About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

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.

HMS Cossack attacks the MV Altmark III

The morning after. Altmark aground Jossingfjord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli.

John Adams, who became president of the United States in 1797, was philosophical about the idea of paying tribute to the Barbary states. His successor and political rival, Thomas Jefferson, was not. Even in the 1780s, when the United States had no navy at all and hence no independent means of defending its interests in the Mediterranean, Jefferson, as vice president, was unhappy at what he saw as a dishonorable course, telling Adams “it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war.” By the time he beat Adams in the election of 1800, America had created a naval force large enough for a squadron to be dispatched to the Mediterranean in response to increasingly exorbitant demands from Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli, who decided he wanted a revised treaty, another quarter of a million dollars, and an annual payment of $20,000. The U.S. squadron, which consisted of three frigates and a sloop, arrived off Gibraltar in July 1801 to find that Yusuf had found himself a place in the history books. He had just become the first head of state to declare war on America.

The war between Tripoli and the United States was characterized on both sides by good luck, bad luck, and expediency, with flashes of discreditable behavior and breathtaking heroism. Yusuf’s corsairs hunted for American shipping, while unarmed American merchant vessels went about their trade in the Mediterranean without regard for their own safety—or the interests of their country, which would be jeopardized if the Tripolitans managed to secure hostages. “One single merchantman’s crew in chains at Tripoli would be of incalculable prejudice to the affairs of the United States,” complained the U.S. consul at Tunis.

Yusuf’s men did capture one merchantman, the Franklin, in June 1802. She was sold along with her cargo at Algiers, and her nine-man crew was taken back to Tripoli. They were eventually released after the United States paid the pasha $6,500.

Worse was to come for America. A brand-new forty-four-gun frigate, the Philadelphia, was blockading Tripoli when, at nine o’clock on the morning of October 31, 1803, she caught sight of an enemy vessel trying to slip into harbor. After an exchange of fire and a pursuit which lasted for several hours the Philadelphia’s captain, William Bainbridge, realized there was no hope of catching the ship and gave orders to abandon the action—at which point his frigate ran onto a submerged reef and stuck fast.

Bainbridge’s crew did everything possible to float her off. They cut the anchors, threw heavy lumber and even some of the guns overboard, and eventually cut away the foremast and the main-top-gallant mast—all the while taking fire from Tripolitan gunboats whose commanders had seen what was happening and set out to capture her. At four that afternoon Bainbridge surrendered, and the 307 officers and crew of the Philadelphia were taken ashore and imprisoned. Bainbridge’s distress was evident in the report he sent to the U.S. Navy Department the following day; the terms in which it was couched speak volumes about the West’s attitude to Barbary. To strike one’s colors to any foe was mortifying, he said; “but to yield to an uncivilized, barbarous enemy, who were objects of contempt, was humiliating.”

Not every member of the Philadelphia’s crew shared his contempt. At least five American sailors converted to Islam during their imprisonment. Yusuf reacted to his fighters’ success by raising his price for peace to three million dollars and using his captives as a bargaining chip in negotiations. (He threatened at one point to kill them all if the Americans attacked Tripoli.) The Philadelphia was salvaged and brought into harbor, and over the winter, the Tripolitans went to work trying to repair and rearm her.

Senior officers of the American navy in the Mediterranean considered attempting to rescue the Philadelphia, but decided it would be impossible to get her away from under the guns of the Tripolitan shore batteries. There was a chance, however, that a raiding party might fire her, and this would at least prevent her from being used by Yusuf against them.

The mission was given to a young naval lieutenant from Maryland, Stephen Decatur—the same Stephen Decatur who as commodore in command of the American squadron in the Mediterranean would kill Hamidou Raïs eleven years later. With a crew of volunteers and a Sicilian pilot, Decatur sailed a captured ketch renamed the Intrepid into Tripoli harbor on the night of February 16, 1804. He pretended to be a European merchant and, claiming he had lost his anchors, requested permission to tie up alongside the Philadelphia.

Dr. Jonathan Cowdery, the Philadelphia’s surgeon, was being held with the other officers in the American consul’s ex-residence. He described what happened next:

About 11, at night, we were alarmed by a most hideous yelling and screaming from one end of the town to the other, and a firing of cannon from the castle. On getting up and opening the window which faced the harbor, we saw the frigate Philadelphia in flames.

Decatur’s men had been found out as they approached the frigate. They stormed aboard, set fire to the ship, and rowed out of the harbor and into the American history books. Decatur became a national hero, “the first ornament of the American Navy” whose “gallant and romantic achievement” was memorialized in countless pamphlets, poems, and paintings.

The burning of the Philadelphia was an enormously courageous act, though it made little difference to the war. Yusuf remained determined to extract more money from the Americans, while they in turn were just as determined to break him—and to remove him from power.

A cornerstone of the American strategy was a scheme to use Yusuf’s exiled brother, Ahmad Karamanli, as a focus for dissent—and, ultimately, to set him up in Tripoli as a puppet pasha. Unfortunately Ahmad was none too keen on the idea. William Eaton, the U.S. consul in Tunis, tracked him down in Egypt and, after promising that American support would extend to the two men either triumphing within the walls of Tripoli or dying together before them, he persuaded Ahmad to join his motley expeditionary force of ten American marines, 300 Arabs, thirty-eight Greeks, and about fifty other soldiers of various nationalities.

This ragtag army marched nearly 500 miles across the Libyan desert from Egypt to Darna, a Tripolitan outpost to the east of Cyrene. They saw “neither house nor tree, nor hardly anything green . . . not a trace of a human being.” The Arabs and Christians argued with each other. They had no water for days on end. Their horses had no food. At one point Ahmad went back to Egypt, then changed his mind and rejoined the party. Nevertheless, they reached Darna on April 27, 1805. And when they got there, they took it.

This was a remarkable achievement. But if Eaton had hoped that Ahmad would inspire a rebel force to go on and capture Tripoli, he was disappointed. No one joined the rebel army, while Eaton’s men struggled for six weeks to fight off combined attacks by Arab tribesmen and forces sent by Yusuf to relieve the town. Nevertheless, Eaton himself continued to believe, on very slender evidence, that it was only a matter of time before the countryside rose up and joined Ahmad’s cause.

