The Military Revolution—Dutch and Swedish Reforms I

My troops are poor Swedish and Finnish peasant fellows, it’s true, rude and ill-dressed; but they smite hard and they shall soon have better clothes.

GUSTAV II ADOLF [Gustavus Adolphus]

The early campaigns of Gustav Adolf and the beginning of Sweden’s rocky rise to power. This was a time when some of his innovations in weapons and tactics were in the embryonic stages and he fought the campaigns with a mixture of old and new. It was therefore a training ground and educational experience for the young king. We see the widespread improvements in armaments and tactics, the products of a military genius, which were to ultimately make Sweden a formidable military power.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era that took place mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought momentous changes to almost every aspect of life. These changes affected the arts, literature, politics, economics, science, technology, and the military.

Our main concern is with the military changes—or the military revolution as it is most frequently called in the literature. It can be argued persuasively that military changes were the driving force behind the political.

War was almost continual during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This state of affairs resulted, as was to be expected, in developments in weaponry, tactics, and extended durations of wars. The military changes, primarily in technology and weapons, started in the mid-fifteenth century on an evolutionary scale. However, as John Childs points out, changes that took place over several centuries cannot be labeled as revolutionary. It is only when these changes picked up speed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that they became revolutionary in nature.

The advances in technology in the late middle ages led—gradually at first—to modifications of all aspects of war by the early 1700s. During this period military operations devastated the population and countryside, and, as the monopoly of violence rested securely with the Crown, the accompanying increase in the size of armies and costs led to the rise of absolutism and autocracy across the continent.


The armies prior to the Thirty Years War were relatively small and they were primarily mercenary based. Because of the expenses involved in training, nations increasingly moved toward permanent military establishments and away from the use of militia forces which were disbanded during the winter. Roberts has pointed out that the quick spread of technology was influenced by the use of mercenary forces that learned new technology in the service of one nation and then took that knowledge with them when they shifted employers.

Rapid growth in the size of armies characterized the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This stemmed from a number of factors such as the proliferation of wars, rise in population, sophisticated armament, increased specialization, and a large expansion of the support base.

The imperial forces numbered approximately 20,000 at the beginning of the Thirty Years War while the Protestant opposition amounted to some 12,000. A little more than a decade later the Catholic forces numbered over 150,000 and those under Swedish command were even larger.

New armaments, the move toward large standing military establishments, growing requirements for a large and sophisticated support base, and prolonged wars resulted in a steep rise in military expenditures and this led to major political changes in most countries. Downing has pointed out that the cost of a single cannon was equivalent to the feeding of 800 soldiers for a whole month. The whole transition in armament involved large expenses.

Economic considerations, then as now, dictated strategy. Countries were unwilling to risk the destruction of their armies—expensive investments— and therefore wars were for the most part short and indecisive in nature. Major engagements were avoided. The rare attempts to mount rapid and decisive campaigns usually failed because of poor communications and consequent lack of speed.

The solution adopted by most continental powers to deal with the steep increase in the costs of war was to raise standing armies. This transition took place in most countries in the last half of the seventeenth century. This did not mean that mercenaries disappeared from the scene. They continued to account for a sizable portion of a nation’s army, even into the nineteenth century. In the Thirty Years War, Sweden switched the burden of maintaining its armies to the territories in which they operated through what became known as the “contribution system.”

Since the 1950s we have entered a similar period with respect to advances in technology. The standing armies in most Western countries have been severely curtailed in size since the 1970s as we went to an all-voluntary system where personnel costs increased at the same time as there was an explosion in high cost technology. The cost of most military hardware has skyrocketed. The cost of a modern fighter or ground support aircraft as compared to similar aircraft in World War II tells the story, and this problem is prevalent across the board. It seems evident that we are now facing changes similar to those of the seventeenth century—increased centralization, heavy tax burdens, and the possible loss of individual freedoms.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a decline of the cavalry arm of most armies (Russia, Poland/Lithuania, and Turkey being notable exceptions). This change had been in progress well before that time period. The battlefield became more and more infantry dominated as the weapons of foot soldiers improved and became more effective. This required organizational and tactical changes.

In grappling with this problem in the early 1500s, Spain opted for an organizational structure resembling the Greek phalanx. The troops were armed with a mixture of pikes and firearms. The infantry, which gained prominence on the battlefield, was organized into units of 3,000 men (tercio), perhaps better known to the English reader as the “Spanish square.” It was devised, partially, as a means of making the matchlock handgun a more effective infantry weapon. Like the Greek phalanx, the “Spanish square” was expected to sweep everything before it.

The pikemen were in the center of these 100 by 30 man squares and the musketeers on the flanks. However, these formations reduced tactical flexibility because of their unwieldiness on the battlefield. Despite these shortcomings the Spanish square dominated the battlefields of Europe for over a century.

The heavy cavalry which had been in decline for centuries underwent a further decline as infantry weapons and artillery became deadlier. In the seventeenth century the ratio of cavalry to infantry had declined to about 25 percent. The light cavalry, however, was still very useful for pursuit, skirmishing, screening, and the interdiction of lines of communication.


It gradually became obvious that the Spanish system needed to be modified to make it more flexible and to make better use of manpower. The first important steps in the modification process were taken by Maurice of Nassau and Prince of Orange (1567–1625) who was a general in the United Provinces in their ongoing rebellion against Spain. He had an excellent theoretical and practical knowledge of warfare, and used the Roman legion as the model for his organizational reforms. The reforms that Maurice initiated resulted in a revolution of military organization and tactics during the seventeenth century.

Maurice’s primary contribution to the art of war can be found in the tactical employment of manpower. He sought battlefield flexibility by a reduction in both the size and depth of the infantry formations. Maurice modified the tercios by subdividing them into units of 580 men in ten ranks.

This new formation became the beginning of the modern linear formation. The companies were organized into battalion-size units with pikemen in the center and musketeers on the flanks. The objective was to allow the musketeers to deliver continuous fire by ranks before countermarching to the rear to reload. We thus see that the musketeers and pikemen were still linked in one unit but were no longer mixed so that a large number of soldiers were ineffective. With a maximum battalion front of about 250 meters this formation avoided the waste of manpower found in the Spanish square. The number of soldiers who could effectively use their weapons was virtually doubled.

While the pikes were supposed to protect the musketeers from cavalry attacks, the smaller units were more vulnerable to attacks on their flanks and rear than in the Spanish square. Maurice attempted to avoid this danger by adopting a checker-board battle formation, the spaces between battalions of the first line covered by echeloned battalions in the second line and by trying to rest the flanks on natural obstacles. If this was not possible, the flanks were protected by cavalry. The battalions were grouped into “brigade” formations in three distinct lines.

As Childs notes, the army reforms of Maurice of Nassau required extensive training and a high level of discipline—contributing factors leading to standing national forces. The success of the system required intensive training over all kinds of terrain and this is one of Maurice’s most important contributions. This training also made officers adept at handling and changing formations, and it was an effective way to keep troops busy between campaigns. Such practices as marching in step date from this period.

Maurice was also ahead of his time in experimenting with new weapons such as explosive shells. He insisted on the use of field fortifications, and developed new innovations that would reduce the time of sieges. He adopted field glasses for observation and had a great interest in mapmaking.

Maurice’s innovations did not solve all the problems associated with the Spanish square. The pikeman’s role was the same as before and the musketeers were still wed to the pike formation. In some ways, the new linear formation was not much more effective in defense than the system it replaced. The changes that Maurice brought about can be viewed as a transition between the earlier gunpowder era and the system adopted by Gustav Adolf. Gustav’s modifications to Maurice’s system basically lasted to the French Revolution, with minor modifications. Together, Maurice and Gustav’s fundamental concept of linear formation and mobility lasted until the twentieth century.

The science involving fortifications and sieges was also transformed. The old medieval stone walls were quickly demolished by cannon firing iron ammunition. New fortifications capable of withstanding cannon fire were expensive and beyond the means of most small states.

Geoffrey Parker mentions some other changes that took place in this period such as the emergence of military academies, the enactment of an embryonic form of “laws of war,” and the proliferation of writings on the art of war.


It is easy to both overstate and understate the achievements of Gustav Adolf. There are examples of both extremes in the literature covering the period. It is true, as pointed out by Colonel Dupuy that many of Gustav’s innovations were adopted from others and, furthermore, he was not the only one during the period who sought to improve the military system. And Lynn Montross observes that with few exceptions, Swedish military reforms owed in some measure to the experiments by others … . A talented organizer, Gustavus began where his predecessors left off, taking the best of their ideas and combining them with his own.

Maurice of Nassau and Gustav Adolf were not simply military theorists but military practitioners. However, it is hard to find anyone who so successfully bridged the gap between concept and practice or fitted the pieces together in an integrated system as did Gustav. Aside from Genghis Khan, Gustav Adolf is the only great captain who won fame on the battlefield using an instrument mainly of his own design. Liddell Hart, who accords Gustav the title of “Father of Modern War,” writes that His outstanding achievement is in fact the tactical instrument that he forged, and the tactical “mechanism” through which this worked its triumphs.

Gustav’s accomplishments were many. He created mobile field artillery, made combined arms operations possible, restored the role of cavalry, and developed the modern role of infantry. He was more than the author of the linear tactics of the eighteenth century—he laid the foundation for the infantry tactics of the twentieth century. He organized the first national army and created the first effective supply service, imposed a system of discipline, and laid the foundation of military law.

Dupuy describes the army Gustav Adolf inherited thus:

At the time Gustavus Adolphus assumed the Swedish throne in 1611, the Swedish Army was in deplorable condition: poorly organized, under strength, short on pikes, musketeers equipped with the obsolete arquebus, and badly led. Administration was virtually nonexistent, recruitment at low ebb, morale poor …

To this can be added Sweden’s dire financial straits and a sense of weariness after nearly a century of almost continuous wars.

Gustav Adolf was not merely a copier or product improver; he introduced many changes of his own. We shall now look at some of these, both refinements and those based on originality.


The basic Swedish infantry tactical unit was the battalion or squadron consisting of 408 troops. This organization was still slightly pike heavy. There were 216 pikemen to 192 musketeers. Both pikemen and musketeers were arranged in three rectangular formations, each with a depth of six ranks. The difference was that all the pikemen were located in the center of the battalion formation with a frontage of 36 men while the musketeers were formed into two equal groups, one on each side of the pikemen. The frontage of each musketeer formation was 16 troops. Dupuy notes that an additional 96 musketeers were often attached to the battalion, performing out-posting, reconnaissance, etc. This formation enabled the battalions to deliver formidable firepower.

While Lord Reay, a contemporary English observer, among others, has left diagrams, there was no standard formation for the brigades, which were tactical units. They were “task organized.” Both size and formation depended on the battlefield, the enemy, strength of the battalions, and the experience of the troops. However, they usually consisted of between one full-size two-battalion regiment, and two reduced strength regiments. The numerical size usually varied between 1,000 and 2,000 men but this larger number strained the span of control. The three-battalion brigade in Figure 2 had 1,224 troops. Two regimental guns were usually attached and cavalry was often found in the rear, between the lines of infantry.

FIGURE 1: Standard Swedish Battalion Formation.

FIGURE 2: One Possible Swedish Brigade Formation.

Gustav Adolf also introduced “volley firing,” since the inaccurate match -locks and flintlocks were more effective when fired simultaneously. The volley fire was normally obtained by advancing the rear ranks of musketeers into the three-foot intervals between the musketeers in the front of them. This became the basis for European infantry tactics. According to a Scottish colonel, Robert Monro, who fought in the Swedish army as a mercenary for about six years, Gustav adopted a somewhat different method for delivering volley fire. According to Monro, Gustav had his first rank advance ten paces before the troops fired. The first rank then stopped in place to reload while the next rank passed through them to deliver its volley. This procedure was repeated for each rank. It had the advantage of always closing on the enemy and shortening the distance to the targets with each rank delivering increasingly accurate fire. Gustav had in effect changed the countermarch into an offensive operation.

There is some conflict or confusion in the literature when it comes to the Swedish use of volley fire. Dupuy writes:

Further, the countermarch was so executed that the whole formation moved forward, and the fire was, in effect, a small-arms rolling barrage. During this movement, the musketeers were protected by the pikes while they reloaded. Later, Gustavus introduced the salve, or salvo, further increasing the firepower of his line. In the salvo, three ranks fired simultaneously. This made continuous fire impossible, but it proved effective just before a climatic charge by producing a volume of fire in a few minutes at close quarters that in the countermarch would have taken a half-hour or more.

I have found that the full salvo by three ranks of infantry was used sparingly. The musketeers would be rather helpless after delivering such a salvo since they all had to reload at the same time and offensive action by the pikemen to cover the infantry after a full salvo was problematic unless the second line of three ranks had closed up to the first.

Robert Frost writes that on the third day of the Mewe engagements, the first line of Swedish musketeers had fired a salvo at the Polish infantry when they were swept off the high ground by hussars before they could reload. On the previous page he writes that the hussars, after driving the first Swedish line off the high ground were stopped by a salvo from a second line of Swedish infantry.

There are others who doubt that a full salvo was ever used. David Parrott contributed an article to Michael Roberts’ book Military Revolution Debate and on page 35 of that book Parrott questions both the effectiveness of the salvo and whether it had ever been used. Frost recognizes Parrott’s disagreement in a note. In that note he labels Parrott’s comment as unfounded and goes on to give an accurate description of a salvo: The salvo was specifically designed for use against cavalry attack, where two salvos in quick succession by two lines each three ranks deep was all that the defenders had time to deliver. The two lines of Swedish infantry at Mewe appear to have been more separated than was customary, and the two salvos were therefore not delivered in quick succession.

Gustav also made important changes in infantry weapons and equipment. Despite the fact that body armor was fast disappearing, the Swedish pikemen wore breastplates and greaves. A problem with the pike was that it was frequently severed by enemy cavalry using swords. To overcome this problem, Gustav sheathed the upper portion of the pike with a thin layer of iron. To compensate for the increased weight this caused, the pike was shortened from sixteen to eleven feet.

The arquebus was done away with and replaced by the matchlock musket. However, the earlier matchlock was also a heavy piece of equipment and required a fork rest to fire, adding to the weight a musketeer had to carry. In 1526, while engaged in his Polish campaigns, Swedish manufacturers invented a lighter musket with mechanical improvements permitting quicker loading. The heavy iron fork was also replaced by a thin double ended pike, known as a “Swedish feather.” It had a dual purpose. In addition to serving as a rest for the musket, it was also useful as a palisade stake in presenting an obstacle for enemy cavalry. The consequent reduction in the weight that a musketeer had to carry allowed him to be armed with a saber. Both the saber and the Swedish feather gave the infantry some defense against cavalry attacks.

