In February 1940 the German tanker Altmark entered neutral Norwegian waters. It was carrying 299 British prisoners, captured by the battleship Admiral Graf Spee from British merchant vessels in the Atlantic.
…cheers went up in the hold as the prisoners heard them shout “the navy’s here!”
The British, believing the ship to be carrying British prisoners, demanded the vessel be searched by the Norwegians. Wary of risking their neutral status, the Norwegians reluctantly agreed.
At the behest of the British, three inspections were carried out. But the prisoners were hidden in the ship’s hold and the inspections could find no evidence of them.
British aircraft located the Altmark on 15 February and a force, led by the destroyer HMS Cossack, was sent to pursue it. The Altmark’s Norwegian escort vessels warned the Cossack they would open fire if an attempt was made to board. The Cossack’s commanding officer, Captain Philip Vian, sought instructions from the British Admiralty.
In response, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill advised him that unless the Norwegians agreed to escort the ship to Bergen in cooperation with the Royal Navy then he should board the vessel and free the prisoners. If the Norwegians opened fire then he should respond using no more force than necessary.
On 16 February, apparently in an attempt to ram the Cossack, the Altmark helpfully ran aground. The British promptly boarded her. In the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, the Altmark’s crew were overwhelmed. The crew from the Cossack searched the ship and cheers went up in the hold as the prisoners heard them shout “the navy’s here!”
The Altmark incident was a propaganda coup for the British. But it had severe implications for Norway. The event brought their neutrality into question and Adolf Hitler intensified his planning for an invasion of Norway.
Image: The return of HMS Cossack after the Altmark Incident ©IWM