He never had the chance to test that conviction. On June 11, the U.S.S. Constellation arrived off Darna with the news that Yusuf had suddenly caved in and made peace with America. There was no need to foment a general uprising. In one of the less creditable episodes of the war, Eaton, Ahmad, the marines, and most of the Greeks sneaked aboard the Constellation and left their beleaguered Arab army to fend for itself.

The terms of the peace agreed between Yusuf and the U.S. consul general, Tobias Lear, were that America should pay nothing for a new treaty, and that all prisoners would be exchanged man for man. The capture of the crew of the Philadelphia meant the Tripolitans currently held about 200 more prisoners than the Americans held, so Lear agreed to acknowledge the imbalance by paying Yusuf $60,000, or $300 a prisoner.

The treaty was formally ratified in Tripoli on June 10, 1805. On finally meeting his former adversary, Lear commented with some surprise that Yusuf was “a man of very good presence, manly and dignified, and has not, in his appearance, so much of the tyrant as he had been represented to be.” Abstract notions of the Other as barbarian are hard to sustain when you come face-to-face with the reality.

Considering that at one stage the pasha had demanded three million dollars, the treaty was an awfully good outcome for America. Nevertheless, it didn’t sit well with Eaton, who was furious at being prevented from marching on Tripoli and was still convinced that a show of force would have toppled Yusuf; nor did it sit well with sections of the American press back home, which were uncomfortable with the cost, with the loss of honor, and with the way Ahmad Karamanli had been used and then discarded. A plaintive letter from Ahmad, now in exile, to the people of the United States of America pointed out that Eaton had agreed on their behalf to place him on the throne of Tripoli and that America had reneged on that agreement. (The reality was that Eaton had exceeded his authority in the promises he made to Ahmad.) What the public still didn’t know was that although Lear had begun by insisting that Yusuf must immediately hand over members of Ahmad’s family who were being held hostage in Tripoli, he modified this demand and agreed to give Yusuf four years to comply.

Amidst all the condemnations in the press, it was left to the Washington-based, pro-government newspaper the National Intelligencer to defend the new treaty. The Intelligencer poured scorn on the critics and insisted that the payment of $60,000 to Yusuf was entirely justifiable under the circumstances. Since the United States was dealing with “barbarians . . . who made a practice of vending prisoners,” it declared, “the price demanded for our countrymen is very small. It amounts to about 233 dollars for each individual. This is not the value of a stout healthy negro.”

And not a hint of irony in sight.

Russian Ship Types and Classifications – Age of Sail

Russian squadron visits Spithead August 1827

The Russian sailing navy at the height of its power and efficiency: during a state visit to Britain the Russian squadron at Spithead mans the yards in honour of the Duchess of Clarence, 8 August 1827. Drawn with meticulous attention to detail by Henry Moses, all the Russian ships are identified. From left to right, they are: Sisoi Velikii (74); Iezekiil’ (74); Tsar’ Konstantin (74); Merkurii (44); Kniaz Vladimir (74); Gangut (84), then the British royal yacht Royal Sovereign under sail; Aleksandr Nevskii (74); Azov (74); Sviatoi Andrei (74). Elements of this squadron were to fight with distinction a couple of months later at Navarino.

The sterns of four Russian ships of the line built between 1700 and 1763 show in detail the elaborate style of decorative wood carving still in vogue in Russia during the first half of the eighteenth century at a time when the sterns and quarter galleries of other European capital ships were becoming simpler and more utilitarian in the interest of economy and efficiency in battle. As warship design became more functional and less concerned with vulgar (and expensive) display under Catherine II, this level of decoration declined in the Russian navy as it had done so earlier in other European navies: top left, Goto Predestinatsiya 1700; top right, Ingermanland 1715; below left, Slava Rossii 1733; below right, Sviatoi Evstafii Plakida 1763.

This includes major seagoing warships present. Shallow-draught vessels intended solely for inshore and amphibious warfare and naval auxiliaries are not included. Coverage of the larger oared and rowing frigates has been included here on account of their size and firepower and their seagoing capabilities. The same reasoning applies to bomb vessels which were designed to accompany the battle fleets at sea. The categories covered below are all types familiar to the most casual students of sailing warships and our remarks are largely confined to elements of their construction and utilization unique to Russian conditions and in some degree of variance with normal practice elsewhere.

Line of battle ships

During the formative years of naval development, Russians followed British usage and formally divided their capital ships into four, and later three, Rates.

Unlike the British, no attempt was made to assign rates to cruising ships. The following official Rates were in effect prior to the reign of Catherine II:

Inventory of 1727

First Rate 90–100 guns

Second Rate 80–88

Third Rate 66

Fourth Rate 54

Establishment of 1732

First Rate 70–100

Second Rate 66

Third Rate 54

Establishment of 1750

First Rate 80–100

Second Rate 66

Third Rate 54

It should be noted that these ratings were formal categories and never achieved general circulation in the Russian naval circles of the period. Formal establishments of ships after 1750 describe capital ships solely in terms of the number of guns that they were rated as carrying. The sole exception to this practice was that ships carrying 100 guns or more were always referred to colloquially as First Rates within the fleet. Note also that `ships of the line’ will also be found referenced variously throughout the text as `line of battle ships`, `line ships` and `capital ships` solely in the interests of avoiding rhetorical tedium. Ships of the line shared certain basic features with several lesser warship types such as frigates, ship sloops and corvettes. These types were all collectively referred to as `ships` or `ship-rigged vessels` and had three square-rigged masts and from one to three continuous gun decks. The feature that distinguishes ships of the line from frigates and the like was their having been designed to `stand in the line` and withstand the firepower of any and all enemy warships. Some ships of the line were effectively rendered obsolete as ships being built in Russia and elsewhere became larger and more powerfully armed. In the British Royal Navy, these ships, such as 50s and 64s, were usually relegated to colonial service where they could be usefully employed as flagships and prestige ships. Russia lacked significant colonies throughout most of this period and dealt with their older ships of the line by converting them to floating batteries for stationary defence or employing them as troop transports or hospital ships. Many ships designated as frigates were in fact more powerful than some smaller ships of the line, but they were never intended to operate as `line ships`. No detailed discussion of capital ship evolution is possible at this point, but the following production table for all Russian purpose-built line of battle ships completed between 1700 and 1860 reflects the overall production of the Russian Navy as well as highlighting the differences in emphasis between the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, with the Black Sea fleet leaning more heavily on larger capital ships, and the Baltic possessing a more balanced mix of types:

*This total includes Sea of Azov ships for all categories and treats them as components of the Black Sea fleet.


