|Philip Vian (Official Photo)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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