By the end of the seventeenth century the flintlock had almost completely replaced the matchlock. The flintlock was generally less accurate and had a slower rate of fire than the improved matchlock. These were undoubtedly the reasons for the resistance by many practitioners to its adoption. However, the advantages were also great. First, it was less vulnerable to weather. Second, it removed the intrinsic and obvious danger of a lit match. Third, by the removal of the danger of accidents with lit matches, troops could be placed closer together, thus increasing the volume of fire delivered from a given space. To that can be added another important advantage of the improved musket: its increased penetration; the ball could penetrate some of the body armor of the day.

The introduction of the bayonet also took place during the seventeenth century. The plug bayonet appeared first in France in 1647. Forty years later the plug bayonet was replaced by the socket bayonet, where the bayonet is fastened to a socket on the musket barrel. By the first quarter of the eighteenth century the bayonet had replaced the pike.

The Swedes also standardized the caliber and the powder charge. Although the paper cartridge was apparently not a Swedish invention, they seem to have been the first to put it to full use as standard infantry equipment. The cartridge contained a carefully measured fixed charge with a one ounce ball attached. Each soldier carried fifteen cartridges in a cloth bandolier across his chest. When reloading all a soldier had to do was to bite off the end of the cartridge and push it into the musket with the ramrod. This saved many motions in reloading and represented a significant increase in fire power. In large measure due to constant training in the 1620s, the Swedish army improved reloading speed to the point where the six ranks of musketeers could maintain a continuous barrage.

The Swedish battalion bore a clear resemblance to those of Maurice. However, without the attached musketeers, it was slightly smaller. Both organizations were primarily defensive in nature but could be used offensively if properly reinforced and supported. To acquire an offensive capability several battalions had to be combined into a brigade adequately supported by cavalry and artillery.

The weaknesses of the linear formation were that it was no longer able to adequately defend its own flanks and rear. This problem increased with progressively fewer ranks in order to maximize firepower to the front. Gustav Adolf’s triangular and checkerboard brigade formation compensated for this weakness since the flank units could turn to present the enemy with a new front.


The Swedish cavalry was manned by volunteers, and most were light cavalry. The Swedish horses were small but performed well against the bigger horses in the continental armies. By 1630 Gustav Adolf had a cavalry force of 8,000 native Swedes and Finns. A high morale was maintained by regular pay supplemented with bonuses in the form of land or rental income.

Gustav realized, under the conditions then prevailing, that battles could not be won by firepower alone, and that he needed the shock power that only cavalry could provide. He discarded both the caracole and the customary deep cavalry formations. He formed the cavalry in six ranks as he used for the infantry but later changed that to three ranks. Although he had done away with the caracole the riders still carried pistols, but only the first rank fired and the others used them for emergencies. The main weapon was the saber. Firepower support was provided by musketeer detachments deployed between the cavalry squadrons. After an initial salvo to disrupt the enemy line, the musketeers reloaded while the cavalry charged. The reloading exercise was primarily to be ready for a second charge or to cover a cavalry retreat. The light regimental artillery guns could also lend fire support if needed.

The Swedes, like other armies of the period, employed dragoons. In the case of the Swedes, these were basically mounted infantry armed with carbine and saber. They were useful for a variety of tasks such as quick raids, skirmishing, and foraging. Through the employment of small units in this manner, Gustav Adolf was able to concentrate the organization and training of his regular cavalry for shock tactics only. A company of cavalry consisted of 115 men and a cavalry regiment had an average strength of 800 to 1,000.

The Military Revolution—Dutch and Swedish Reforms II


Before Gustav Adolf’s arrival on the scene, artillery was considered a specialty, and it was usually operated by civilian mercenaries. These were an unruly bunch that often showed utter contempt for military discipline. Gustav would not put up with this situation and formed the first military artillery company in 1623. By 1629 he had an artillery regiment consisting of six companies. He put this organization under the command of twenty-six-year-old Lennart Torstensson, undoubtedly the best artilleryman of his time. The artillery was thus established as a distinct branch of the army, manned almost entirely by Swedish soldiers.

Four of the six companies of artillery were true gun companies, one consisting of sappers, and the sixth of men, often called on during sieges, trained to handle special explosive devices. It was in weapons and the techniques of their use that set the Swedish artillery apart from that of other armies.

Gustav’s objective was not only to simplify the guns but to do so with the goal of making the artillery arm a full and equal partner with the infantry and cavalry on the battlefield. To be that partner, the guns had to be at the right place when they were needed—in other words they had to be mobile. This meant reducing their weights.

Gustav started out by discarding the heavy 48-pounder. He retained the 24-pounders and 12-pounders. They were useful for siege operations and long-range bombardment. He exchanged the 8-pounders with very mobile and relatively quick-firing 3-pounders.

Gustav first tackled the weight problem during the early period of the Polish campaigns. Improvements in the quality of gunpowder made it possible to equalize the pressure in the tube and reduce the thickness of the barrel. In the end, the Swedes had a field gun made that weighed only 90 pounds. It consisted of a copper tube (a metal the Swedes possessed in ample supply) reinforced by iron bands. It was also wrapped in ropes set in cement with a final layer of leather—hence the term “leather cannon.” The tube was removable since it became exceedingly hot after a few rounds and had to be cooled. This innovation was soon removed from the arsenal as it proved too fragile and dangerous for field use.

Gustav Adolf continued his search for a light field piece. Metallurgic advances made it possible to develop a short cast iron gun without the sacrifice of safety as was the case with the “leather cannon.” In 1624 Gustav had some of the old guns recast into new 3-pounders, with a caliber of 2.6 inches, a length of 48 inches, and a weight of 400 pounds. With its carriage it weighed 625 pounds. Four men or one horse could move the new gun during battle. These guns became known as “regimental guns” since they were assigned to the regiments. It was the first regimental field piece in military history.

The Swedes also developed the first packaged artillery cartridge for use with the regimental gun. It was a thin wooden case which held a prepared charge wired to the ball. The prepared charge increased accuracy and simplified loading. This led to a high rate of fire. The Swedish regimental gun could be fired eight times in the time it took musketeers to discharge six volleys.

At first, one gun was assigned to each regiment. This was later increased to two.39 The regimental guns changed the traditional role of the artillery and gave the Swedes an enormous advantage in battle, because for several years the Swedish army was the only army that possessed artillery pieces that could accompany the infantry into battle. The need for this type of firepower well forward has influenced all later tactical and organizational doctrines.

John Keegan appears to disparage Gustav Adolf’s innovations in weapons and tactics, in sharp contrast to what others have written. For example, he is the only military historian I know who labeled the infantry guns ineffective when he writes that in practice they did the enemy little harm. He appears to ignore the many battles from Breitenfeld onwards where these weapons had a devastating effect on thickly packed enemy ranks. Hans Delbruck writes that the entire socio-political situation of Europe was transformed with the new military organization.

Gustav Adolf also turned artillery into an offensive tool. He wanted to concentrate maximum fire at the decisive point in a battle. The new regimental guns with their mobility allowed Gustav to achieve this aim. Up till then, the artillery had been positioned before the battle and remained in those positions for the duration, unable to move. The light regimental gun could be moved at will.

Not only was the quality of the Swedish artillery impressive, but so was the quantity. Parker points out that the Dutch army deployed only four field guns at the Battle of Turnhout in 1597 and only eight at the Battle of Nieupoort in 1600. This stands out in sharp contrast to the 80 artillery pieces that Gustav brought with him to Germany in 1630.

When King Gustav appeared on the scene, the solid cast-iron projectile was still the artillery ammunition in use, but around 1580 there had been an improvement. Until then, the gunpowder in the hollow sphere was ignited separately from the propellant. It was ignited by a slow burning fuse before touching off the main charge. This meant that there was a serious problem if the main charge misfired. If the main iron ball was not removed in time, the whole gun could explode. This problem was overcome by a new type of fuse which was ignited by the propellant charge.

An exploding shell, where a bursting charge filled half the container, was invented in the late sixteenth century. There were also experiments ongoing with time and percussion fuses but these ideas were too far ahead of the contemporary chemistry to become useful. The early hand grenade made its debut but its handling was a cumbersome and dangerous operation. It was ignited by a slow burning fuse and Montross writes that: The soldier lighted the fuse and whirled the two-pound missile about his head to speed ignition before throwing. Accidents were frequent.


War in the patchwork of German states—some Protestant others Catholic— created a logistical problem. The question of food and ammunition became as important as the soldiers’ pay. Commanders resorted to looting towns and villages, both for supplies and valuables, to make up the arrears of their soldiers’ pay. Starving women and children became camp followers and their number often exceeded that of the armies. The Thirty Years’ War set up a tradition of looting as a legitimate operation in warfare.

Martin van Creveld defines logistics as the practical art of moving armies and keeping them supplied.46 This is a good definition as long as it is realized that “moving” and “supplied” are broad terms that involve a myriad of separate elements and actions.

Downing writes that the system developed by the Swedes represented a change from the normal practices of the period and relied on large staffs, but seemed little removed from plunder. The Swedes went about it in a very organized manner. Their quartermasters spread throughout Germany, inventoried the resources needed, and requisitioned them for their army’s needs.

At least it was, in the beginning, done without the pillage and massacres that other armies resorted to in living off the land, especially the mercenaries. A functioning supply system also tended to shorten wars since the enemy commander could no longer hope that by waiting his opponent would run out of supplies.48 Roberts writes that because the requisitions were usually spent in the same localities as they were made, the effects on the economy were not as injurious to the local populace as would appear at first sight. The long-term concern for future supplies from a particular region set the Swedish system apart from the practice of their opponents. However one looks at it, it was part of the philosophy that “war should be made to pay for itself.”

The alternative of letting soldiers forage for themselves often led to criminal behavior and desertions. In the case of Sweden’s Baltic campaigns in the second half of the sixteenth century, they had to deal with mutinies by mercenaries not properly paid and fed. The establishment of national armies in the seventeenth century with logistical commands led to better disciplined troops, as they had an organization to rely on for critical needs.

Logistic considerations always trump strategic and tactical ones. We will deal with several operations where logistical considerations prevailed over strategy. To plan a campaign without an adequate supply system is so full of risks that it should never be undertaken. Later we will witness what happened to Karl XII when he drove deep into Russia without an adequate line of supply. Napoleon also had to learn this truism the hard way.

The only two powers in Europe to establish a national logistic apparatus for supplying their armies were France and Spain. When France entered the war after years on the sidelines, it constructed a supply system consisting of magazines and private contractors in the local regions. This blend of government and private enterprise worked well. The Holy Roman Empire built a road system to supply its armies. The two principal roads ran from Vienna to the lower Rhine and from northern Italy to the mouth of the Rhine.


Military staffs have existed, in one form or another, throughout recorded history. At times they were primitive, composed mostly of informal group of specialists or trusted advisers relied on by the commander for advice. Like all other aspects of warfare, they evolved over time and became more sophisticated. As mentioned earlier, successful warfare is only possible when based on sound logistical preparation. We find that such preparations were present in the Roman Empire, but largely disappeared after its disintegration. It was not fully reestablished until Gustav Adolf revived it.

Again we find that Gustav took an existing concept and improved it. The Swedish regimental staff consisted of a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, a chief quartermaster, two chaplains, two judge advocates, surgeons, provost marshals, and a number of clerks.

The staff at army headquarters mirrored that in the regiments except it was considerably larger and had added experts, such as a chief engineer and contractors. Both levels had a number of messengers.

Gustav was a meticulous planner. He would sit down with his staff and lay out various options, possible enemy reactions to those options, and logical Swedish counters to those reactions. These courses of action would then be assigned to various underlings to develop further. His council of officers acting as a general staff would then meet to discuss the various options, though the final decision lay with the king as commander-in-chief.

When a course of action was settled upon, it was reduced to a numbered document similar to the later five-paragraph field order. All unit commanders would become familiar with not only their own tasks but those of adjacent units. One person always present at these planning sessions was the quartermaster general. This shows Gustav Adolf’s concern for proper logistic sup-port.

The troops received their provisions from magazines established along routes and kept filled through shipments from Sweden as well as enforced contributions from the countryside. A commissary staff distributed these supplies to a central location for pick-up and distribution by their counterparts at the regimental level. Local peddlers were licensed and encouraged to set up booths near the camps for the sale of small luxuries. The troops were sheltered in huts or tents in the fortified camps but as a rule they were mostly quartered in towns. A soldier could demand a bed, salt, vinegar, and a place to cook his meals from the host. All other demands were considered looting.


Gustav set the rebuilding and reorganization of the army as his top priority when he inherited the throne after his father in 1611. The first decision he had to make was whether to base the new army on mercenary forces as his predecessors had done to a large extent, or to form a national army. His decision was to base his reorganization on a national conscription system, the first in Europe. Recruiting regions were established that were responsible for raising and maintaining units. Gustav and his advisors realized that the mercenary element could not be done away with in view of the nation’s manpower needs, and the end result was that the Swedish army had a national nucleus supplemented by mercenaries. Norway also adopted universal conscription in the middle of the seventeenth century. Thus the two Scandinavian states became the earliest to resort to this method for raising armies.

The system used to raise troops in Sweden and Finland was called indelingsverket (apportionment system), and had actually begun during the latter part of Karl IX’s reign. After a rather bumpy start the system was modified in the 1620s through a ratio provision discussed in the Introduction. Each parish had to equip and feed one soldier for every ten males in the parish who had earlier been subject to conscription. All males between the ages of fifteen and sixty owed military duty, and the unlucky one out of ten was chosen by drawing lots. There were many exceptions as for nobles, for the clergy, for men serving in the mining industries, and for the only surviving son of a widow. Bonde (farmer) was the most frequently listed occupation, by far, in the enrollment register.

Parker gives some statistics for the annual conscription by the government and the numbers are surprisingly low; ranging from 8,000 in 1629 to 13,500 in 1627. He also shows the disastrous impact the system had on a typical community—that of Bygdeå. It is worth quoting directly some of what he had to say:

The parish of Bygdeå in northern Sweden, for example, provided 230 young men for service in Poland and Germany between 1621 and 1639, and saw 215 of them die there, while a further five returned home crippled. Although the remainder—a mere ten men—were still in service in 1639, it is unlikely that any of them survived to see the war’s end nine years later. Enlistment, in effect, had become a sentence of death: of the 27 Bygdeå conscripts of the year 1638, mustered on 6 July before being sent to Germany, all but one were dead within a year.

