded with the now immortal words, "Come on up then, the Navy's here!"

Vian and his men had rescued two hundred and ninety nine British merchant seamen from captivity.

Dau and his surviving crew were not captured by the British, who anxious not to antagonise the Norwegians any further, left their territorial waters shortly after midnight on the 17th February. It had been their original intention to tow Altmark to a Scottish port as a prize of war but the fact that she had run aground precluded this and after the British had left, the German survivors reboarded her and she was eventually salvaged, renamed Uckermark and resumed her duties as a supply ship for the Kriegsmarine. In November 1942, whilst moored in Yokohama harbour Japan, she was destroyed by a huge explosion, thought to have been caused by the ignition of fumes from her recently discharged cargo of gasoline. Fifty three of her crew died in the explosion but Dau was not amongst them, having been unceremoniously retired some months previously. Dau took his own life on the day of Germany's surrender in May 1945.

Some of the 299 rescued prisoners coming ashore (HMS Cossack Association)
HMS Cossack arrived in Leith, Scotland later on 17th February to a rapturous welcome. Her prisoners were quickly ashore and apart from those who needed medical attention were soon on their way home to their families.

The Altmark Incident was the beginning of what was to be a long and tough war for Captain Vian. For his actions in rescuing the Altmark prisoners, he was awarded the DSO and later, still in Cossack, his flotilla was in action against the Bismarck in May 1941. Promoted to Rear Admiral soon after this action, Vian's first action as a flag officer was to command the raid in September 1941 on Spitzbergen. He was then sent to the Mediterranean to command a cruiser squadron and he saw tough service on the Malta convoys, including both Battles of Sirte and surviving having his flagship, HMS Naiad, sunk underneath him in March 1942. Later he commanded the Eastern Task Force on D-Day and later still, promoted to Vice Admiral, he commanded the British Pacific Fleet's aircraft carrier squadron in many battles against the Japanese. Post war, he retired from the Navy as Admiral of the Fleet in 1952 and died in May 1968. He is buried in the Crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

Despite these great endeavours, Vian will probably always be remembered for his instrumental role in the Royal Navy's last major boarding party action.

Published Sources:

Action This Day - Admiral of the Fleet Sir Philip Vian, Muller 1960   
The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
The Battle of The River Plate - Dudley Pope, Secker & Warburg 1987
Engage the Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett, Hodder & Stoughton 1991

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