HMS Cossack attacks the MV Altmark III

The morning after. Altmark aground Jossingfjord.

At first, Lieutenant Halvorsen did not recognise the approaching ship, but when he did, he hailed Cossack, requesting her to heave to. Vian obliged and hailed back that he had orders from the British government to `liberate the 400 prisoners on board Altmark’, suggesting a joint Norwegian-British team board her via Kjell. Lieutenant Halvorsen answered that this would not be possible based on the instructions he had from his superiors and, anyway, his ship could not manoeuvre in the fjord due to the ice. After some more parleying, Halvorsen reluctantly agreed to come onboard Cossack as an observer. Entering the bridge of the destroyer at 23:30, Halvorsen was informed by Vian that he intended to carry out a search of Altmark as soon as possible, with or without Norwegian consent. Halvorsen, based on the information available to him, believed that there were no prisoners on board Altmark and repeated that the British ship would have to leave Norwegian waters forthwith. The Norwegian lieutenant later held that he asked the British captain: `If there are no prisoners on board the Altmark – what then?’ to which Vian answered: `Well, that will be a mistake from my government’s side.’ Vian, on the other hand, later claimed that during the subsequent discussions with Halvorsen on the bridge of Cossack he repeatedly suggested a joint Norwegian-British escort should take Altmark to Bergen for a proper search by Norwegian authorities, as suggested by the Admiralty. Lieutenant Halvorsen, in his report to Commanding Admiral, firmly denied this and in a letter dated 25 January 1954 to the War History Department stated he could `definitely not recall any such suggestions’.

Kaptein Lura of Fireren had his man at the telephone inform Kristiansand Sea Defence Sector that a British destroyer was moving into the fjord in spite of protests. The message was forwarded to Rear Admiral Smith-Johanssen in Horten, who returned orders to keep protesting, but not to apply any force.

Kapitän Dau had gone to his sea cabin to get some rest when things settled down in the late afternoon. Now he was called back to the bridge when a newcomer was sighted between the Norwegian torpedo boats. Dau had his signalman repeatedly flash `What ship?’ from Altmark’s bridge, but no answer came back. Suspicious as ever, he ordered the tanker to advance further into the ice, to a position from where the torpedo boats and the stranger could be observed in silhouette against the open skyline at the mouth of the fjord. The distance between Altmark and the other ships increased to some 500-600 yards. At 23:46, a signal was flashed from the unknown ship in standard international code, asking: `Do you need assistance?’ followed by `Please hang a ladder over your side’, repeated several times. Altmark did not answer, but kept asking for the name of the unknown ship.

At 23:58, Cossack let the mask fall and moved towards the tanker. A signal was flashed for the German to lie by for boarding, or fire would be opened. Dau used his searchlights to dazzle the men on Cossack’s bridge and accelerated back down the channel in the ice at full astern, trying to ram the destroyer. At the same time he ordered all men not needed in the engine room, to come on deck and the boats to be prepared for lowering. A weighted bag containing secret papers was thrown overboard while the water was still deep enough for it to sink beyond recovery. Altmark had been rigged for self-destruction with primed demolition charges in the lower hull. Igniting these would have meant certain death for the 300 prisoners still confined below, however, and Dau hesitated to give the order. After a while it was too late and no orders were given to scuttle or open the sea-cocks.

Cossack turned to starboard, attempting to lay her port side onto the tanker. Altmark had picked up speed, though, and slammed into the destroyer just abaft the bridge. At an angle of some 30 degrees, the stern of the tanker scraped down the port side of her much lighter opponent. Cossack was pressed sideways with her starboard side towards the eastern shore of the fjord and a very dangerous situation developed. Being crushed between the tanker and shore would inevitably have meant severe damage to the destroyer and it is not unlikely that she would have lost seaworthiness. Expert manoeuvring and an immediate engine response to `full power ahead’ saved Cossack from crippling damage. The destroyer slipped aft of the onrushing tanker, re-emerging on her starboard side while the edge of the ice held firm and kept Cossack off the rocky shoreline, the two ships scraping alongside each other.

When the two ships touched, some of the boarding party took the opportunity of jumping across to the tanker, in spite of the tremendous risk. The first was Lieutenant Commander Bradwell Turner, who leapt across in a 6-foot jump, which would make him famous throughout the Royal Navy. Petty Officer Norman Atkins followed, but was not as lucky. Falling short, he just managed to grab a railing and was helped on board by Turner, pretty shaken. Further aft, Sub-Lieutenant Craven jumped across from a torpedo davit, just moments before it was crushed by the contact with Altmark. A manila hawser was briefly secured from Cossack’s forecastle and some thirty-three men in leather jackets and steel helmets scrambled across, armed with rifles and bayonets. They spread quickly through the ship, while Cossack steered clear, the hawser having been cut.

