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Posted on Jul 31, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

An Incident of War

By Carlo D'Este


The evening of February 16 the Cossack, accompanied by HMS Intrepid, forced their way into ice-bound Jösing Fjord to carry out Churchill’s orders. Using their searchlights, as the Norwegian gunboats stood aside, declining to interfere, they boxed in the Altmark, ordered her captain to “heave to”, and to prepare to be boarded. However, before Vian’s crew was able to board her, the Altmark set her engines to full speed ahead and attempted to ram the British destroyer. It failed thanks to some nifty navigation by the Cossack. The Altmark ran aground on rocks at the end of the narrow fjord as the Cossack’s crew managed to secure grappling lines to the German vessel. The two ships melded together like two wrestlers with a death grip on one another. The POWs were rescued only after hand-to-hand fighting and a shoot-out on deck that left four Germans dead. Not surprisingly, the Altmark turned out not to be the unarmed merchant ship it had claimed to have been. Four machine guns and two pom-pom antiaircraft guns were seized, weapons that had once sprouted on her decks. A British sailor called into the hold: “Are there any English down there!” A joyous response of “Yes!” signaled the end of their ordeal. Another voice on deck shouted to them: “Well, the navy’s here.” One of the small ironies of the incident is that along with letters of praise that Vian received from the public, “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.” As the Cossack sped to Scotland with the rescued sailors, the Altmark was left to return to Germany without her human cargo. The Germans left behind a sign ashore that read: “Here on the 16th February, 1940, the Altmark was set upon by a British sea-pirate.”


German WW2 Tanker "Altmark" – photo taken in Jøssingfjord, Norway

In the larger context of World War II, the Altmark affair was a very minor incident. It was also a classic example of Winston Churchill in action as a war leader: audacious, willing to run roughshod over the rules of neutrality – and to unhesitatingly accept the consequences. It was also proof that Churchill had not succumbed to the culture of political correctness that would have dissuaded others in the British government from acting. The Altmark was also a rare instance in which he played a direct military role in the type of military operation that was so near and dear to his heart. Churchill’s signal was sent directly to Capt. Vian, by-passing the chain of command and the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Forbes, to whom Vian reported. Churchill later admitted (sort of) his error by acknowledging that: “I did not often act so directly.”  Churchill exploited the Altmark incident for all its worth to help stir the morale of the British public. And, while it was a public relations coup, Churchill understood far better than the majority of Britain’s politicians that the real war was yet to come and that so far it was primarily the Royal Navy that was bearing the burden of fighting the Germans. His motivation also seems to have spoken directly to British patriotism; the war was good vs. evil. The officers and crews of the two destroyers that had cornered the Graf Spee were paraded through the streets of London and acclaimed by cheering crowds. At Horse Guards Parade, a band played as they were formally greeted and inspected by King George VI. The spectacle was witnessed by a large crowd, and by Chamberlain, Churchill, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the War Cabinet and the entire Admiralty Board, while the Queen, resplendently dressed, observed from a window of the Admiralty.           

Afterwards, they marched to the Guildhall for a luncheon in their honor. Churchill delivered one of his patented patriotic speeches that extolled the navy, closing on a note of triumph. “The warrior heroes of the past may look down, as Nelson’s monument looks down upon us now, without any feeling that the island race has lost its daring or that the examples they have set in bygone centuries have faded.” He praised the daring rescue by the HMS Cossack “at the very moment when those unhappy men were about to be delivered over into indefinite German bondage.” Churchill went on to proclaim, “the long arm of the British sea power . . . And to Nelson’s immortal signal of 135 years ago, ‘England expects every man will do his duty,’ there may now be added last week’s not less proud reply, ‘The Navy is here.’” The crowd roared its approval. For a brief, magical moment, the true ugliness of the war to come was forgotten in the euphoria of patriotic celebration. Indeed, the entire day was a wonderful distraction for a city soon to endure hell from the skies at the hands of the Luftwaffe.    

A sense of immense relief and acclaim swept Britain with news of the freeing of the prisoners. However, Churchill’s decision to intervene also spawned unknown repercussions in Berlin and set a course that would end the phony war once and for all. The Altmark incident left no doubt in Berlin that Britain not only had no qualms about violating Norwegian neutrality but that British intentions were to occupy Norway – assumptions which soon proved correct.  Hitler called it “intolerable” and blamed the Altmark’s crew for not fighting sufficiently hard to fend off the British. He was determined to get there first and ordered plans accelerated for a German invasion of Denmark and Norway in the early spring of 1940. As for the Altmark, Hitler was somewhat philosophical, observing that history never asked the victors who was right or who was wrong.           

The Altmark affair was by no means the only time Winston Churchill involved himself in operational matters while First Lord of the Admiralty. It was, however, the first occasion when he acted in the role of warlord during World War II. There would be many more in the months and years ahead after he became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 and took charge of Britain’s desperate war with Germany and Italy.

© Copyright pending. Although it is too early to establish a precise date, interested readers should look for the publication of Warlord circa the summer of 2008 by HarperCollins in the USA & Canada, and Penguin in the UK., Barnes&, and other Internet sources will always have advance information.

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