Mercenaries and contract soldiers had long constituted an important source of manpower, although probably not as important as some have concluded. They came from all over Europe: Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Albania, Italy, and Scotland, to mention a few. Scottish regiments had served in Scandinavia since the 1560s in support of the Protestant cause, either in the armies of Sweden or Denmark. Parker put their number as high as 25,000. Conscription in occupied territories provided additional troops. Those coming from Scotland and Ireland had the problem of how to get to Sweden. Some of them came to the west coast of Sweden when there were no hostilities with Denmark. Alternative routes were north German ports or by crossing Norway. The latter route was not safe as they were to discover in 1612 when a force of about 300, under colonels George Sinclair and Alexander Ramsay, was ambushed and wiped out by a 500-man Norwegian peasant militia at Kringen near Otta, apparently in revenge for an earlier massacre of Norwegian conscripts.


The new Swedish military organization and weapons described above would have been useless without rigorous training and strict discipline. Recruits were given two weeks basic training after enrollment. Here they learned how to march to the beat of drums, how to load their muskets, and how to handle the pike. The troops were never idle. Maneuvers by units at various levels were held frequently.

Discipline was harsh but fair, and when taken together with the provision of regular pay, resulted in an army that behaved better than most in that period. The regimental staff had a judge advocate officer as a permanent member. The reason for this arrangement dates back to 1621, during the siege of Riga, when Gustav Adolf issued his field regulations. Since they proved so influential in the behavior of Swedish troops, it is worth quoting what an expert on the military staff, General Hittle, has to say about this arrangement:

Under these regulations the commanding officer of the regiment was the president of the court, and as in our present system, the other members who heard the case were chosen from within the organization that convened the court. There was a clear delineation of authority between the provost marshal and the courts, for although the provosts could arrest an individual they were prohibited from inflicting capital punishment, except under very special circumstances.

… in addition to the regimental court martial, there was to be a permanent general court martial, of which the royal marshal of Sweden was to be president and high military officers were to be members. The regimental courts had jurisdiction over thieving, insubordination, and all minor crimes, and the higher court took cognizance of treason and other major offenses.

Every regimental commander was required to read the Articles of War (as the 1621 regulations came to be called) to his troops once a month. Men accused of serious infractions had the right to appeal the verdict of the court to the monarch. Punishment for infractions of these articles was severe, and Gustav’s soldiers had a reputation for good behavior unusual for troops of the day.

In addition to those rules listed in the previous section, I note some others mentioned by Montross:

Theft, looting, cowardice and violence to women were punished by hanging.

Local thieves and harlots were drummed out of camp.

Minor culprits might be shackled or made to “ride the wooden horse” with a musket tied to each foot.

Prohibition against a rabble of camp followers. One imperial army of 30,000 fighting men is said to have been encumbered by 140,000 non-combatants—women, children and cripples which had been reduced to destitution by past devastations. The Swedish army permitted a man’s wife and family to follow the regiment. The children attended regimental schools. This allowed the Swedes to reduce their baggage train substantially and thereby increase the mobility of the army.

The effects of all these reforms and procedures were the creation of the first truly national army of modern times, one that was also, with great consistency, victorious on the battlefields.

Hit-and-Run Raids

While the Japanese were sailing away from Darwin, a small U. S. task force based upon the fleet carrier USS Lexington under the command of Vice Admiral Wilson Brown was heading toward Rabaul to make a raid of its own. In the early weeks of the war, unable to engage Japanese forces in serious battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz, new head of Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, authorized a series of hit-and-run raids by America’s three fleet carriers then in the Pacific: Lexington, Enterprise, and Yorktown. (A Japanese submarine torpedoed USS Saratoga near Pearl Harbor and damaged it. Combined Fleet counted it as sunk. USS Hornet had not yet arrived in Hawaiian waters, although it soon did so in most dramatic fashion. USS Wasp spent the first few months of the war aiding the British defense of Malta. Americans employed a small number of light escort carriers to ferry aircraft, but they were not expected to fight.) Nimitz hoped that such tactics would unsettle the Japanese, make them cautious, and slow them down. Indeed for a short time Combined Fleet dispatched two Japanese fleet carriers to guard the approaches to the Home Islands. Yet the policy had its critics. Sending U. S. carriers within launch range of Japanese bases had inherent risks from air attacks and submarines. U. S. admirals did not anticipate inflicting major blows against Combined Fleet but nevertheless risked precious assets. Luck was kind to Nimitz, and no U. S. carrier suffered any damage. Indeed, although no one knew it at the time, Admiral Brown did the Allied cause a tremendous service.

The first Lexington raid was not, in an operational sense, a great success. When approaching Rabaul on February 20, Lexington was sighted by a long-range Japanese seaplane. The Lexington was outside of even the prodigious range of the Zero. There was no timidity among Japanese officers, still flush with victory, and they immediately launched an attack on the Lexington by seventeen new Betty bombers, their entire long-range strike force of 24th Air Flotilla (sometimes called 11th Air Fleet) newly established at Rabaul. Fortunately for the Americans the torpedoes, which made the Betty so deadly against British surface ships early in the war, had not yet arrived, so the Japanese loaded bombs instead.

It may have made no difference. American radar picked up the raiders, and Lexington’s Wildcat fighters made an accurate intercept. In the air battle that followed, the Japanese suffered one of their worst tactical reverses of the early Pacific war. As confirmed by postwar Japanese records, Wildcats shot down fifteen of the bombers at the cost of two defenders. Lexington was never in serious danger. The Americans proved they could risk an engagement inside the air perimeter of a major Japanese base. They had also shown that Japanese bombers-whatever their other virtues-were extremely flimsy, a flaw that would cost Japanese airmen dearly. One can only imagine the reaction at Combined Fleet when the news arrived, its leaders knowing that four of their carriers were at sea some 1,200 miles east. Had Combined Fleet divided its carrier task force and covered the operations planned out of Rabaul, it would have had ample aircraft to demolish Darwin and might well have caught Lexington. Port Moresby and Tulagi both would have fallen, almost certainly, in weeks.

Infuriated, Inoue called for replacement aircraft to be flown in. While waiting to reequip his shattered bomber force, Inoue also delayed the invasion of Lae and Salamaua from March 3 to March 8. Under normal circumstances, five days is not a long postponement. In this case, however, the situation could not have worked out worse for the Japanese. The Lexington task force joined up with USS Yorktown, and Nimitz granted Wilson’s request to strike Rabaul again. While the task force was sailing toward Rabaul, Allied reconnaissance picked up the Japanese transports and escorts embarking from Rabaul toward Lae and Salamaua. Wilson immediately saw that hitting a landing in progress offered the opportunity to rattle the Japanese seriously. The Japanese put their troops ashore on March 9 and swept away the insignificant opposition. The next day they received a shock. Wilson’s task force, for reasons of safety, maneuvered toward Port Moresby and launched from the west of Lae. This required the 100 American aircraft to cross the Owen Stanley Mountains, but this potentially perilous operation was carried out without loss. The surprise was complete. In the raid that followed, U. S. aircraft attacked the transports and their escorts and lost only a single plane. Within hours a strike of eight U. S. B-17s also joined the attack. Had the carrier pilots been more experienced, no doubt the Japanese losses would have been worse. As it stood, Inoue’s force was rudely treated. American planes sunk a minesweeper, a merchant-cruiser, and a transport and damaged a light cruiser and two destroyers.

Although not crushing, Fourth Fleet’s losses were serious enough to cause postponement of the planned move on Port Moresby and Tulagi. In March Port Moresby was nearly undefended, and Zeros based at Lae could have easily dealt with any Australian and American air defenders. Yet the possibility of U. S. carriers in the area, and the painful realization that the Allied buildup in northern Australia was taking place much faster than anticipated, altered the equation. A Japanese invasion fleet going from Rabaul (or Lae) to Port Moresby had to steam uncomfortably close to Australia. Prior to Admiral Brown’s raid, Inoue and Tokyo believed that Fourth Fleet could handle things by themselves. After the raid, however, the transports appeared much more vulnerable. An expedition without air protection from Combined Fleet’s carriers was judged too risky. Unfortunately for Tokyo, Combined Fleet, at a moment when the Allies were still desperately weak, had embarked on a major carrier raid against Ceylon on April 9, 1942. The Ceylon raid was another illustrious tactical victory. However, by the time Nagumo’s carriers had returned to imperial waters the Allied positions in the Indies, the Philippines, and Burma were obviously hopeless. However, this meant that Tokyo could no longer put off a final decision concerning where next to concentrate the action. Tokyo had squandered an opportunity go grab Port Moresby on the cheap. Although no one on either side of the Pacific could have anticipated it, the Japanese juggernaut had reached high tide. Within weeks the slow slide toward defeat began. (One individual who did not participate in further events was Wilson Brown, relieved because of failing health.)


After the Marshall Islands raid, the Yorktown task force, with the cruisers Astoria and Louisville and six destroyers, was sent south to augment Vice-Admiral Brown’s force. HMAS Australia also joined up. The combined task force now contained eight cruisers, 14 destroyers, and the two large carriers. Admiral Brown designated me as air commander, my unit consisting of the Lexington, the Yorktown and their air groups. For the first time, two carriers would act together tactically as one unit in combat. They would become the model of the multicarrier task groups which functioned so successfully later in the war.

The situation was discussed at a conference on board the Lexington. Admiral Brown still desired to attack Rabaul, but this time from a launching point south of the Solomons. The Japanese were now established at Gasmata, in southern New Britain, and had considerable air forces there as well as at Rabaul. To strike Rabaul from the south meant passing through restricted waters between the Louisiades and the Solomons and coming within range of air attack from Gasmata as well as from Rabaul. I recommended a dawn attack on both places to reduce the chances of counterattack. The plan was adopted, and we proceeded westward through the Coral Sea toward the contemplated launching position.

Shortly after this decision was reached, however, we got information that enemy ships had been sighted off Buna, just around the comer of New Guinea from Port Moresby, and, later, that troops were landing from many transports at Salamaua and near-by Lae, somewhat farther to the north along the same coast. This concentration seemed to promise a better objective than the ones we had chosen. To get within range of Salamaua and Lae from the Coral Sea side, however, we would have to penetrate to the north of the Louisiades and subject ourselves to air counterattack from Gasmata and Rabaul on our flank. There was one other alternative. From the northern tip of the Gulf of Papua, our planes could reach their targets by flying over the Owen Stanley Mountains of New Guinea to the Salamaua area while our carriers remained out of range of the enemy.

There were drawbacks to this plan. We had little information as to the height of the mountains and it was doubtful that our sea-level torpedo planes could clear them. Our intelligence data was extremely meager. Our charts showed the coast line but no details of the interior. Furthermore, our chart of the Gulf of Papua was marked “Surveyed in 1894” and “Area contains many coral heads which grow from year to year and whose position is unknown.” It was not a very pleasant prospect for a navigator.

To supplement our meager information, I sent two planes under Commander Walton W. Smith, of Admiral Brown’s staff, to Townsville, Australia, and two under Commander Willian. B. Ault, the Lexington’s Air Group Commander, to Port Moresby to pick up what information they could concerning the route of the projected flight. Commander Ault landed at Port Moresby between two Japanese air raids, a frequent occurrence which indicated their intention of capturing that base. Both he and Smith brought back valuable information. The towering peaks of the Owen Stanlev Mountains rise as high as 13,000 feet, a much greater altitude than our loaded torpedo planes could attain. Between these summits, however, my officers learned, was one pass at 7,500 feet, through which our planes could go. Though shrouded in clouds most of the time, the pass occasionally cleared for about two hours in the early morning. That would be just time enough, we estimated, for our planes to reach their objectives and get back. The terrain over which they would be flying was classed as “tiger country”-a wild, unexplored region of dense jungle and jagged peaks, inhabited by fierce head-hunters and cannibals.

We determined to attack through this pass. There was danger that if our planes got through on their way out, clouds might close in behind them before their return, shrouding the pass. In that case we might lose two whole air groups. To guard against this contingency, I decided to detail one plane, with an experienced officer, to remain in the pass as a weather observer while the rest were on the far side of the mountains. This officer would have authority to recall the planes if he saw the weather starting to close in. For this assignment, in view of his excellent judgment and experience, I selected Commander Ault. He was badly disappointed, since he naturally wanted to lead his planes in combat. The date set for the attack was March 10. The cruisers Australia, Chicago, Astoria and Louisville, and four destroyers, all under the command of Rear Admiral John Gregory Grace, of the Royal Navy, were detached and left behind to guard the passages through the Louisiades Islands against an enemy sortie in our rear. The rest of us proceeded westward into the Gulf of Papua, passing only 60 miles south of Port Moresby.

It was shortly after daylight when we arrived in the Gulf of Papua. In this sheltered area, we found little or no wind, and we could see that the pass through the mountains was clear. We kept within 15 miles of the coast, despite the numerous forbidding coral heads plainly visible in the clear water. Steaming at full speed to get sufficient wind over our decks, we launched our heavily loaded torpedo planes and dive bombers, with escorting fighter units. Snuggling to gain altitude. Lieutenant Commander Jimmie Brett’s torpedo squadron, at the last minute, received the benefit of an updraft of air and cleared the pass with a bare 500 feet to spare. When the groups sighted Salamaua and Lae, they saw two enemy cruisers and four destroyers in the harbors, with five transports and two cargo ships busily unloading supplies onto the beaches. Farther out, another Japanese task force was approaching. It contained an additional cruiser and five destroyers, six transports, and a seaplane tender of the Kamoi class. Until they heard the roar of engines and saw the flight swooping down from the mountains, the Japanese had no idea American planes were anywhere within miles of them.

To the enemy’s complete surprise, our torpedo planes and bombers swept into the harbors and the dive bombers pushed over in their attacks. When it was all over, five transports or cargo ships had been sunk, a destroyer had blown up, a mine layer was apparently sinking, and a 1,000-pound bomb had landed on each of two cruisers. Two additional destroyers were reported as dead in the water. Antiaircraft fire had been light, but one scout bomber of the Lexington group had been shot down. An enemy float plane which had tried to oppose the attack was picked off by Lieutenant Noel Gaylor of the Lexington, who sent it flaming into the sea. Another had been driven off, trailing smoke.