Turner and Craven led a group of men towards the bridge at a trot. Several weather-tight doors barred the route but they eventually managed to open them and found their way in, cornering most of the men on the bridge at gunpoint. `Lieutenant Commander Turner [.] ended for me a situation, which threatened the grounding or loss of Cossack,’ Vian later wrote, continuing:

Having with his escorts, disarmed such officers who carried revolvers, [Turner] dispossessed the officer on the starboard telegraphs, which were showing `Full Speed Ahead’ and placed them to `Stop’ The officer got to the port (duplicate telegraphs) and put them again to `Full Speed Ahead’. Lieutenant Commander Turner dealt with this too and thereafter held the Germans with hands up until grounding occurred.

First, the telegraphs in all likelihood showed `Full speed astern’ as Altmark went sternwards onto the ground. Second, in Kapitän Dau’s version, the `dispossessed’ officer at the main telegraphs was Third Officer Walter Schmidt, while he himself manipulated the duplicates, deliberately grounding the ship to damage its rudder and propellers as much as possible in an attempt to avoid capture. Whichever way it actually happened, the result was that Altmark grounded stern first at about 4 knots in Nodavika, close to the narrow road lining the east side of Jossingfjord.

Meanwhile, on deck, gunfire started. According to Vian’s report the firing:

commenced when Mr Smith, Gunner, in charge of the after party was shot from ahead as he advanced up an alleyway. Several ratings testify to being shot at, one lightly hit. Later on, when British prisoners were being released, a number of the German armed guard whom I only discovered after departure were seamen of Graf Spee, decamped over the stern of Altmark, and making their way across ice, reached an eminence on shore, from which they opened fire on boarding party on after deck. [.] Following a most careful examination of witnesses, I have no doubt at all that the Germans fired first.

Turner wrote in his report that orders were given to the boarding party:

to use sufficient force to overcome opposition but not to fire unless fired at (as a safety measure, magazine cut-offs were closed and the chambers of rifles were not loaded.). [.] I believe that the captain of the Altmark [.] did not intend to use firearms; the firing which started on the German side was probably the act of individuals.

In Dau’s various accounts, including those to the SKL and the embassy in Oslo, he claims consistently that no German sailors were armed. Later, this was modified in a report to the SKL where he specified that while the two 20- mm A/A guns and ten rifles had been locked away before entering Norwegian waters, a total of eighteen pistols had been available. Some of these had been carried by those on duty near the prisoners or on the bridge, some by various officers, while some were stored in lockers or cupboards. The duty personnel carried 9-mm pistols, the officers 7.65-mms. After the British had left, seven of the pistols could not be accounted for. One had allegedly been thrown overboard, the other six, Dau held, had been `stolen by the British’. All of those carrying the guns swore to Dau they had not used them, not even to threaten anyone from the boarding party.

Still, it is not unthinkable that one or more of the men decided to resist the British on their own initiative, particularly the naval men from Graf Spee. Neither is it unthinkable that some of the British marines disregarded Turner’s orders and loaded their guns, just in case. Thus, a situation on the after deck, not seen from the bridge, might have got out of hand. Turner writes that no immediate opposition was encountered when he jumped across and later, except for some minor trouble aft, they were met with `sullen obedience’. Dau, on the other hand, describes the British marines as `nervous and very scared’. None of the Norwegian reports mentions anything other than British use of firearms. The people of Jossinghavn later told of a single shot being heard some time before the main firing started, but Loytnant Halvorsen in his report is very specific that he did not see any German use of guns – although arguably he was not in the best position to observe it all. Altmark’s Dr Tyrolt treated a wounded British sailor for a bullet wound in the shoulder after the event, but rumour had it he had been shot by one of his own mates. 

It seems that we shall never learn what initiated the use of firearms that night. Once it had started, though, the result was incontestably one-sided. Several Germans lowered themselves from the deck and escaped across the ice towards shore. Unfortunately, they were fired at, several being killed or wounded. The Norwegian customs officer Odd Egaas was on deck on the starboard side when the British boarded. He did not observe any Germans with guns from where he stood, nor did he observe any form of resistance to the boarding from the German sailors. Egaas wore his uniform, and was held at the point of two British bayonets until it had been clarified that he was Norwegian. In the meantime the shooting had started on the other side of the deck and, finding events to be beyond his normal call of duty, Egaas followed suit when some of Altmark’s crew lowered themselves onto the ice and ran ashore.