Russian frigates were more functionally specialized than those found in Western navies. Readers accustomed to thinking in terms of Fifth Rates and Sixth Rates or 9pdr frigates, 12pdr frigates, 18pdr frigates and the like will need to familiarize themselves here with terms appearing in the body of the text, such as `battle frigates’, `heavy frigates’, `training frigates’, `small frigates’, `rowing frigates’, and even `newly invented frigates` (Novoizobretennye Fregaty). While it is true that standard 12- and 18pdr frigates of the type built in Western European navies were also built in moderate numbers throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Russia, they were steadily eclipsed after 1785 by much heavier 24pdr ships of a type not found elsewhere in significant numbers until the post-Napoleonic period.’

Part of the explanation for the Russian predilection for specialized frigate categories lies in the very different and variable operating environments experienced by their regional navies in both the Baltic and the Black Sea. Not only were there differences between the operational demands and expectations placed on cruising vessels in inland sea environments in general, with fewer opportunities for engaging in the traditional scouting, raiding and commerce protection functions of frigates operating in oceanic environments, and greater opportunity for inshore operations of an amphibious nature, there were also significant differences between the requirements imposed by the very different Baltic and the Black Sea environments, both natural and political.

It should be borne in mind that the categories presented below do not necessarily represent formally established categories. They do, however, reflect clearly defined lines of development in the Russian navy, and are being described here for the sake of clarity of communication in the pages that follow. Numerical totals for the frigate category are subject to considerable interpretation and the figures given below should be treated as informed approximations, especially with respect to the smaller and older categories. Many ships classed as frigates by Russia were too small to merit this classification by Royal Navy standards, but most of the ships included here were designed for cruising and scouting purposes, regardless of their size or armament. A total of 274 ships fall within the frigate category, 190 in the Baltic, 78 in the Black Sea, and 6 in the Caspian.

Battle frigates

A term briefly in vogue in the Black Sea to describe ships falling below the level of line of battle ships, but intended to participate in the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In practice, this term quickly gave way to the following term:

Heavy frigates

A term applied to large and heavily armed 24-, 30- and 36pdr frigates found in significant numbers in both the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets. These larger ships were more numerous in both theatres than the smaller standard 18pdr frigates; but their respective popularity in the Baltic and the Black Seas arose from rather different tactical requirements and emphases. In the Black Sea, where the type was first introduced, heavy frigates were not regarded as traditional cruisers suited for scouting and raiding, but were rather the direct descendants of the previously described battle frigates and were intended to supplement the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In the Baltic, on the other hand, heavy frigates were quite ironically the direct design descendants of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus, specifically designed by af Chapman to take its place in the line of battle, and captured by the Russians during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-91. Russian heavy frigates built along the lines of the Venus were utilized in traditional frigate roles and not as battle line adjuncts as was the case with the Black Sea heavies.

During the period between 1770 and 1860, a total of 85 heavy and battle frigates joined the two Russian fleets, almost all of them armed with 24pdr cannon and ranging between 141 ft and 174 ft in length.

Standard frigates

These were similar to frigates found elsewhere in terms of size and capabilities. The same distinction between the older cruising vessels having two fully or partially armed gun decks and the later `true’ or `classic’ frigates of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War periods, with unarmed lower decks and improved speed and handling characteristics, was found in the Russian Navy as elsewhere. The difference for Russia was that the design transformation that occurred in the 1750s for the navies of France, Spain and Great Britain apparently did not make its way to Russia until the Vos’moi class of 12pdr frigates entered service in the late 1770s in the then Sea of Azov flotilla and the Briachislav class of 18pdr frigates in the mid-1780s for the Baltic. The inspiration for the first Russian 18pdr frigates of the Briachislav class in 1784 probably came from ideas absorbed by Russian students returning from Great Britain in the early 1780s, quite possibly with the plans for the British Arethusa class frigates in hand – their armament and dimensions were suspiciously similar. As indicated above, these `true frigates’ were built in smaller numbers proportionally than in other navies where there was an ongoing requirement for large numbers of cruising vessels in scouting and commerce protection (and commerce destruction of course). Russian frigates had smaller areas to patrol in their confined inner seas and very little in the way of merchant ships requiring escort in the navy of a country lacking any significant investment in overseas trade, and so they were never required in the numbers found in the Atlantic navies.

Between 1773 and 1860, only 36 standard or `classic’ frigates armed with 18pdr guns and ranging between 121 ft and 150 ft in length were completed for both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, less than half the number of 24pdr heavy frigates completed for the two regional fleets during the same general period. In the interests of completeness, it should also be noted that a total of 60 earlier cruising ships, all bearing the multifunctional name of `frigate’ were also completed for service in the Baltic between 1705 and 1785, including 18 obsolescent 12pdr ships of the Pavel type constructed between 1773 and 1785, just prior to the introduction of true frigate types.

Small frigates

A descriptive term rather than a formal category, these ships were intermediate in size and power between standard frigate types and corvettes and sloops. In the British Royal Navy, the vessels constructed after 1770 would probably have been rated as ship sloops. Between 1702 and 1761, 17 small ships classed as frigates and ranging between 65 ft and 94 ft in length were completed in the Baltic. Between 1762 and 1845, an additional 38 small frigates of the more classic type with a single gun deck, but ranging between 90 ft and 130 ft were completed, 19 in the Baltic, 13 in the Black Sea and 6 in the Caspian. Armament varied widely in this category, with small frigates carrying between 8 and 32 guns of as little as 6pdr calibre to as much as 30pdr (when rebuilt as `newly invented frigates’; see below).

Training frigates These purpose-built ships were limited to the Baltic fleet. They would normally have been rated as sloops or corvettes in most Western navies and are included in the totals given above for the larger `small frigate’ category. These ships were not intended to act as naval combatants, but rather as fully equipped peacetime training ships for young naval recruits. Fourteen ships were formally designated as training frigates during the age of sail.