After the return of our planes through the pass, we were elated as we counted them and saw that all but one were present. As soon as all were safely aboard, we headed east for our fueling rendezvous and to rejoin our rear-guard cruisers. It had been a most successful attack and had demonstrated that two or more carriers could work together in combat as a team. It delayed the enemy’s plans for the capture of Port Moresby and began the attrition of his shipping that was eventually to be a major cause of his downfall. Admiral Nimitz congratulated Admiral Brown on a raid “well planned and well executed.”

Polish Units – Napoleonic Era

Following the victories at Austerlitz (1805) and later Jena and Auerstädt (1806), Napoleon called on Poles to establish a “Northern Legion” (also known as the Vistula Legion and, originally, the Légion Polacco-Italienne of the newly created Westphalian Army), yet without mentioning “Poland” in the name of the unit. In December 1806 three divisions numbering more than 13,000 troops were ready. They were formed in the former Polish territories annexed following Napoleon’s recent victories against Prussia and equipped with Prussian arms manufactured in Potsdam. These divisions, reorganized and enlarged in the following months, took part in the campaigns against the Russians and Prussians in East Prussia in 1806-1807. In so doing they played their part in the victory at Friedland (14 June 1807), which led to the Peace of Tilsit (7 July) and to the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw.

The Duchy of Warsaw was a weak state, yet Polish politicians and officers made a huge effort to organize a sizable army to support it. This was not easy, considering the limited finances of the duchy. Nevertheless an attempt was made to organize a force about 30,000 strong. Part of these forces-the Polish Division and the Polish-Italian Legion-were financed by Napoleon himself, who sent the former formation to serve in Spain in 1809.

In April of the same year hostilities broke out yet again between France and Austria in what became known as the War of the Fifth Coalition. Notwithstanding that the troops of the Duchy of Warsaw present on home soil numbered just 15,500, they were made responsible for the task of tying down in battle more than 30,000 Austrians under Archduke Ferdinand. At Raszyn on 19 April Polish forces tried to halt an Austrian advance toward Warsaw. The Poles managed to slow the enemy’s progress but they failed to prevent the Austrians from entering Warsaw. Polish forces (about 11,000) then undertook a new operation on the right bank of the river Vistula, capturing Lwow and Krakow. Even with these successes the position of Polish forces remained weak, and an armistice reached on 12 July was welcomed.

Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians in the campaign of 1809 left the territory of the Duchy of Warsaw considerably enlarged. At the same time, the army was increased to more than 60,000 men, consisting of 42,000 infantry and 12,800 cavalry, artillery, and technical troops. Approximately 52,000 troops were based in the duchy itself, with another 10,000 elsewhere, of whom 8,000 were serving in Spain.

In January 1812 Napoleon issued an order to prepare the Grande Armée for operations against Russia. The Polish contingent constituted about 20 percent of the halfmillion-strong army. On top of this the Duchy of Warsaw had to cope with the impossible logistical task of coordinating the army’s supplies once it passed over the border into Russia.

One Polish corps (V Corps) was organized within the Grande Armée under the command of General Jozef Poniatowski. His corps comprised the 16th Infantry Division (two infantry brigades, one cavalry brigade, and artillery: 11,000 troops in total); the 17th Infantry Division (two infantry brigades, a cavalry brigade, and artillery: 12,000); and the 18th Infantry Division (two infantry brigades, one cavalry brigade, and artillery); plus supplementary artillery units and technical-engineering units, comprising about 14,000 more troops. In all, at the outset of the Russian campaign, V Corps numbered about 37,000 troops. Additional large Polish formations were incorporated into Marshal Joachim Murat’s IV Corps, Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s X Corps, and IX Corps, with smaller contingents in I, II, and III Corps. It is estimated that at the beginning of the campaign Polish forces in the Grande Armée numbered 74,700 troops, later to rise to 91,400 (including the National Guard).

The campaign began on 22 June. Polish forces played a prominent part in the operations, capturing Grodno, struggling to defeat the Russians at Smolensk and Borodino, and occupying Moscow. From November 1812 Polish troops took part in the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Moscow. In several cases Polish forces formed the rear guard of the retreating army. Polish troops reached Vilnius in December 1812. Barely 15,000 men in the allPolish formations and 3,000 of those in the Franco-Polish formations survived. Thus, about 70,000 Polish soldiers of the army of the Duchy of Warsaw were lost during the Russian campaign.

In spite of these catastrophic losses, Poniatowski undertook yet another attempt to organize a new army of the Duchy of Warsaw. In February 1813 he left Warsaw with about 6,000 men. This force was to reach 16,000 three months later (while an additional 18,000 troops manned various fortresses in the duchy), organized to form two infantry and two cavalry divisions, in all constituting VIII Corps. On 17 May these troops left Krakow for Saxony. About 10,800 men took part in the Battle of Leipzig on 16-19 October. Poniatowski drowned at the close of the battle as he attempted to cross the river Elster with retreating troops. About 10,000 men from VIII Corps were either killed or taken prisoner in the battle.

Several smaller units continued to take part in various battles fought by Napoleon’s forces, even as late as Waterloo, yet the 100,000-man army of the Duchy of Warsaw was lost. As the Russians advanced west in 1813 the duchy’s fortresses successively fell to their troops. The future of Poland and the Poles was to be decided at the Congress of Vienna.

Military Saints

Saint Barbara

Many religions have reserved a special place in the afterlife for warriors who have fallen in battle. This remains true of modern Islam and provided motivation for the Iranian armies during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8). However, within the Christian religion, the notion of sainthood now seems incompatible with the profession of arms.

Together with the Book of Revelation, which introduces St Michael as the first warrior against evil, the Gospels did not exclude soldiers from religious experience, as in the cases of the centurion who described himself as unworthy to receive the Lord and the soldier on Calvary who declared that Jesus was the son of God. The Early Church counted among its numbers a great many soldiers martyred for their faith; St Sebastian and St Maurice of the Theban Legion are perhaps the most famous. Others, such as St Martin of Tours, also preached the gospel. Their conversion did, however, generally result in the abandonment of the military life. They were not specially invoked in the West to guarantee success on the battlefield, except where they became the patron saints of nations like St George in England or St Maurice in Piedmont, a privilege they shared with non-military saints such as St James (Santiago) in Spain or St Denis in France. Their names were emblazoned on the soldiers’ banners and shouted in rallying cries. St George replaced Edward the Confessor as the patron saint of England during the reign of Edward III, who founded the Order of the Garter under his patronage in c. 1349. Quasi-professional qualifications have been attributed to saints in certain armies – St Barbara is generally regarded as the patron saint of the engineers and the artillery whilst the Virgin Mary is the patron saint of the Italian carabinieri.

Some saints, usually monarchs, earned their status through converting enemies of the faith by force of arms. Among their number are Constantine, Clovis and Charlemagne. The instances of Joan of Arc and Alexander Nevsky are more exceptional. They did not spread the gospel but their missions were regarded as divine within the context of a just war. Joan of Arc (1412-31) aroused sufficient enthusiasm in Charles VII to be entrusted with a role in his armies but also sufficient scepticism for him to abandon her once events began to turn to her disfavour. Joan’s enemies feared her to the extent that they burned her as a witch but she was later rehabilitated by the Church. Joan is of interest to military historians on two counts. First of all, for her campaigns. It seems that, acting on the advice of Jean d’Aulon, she not only exercised a moral influence on the French troops but also suggested a number of strategic initiatives, which were often contested, but which usually advocated a constant offensive to take advantage of the disarray and weariness of the enemy. After her martyrdom, she became the symbol of the defence of France and emphasized the importance of morale. The legend of Joan of Arc was partially eclipsed from the time of the French Wars of Religion until the eighteenth century. This was probably because she was too closely associated with the Valois kings. It was not until the writings of Voltaire and, more especially, of Michelet, who saw her as a child of the common people, and the national disaster of 1870 that France once again came to revere her memory. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.

Joan of Arc (1412-31)


In 1429, France and England had been at war for almost a hundred years. The French position looked bleak. Seven years after the death of his father, King Charles VI, the Dauphin (also Charles) remained uncrowned while the British fought to hold France in the name of the infant son of Henry V. The English army and its Burgundian allies occupied much of northern France, including Reims, the city where French kings were traditionally crowned. Charles had taken refuge at the castle of Chinon, one hundred fifty miles southwest of Paris. The city of Orleans was under siege. If it fell, England’s armies would have open access to Chinon, and to Charles—who, from the English perspective, was a rebel, not the heir to France.

Then a seventeen-year-old peasant girl from a village near the border of the Duchy of Lorraine appeared on the historical stage, claiming the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret had told her it was her mission to put the Dauphin on the throne and save France from the English. Joan convinced the local commander at Vaucouleurs, Robert de Baudricourt, to send her to the Dauphin’s court at Chinon, accompanied by six of his knights. With Baudricourt’s help, Joan transformed herself from a peasant girl in a homespun red dress into a knight, complete with the expensive accoutrements of horse, retinue, standard, and armor. And not only into a knight—the epitome of male nobility—but a knight with a sacred mission. A crusader.

Joan had an influence on both of those events. After all, had she not desired to mend the rift between Philip the Good, who switched sides from the English to the French at the Congress of Arras?1 It could be argued that her victories influenced the peace process both because they showed the weakness of English troops and because they gave hope to the Burgundians that their French cousins were more capable warriors than they had previously believed. Yet, having established that link, it must be noted that if Joan did influence Philip to switch sides, this did not occur immediately, as the Congress did not even meet until six years after her capture. It also appears that the conference and the new alliance formed after it were prompted more by the diplomatic efforts of men like Georges de la Trémoïlle, than military efforts by generals like Joan. Finally, it must be recognized that even having both the French and Burgundians together against the undermanned English, thus turning all the resources of ‘France’ to the purpose of ridding the continent of English control, did not bring a quick end to the war. It was fourteen years after the Congress of Arras before Normandy was free from English control and seventeen years before Gascony was returned to the French. Not only did the Franco-Burgundian alliance not bring about a quick end to the war, but the Burgundians could not even conquer the town of Calais in the wake of the Arras congress in 1436. Besieging the English town, Philip discovered what the English had found out at Orléans, the French at Paris, and even the Burgundians at Compiègne – that well-fortified sites during the Middle Ages were difficult to defeat, even in an age of gunpowder weapons.

As for Joan’s influence on the turmoil of Henry VI’s reign, she must be given some credit for destabilizing the English military leadership. Simply capturing and holding for ransom the likes of John Talbot, Thomas Scales, and William de la Pole, while, at the same time, discrediting John Fastolf, meant that the English had very few other military leaders to call upon. That John of Lancaster, the duke of Bedford, regent of the boy-king, and head of the English forces in France, had to take the field himself against Joan at Paris certainly indicates this. But the curious feature of medieval ransoms was that captured generals were eventually released, and, once freed, were able to continue their previous military leadership without legal or chivalric hindrance. (The French, too, had profited from such a system, with Arthur de Richemont, Jean, duke of Alençon, Jean, the Bastard of Orléans, and others able to fight beside Joan, despite previously having been captured by the English.) Thus, by the beginning of 1430 Pole had been set free, by the middle of 1430 Scales had, and by 1433 Talbot had also gained his freedom. All returned to military leadership positions, and all fought with some success against the French until the end of the war. Moreover, it does not seem that the weakness of military leadership in France solely effected the political turmoil in England, for the resulting conflict there – what would later be called the Wars of the Roses – did not begin until close to the end of the Hundred Years War. And while loss of English lands, titles, and authority in France certainly affected what occurred in England between 1450 and 1485, there is justifiable suspicion over whether Joan, who had burned nearly twenty years previously, could have, even indirectly, caused Henry VI’s problems then and there.

Joan’s career as warrior was brief. It lasted less than two years—thirteen months of which were spent in captivity.

Siege of Orléans, (1428-9)

Adverse reaction to the Treaty of Troyes (1420) sparked off partisan warfare in those areas of France occupied by the English, especially Normandy. However, the French field forces were heavily defeated by the English and the Burgundians at Cravant in 1423 and by the Duke of Bedford at Verneuil in 1424. In desperation, Charles VII of France (1422-61) allied with Duke John V of Brittany, but John was routed by Bedford at St James, near Avranches, in 1426. The English and Burgundians then proceeded to attack the heart of Charles VII’s remaining lands. The Earl of Shrewsbury took Laval in Maine in 1426 and, in 1428, the Earl of Salisbury laid siege to Orléans in order to gain a crossing of the Loire before advancing on Berry.

Orléans was a large, populous and well-fortified city. The English first attacked the Bastille des Tourelles, a twin-towered masonry work which protected the southern end of the bridge over the Loire. Salisbury was mortally wounded during the successful storming of the Bastille, the Earl of Suffolk succeeding to the command. Suffolk invested Orléans with seven wooden forts on the northern side and a further four to the south. However, Suffolk had insufficient men to blockade the eastern side of the city and a trickle of supplies continued to enter Orléans although never enough to eliminate the danger of starvation. The field army of Charles VII attempted to interrupt the food and supply convoys of the English. On 12 February 1429, a convoy of 300 waggons under the command of Sir John Fastolf was attacked at Rouvray to the north of Orléans. He formed his waggons into a laager in the Hussite manner and defeated his assailants in the `Battle of the Herrings’. Orléans had now become a symbol of French resistance and nationalism as manifested by numerous peasant risings in the English occupied territories. The arrival of Joan of Arc at Chinon provided the leadership and inspiration for a French revival. On 27 April 1429, she set out for Orléans with a convoy of supplies escorted by between 3,000 and 4,000 armed men. Receiving considerable assistance and advice from professional soldiers, Joan entered Orléans on 29 April. The English besiegers were now so reduced in number that they were locked inside their forts and the French were able to enter and leave Orléans virtually at will. Between 4 and 7 May, Joan and the French attacked and captured a number of the English forts causing the siege to be lifted on 8 May. Under Joan’s guidance, the French retook the line of the Loire before recapturing Chalons and Rheims, where Charles VII was formally crowned on 18 July 1429.

The German Deployment in the West 1914

Initial Border and Railway Security Operations in the West and the Occupation of Luxembourg

At the start of the war, the German General Staff believed that the French—possibly even before war was declared—would attempt to disturb German mobilization and deployment by systematically blasting railway bridges and tunnels, by initiating air attacks against railway buildings and trains (especially those travelling across the Rhine bridges), and by conducting surprise dashes using standing or quickly mobilized troops, especially cavalry. A coup de main against the defensive works on Metz’s western front near the frontier and Fort Kaiser Wilhelm II did not seem out of the question. It would be the task of German troops assigned to border and railway security to ward off such attempts. Furthermore, these troops were tasked with securing the areas required for the deployment of the Field Army, with obscuring their own measures, and, if possible, with gaining a glimpse of the enemy’s activities. It was therefore very important, in the event of war, that German border and railway security personnel be put into action in time and with sufficient strength.