When the shooting started, Halvorsen approached Vian, declaring that he had agreed to `observe an inspection, not a gunfight’. After the events, Vian held that it had been agreed that Halvorsen should join the boarding party, while Halvorsen maintained he had agreed to join an inspection as an observer but never agreed to `board the Altmark for an armed intervention, against German opposition’. Halvorsen returned to Kjell, which was called alongside the destroyer. From his ship, he could see the boarding party firing at Germans escaping over the ice. Overminor Olav Rindseth, who had command of Kjell while Halvorsen was on board Cossack, saw one German sailor who had fallen into the water being shot several times as he climbed onto the ice.

Civilians watching the events from shore had to duck into the cellars of their houses to avoid stray bullets and experienced the shooting as `rather wild’. At least two bullets hit the wheelhouse of Fireren, and a Norwegian rating, who had been at the telephone exchange with a message, got a bullet through the hand as he ran back. In spite of several bullets hitting the houses, there were no other Norwegian casualties. Confusion reigned for some time, and a couple of the Germans fled for several miles into the mountains.

Six Germans were killed outright and a seventh died two days later in Kristiansand hospital. Five were seriously wounded and another five had lighter wounds. Eventually, the shooting died down and sailors from Cossack started rescuing Germans who had gone through the ice and were struggling in the icy water. Lieutenant Commander Gerald Ormsby and Paymaster Lieutenant Edmund Burkitt even jumped into the water to save one sailor near Altmark’s bow. Unfortunately the attempts were unsuccessful and the man died, bringing the German dead to eight.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander Turner began the search for prisoners on board Altmark, bringing along Kapitän Dau, who had by now been identified, and a duty officer named Weichert. Some of the doors and hatches were locked while others had been lashed with wire. Eventually, they were all opened, and Turner allegedly shouted, `Any Englishmen down there?’ A clamorous response greeted him – `Yes, we’re all English’ – to which legend has it he answered, `Come up then. The Navy’s ‘ere!’  The 299 captives were released from the holds and taken on deck for transfer to Cossack.

Whilst the search for the prisoners was undertaken, Paymaster SubLieutenant Craven remained on the bridge with some British guards and about ten Germans. After a while, the latter became rather anxious and requested permission to put on their lifebelts. Permission was refused, but Craven, who spoke reasonable German asked what the matter was. They replied that they believed Dau had ordered the demolition charges around the ship to be set `to detonate at 00:30′. This was forwarded to Cossack, which hurriedly came alongside to embark the prisoners. Some of the British officers believed the scuttling might be a bluff, but Vian decided not to take any chances. Just as Sub-Lieutenant Craven ordered all men off the bridge of Altmark, a faint, dull sound was heard by some and believed to be an explosion. Dau, on the other hand, claimed that things happened so fast that he was never able to initiate any scuttling, and that this was the reason he ran his ship aground.

Once the embarkation of the prisoners and the boarding party was concluded, Vian backed Cossack off and at midnight (BrT) gave the order to head back down the fjord. A medical officer was embarked from Sikh to attend the liberated prisoners, but, apart from one case of leprosy among the Lascars, they were all found to be in a good condition, considering the circumstances.

To their surprise and immense relief, the Germans were all left behind, including Kapitän Dau. No attempt was made by the British to damage or sink the tanker, neither was the radio room put out of action.

With Arethusa and the destroyers closing up, Cossack headed west at 25 knots. A signal was sent to the Admiralty and the C-in-C Home Fleet at 01:50 (BrT) stating that the prisoners had been freed, Altmark was unseaworthy and that the Norwegians had refused to cooperate but remained passive. At 02:50 (BrT) this was augmented by a second signal informing that fighting had taken place with one British and several German casualties and that Cossack was now `somewhat battered’. It was also conveyed that the prisoners stated they were not impressed by the Norwegian Navy’s search of the Altmark when she had been stopped. At 03:40 (BrT) came the reply: `Well done Cossack’, but it was followed some twenty minutes later by a sombre request for details of what had taken place between Cossack and the Norwegian ships, more facts on the use of weapons and the treatment of the prisoners on board Altmark.

It is interesting to note that Vian initially reported the treatment of the prisoners on board Altmark to have been `satisfactory’ in spite of later claims that the tanker had been a `slave ship’. Furthermore, Vice Admiral Gordon Campbell, who interviewed Captain Starr, master of Taiora, and Captain Brown, master of Huntsman, after their release from Altmark, concluded that – except for the sanitary situation – the conditions had given few grounds for complaint. The two masters also confirmed that, as far as they were aware, they had received the same rations as the Germans on board. Later, a series of statements were made by the prisoners or those who interviewed them, concluding that although their treatment was harsh it was rarely brutal and `a considerable way short of justifying the allegations and charges against [Captain Dau and his crew] that were unfortunately given wide circulation after the release of the prisoners by HMS Cossack’. In the name of morale and propaganda, Churchill preferred to keep the impression that Altmark had been a `hell ship’ and saw no reason to exonerate a German naval master.

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