`Newly invented frigates` (Novoizobretennye Fregaty) The phrase `newly invented’ does not transfer well from Russian to English and might more readily be rendered as `rebuilt` or `redesigned’. The frigate designation is probably not entirely appropriate for this small collection of short-lived Black Sea ships, five of which originally fell within the category of purpose built shallow draught frigates, while the others were comprised of a hotch-potch of converted pinks, cutters and merchantmen that were rebuilt as `frigates’. The purpose-built frigates chosen for the conversion programme were originally shallow-draught ships built in shipyards along the Don River and armed with 12pdrs and generally resembled conventional deep-water frigates. These highly specialized warships were found to be incapable of dealing with more heavily gunned Turkish ships in the opening phases of the Russo-Turkish War of 1788-90 in the Liman. In order to derive some value from their construction when their deficiencies became apparent, they were rebuilt in 1788 with reinforced hulls and enormously powerful (for their size) 30pdr batteries bored out hurriedly from available guns of lesser calibre. The concept of adding very heavy guns to shallow draught vessels in order to use their enhanced combination of firepower and manoeuverability to compensate for the Russian lack of line of battle ships in the Liman was the result of the fruitful and co-operative relationship that grew up between Samuel Bentham, a British mechanical engineer and later Inspector General of the Royal Navy, and the formidably talented Prince Potemkin. The resulting vessels resembled later nineteenth-century ships armed with gunnades and they proved an effective short-term solution for the Black Sea fleet, although they sacrificed a good deal of their scouting and cruising capabilities in their search for greater short-range firepower, becoming de facto coastal defence ships. A total of twelve `newly invented frigates’ of all types were converted in 1788 to meet the demands of the Russo-Turkish War. They were all disposed of in the early 1790s as newer, more carefully thought-out heavy frigate types began entering service in the Black Sea; but they set the tone for future generations of heavily armed Black Sea frigates with their deliberate substitution of heavy ordnance for more conventional cruiser qualities.

Oared or rowing frigates The shallow coastal waters of the northern Baltic mandated the construction by both Swedes and Russians of large fleets of small rowing vessels similar in function to Western gunboats. These small craft could not operate in deepwater environments, but they could do serious damage to larger sailing ships becalmed in the shallow-water environments of the northern Baltic and made helpless by the vagaries of the Baltic winds. Rowing frigates provided something of a link between the traditional deep-water sailing navy and the gunboat squadrons. They were as large and well armed as true frigates, but were at the same time shallow-draft vessels unsuitable for deep-water use and with sweeps capable of facilitating movement during calms and of manoeuvring successfully against smaller and more agile gunboats. Twenty-six of these handsome and unusual ships were completed between 1773 and 1823, ranging between 130 ft and 144 ft in length. The early ships carried 24pdrs and the final rowing frigates carried 36pdrs, an unprecedented armament for a frigate.

Corvettes and ship sloops

To English-speaking readers, corvette is simply the name used by the French for the British ship sloop and both designations refer (in this time period at least) to three-masted ships similar in layout to frigates but smaller and with fewer and lighter cannon. Both terms were in use in the Russian sailing navy, but they had separate and distinct meanings, although both types were alike in being three-masted ships of generally similar size and armaments.

Corvettes were purely combat ships with sharper lines than corresponding sloops. They were operationally attached to battle groups and employed as scouts, avisos and cruising ships. Corvettes were more popular in the Black Sea where they took on many of the functions reserved to frigates in the Baltic in the absence of adequate numbers of standard frigate types. A total of 15 corvettes entered service in the Black Sea after 1800 as opposed to only 3 for the Baltic and 4 for the Caspian.

Russian ship sloops were broader of beam and better suited for carrying cargo and supplies than corvettes. They retained the capability for assuming scouting and cruising functions if called upon, but were generally employed as armed store ships. After the Napoleonic Wars ended, ship sloops came into their own when they were found to be ideally suited for hydrographic survey work, foreign exploration and global circumnavigation. No sloops are found in the Russian Baltic or Black Sea fleets in the eighteenth century (unless one includes the `small frigates’), although three were built in Kamchatka. Between 1804 and 1818, 21 ship sloops were built for the Baltic and one lone sloop joined the Black Sea fleet in 1823. Ship sloops were not built in quantity in the Black Sea fleet because the closing of the Bosporus to Russian warships negated their potential for long-range service.

Snows and brigs

Snows and brigs were close cousins. Both had two large square-rigged masts; but the snow in its final incarnation in the second half of the eighteenth century also carried a small, short third mast called a trysail mast immediately abaft the main mast carrying a spanker that could be operated independently of the main mast’s sails. The trysail mast was not readily apparent to the uninformed observer due to its close proximity to the main mast and snows were sometimes referred to as `two- and-a-half mast’ ships. Russian snows built in the first quarter of the eighteenth century were originally based upon Dutch designs and were equipped with sweeps for inshore operations. Illustrations indicate that the rig of at least three early snows, two Lizets and the similar Munker (My Heart), all designed by Peter I and named after his daughter Elizabeth, carried traditional three-masted ship rig with a fully developed mizzen mast in place of the trysail. Other contemporary snows, such as Adler of 1705, are shown with more traditional snow rig. This may indicate Peter’s personal preference for three-masted ships, whatever their size, or it may reflect a variability in the rigging of early snows that would indicate that the designation may have had more to do, at this time, with hull design, size and intended employment than with a particular rig. Russian snows were popular in both the Baltic and Sea of Azov during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, but are not found thereafter. Their decline in popularity in later years mirrors a similar phenomenon in the Royal Navy during the same period and one wonders if there was a connection here, as in other areas, with the Russian employment of large numbers of British shipwrights and officers. A total of 22 snows were completed between 1700 and 1711, 16 in the Baltic and 6 in the Sea of Azov. One final snow was completed for the Baltic in 1723, almost as an afterthought.

Brigs did not begin to appear in the Russian navy until the very close of the eighteenth century, but they became extremely popular during the first half of the nineteenth, gradually edging out the slightly larger corvettes and ship sloops in both the Baltic and Black Sea. The development of the brig as the primary low-end ship best suited for inshore patrol, routine escort and scouting activities parallels a similar process in the British Royal Navy from about 1780 on. To quote Robert Gardiner from Warships of the Napoleonic Era, three-masted sloops were `more seaworthy, more habitable, longer ranged and better armed than the old two-masted type, and the ship rig must have conferred some advantages in battle – three masts would have made them less vulnerable to damage aloft than two. But the one quality the new-style sloops did not possess was speed.’ Besides having an important edge in speed, brigs required smaller crews as a result of having only two masts to the ship sloop’s three. The downside of the two-mast arrangement was a greater vulnerability in battle since the loss of a single mast was of more importance in a two-masted vessel than it was in a ship with three masts.