At the instigation of the Prussian War Minister, and acting under the authority of special provisions initiated during times of heightened political tension, on 28 July, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg increased railway supervision in frontier districts, as well as for railway employees under the jurisdiction of the Berlin Railway Division Authority (Eisenbahndirektion Berlin). This was the first protective measure taken at the behest of the central military authority. On the same day, the Ministry of War ordered the recall of those troops who were absent from their garrisons, who in the event of mobilization were to be “immediately” or quickly ready to march, for purposes of border security and for certain special tasks. Also, members of the public safety service were to guard the large wireless stations. Late on the night of 29 July, orders were sent out to recall to their garrisons all troops on manoeuvres and training grounds and to protect the air corps establishments as well as important structures along railway lines and waterways in the frontier districts. During the night of 29–30 July, the construction of armed positions for frontier defence was ordered as long as they were on German soil.

The state of “Sentinel Duty,” ordered on 30 July for the German Navy, required that the land army only put into readiness the active troops destined for the protection of the islands of Borkum, Pellworm, and Sylt—a total of five and a quarter infantry battalions, a company of engineers, and a foot artillery battalion including artillery equipment, ammunition, and provisions.

The deployment of frontier protection, which XVI Corps Headquarters intended to begin on 31 July, was abandoned after the Minister of War objected.

Only when the “State of Imminent Danger of War” was declared on 31 July at 13:00 did all measures prepared in peacetime for the military protection of frontiers, railways, and the coast come into force. Passenger and mail traffic across the frontiers was placed under more strict control, international telephone traffic and non-official wireless dispatches were prohibited, and public freight traffic in the border districts was suspended. The troop mobilization, however, was not connected with these moves. No reserves were called up, nor were units conveyed from the interior of the Empire to its borders; instead, the men of the frontier corps—who were still on their peacetime footing—took over protection of the frontiers as well as that of the railways within the jurisdiction of their corps.

Simultaneously with the Decree of Mobilization for the Army and Navy, promulgated on 1 August at 17:00 hours, the Landsturm was called out in the jurisdictions of fifteen separate corps (I, II, V, VI, VIII, IX, X, XI, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XX, XXI, and Bavarian II Corps).

At first, protection of the western deployment fell to the frontier corps (VIII, XVI, XXI, XV, and XIV Corps), according to the instructions for border and railway security issued by the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army in peacetime. As hostilities were to commence only upon orders of the OHL, even patrols, small detachments, and aircraft were strictly prohibited from crossing the frontier into French or Belgian territory. This prohibition, however, would become immediately invalid if the enemy entered or overflew German territory. Notwithstanding these peacetime regulations, on the night of 1–2 August, the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army enjoined the general commanding XVI Corps again, in a personal telephone call, to maintain the strictest restraint among his border guards. He stressed that any trespassing on enemy territory was to be strictly avoided, as were any hostilities. On the afternoon of 2 August the same instruction was telegraphed again to the headquarters of the five corps on the Western frontier. Only the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was exempt from these rules, since it was in a customs union with Germany. Luxembourg was scheduled to be occupied immediately upon the Decree of Mobilization and was to be included in the deployment territory; this was in order to take possession of its important railways.

In general, the borders of the corps districts were treated as the lateral operational boundaries for the areas to be defended. After entry into Luxembourg, the southern frontier of that country was to be divided between VIII and XVI Corps. The commanding generals were to direct the troops and formations within their own jurisdictions for the execution of their tasks. The 16th Infantry Division of VIII Corps was assigned to occupy Luxembourg. Its troops, which had been hurriedly put into readiness, were to turn out immediately after reporting themselves ready to march. Otherwise, during the “State of Imminent Danger of War,” VIII Corps’ border security operations in the relatively safe area between Kaldenkirchen and Echternach were to be carried out only by the Gendarme, customs officers, forestry officers, and road police, and, after mobilization, by Landsturm forces. On the Swiss border, too, the Landsturm was viewed as able to provide satisfactory security. However, in the section from Luxembourg to the Swiss frontier, active troops were stationed from the very start. Protection of the railways in the areas of XVI, XV, XXI, and Bavarian II Corps (Palatinate) was likewise assigned to active troops, while in the jurisdictions of VIII and XIV Corps this was left mostly to Landsturm troops.

The special difficulties attached to border and railway protection lay, first, in the speed at which the troops assigned to it had to ready themselves, and, second, in the steady change of troops and responsible commanding authorities during the first days of deployment. It was imperative that such protection come into force as rapidly as possible, on all points that could be threatened in any way. The first active troops to be employed had to be those stationed in the nearest peacetime garrisons. They were especially fit for this duty on account of their knowledge of local conditions. Of course, these troops were not already on a war footing and had to turn out before mobilization was completed. Some of them were not even stationed within the jurisdictions of the headquarters to which they had been assigned under the war organization.

Border security arrangements were executed in part on 31 July, the remainder on 1 August, without any disturbances and without serious contact with the enemy. Beyond the frontier, French guards and frontier sentries were identified at many points. At first, active patrols were made only in the Vosges and at the Burgundian Gate, where some frontier violations did occur in spite of the strict prohibitions that had been issued. These were the result of the understandable but ill-timed impulsiveness of eager patrol leaders. Against these, it is true, stood a considerably greater number of French frontier violations. Only after Germany declared war against France on 3 August at 18:00 was cross-border reconnaissance permitted.

In the meantime, 16th Infantry Division had already occupied the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The completion of this mission, however, was at first delayed by the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, who telephoned on 1 August at 18:40 to prohibit the crossing of the Luxembourg border on the orders of the Kaiser. According to its deployment instructions, 16th Infantry Division was to have entered Luxembourg immediately on receipt of the mobilization order, but it was only permitted to do so after a new instruction was issued at 12:45 the next morning. Elements of Infantry Regiments 29 and 69, which had assembled at different points, although their units were not yet fully mobilized, rushed forward by armoured train, in railway cars and automobiles, and on bicycles, to secure the railway lines Wasserbillig–Luxembourg and Duedelingen–Luxembourg–Diekirch–Wallendorf. Luxembourg City was occupied on the afternoon of 2 August. The bulk of 16th Infantry Division under Generalleutnant Fuchs followed at 07:00 the next morning from Zewen via Wasserbillig–Manternach, without waiting for mobilization to be completed. The deployment occurred without incident. The Luxembourg government limited itself to a diplomatic protest and behaved with restraint. The population was quiet, sometimes even obliging. The occupied railway lines were left fully intact and fit for operational use. There was no contact with the French. On 3 August the main forces of 16th Infantry Division remained on the German side of the Alzette River, while smaller forces entrenched on the far bank. In spite of a number of reports to the contrary, it was ascertained that the French had not crossed the Luxembourg frontier.

On the evening of 3 August, XVIII Corps’ 50th composite Infantry Brigade, composed of hurriedly mobilized troops, was conveyed by rail to Koenigsmachern and Sierck. These troops arrived as reinforcements in the area of Bettembourg. There they took over the tasks of border and railway security in the southernmost part of Luxembourg. The 15th and 16th Cavalry Brigades, seconded to 16th Infantry Division, were pushed forward to Dippach and Pontpierre. Only once beyond the French and Belgian borders did they come into contact with enemy frontier guards; repeated clashes followed between reconnaissance parties over the ensuing days.

Around the fortresses of Thionville and Metz, border security was assigned to XVI Corps Headquarters. Besides the measures taken to increase the preparedness and readiness for action of firing positions in the outer works and to secure the connections between them, headquarters pushed Infantry Regiment 144—reinforced by some artillery and cavalry—into the area of Rorabach on 31 July. From here the regiment marched across the border on 4 August to reconnoitre, occupying Briey the following day after a light skirmish with French frontier guard detachments. A more serious clash occurred on 8 August, when a company standing near Valleroy repulsed an attack by superior forces (French 16th Chasseurs) from Labry. Parts of the regiment, together with a battery, made a dash for Labry and Conflans in the afternoon, returning to their positions in the evening with a number of prisoners.

As in Luxembourg, German border protection forces in the Rhineland and Lorraine received welcome reinforcements on the evening of 3 August. This relief came with the arrival of hurriedly transported mixed infantry brigades consisting generally of six battalions, one squadron, and three batteries each. These units had already been made ready to march in their peacetime garrisons on the first day of mobilization and had to have their remaining complements sent after them into the field. As a rule, they were employed in the future deployment areas of those corps to which they belonged according to the wartime organization and were subordinated to the commanding generals of the frontier corps until the arrival of their own corps headquarters.

On 3 August the composite 53rd Infantry Brigade (XIII Corps) took over protection of the right wing of the section of XVI Corps north of Thionville while XXI Corps’ 42nd Infantry Division took up border security duty alone in the 75-kilometre-wide gap between Metz and the Vosges. The 42nd was given significant relief by bringing forward three mixed Bavarian infantry brigades. Of these, the 11th marched into the area of Rémilly, the 7th to Moerchingen, and the 3rd to Saarburg. From then on, 42nd Infantry Division could limit its own patrols to the section of Dieuze. The enemy was not very active along this entire front. After 7 August the German infantry guards were pushed forward over the border, with the left wing (Bavarian 3rd Infantry Brigade), in connection with the movements of the GHQ Cavalry—which was making light contact in places with a weak enemy—advancing to the line Blâmont–Cirey.

In addition to the gains made in border skirmishes in Luxembourg and Lorraine, beginning on 3 August early assistance was provided by the assembly of the cavalry, with I Cavalry Corps (Senior Cavalry Commander 1) arriving on the Eifel, IV Cavalry Corps (Senior Cavalry Commander 4) in the southern part of Luxembourg and north of Thionville, and III Cavalry Corps (Senior Cavalry Commander 3) in Lorraine. In addition to its primary task of gathering strategic intelligence, along with the Jägerbattalions allocated to it, the cavalry was to concurrently provide security along the borders and lines of communication.

From the beginning, it was anticipated that the planned German deployment in the Vosges and the Burgundian Gate would be eventful and difficult. In XV Corps sector—encompassing the northern part of the Vosges from Donon to the Rheinkopf south of Schlucht Pass—several infantry regiments and Jägerbattalions, reinforced by artillery and cavalry, guarded the border; in XIV Corps’ sector (adjacent to the Swiss border) the task fell under the unified leadership of the commander of the composite 58th Infantry Brigade.10 After the first two days in which border violations described above occurred, nothing of importance happened along this front. The situation determined by the reconnaissance carried out after the start of the war was that the entire frontier was safeguarded by chains of French posts behind which larger detachments were situated in reinforced positions. From 5 August onwards, however, combat patrols were sent out in many areas owing to the enemy’s increased activity. Of a more serious nature was an engagement at the Schlucht Pass and at the Hohneck on 5 August. Strong French detachments advancing from Gèrardmer with machine guns and artillery pushed the German pickets back, and the Germans blew the tunnel through the Schlucht Pass. The enemy did not press after them any further. The activity of the French border guards increased over the following days along the Vosges Front and was closely connected to the first large military action on which the enemy command had decided: the strike at Mulhouse.

HMS Cossack attacks the MV Altmark I

HMS Cossack attacks the MV Altmark by Norman Wilkinson. National Maritime Museum Greenwich.

Just before dawn on 14 February 1940, a large sleek vessel entered Norwegian territorial waters off the Helgeland coast. After rounding the white-painted Halten Lighthouse she took an easterly course across Frohavet before turning south into the Leads. Her freeboard was low fore and aft of the central bridge structure, but both forecastle and stern were built higher, with a single funnel aft, giving her the characteristic shape of a contemporary motor tanker. The dark hull and light grey superstructure gave the ship a sinister look. As the cold light of dawn rose from the snow-clad mountains in the east, the name Altmark could be seen in white letters on both sides of the stern.

Kapitän Heinrich Dau had taken Altmark to sea from Wilhelmshaven in early August and loaded 9,414 tons of diesel oil in Port Arthur, Texas, while the world was still at peace. In the Atlantic on his way back, the signal `Steurbord Lampe brennt nicht mehr’ – `Starboard lantern is out’, arrived on 25 August, meaning `extreme danger of war, keep away from all traffic’. A few days later, instructions followed to head for a point off the Cape Verde Islands to rendezvous with the Panzerschiff Graf Spee. En route, Kapitän Dau ordered his ship to be primed in black and grey with a yellow funnel, changing her name to Sogne of Oslo. Completing the disguise, a Norwegian flag was hoisted on the stern, while red, white and blue stripes were painted on the sides, as was the word `NORGE’ on the bridge.

Altmark met up with Graf Spee in the morning of 1 September, just as the German troops marched into Poland. During the day, two 20-mm A/A machine guns were transferred from Graf Spee together with twenty naval men, two wireless operators, a purser officer to handle the stores and a prize officer. Thus Altmark had a crew of 133 men, all told. The two ships sailed into the South Atlantic while Europe went to war. After a while, Graf Spee took off to do her business as a raider while Altmark vanished into the southern vastness, constantly on the alert to avoid being sighted. They met again on 14 and 28 October and 6 December. Each time, the Panzerschiff was fuelled and resupplied. As Graf Spee mounted her score, captured seamen were transferred to Altmark when they met. This had not been planned for at all and came as a challenge to Kapitän Dau. Storerooms had to be changed to cells, some of the crew had to be assigned to guard duty, and water and food had to be shared between far more men than expected.

Second Engineer Herbert Saville of Newton Beach, intercepted off Cape Verde on 5 October, was first taken on board Graf Spee then transferred to Altmark, where he was to spend a total of 135 days:

[On board Graf Spee], we were treated as officers and gentlemen, while on the prison ship we were looked upon as prisoners. [.] Though we were not ill-treated on the Altmark, we were sleeping on the iron deck with carpets to keep us warm and we were definitely referred to as the prisoners. I think the worst thing we had to suffer was the monotony and the mental torture of not knowing what was going to happen. Our exercise on the ship was very limited. We were only allowed three-quarters of an hour every 48 hours, and often not that. Very rarely did we see the light of the day and often were not allowed to wash for days.