The nineteenth century saw a flowering of the type, with 37 being built for the Baltic, 26 for the Black Sea, 19 for the Caspian and six for Okhotsk. With few exceptions, brigs were between 90 ft and 105 ft in length and armed with all carronade batteries.

Cutters and schooners

Both cutters and schooners are small ships with largely fore- and-aft rigs, one or two masts, and a very light armament sufficient only for overwhelming the smallest of opponents. The two types developed in the later part of the eighteenth century as highly manoeuverable ships capable of patrolling close inshore and interdicting smugglers and pirates and the like. As a largely self-sufficient nation without much in the way of trade or foreign commerce, Russia in the eighteenth century had relatively little use for vessels of this type. After 1800, and particularly after 1820 as Russian naval horizons expanded, particularly in the areas of coastal surveying and exploration, cutters and schooners found an increasing role in naval affairs. Both types came within the same general size range, although schooners were probably a bit larger on the average. Between 1790 and 1860, the Baltic fleet acquired 27 two-masted schooners ranging between 35 ft and 105 ft, while the Black Sea fleet acquired 24 between 1772 and 1849 ranging between 75 ft and 119 ft. For reasons not immediately apparent, one- masted cutters were decidedly more popular in the Baltic, where there were a total of 42 vessels acquired between 1786 and 1826 as against only four for the Black Sea fleet and two for Okhotsk. Cutters in Russian service were as heterogeneous a group as schooners, with lengths varying between 51 ft and 99 ft and armament between 12 and 32 guns. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Russians stopped building cutters with the accession of Nicholas I, apparently preferring the slightly larger two-masted schooner.

Luggers and tenders

Luggers and tenders were classified as light warships by the Russians and are included in this section for this reason.

Bomb vessels

Russian naval operations were frequently conducted in support of amphibious objectives and bomb ships, both purpose-built and improvised, were built in some numbers for both major fleets and for the Caspian flotilla. Although designed for shore bombardment, these ships were deep draught vessels, designed to accompany and work with battle fleets at sea, and not for the close-in, shallow water work of prams and gunboats. In appearance, they were clumsy-looking vessels, with heavily reinforced decks to bear the weight of their heavy ordnance.

Seven bombs were built in the closing years of the seventeenth century for the Sea of Azov. The Baltic fleet acquired a total of 18 purpose-built bombs, two converted ships and two ships purchased abroad for a total of 22. The Black Sea built nine, converted eleven and purchased five abroad. Bombs were quite reasonably also found in the Caspian flotilla, where amphibious operations were common, and four ships were launched in 1808.

The World beyond Rome I

The Roman Empire was involved in networks of trade, diplomacy, and influence that, at their greatest extent, spanned Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the north, a Roman glass cup was buried in a fourth-century grave mound in Føre, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. In the east, a Roman glass bowl was buried in a fifth-century tomb in the Nara Prefecture in Japan. In the south, four Roman beads made of glass, silver, and gold were deposited in a third-century context at a trading site at Mkukutu in Tanzania. While these finds trace the outer edges of the reach of Roman trade goods, these regions were too far from the empire to play much role in frontier society. It is doubtful whether the nobles and merchants of Norway, Japan, and Tanzania who received these objects had any conception of the Roman Empire or knew where the luxury goods in their possession had been made.

Some knowledge of Rome reached China, where the Roman Empire was called “Great Qin.” Chinese sources reflect some eclectic but not inaccurate knowledge of Roman geography, government, and law. Romans had a similarly vague knowledge of the Chinese, whom they called “Seres,” being aware that their land was the source of silk and lay to the east beyond Parthia and India, but contacts were neither direct nor regular enough to leave much trace on the frontiers. The peoples, networks, and power centers that had a stronger impact on the frontier were found closer to the territory that the Romans had claimed as their own.

In North Africa, Roman administration covered the coastal agricultural regions, but in the broad zone of marginal lands between the coast and the Sahara desert there were numerous peoples, known to the Romans by such names as Mauri, Gaetuli, and Garamantes, who lived partly in and partly beyond the frontier region. Some of these peoples were dry-zone farmers who managed large-scale irrigation works. Others lived as nomadic pastoralists. There has been a long debate in the scholarship whether the settled and nomadic peoples of Rome’s desert frontiers, in Africa and elsewhere, lived in a state of cooperation or competition; the answer may well be both, depending on local circumstances and the fortunes of their farms and herds.

South of Egypt, on the middle reaches of the Nile, was the kingdom of Kush. In the aftermath of Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra and the incorporation of Egypt into the empire, Roman and Kushite forces clashed over control of the borderlands. After brief hostilities, Queen Amanirenas of Kush sent ambassadors to make a treaty with Augustus, and the peace held for most of the next few centuries. Occasional diplomatic missions helped keep the peace. One of these, likely from the third century, appears to be documented by a Latin inscription at Musawwarat es-Sufra in which one Acutus from Rome formally presents his good wishes to an unnamed queen. Evidence for the study of Greek in Kush may represent local officials keeping up the necessary language skills to send their own ambassadors in return. Kush also participated in the trade routes that connected the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean and central Africa. Concern for the security of trade may have encouraged both states to keep relations stable.

The Arabian frontier, like North Africa, presented a mix of settled kingdoms and nomadic peoples. The trade routes that passed through the region brought in substantial wealth but also further complicated the relationships between these societies. The Nabataean kingdom was a Roman client state for the better part of two centuries. Its capital at Petra was adorned with rock-cut temples in ornate Hellenistic style, and its kings were important regional leaders. Trajan annexed the territory in 107 as the province of Arabia Petraea, or “Rocky Arabia.” Other kingdoms and tribal alliances competed for power and control of trade routes, sometimes allying with Rome and sometimes raiding the frontier.

The largest and most powerful of Rome’s neighbors was the Parthian Empire. The Parthian state, though a match for Rome in its ability to muster forces for campaigning, was decentralized, prone to divisive court intrigue, and contained numerous semi-autonomous subkingdoms. The administration of this unruly empire was as unwieldy a task as the administration of the Roman Empire with its restless provincials and ambitious generals. It is no wonder that, in the first century CE, the two empires mostly contrived to leave one another alone. Nevertheless, Parthia loomed large in the Roman imagination. It remained the big prize, the enemy against whom flattering writers and propagandistic artists could always imagine emperors leading the good fight. Rome was equally significant to Parthian policy. The Parthian kings positioned themselves as heirs to the Achaemenid dynasty and champions of the Iranian peoples against western aggression.

The period of relative stability was broken by Trajan, who invaded Mesopotamia and Armenia in 113. Although Trajan’s conquests were quickly reversed by his successor Hadrian, Roman-Parthian relations remained unsettled for the following century. Several emperors initiated or contemplated military action against Parthia, and several Parthian kings pursued more aggressive policies on their western frontier. No substantial changes to the border were lasting, however, and diplomatic relations continued in between bursts of conflict. The historian Herodian even reports that the emperor Caracalla, in the early third century, proposed marrying a Parthian princess, and that Caracalla’s successor, Macrinus, celebrated a peace treaty and hailed the Parthian king Artabanus V as a loyal friend.

On the Black Sea steppes, a variety of nomadic and seminomadic peoples continued to live in traditional ways while some peoples of the region also developed settled kingdoms. Romans tended to describe the region in vague terms that drew as much on the literary tradition going back to Herodotus’ Scythians as they did on contemporary knowledge, but we should not assume that life on the steppe was static. Literary sources name various peoples in this region, including Sarmatians and Alans. In some cases, these names seem to correspond to identifiable ethnic and political groups, but they can also be unreliable, as the complexities of steppe identities were sometimes lost on writers from sedentary cultures.

In the late second century, there is evidence of cultural changes around the northern shores of the Black Sea and the lower Danube that may reflect the arrival of migrating warrior bands from somewhere to the north and west. These new peoples are reflected in a distinct archaeological pattern of settlement types, pottery styles, and burial practices. These features are the earliest evidence for a cultural pattern that would become more pronounced in the third and fourth centuries CE, which modern archaeologists have termed the Chernyakhov culture. It is generally believed that the Chernyakhov culture is related to the people known as “Goths” in the literary sources, but how consistent the Chernyakhov-Goth connection is and how early we can speak of a Gothic presence in the region are matters of debate.

The Romans referred to the peoples who lived along the middle to upper Danube and Rhine as “Germans” (barring a few exceptions, such as the Dacians and Iazyges), but it is unlikely that the tribes and kingdoms of this region felt any kind of shared identity. Many individual tribal names are also known, but, as elsewhere, we cannot be confident that the Roman authors who recorded those names were applying them accurately. Many cultures existed in this region with different kinds of social and political organization. Some, such as the Dacians and Marcomanni, appear to have reached an early stage of state development, with power centralized in well-established royal families. Other peoples, such as the Frisians, lived in small, egalitarian communities with little in the way of formal power structures.

Farther to the north, away from the frontier zone but in close contact with the Roman world, another major power was rising. At Himlingøje in Denmark, a group of lavish burials filled with Roman luxuries marks the center of a commercial and political network that established itself in the late second century and spanned the Baltic Sea and southern Scandinavia. The warrior nobles of Himlingøje fought as auxiliaries in the Roman army and maintained strong trade and diplomatic connections to Rome after they returned home. Through these connections they acquired Roman goods, which they then used as prestigious gifts to expand their network of influence in the North. The numerous ritual deposits they made in Danish bogs of the weapons and armor of their defeated enemies show that they expanded their power in more aggressive ways as well. While many of the peoples who lived closer to the Roman frontier had unsettled histories with Rome, the rulers of Himlingøje appear to have remained on good terms with the Romans throughout their history.

Rome also had staunch allies in Scotland with the Votadini whose power center, a fortified hilltop site at Traprain Law, has yielded an extraordinary wealth of Roman imports ranging from gold brooches to iron door hinges. The precise boundaries of Votadinian power are uncertain, but other peoples certainly lived beyond the British frontier, both in Scotland and Ireland. Some of these peoples had large, settled societies, but others were small and mobile.

The peoples who lived in and beyond the Roman frontier zone varied widely in their ways of life, social organization, and political structures. While some maintained long-term diplomatic ties with Rome, others had volatile relations with the empire. This wide variety of frontier peoples challenged Rome’s limited capacity for maintaining foreign relations and managing the frontiers.

Emperors and Frontiers

The frontier was always an area of special concern to the emperors, even those with little direct experience of it. Imperial power depended on the support of two groups: the army, which was mostly stationed on the frontiers, and the people of Rome, who approved of victories over barbarians. Although imperial activity on the frontier could be haphazard and inconsistent, few emperors could afford to ignore the frontier entirely.

After the defeat of Varus, Augustus soured on expansion. He initiated no more conquests, and his final advice to his successor Tiberius was to keep the empire within its boundaries. The meaning of this counsel has long been debated. It is unlikely he meant that the empire should never expand again. The conquering ideal remained fixed in Roman ideology, and Augustus was not shy of bragging about the conquests accomplished under his authority. More likely it was personal advice to his successor not to embark on a new series of foreign campaigns for political purposes.

On the whole, most of Augustus’ successors followed his advice. On the grand scale, the frontier was mostly stable. There were only a few large additions to the empire in the following centuries: the southern half of Great Britain, parts of North Africa, Dacia, parts of Arabia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia. The conquests of Mesopotamia and Armenia were brief accomplishments of Trajan’s and Septimius Severus’ wars against Parthia and did not long endure. Some of the expansions in Africa and Arabia came from incorporating client kingdoms rather than conquering new lands. On the small scale, however, the frontier was turbulent. Almost every emperor from Augustus to Severus Alexander fought frontier campaigns or faced unrest in frontier provinces. Most of these campaigns added little, if any, new territory to the empire, but few emperors actually treated the frontier as a limit not to be crossed.