The accounts of the prisoners from Altmark are fairly positive shortly after they had been rescued. Treatment had been fair, without direct mistreatment, and boredom and inactivity seemed to have been the greatest tests, as well as a scarcity of tobacco. Later, the stories became more nuanced and in particular Kapitän Dau and his prison officer, Sub-Lieutenant Schmidt-Burchardt, were described as `brutal’ and `unfriendly’. The food was criticised by some and the lack of sanitary rooms and washing facilities was awkward, but Altmark was not designed to hold prisoners and everything related to them had to be improvised. Most accounts hold the original crew of Altmark as far more amenable than those transferred from Graf Spee and some point to considerable friction between the two groups.

On 19 December, when the news of the battle of River Plate and Langsdorff’s scuttling of Graf Spee off Montevideo reached Altmark, almost 300 men were locked away in the hull of the tanker. Most masters and senior officers of the sunken ships had been kept on board Graf Spee and were eventually released in Uruguay. When interrogated by British Navy officers, they revealed the existence of the supply ship and the prisoners on board her, and a wide-ranging hunt was initiated. Few had actually seen Altmark, though, and there was uncertainty about her appearance and whether she was armed or not.

Informed by radio from Berlin that the Royal Navy was searching for him, Dau kept the Norwegian identity of Altmark, but changed name to Haugesund. Later still, she appeared as Chirripo, flying an American flag. Dau remained far south-west of Cape Town for several weeks, hoping the hunt would cool down. At least once, British ships were sighted in the horizon, but Altmark slipped away at full speed without being recognised. During January fresh water started to run low and on the 24th Dau decided to make a bid for home. Eluding the Northern Patrol, Altmark passed south of Iceland on 12 February and two days later entered Norwegian waters. The two machine guns transferred from Graf Spee had been stowed away below deck. She was flying the official German Reichsdienstflagge, a large red-andwhite flag with a black swastika in the centre and a golden eagle in the upper corner, indicating a non-naval vessel in official service.

During the night, before entering Norwegian territory, Kapitän Dau sent a lengthy signal to the SKL, informing that all was well on board and that he expected to be home in a few days. It was also added that she had `22(?) British, 67 Indian and 8 Negro prisoners on board, all healthy’. This was the first news from Altmark in months and it was greeted with enthusiasm in Berlin. At the German Embassy in Oslo, Minister Bräuer and Naval Attaché Korvettenkapitän Richard Schreiber had been notified some weeks earlier that Altmark was to be expected. Now, at 11:30 on 14 February, they received an encrypted telephone message with information that Altmark had entered Norwegian waters and that they should ensure that Norwegian naval authorities gave her a safe passage through the Leads, including pilots as needed.

The sixty-five-year-old Kapitän Dau was undoubtedly weary after the long, perilous journey. Radio messages from Germany warned repeatedly that the Royal Navy used vast resources hunting him, but when he reached Norwegian territorial waters, he must have thought the worst was over. Even if Norwegian authorities were aware of the nature of his ship, he should be allowed to proceed down the Leads and slip across the Skagerrak during the night of 15/16 February when the moon would be down early, giving ample hours of darkness to reach shelter in Danish waters, behind the German minefields. Dau knew there would be British consuls in most Norwegian ports and Altmark would undoubtedly be observed and reported to London within hours. He had less belief in the British ability to react quickly to the sighting reports, though, and if he could reach Skagerrak within thirty-six hours, he reckoned there would be no immediate danger.

The prisoners, no longer permitted to come up for daily exercises, knew they were under land as one sailor had been allowed briefly on deck to empty a washing bucket and guessed correctly it must be Norway. Able Seaman Thomas Foley, a prisoner from Doric Star, wrote:

One of the German guards burst into our room, dashed up to the porthole and clamped it shut, then fixed some iron bars across it, so that we could not see anything. Then he dashed off again and later we heard that the Germans had hung a piece of canvas in front of the entrance. We were virtually buried in the ship’s bottom. We were sick with excitement. And we were almost physically sick as now the porthole and the entrance were completely blocked up we did not get any air at all, and the atmosphere of our prison became more stifling every minute. We knew we could not bear it for long, and several of the boys became ill. We existed like this for a whole day and night; vainly complaining to the guard.

The Linnesoy coast guard station at Fosen sighted Altmark at 03:40 on 14 February and sent a standard report to Trondelag Sea Defence Sector in Trondheim. From there, the report was forwarded to Lieutenant Franz Münster of the torpedo boat Trygg in Kristiansund with orders to meet the vessel and check her credentials. Approaching the German tanker in the afternoon, off the island of Tustna, Lieutenant Münster observed her through his binoculars. In addition to the Reichsdienstflagge, Altmark had a smaller white flag with a central swastika in the main mast, but showed no signs of being armed or any other irregularities. Münster, who was not aware of Altmark’s true identity, decided to treat the ship as a regular merchantman and, after instructing Altmark to stop, the first officer, Fenrik Evju, was sent across for an inspection.

Rear Admiral Carsten Tank-Nielsen, C-in-C of SDD2 in Bergen, had issued a note to his subordinate commanders summarising what was known about Altmark and instructing that, if she entered Norwegian territory, he should immediately be informed. For some reason, the admiral’s note had not been distributed among the ships in Trondelag Sea Defence Sector and neither Münster nor Evju realised that they had just intercepted a ship that the Royal Navy had been chasing for almost two months.

Boarding Altmark at 14:45, Evju was taken to the bridge and introduced to Kapitän Dau, whom he later remembered as an austere formal sailor in uniform with a characteristic, grey goatee beard. Dau immediately stated that Altmark was a `state ship’ belonging to the German Navy and thus not obliged to accept inspection. He added that she was on her way from Port Arthur to Germany with fuel oil, carrying a crew of 133 but no passengers. Dau did not reveal that a good part of the fuel oil from Port Arthur had already been transferred to Graf Spee in the South Atlantic. Questioned about armament, Dau answered that the two 20-mm A/A guns carried for defence had been stowed away before entering Norwegian waters. Evju was satisfied with this, believing the ship to be a regular tanker in official service, and following the neutrality regulations, saw no reason to request a more thorough check. When he commented that it had taken an awfully long time to get from Port Arthur to Norway and that the log book, which he had been allowed to study upon request, showed positions in the South Atlantic, a prickly Dau answered that the ship belonged to the German Navy and the Norwegian officer `should not have seen that’. Fenrik Evju sensed he was on difficult ground and let the matter drop. He was shown around the bridge, map room and radio room, noted the visitation in Altmark’s log, and went back to Trygg to report after handing Dau a copy of the neutrality regulations in German, underlining the ban on the use of radio while in Norwegian waters.

The prisoners guessed from the stopping of the engines that somebody had come on board. Able Seaman Foley continued: The ship stopped. There was the sound of tremendous bustle from the top deck. We guessed the ship was being searched. Now or never! Unless we succeeded in attracting the attention of the examiners, we would be taken to Germany. [.] Gathering all the strength we had left we started to make the most deafening din we could manage, kicking the door, stamping our feet and whistling. [.] But it was all in vain, no one seemed to have heard us. Was it possible that the Norwegians really did not hear us or was it that they did not want to?

The Germans were prepared and, once the commotion began, steamwinches on deck were started up with a comment that it was routine to prevent them from freezing up. This was practice on many ships, and there is no mention whatsoever in Evju’s report that he or his men heard or suspected anything suspicious. Based on Evju’s assessment, Lieutenant Münster decided to give Altmark permission to continue southward. Although her master had admitted the tanker was in service with the German Navy, no guns were on deck and she appeared to be harmless; in which case the neutrality regulations did not require a full inspection. Trygg had a local pilot on board, and on a request from Dau, he was transferred to the German tanker to assist her to Ålesund, where regular pilots could take over. While escorting Altmark across the open Hustavika, Münster sent a report of the inspection to SDD2 via Trondelag Sea Defence Sector, adding that everything appeared in order. With the tanker back inside the Leads again, Trygg turned back at 18:00, leaving Altmark to continue alone, according to standard procedure.

At this point, the German tanker was observed from a ship coming out of the Leads, heading north. The ship was the British freighter Helmond and on its bridge Captain D F Harlock became suspicious:

The Norwegian Pilot I had onboard had Nazi sentiments. I happened to remark to him that the Russians were not giving Germany much oil, as the Altmark was half-light. He replied that the ship had been out four months. This remark and the speed with which the Altmark was travelling made me suspicious, so next day, Thursday 15th February, on arrival at Muirivik, I took the train to Trondheim and reported the ship to the [British] Naval Control there.

Captain Harlock did not know what ship he had sighted, but the British naval control officer in Trondheim did and immediately sent a telegram to London. For the first time since the outbreak of the war, the whereabouts of Altmark was known by the Admiralty. The net was tightening.

Also recognising Altmark for what she was once he received Münster’s report, Rear Admiral Tank-Nielsen, the C-in-C of 2nd Sea Defence District in Bergen, gave orders for her to be escorted at all times inside Norwegian waters. There was no definition of a `state ship’ in the Norwegian neutrality regulations; a vessel was either a warship or not. Claiming immunity to inspection, Captain Dau would by default declare Altmark a warship, in which case she could not pass through the exclusion zone or krigshavn around Bergen. Kaptein Nils Simensen of the torpedo boat Snogg was ordered to meet the tanker off Ålesund, where she picked up new pilots, to verify the refusal of inspection and to find out more about the guns Altmark carried. An irritated Dau had to accept being boarded again but Simensen, who came on board at 21:30 with the two pilots, found everything to be in order. He asked about the guns and got the same answer as Fenrik Evju: there were two A/A machine guns stowed away in the hull. Simensen was shown around above decks, but no attempts were made to go below. Dau asked about the passing of Bergen krigshavn and was (incorrectly) told that he could do so during daylight hours, even if he had not been inspected. Close to midnight, Altmark headed southward again, slowly at first to pass some narrows after first light. Snogg followed and, a short while later, the destroyer Draug also joined the escort.

Things were still not to Rear Admiral Tank-Nielsen’s satisfaction. He was convinced that the only way to keep Norway out of the war was a consistent, uncompromising enforcement of the neutrality without favours to either belligerent and, while Altmark was inside the area where he was in charge, the neutrality regulations would be followed to the letter. A signal was sent to Snogg with orders for another visitation the following morning. In particular, Tank-Nielsen wanted precise details of Altmark’s armament, her assignment and if there were any naval personnel on board. At 11:15 on the 15th, Altmark was signalled from Snogg to lie by again, this time near the mouth of Sognefjorden, and the first officer, Loytnant Frits Andersen, went on board. Dau kept his frustration in check and answered more or less the same questions as he had been asked before, but in more detail: Altmark was going home to Germany with a load of fuel oil, the guns were stowed below deck, and there were no passengers or persons from another country on board. The rather large crew was explained through Altmark being used for training, and some of the men, it was acknowledged, belonged to the navy. Since it said so in the log book, Dau admitted having left Port Arthur on 19 August the year before, but would not reveal Altmark’s whereabouts since. Lieutenant Andersen left Altmark after about half an hour, and the German tanker continued southwards.

Rear Admiral Tank-Nielsen remained uncomfortable with the situation and decided to have a look for himself. Accompanied by his acting chief of staff Kaptein Stamso, he boarded the destroyer Garm, intercepting Altmark at 12:30 in Hjeltefjorden north of Bergen – inside the krigshavn. Snogg was called alongside and Kaptein Simensen questioned on his inspections of the tanker. When it became clear that nobody had been below deck and that it was only Dau’s word that she was not carrying any concealed guns or prisoners, Admiral Tank-Nielsen promptly ordered Stamso and Simensen on board Altmark again.

This time, a furious Kapitän Dau protested bitterly to the Norwegian officers. It was the fourth time he had been stopped, and every delay increased the chances of interception by the Royal Navy. He had to pass Bergen as soon as possible should he have any chance of crossing the Skagerrak as planned. Kaptein Stamso explained that Altmark was now some 8 miles inside Bergen krigshavn and before she could proceed, every room of the ship would have to be inspected. Horrified, Dau explained that this would not be possible. Altmark belonged to the German Navy and had equipment on board that the Norwegian officers could not be allowed to see. As a `state ship’ inspection was denied `by order of the German government’. Stamso replied that if this was the case, it would be impossible for Altmark to continue. Dau would have to turn back, leave the krigshavn and take his ship outside Bergen. The boundary of the exclusion zone extended to the territorial limit, and Altmark would have to pass into international waters and proceed southward just outside the boundary. Defeated, Dau accepted this, provided he was allowed to wait until dusk before heading outside. This was agreed and the matter seemed settled, even if the Norwegian pilots refused to stay on board if the tanker was to go outside territorial waters. Maps were produced and the boundaries to the krigshavn pointed out to Dau as well as the best routes around, to avoid further misunderstandings.

After studying the maps for a while, Dau excused himself and left the bridge, allegedly to talk to the pilots. Instead, he went to the radio room and ordered a telegram to be sent via the nearest coastal radio station to the German Embassy in Oslo, complaining about the treatment the Norwegian Navy was giving him. Garm intercepted the message and Stamso was hailed with instructions to give the German master a reprimand for using his radio inside Norwegian waters. Dau meekly excused himself, saying he `did not realise he was still inside the restricted area’. After some further clarifications, Stamso and Simensen returned to Garm to report.

In the meantime, the prisoners, who realised that Norwegians were on board again, started a riot, using empty shrapnel boxes as battering rams. Again, the Germans started the winches, beating back the rebels with steel bars and jets of icy water. This time, though, the signalling and commotion was heard by the Norwegians and Kaptein Stamso reported to Tank-Nielsen that there with certainty were more than just the crew on board. The prisoners, some of whom had been on board for nearly four months, were desperate and understandably not happy with the Norwegian Navy, which they could see departing in spite of their signals and noise-making. The Norwegian officers needed a decision from their government before they were able to initiate any direct actions other than forcing the tanker outside Bergen krigshavn.

With prisoners on board Altmark, Admiral Tank-Nielsen concluded categorically that Altmark could not pass through the krigshavn but would have to go outside, as already agreed. The decision was passed to Altmark, from which Kapitän Dau shortly after hailed Garm, asking if it would be possible to have a telegram brought to shore and sent to his embassy over the public network. The answer was that if the master had something he wished to discuss, he was welcome on board the destroyer. Dau, more frustrated than ever, came across in his whaler. Some politeness was exchanged between the two officers, after which Dau protested at the delays imposed on his ship. Tank-Nielsen explained once again that a `state ship’ was not recognised either by the Hague Convention or the Norwegian neutrality regulations and unless Dau allowed proper inspection, including below deck, she could not pass Bergen krigshavn. Some more civility was exchanged between the two officers before the telegram was handed over and Dau returned to his own ship. The telegram, which of course was read by the Norwegian officers, had a similar content to the one Dau had attempted to send from Altmark earlier. He complained about the inspections and informed the embassy that as he had refused inspection, he had been forced to pass outside Bergen and would not be able to cross the Skagerrak as planned. Altmark headed north again to wait for darkness in Hjeltefjorden, accompanied by the minelayer Olav Tryggvason, which had arrived on the scene and been ordered to take charge of the escort.