Emperors who felt insecure in their position used foreign wars to prove their worth in the traditional expansionist mode. Claudius, who came to power unexpectedly, initiated the conquest of Britain, which the unloved Nero continued. Domitian, another surprise emperor, began his reign with a campaign in Germany that even his fellow Romans criticized as unwarranted. Trajan, though he grew to be one of the most beloved emperors, came to power through obscure political machinations, which may help explain his ambitious program of conquests in Dacia and Mesopotamia. Septimius Severus, the victor of a civil war, spent much of his reign fighting in Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Scotland. These campaigns not only showered military glory on the emperors but also enriched the empire with plunder and slaves while keeping potentially restless soldiers occupied.

Restless soldiers were no trifle. Revolt by troops who felt ignored by the emperors was a recurrent threat to imperial stability. Sometimes this discontent could be softened by letting the soldiers pillage across the frontier. On other occasions, successful frontier generals could harness their soldiers’ dissatisfaction in a bid for the throne. Vespasian and Septimius Severus both came to power in this way, and many more attempted the feat unsuccessfully or managed it only to be quickly ousted by a rival general.

While the Romans pushed the frontier, the frontier pushed back. There were few major incursions on Roman territory in the first centuries of the empire, but some threats demanded the emperor’s attention. Relations with the Parthian Empire remained unresolved as both empires pressed for greater influence along their mutual border, but neither could secure a lasting victory over the other. Trajan, Severus, and Caracalla all led major campaigns against Parthia, but their gains did not last. The Parthians backed Pescennius Niger, a general in Syria who competed with Severus for power, but Pescennius’ bid for the throne failed.

Away from the Parthian front, the most serious threat to the Roman frontier in this period developed along the Danube in the late second century. Termed the Marcomannic Wars by modern scholarship, this diffuse and protracted series of conflicts involved many of the peoples of the region, chiefly the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges, and kept the emperor Marcus Aurelius occupied from the early 160s to 180. Smaller-scale troubles rarely claimed the attention of the emperors, but raiding, local resistance, and discontent among the soldiers were constant nuisances in the frontier zone that could flare up into more serious trouble if not kept in check.

Emperors undertook a variety of different policies toward the frontier. In the early empire, rulers such as Augustus and Nero were content to govern from a distance and entrust even major campaigns to subordinates, but the rise of frontier generals as claimants to the throne demonstrated that it was dangerous for an emperor to leave the frontier in anyone else’s hands. There were those, such as Trajan and Severus, who threw themselves into aggressive frontier campaigning. Others, notably Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, were led, either by temperament or circumstance, to focus on consolidating and defending the territory claimed by their predecessors. Only a few emperors such as Antoninus and Elagabalus largely ignored frontier problems, being either fortunate enough to rule in a period of relative calm or else too busy with their own concerns.

Because of the practicalities of governing a continent-spanning state in an age when messages could take weeks and armies months, if not years, to reach the frontier, an emperor’s ability to effectively manage the frontier was limited. At the same time, as proven by generals such as Vespasian and Severus, delegation of too much power was risky. Wars against barbarians or restless provincials were potent propaganda tools, and emperors were wary of letting anyone else get their hands on them. It was a conventional charge against bad emperors that they did not trust their subordinates, but even the most popular emperors understood the importance of preserving personal control over frontier policy. After the Julio-Claudian age, most emperors learned to keep frontier generals on a short leash.

The World beyond Rome II

Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort and a Batavian cohort.

The effects of imperial neglect can be seen on the British frontier. The archaeological evidence from Scotland shows a lively cross-frontier exchange in the first and early second centuries. Roman goods found their way into native hands, from fine enameled brooches and sets of bronze tableware to hinges and horseshoes. While the Votadini enjoyed a profitable alliance with the Romans, deposits of mixed Roman and non-Roman scrap metal at several sites indicate that local smiths were also doing jobs for the Roman soldiers stationed on the frontier. Even some modest farmsteads had access to Roman goods. During this period of strong cross-border ties, many emperors devoted at least some of their energies to Britain, and the frontier was briefly advanced into Scotland in the mid-second century. Starting around 160, however, the Marcomannic Wars took imperial attention away from Britain for several decades. Despite some frontier shakeups under Commodus, it was not until 208 that another emperor, Severus, took an active interest in the province. Roman artifacts in Scotland show a corresponding decline after 160. Even casual exchanges, such as Scottish crafters working for frontier soldiers, seem to have dried up. While we might have expected provincial commanders to take up the slack and maintain regional ties when an emperor was busy elsewhere, the Scottish evidence suggests that they did not—or, more to the point, they were not permitted to.

The Roman emperors’ relationship to the frontier was contradictory. They could have enormous effects on frontier societies, whether by leading their soldiers out on campaign or by pulling them back and assigning them to border control. When an emperor turned his attention to a frontier area, it must have been akin to an earthquake or flood: an unpredictable, irresistible event that could change local conditions for generations, but whose aftereffects were mostly left to the locals to deal with. When they turned their attention elsewhere, their subordinates were limited in what they could do to compensate for their neglect. Most of the empire’s frontiers, most of the time, were left to themselves, shaped largely by the actions of the peoples who lived along them.

The Army on the Frontier

The most stable Roman presence on the frontier was the army. While some frontiers were more fully militarized than others, all were marked with fortresses and outposts where Roman soldiers were stationed to maintain security and control. In regions with urbanized societies, such as Egypt and Syria, the army’s influence was mostly limited to the hinterland zones. In other areas, where local societies functioned on a smaller scale, such as Britain and Arabia, the army’s effect on social and economic conditions was more widespread. Across the Roman world, the peoples who lived at the fringes of Roman power mostly knew Rome through its army, whose presence could be both beneficial and disruptive.

Soldiers were usually well paid, since the emperors depended on their loyalty. The regular provision of wages and supplies brought a steady flow of cash and merchants into regions that in many cases had previously been economically underdeveloped. The frontier army was a market for goods and services from both inside and outside the empire. In the West, the pottery and bronze industries of Gaul were stimulated by demand in the frontier regions. The economic effect was less visible in the more developed East, but in outlying regions such as the Egyptian oases, Roman forts provided a new market for local goods. The reach of the frontier market extended well outside the range of Roman authority. Peoples as far away as Himlingøje and Mecca increased their leather and textile production to meet Roman demand.