Leaving the Inner Leads, going around Bergen krigshavn, Altmark would have to proceed down the coast, very close to and partly outside the territorial limit for about 20 miles. These waters contain many treacherous shallows and depending on how close to these Dau would be willing to steer in the darkness would decide how exposed to British interception he would come. Tank-Nielsen and Stamso believed that one of two things could happen. With luck, Altmark would be intercepted by British warships, as City of Flint had very nearly been in November. If so, the prisoners would be released and Altmark would be out of the way. A protest would have to be made to the British if they had been inside the territorial limit but the potential for conflict seemed low. If nothing happened, Altmark would return inside the Leads south of Bergen the next day. By then, however, the government and Foreign Office would have had time to consider the right way of reacting to prisoners being held on board the German tanker. Kaptein Sigurd Årstad, one of Admiral Tank-Nielsen’s staff officers, outlined a third alternative in a letter to his father:

The ship would probably have been attacked [by the British] outside Norwegian territorial waters, and would probably have fled inside again. Then we could have interned it and freed the prisoners, without anybody saying that Norway had not followed international law.

Heading back to Bergen in the afternoon, Tank-Nielsen sent a preliminary signal to the Admiral Staff and commanding admiral from Garm informing them that the master of Altmark had refused inspection and consequently been ordered outside Bergen krigshavn. He added that he believed Altmark `most likely’ had prisoners on board. A more detailed report for the Admiral Staff was composed by Kaptein Stamso on the way back, including information that several of the men in Garm and Snogg had seen and heard SOS signals from the foreship, in spite of German attempts to stop it, ascertaining that there were prisoners on board. The report was submitted as soon as Garm had docked at the naval base in Bergen.

In Oslo, the first report of Altmark having entered Norwegian waters, reached Admiral Diesen by telephone in the evening of the 14th, after the first inspection. During the next day, he was regularly updated and forwarded the information he received to Under-Secretary of State Jens Bull at the Foreign Office by telephone. Bull expressed concern that a different procedure was followed now than was the case with Westerwald a few months earlier. Diesen answered that in his opinion it had been `an error of judgement’. Altmark was a warship and it would be best `to get rid of her as soon as possible’ even if this meant allowing her to pass Bergen krigshavn. Bull agreed and when he shortly after informed Foreign Minister Koht by telephone, the latter had no additional comments.

Having spoken to Bull, Admiral Diesen decided to overrule Admiral Tank-Nielsen and sent a telegram to SDD2 at 17:30. `Let the vessel pass through. It is a state-ship. Escort.’ Contrary to Admiral Tank-Nielsen, Diesen was a careful, political officer. He was conscious that the Navy should not cause problems for the government and feared British warships intercepting Altmark west of Bergen would lead to severe diplomatic problems. 

Coming back to his office at Marineholmen in Bergen, Rear Admiral Tank-Nielsen found the telegram from his superior and promptly called him at 18:00 with a protest, claiming this would be against the Norwegian Neutrality Regulations. Diesen maintained his order and stated he would take the full responsibility. He also criticised Tank-Nielsen strongly for having left his office and gone to sea and for not having allowed Altmark to pass Bergen krigshavn straight away. At this stage, Diesen knew from his report that Tank-Nielsen believed there were prisoners onboard Altmark. He had not yet received Kaptein Stamso’s detailed report but stated later that if he had, it would not have changed his decision. Tank-Nielsen and Stamso discussed the instructions and shared their frustrations in the admiral’s office, but could do little other than signal Snogg and Olav Tryggvason in Hjeltefjorden with orders to escort Altmark past Bergen as soon as possible. Rear Admiral Tank Nielsen did not leave any personal notes, but one must assume he was not very pleased with his commanding officer.

Later in the evening Naval Attaché Schreiber contacted Admiral Diesen, requesting that Altmark should be allowed to pass Bergen krigshavn. He was informed that such permission had already been granted and expressed `great satisfaction’ over the news that Altmark was being escorted southwards. Only in the morning of the next day, Friday 16th, did Diesen inform his superiors in the Ministry of Defence of the events and his decision with a copy to the Foreign Office. By then, Altmark had already passed Bergen krigshavn.

When he received the new instructions from Snogg just before 19:00, Captain Dau immediately changed course again with a sense of relief. It would be too late to cross Skagerrak the coming night and another day increased the risk of British interception, but at least Altmark was still inside the Leads. Speed was set so that Norwegian territorial waters could be departed late next evening east of the Naze for the last dash home across the Skagerrak. The voyage continued uneventfully and at midday on the 16th, the auxiliary Fireren took over the escort as the German tanker passed from SDD2 to SDD1 south of Stavanger. The two pilots from Ålesund were replaced by new ones at Kopervik.

Following the first sighting report from Captain Harlock in the forenoon of 15 February, at least two more reports arrived at the Admiralty during the day. First, the British naval control service officer in Bergen reported in the afternoon that Altmark was rumoured to be near that city and in the evening, the British naval attaché in Oslo, Rear Admiral Hector Boyes, forwarded information from the French Embassy that Altmark had been sighted inside the Leads near Ålesund in the morning. Churchill instructed the Admiralty to let:

cruiser and destroyers sweep northward during the day up the coast of Norway, not hesitating to arrest Altmark in territorial waters should she be found. This ship is violating neutrality in carrying British prisoners of war to Germany. Surely another cruiser or two should be sent to rummage the Skagerrak to-night? The Altmark must be regarded as an invaluable trophy.

In the evening of the 15th, a summary of the sighting reports was forwarded to Philip Vian, Captain (D) of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, at sea on board Cossack, accompanied by Sikh, Nubian, Ivanhoe, Intrepid and the cruiser Arethusa. The flotilla had departed Rosyth earlier in the day, allegedly on an `ice reconnaissance’ in the Skagerrak (Operation DT). The destroyers had embarked boarding parties before sailing, though, and below deck it was common knowledge that they were looking for the `Nazi prison ship’. The sighting reports carried the addition that they should not hesitate to intercept Altmark, even if encountered inside Norwegian territorial waters.

Vian was one of the most outstanding officers of the Royal Navy. As Cin-C of 4th Destroyer Flotilla, he usually had his command on board the flotilla leader Afridi. In January, Afridi went to the yards and Vian decided that Captain Sherbrook of Cossack was due for a break. Once he had departed, Vian moved over to Cossack with his staff. By all accounts Vian was a challenging man to serve under. Lieutenant Commander Reginald Whinney had known him since long before the war:

Vian had always been spare. He was tallish and fair with heavy bushy eyebrows. [.] His face never showed much expression – perhaps the hair hid it. PLV was a man who lived on his nerves – and very resilient they must have been. [.] He was not, though, a gentle gentleman. [.] As a Captain, he was unbelievably rude, hot tempered and frequently needlessly offensive; one had to stand up to him and be right – or make him think so. In action he was quiet, calm and very quick. Anyone who raised his voice unnecessarily at any time did not do so twice. Otherwise, some distance beneath his ferocious exterior, he could be a man of surprising kindness. In some ways he was a genius.

Considering the incoming sighting reports, Vian found it improbable that Altmark could have reached beyond Kristiansand. Hence, he spread his ships line-abreast some six miles apart, steering west and north from Lindesnes during the night. At 00:48 on the 16th, a signal from Admiral Forbes made it clear what they were looking for: `Altmark your objective. Act accordingly’. At 04:37, a signal from the submarine Seal indicated that Altmark had not yet passed Skudeneshavn and, after gathering on Cossack at daylight on the 16th, the force remained in the vicinity of the Norwegian coast to the south of Seal’s patrol area. During the forenoon, several vessels were stopped and searched, also inside Norwegian territorial waters, but there was no sign of the elusive Altmark.

HMS Cossack attacks the MV Altmark II

The Norwegian torpedo boats Kjell and Skarv positioning themselves between Altmark inside the fjord and Ivanhoe just outside.

At midday, a signal from the Admiralty reported Altmark in Swedish waters, at the head of the Kattegat. This caused some confusion until it was discovered that the decoding of the signal was erroneous and the name initially read as `Veaden Rev’, should probably be `Jaederens Rev’, an old-fashioned spelling of Jærens Rev, the shallows south of Stavanger. During the next couple of hours, a number of sighting reports were received, with positions differing by up to 25 miles. One problem was that nobody knew what Altmark looked like. The only photo available was one from the Illustrated London News, but there were two ships in the photo and the caption did not indicate which was the German tanker. Eventually, Vian decided to split his force. Arethusa with Intrepid and Ivanhoe should cover the area off Egersund while Cossack, Nubian and Sikh would make a sweep south towards Lista. Tension was running high, and fire was opened on what was thought to be a German reconnaissance aircraft but turned out to be a Hudson from Coastal Command, sending off the wrong recognition signals.

In the early afternoon of the 16th, Altmark and Fireren were just off Obrestad Lighthouse south of Stavanger when they were sighted by a battle flight of three Hudsons. The aircraft from 220 Squadron at Thornaby were flying northward in a loose line-abreast approaching Stavanger, when two ships were observed: one of them a small auxiliary, the other a large tanker. The aircraft passed inside Norwegian territory, circling the larger ship for a proper identification. The name Altmark was painted in white on both sides aft, below the swastika flag, and there was no doubt that they had found the tanker. Altmark’s position was reported to the Admiralty at 12:55 and forwarded to Arethusa and Cossack at 13:18. Fireren had no A/A guns and Kaptein Sigurd Lura could only hoist a protest signal against the intruding aircraft. Cossack and her group were far south of the reported position, but Arethusa, Intrepid and Ivanhoe were close and turned to investigate. At 13:50 (BrT), Gunnery Officer Lieutenant Roberts reported from Arethusa’s director control tower that he could make out a vessel close to the Norwegian coast and believed her to be Altmark.

Around 16:00 Norwegian time, the torpedo boat Skarv commanded by Loytnant Herman Hansen replaced Fireren as escort to Altmark as she passed Egersund. Shortly after, three ships came into view from the south-west. They closed at speed and could soon be identified as a British cruiser and two destroyers. Paralleling the tanker’s course, just outside the Norwegian territorial limit, Arethusa flashed a signal, ordering Altmark to `steer west’, out of Norwegian territory. Dau ignored the order and continued hugging the coast. He could not believe that the British would violate Norwegian territory in broad daylight in front of a RNN torpedo boat. Captain Graham of Arethusa believed his orders from the Admiralty were clear enough, though. He sent a signal to Vian, confirming he had located the German ship, and ordered Intrepid and Ivanhoe to intercept and board her while he covered from outside the territorial limit. The two destroyers turned inside Norwegian territorial water at speed, Ivanhoe hoisting the flag signal `Steer west’, Intrepid flashing `Heave to, or we fire’. There was no reaction.

At 16:30, Lieutenant Hansen sent a wireless signal from Skarv to his superiors in Kristiansand with information that British naval ships had been sighted. Ten minutes later a supplementary signal said they were now inside Norwegian waters, apparently intending to intercept Altmark. Hansen steered his nimble torpedo boat towards Intrepid, the nearest of the destroyers. Through bold manoeuvring, he managed to keep Skarv between Intrepid and Altmark, protesting at their presence inside Norwegian waters by loudhailer. Commander Roderick Gordon hailed back that Altmark was also in Norwegian waters – with prisoners on board. Hansen answered that the German ship had been searched, and no prisoners found. In frustration, Gordon turned 180 degrees and, as expected, the torpedo boat followed. After two miles he turned Intrepid back towards Altmark again, increasing to 25 knots, leaving Skarv behind.

When well away from the Norwegian, Gordon gave the order to fire a warning shot on the tanker. The 4.7-inch shell ricocheted off the water some 220 yards behind the tanker and landed harmlessly inland at Stien near Rekefjord. Two more rounds were fired, and Dau finally lost his nerve. Altmark started to slow down. Intrepid slowed too, and lowered her whaler with a boarding party on board. Seeing this, Dau ordered speed again, and the whaler could not catch her. Skarv had in the meantime caught up with Intrepid and Lieutenant Hansen again hailed a protest against the violation of Norwegian territory. Commander Gordon answered that he was under orders to intercept Altmark and bring her to England. Hansen repeated his protest, to which Gordon replied: `I have my orders.’

While Skarv was busy with Intrepid, Commander Philip Hadow took Ivanhoe close to the tanker in an attempt to force her out to sea. Advised by the two Norwegian pilots, though, Dau steered Altmark inside a small cluster of islands named Fogsteinane, where there was little room to manoeuvre. Hadow decided it was time to board and tried to manoeuvre close enough to Altmark’s starboard side to allow his boarding party, which was standing by, to jump across. Michael Scott, one of the officers of Ivanhoe, later wrote:

Standing where I was on the bridge, the Altmark presented an unforgettable sight. A ship of some 10,000 tons would, I think, cause comment when not a single soul was to be seen on deck, but in wartime, and especially when a ship is about to be boarded, it seemed to me to be so sinister and unrealistic that I thought there must be some strategy in it, particularly as we had heard that she carried guns. But nothing happened and she proceeded towards the fjord entrance. [.] We increased speed and came up quite fast on her starboard quarter.

Just as Ivanhoe’s bow started to close on Altmark’s quarterdeck, Dau increased speed to about 10 knots and Altmark slipped to port, all the time closing the mouth of Jossingfjord, opening up behind Fogsteinane. The destroyer was sheared off by the tanker’s propeller wash, and the chance to board was lost. Orders had been given from Arethusa to machine-gun the bridge of Altmark if she refused to stop. Two of the men seen on the bridge were identified as Norwegian pilots, though, and Hadow decided not to open fire.

Entering the scene off Jossingfjord at this stage was the torpedo boat Kjell, under the command of Loytnant Finn Halvorsen. Both Kjell and Skarv were pre-WWI design and, though their torpedoes still demanded respect from the British destroyers, they had no more than two 47-mm and one 76- mm guns between them. Being senior, Halvorsen took command and radioed Hansen for a situation report. Getting this, he hoisted the `protest’ flag and positioned his boat in the way of Ivanhoe, which had to veer off the pursuit of Altmark. The two warships were at hailing distance and Lieutenant Halvorsen shouted a protest at the intrusion of Norwegian territory across the sea. Surprisingly, Hadow shouted back in German and Halvorsen interrupted him with a `Please speak English, sir’ that caused some amusement on the bridge of the destroyer. Halvorsen’s repeated protests made the two British destroyers slow down, and Altmark slipped inside Jossingfjord, the narrow entrance to which appeared between two small lighthouses.

In Jossingfjord, the sixteen-year-old Wilhelm Dydland was looking after his boat, which had been landed for the winter. Sometime around 17:00, he heard loud noises from the sea and shortly afterwards a huge vessel came into the fjord at speed. Surprised, he ran out onto the barren sea-cliffs to look. As it passed close by him, a man came out on the bridge wing of the tanker and shouted in Norwegian, asking if the fjord was deep enough to enter. The baffled youngster waved and shouted back that it was all right and watched Altmark sweep by into the fjord, making loud noises as she opened a wide swathe in the 2-3-inch-thick ice covering the fjord some hundred yards inside the entrance.

At 17:10, as he entered Jossingfjord, Dau sent a telegram via the nearest coast radio station to the German Embassy in Oslo, advising that he was `under land’ and that a British destroyer was attempting to come alongside. Arethusa attempted to jam her transmissions at first but then stopped, as it was believed it would be better to intercept the message and perhaps learn the German’s intentions. At 17:55, a second signal was sent from Altmark to the embassy, informing that she was safely inside Jossingfjord, protected by two Norwegian torpedo boats, but with Intrepid hovering outside. Later, a third signal requested the embassy to `make strong protest against the conduct of the English naval forces’. The German B-Dienst followed the events closely and, besides intercepting most of the British signal traffic, also picked up Dau’s signals to Oslo, forwarding them to the SKL and Group West.

In Berlin, the SKL assessed the situation continuously but, unlike Dau, they had no expectations that the British would respect Norwegian territorial waters. In a signal at 18:12, Altmark was ordered to seek shelter in `Lister Fjord or the nearest torpedo safe anchorage’. Remembering the Norwegian reactions to City of Flint dropping her anchor, though, a modified signal followed only minutes later: `Do not anchor, but spend the night in a secure area’. The SKL also considered sending a destroyer force covered by the cruiser Hipper and at least one battleship towards Norway, but because of the ice conditions the readiness of the ships was low and they would not be able to take to sea until the next morning, at best. Instead, instructions were sent to Naval Attaché Schreiber in Oslo to contact the Norwegian authorities and make sure they would do their utmost to ensure Altmark was safe.

Schreiber contacted the Admiral Staff around 18:45 and was informed that the RNN was aware of the situation and that every step necessary would be taken. Having eventually received the second and third of Dau’s signals (the first was received at Farsund radio in spite of Arethusa’s jamming but never delivered to the embassy), Schreiber telephoned the Admiral Staff again at around 21:50, while Minister Bräuer called Under-Secretary Jens Bull in the Foreign Office, requesting information. Both were told that information was scant at the moment, but the RNN had the situation under control and Altmark was safe. Should anything happen during the night, the embassy would be informed.

The British naval attaché, Rear Admiral Boyes, on the other hand, was invited over to the Admiral Staff during the evening. Here, the head of Naval Intelligence, Kaptein Erik Steen, showed him Jossingfjord on a map and explained the situation as he knew it. It was emphasised that Altmark could not escape without eventually leaving Norwegian territory – at which time British ships could intercept her without infringing Norwegian neutrality. If Captain Dau chose to stay in Jossingfjord, Norwegian authorities would eventually be compelled to `take care of the prisoners’. Either way, Boyes was asked to confirm that British naval ships would not enter Norwegian waters again, attacking Altmark, as the situation was under control. It has not been possible to ascertain if Admiral Boyes actually forwarded this information.

Few islands shelter the desolate part of the Norwegian coast known as Dalane from the North Sea. In 1940, the population of the region was very small and, apart from the village of Hauge and its harbour Sogndalstrand, only a few farms and settlements lay scattered among the mountains. From the sea, the area looks uninviting and that February the heavy snow cover went almost down to the sea, adding to the desolation. Jossingfjord is one of the few places large enough to shelter a ship the size of Altmark. Next to the small fishing settlement of Jossinghavn, there was also a simple deepwater quay with ore-loading facilities near the head of the fjord. The export of titanium ore had been halted by the war and the facilities were not in use at this time.

With Altmark entering Jossingfjord shortly after 17:00, the situation settled for a while. Lieutenant Halvorsen let Kjell follow Altmark through the opening she made in the ice while Skarv laid-by just inside the mouth of the fjord, blocking the entrance. Ivanhoe remained just outside, well inside Norwegian territory, while Intrepid pulled back, retrieving her whaler with the unsuccessful boarding party. Lieutenant Halvorsen wanted to talk to the master of Altmark. The ice prevented Kjell from coming alongside the tanker, though, and the two captains had to use their loudhailers over the stern of the tanker. Dau told Halvorsen there were around 130 men on board his ship, which had already been inspected by the Norwegian Navy several times, including by `the admiral in Bergen’. He, Dau held, had given them `right of passage’. This was confirmed by the pilots, with whom Halvorsen also spoke. Content for the time being, Halvorsen took Kjell out of the fjord to hear what the British had to say. Meanwhile, Captain Vian had arrived and Cossack was alongside Ivanhoe to receive a report from Commander Hadow. Sikh and Nubian remained offshore with Intrepid and Arethusa guarding against U-boats.

Having been updated, Vian instructed Paymaster Sub-Lieutenant Geoffrey Craven, who spoke German as well as basic Swedish, to invite the captain of the Norwegian torpedo boat to come on board Cossack to try to sort out the mess. Halvorsen accepted and came aboard the destroyer. The twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant, who spoke good English, protested firmly over the violation of Norwegian neutrality and presented his senior British colleague with an English version of the neutrality regulations. Vian answered that there were `400 starving British prisoners’ on board Altmark, demanding the right to board the German tanker and search for them. Undaunted, Loytnant Halvorsen answered that Altmark had been inspected by the RNN and that he had not been informed of any prisoners. Vian suggested British and Norwegian officers should jointly inspect Altmark and settle the issue of prisoners once and for all. Halvorsen replied he could not authorise this as the German ship had permission to transit Norwegian waters. He repeated the seriousness of the situation and urged Vian to leave Norwegian territory immediately. The discussion was held `in a firm but polite manner’, according to Halvorsen in his report to SDD1. Others describe it as somewhat heated at times, the Norwegian lieutenant at one stage threatening to use torpedoes if the British ships did not leave within thirty minutes. Eventually, Vian must have felt it imprudent to board Altmark as the situation had developed, and he stood down. Around 18:30, after Halvorsen had left Cossack with promises to have Altmark searched again, he ordered Ivanhoe to follow him outside the territorial limit.

Two `Most Immediate’ signals were dispatched from Cossack to the Admiralty and repeated to Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet. The first at 17:32 (16:32 BrT):

Fiord is dead end. Expect no change from Norwegian gunboat, who is examining Altmark. A second gunboat has a torpedo tube trained on me. Altmark is apparently being effectively jammed by Arethusa. She is painted warship grey.

The second at 18:57 (17:57 BrT):

Commanding Officer of Norwegian gunboat Kjell informs me that Norwegian pilots on board Altmark report that vessel was examined in Bergen yesterday, 15th February, and authorised to travel south through territorial waters. He said that vessel was unarmed and nothing was known of British prisoners. I have withdrawn outside territorial waters and awaiting your instructions. Have stopped Arethusa jamming.

Dau was in an awkward position, but considered his ship safe as long as he remained inside Jossingfjord. With the Norwegian torpedo boats between him and the British destroyers the matter had become a political issue, which from now on could be left for Berlin to handle. He had certainly no intention of creating any pretext for British or Norwegian interventions and was content to stay where he was for the moment. Altmark was moved as far into the fjord as possible and halted against the ice near the eastern side as darkness started to fall. Anchors were not dropped and the engines were kept running to be able to move at short notice. The two Norwegian pilots went ashore but, of all things, two local customs officers came on board. At the time, nobody seems to have realised that by going into the fjord, Altmark had was no longer in an `innocent passage’ of a neutral fairway, but had entered inland waters and hence, changed her legal definition according to the Hague Convention.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Halvorsen sent Kjell to join Skarv blocking the entrance to the lane through the ice that the tanker had made, while he himself went ashore in Jossinghavn. The radios of the Norwegian ships were useless between the high mountains surrounding the fjord and Halvorsen used the only telephone in the settlement, dictating a detailed report to his superiors in Kristiansand. Concluding his report, Halvorsen asked for permission to search Altmark again to ascertain whether she had prisoners on board or not. Fireren, which had been ordered from Egersund to Jossingfjord, arrived at around 20:40. Kaptein Lura was senior Norwegian officer on site, but left the contact with Cossack to Halvorsen. To maintain communication with Kristiansand, a man was left at the telephone in the house some 30-40 yards away from the Holmekaien pier where Fireren moored. He was in shouting contact with the auxiliary, who used a signal lamp to the torpedo boats that lingered further out. Through this primitive but efficient system, naval and political authorities were kept informed as the situation developed and could give their orders and instructions without much delay.

During the evening a reply to Lieutenant Halvorsen’s request arrived directly from Rear Admiral Smith-Johannsen of SDD1; Altmark was not to be inspected again. If, during the night, the British forces made moves to board the German tanker, the torpedo boats should prevent this – if necessary by force. It was believed that moving their boats between Altmark and any British destroyer would be adequate, as boarding the tanker across a Norwegian deck would be out of the question. Shortly afterwards the order to use force was recalled by the commanding admiral, allegedly after orders from the Foreign Office. Loytnant Halvorsen had been denied all possibility of resisting the intruders in spite of his successful efforts earlier in the day. 

On the night of 15/16 February, the British mine-laying submarine Seal had laid a 3-mile long net off the Fogsteinane islands not far from Jossingfjord. The hope was that Altmark would entangle herself in the net and stop or, seeing the net, would venture outside Norwegian territorial waters to be intercepted. Instead, it was the 5,805-ton German ore ship Baldur on her way south from Kirkenes that became entangled in the net and started to drift helplessly westward. An aircraft from Coastal Command sighted her, thought she might be Altmark, and reported the sighting back to base. Intrepid and Ivanhoe were ordered to investigate. Michael Scott of Ivanhoe wrote:

It must have been at about 21:30 [BrT] that the First Lieutenant, who was on watch at the time, saw a darkened ship going in a southerly direction. We closed on her, put the searchlights on to her bridge and found once again that it was another ship flying the German flag. She was signalled `Stop Immediately’ and a warning shot was fired across her bows. [.] The only reply we got to that was `What do you want?’ flashed to us in English. We then fired another shot and she stopped immediately. Things then happened very swiftly. The upper part of the bridge of the Baldur suddenly began to pour forth clouds of smoke which burst into flames. The ship began to settle and we waited to pick up the survivors. Two lifeboats were seen being lowered, one of which made for the Intrepid and the other for the shore with us in pursuit!

The German ship was quickly engulfed in flames and, fearing an explosion, Commander Hadow recalled the whaler with a boarding party just launched from Ivanhoe, picking up the men from the lifeboat instead. Captain Vian later wrote in his report that as `the sea was calm and the night moonlit, the two destroyers should have attempted to go alongside and board the freighter straight away to prevent scuttling.’ Baldur sank during the night.

Having withdrawn outside Norwegian territory and sending his reports, Vian settled down to wait. The ice conditions observed in the Skagerrak meant that Altmark for the moment could not reach Germany without eventually leaving Norwegian territory. German ships and aircraft could be expected at daylight, but Vian’s force was strong and three submarines, Triad, Seal and Orzel, were also in the area. The longer Altmark stayed in Jossingfjord, the more likely it was that the Norwegian government could be swayed to accept a thorough inspection of the vessel including British officers, or at least British officials.

In London, Churchill had arrived in the Admiralty War Room with DCNS Rear Admiral Phillips, alerted by the news of Altmark being found. He was in no mood for patience or diplomacy and, with Admiral Pound not present, Churchill took matters into his own hands. Having conferred with Foreign Minister Halifax, but without going through Admiral Forbes, who was Vian’s superior, Churchill submitted explicit orders to Cossack at 17:50 (BrT):

Unless Norwegian torpedoboat 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 torpedoboat 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 cease fire when she desists. Suggest to Norwegian destroyer that honour is served by submitting to superior force.

Captain Vian must have realised that the signal bore Churchill’s mark and that his next few actions would at best be critical for his career. The signal crossed his own request for instructions and was shortly after supplemented by a brief: `Your 1757/16 received. Prisoners probably hidden onboard. Carry out my 1750/16.’

Vian signalled `I go alone’ to the other ships and ordered Lieutenant Commander Bradwell Turner, Cossack’s first officer, to prepare the boarding party. This consisted of forty-five sailors, largely from the cruiser Aurora, embarked for the occasion as Cossack had a number of her crew down with a bout of flu. The men were grouped in four sections; each allocated a part of the German ship to take control of.

It was a cold but clear night as the moon was up, giving a fair visibility. At around 22:45, Vian took Cossack back into Norwegian waters east of Fogsteinane. The waters are foul here and the RNN officers wondered at the recklessness of the British captain. On the bridge of Cossack, however, the pilot officer, Lieutenant Commander MacLean, had to admit to Vian that he had followed the wrong lights ashore and asked if he could have the searchlights switched on to see where he was. This was done and she made it safely through the straits, but comments on the bridge were that history would show Cossack coming in with lights blazing – when in fact she was lost. At 23:12 (22:12 BrT), as Cossack entered Jossingfjord, a third signal from the Admiralty arrived:

If offer of joint escort and guard to Bergen is not accepted and you have been forced to board, action is to be taken as follows: If no prisoners are found to be onboard, ship is to be brought in as a prize. If no prisoners are found and ship is definitely Altmark, Captain and officers are to be brought to England in order that we may ascertain what has been done with prisoners. Ship to be left in fjord. 

In general, there is a notable inconsistency among the accounts of the participants in the subsequent events at Jossingfjord this evening. British, Norwegian and German reports differ widely; more so the longer after the events they have been written. Most parties appear to have had a growing need to justify their actions – or lack thereof. The following is an attempt to piece it together as accurately and objectively as possible from the original sources.