The Roman army also offered employment to soldiers recruited in and beyond the frontier zone. Barbarian auxiliaries were a vital part of the Roman army for the same reasons that Greek mercenaries had been employed by Egyptians and Persians: economically underdeveloped regions make prime recruiting grounds for troops. After the revolt of Batavian soldiers serving near their homeland in 69 CE, the Roman army began to station auxiliary units away from the regions where they were recruited, so that future rebels would not have the benefit of being surrounded by their own people. Once stationed in their new locations, these units tended to recruit locally and lose their original ethnic character over time, but troops were also relocated from one part of the empire to another as military needs dictated. Because of this reshuffling of personnel, we find, for example, a Pannonian soldier commemorated with a funerary stela at Gordium in central Anatolia and offerings to Syrian gods in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain. Some of these soldiers married local women and started families, creating new communities with ties to both the army and the local peoples. Their sons were often recruited into the Roman army a generation later. Other auxiliary veterans returned home across the frontier and played a role in mediating trade and diplomatic connections between Romans and non-Romans. Recruitment from beyond the frontier fostered the growth of a distinct military society that was neither entirely Roman nor native to the lands in which it developed.

The Roman army could also be disruptive. The militarization of the frontier interfered with traditional trade routes and seasonal movements of laborers and pastoralists. Tacitus noted that unimpeded border crossing was a privilege reserved for few, such as the friendly Hermunduri tribe:

For them alone among the Germans is there trade not only on the [Danube] riverbank but even deep in the most magnificent colony of the province of Raetia. They cross here and there without guards and while to other people we show only our arms and forts, to them we have opened our homes and estates.

The portoria, a customs duty of 25 percent, was collected on all goods entering the empire’s eastern provinces. On other frontiers the rates may have been lower, but there were still fees. The eastern trade routes could be highly profitable: the record of a loan contract from Egypt documents a cargo of perfumes, ivory, fabrics, and other luxuries from India in the second century CE valued at more than 9 million sestertii. (For comparison’s sake, by the late second century, a fortune of 20 million sestertii could put one in the lower echelons of the imperial aristocracy.) High customs fees and valuable cargoes encouraged smuggling. The Romans began to station customs enforcers in client kingdoms beyond the frontier to help monitor the traffic.

Simply knowing what was going on along the frontier was a challenge in itself. Surveillance posts and patrols were obtrusive shows of force, but more subtle forms of spying are hinted at by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus’ mention of the arcani, or “hidden ones”: “Their duty was, by hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby tribes.” A fragmentary tablet from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in northern Britain, with the text miles arcanus (“hidden soldier”) may relate to these same spies, and another Vindolanda text possibly records a scrap of an intelligence report on the locals’ fighting capabilities.

All this surveillance can only have been an aggravation to those who lived along the frontier. Tacitus described a Germanic tribe complaining that the Romans would not allow them to meet with their fellow Germans who lived within the borders, “or else charge us a fee to meet unarmed, practically naked, and under guard, which is even more insulting to men born to arms.” The authority of frontier soldiers to stop, search, and tax travelers was ripe for abuse. A merchant’s letter of complaint found at Vindolanda suggests some of the misconduct soldiers indulged in. The beginning of the letter is damaged, so the details are unclear, but it seems both the merchant and his goods were threatened with violence, perhaps as part of a shakedown:

he beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away. . . . I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

The letter further details how the mistreated merchant had appealed up the chain of command as far as the provincial governor with no luck.

If a merchant who could write good Latin and knew how to work the system got so little satisfaction for his grievances, the ordinary people who lived in the outer shadow of Rome’s frontier cannot have fared much better. With no effective recourse against exploitation, peoples of the frontier zone resorted to raiding and revolt, such as the Frisians, who were required to pay a tribute of oxhides to Rome, even though they lived beyond the Rhine. In 28 CE the Roman centurion assigned to oversee the tribe demanded hides of higher quality than the Frisians could supply. When their appeals for relief brought no results, the Frisians revolted, killing more than a thousand Roman troops before they were subdued.

Acting both as agents of imperial power and on their own motivations, Roman soldiers made up one of the main forces at work on frontier society, but Rome was not the only force along the frontier. Many other peoples, cultures, and political forces, both those local to the frontier zone and those farther away, interacted with Rome, pursuing their own agendas and putting their own pressures on those who lived at the edges of Roman power.

Between Rome and a Hard Place

A series of inscriptions from Volubilis in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains on the Atlantic coast of North Africa records eleven occasions over the first and second centuries CE when Roman officials held negotiations with the Baquates, a collection of seminomadic tribes. To judge from the inscriptions, the negotiations seem to have come to a satisfactory end on each occasion. These inscriptions testify to the possibility of peaceful coexistence among those who lived at the fringes of the Roman world, but the fact that these negotiations had to be repeated over and over again also indicates that, in the long term, frontier relations remained unstable.

What was true at Volubilis was true of the frontier as a whole. While a tranquil coexistence was sometimes possible, and large-scale hostilities were relatively rare in the empire’s first two and a half centuries, the frontier was never quite settled. The disquiet of the frontier arose partly from the nature of the societies along it, but also from the way it was caught between worlds. The society of the frontier was constantly being pushed and pulled by many different forces, both Roman and non-Roman. These tensions were felt both inside and outside the demarcated boundaries of Roman control. The conflict between different forces with different agendas destabilized local societies.

Many of the peoples who lived in and around the Roman frontiers are conventionally described as “tribes.” This vague word is applied to various kinds of small-scale societies with no formal government that are held together by networks of extended family ties and personal relationships. Where Roman authors such as Caesar and Tacitus imagined stable ethnic groups with names and defining traits, we should instead see most of the Roman frontier zone inhabited by loose and changeable conglomerations of people who were ready to form, dissolve, and re-form alliances as their interests shifted. Trying to cope with these unstable groups was a challenge for the limited resources of Roman foreign policy. The brutality in many of Rome’s interactions with these peoples only sowed further disruption.

There were other societies at the edges of the Roman world that were larger, more stable, and better able to deal with Rome on an equal footing, including Kush, Parthia, and Himlingøje. For much of the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, these peoples enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with Rome. Their stability and organization made it easier for them to pursue consistent long-term policies toward Rome and to rebuff Roman efforts to meddle in their spheres of influence, but the existence of smaller, less well organized states and peoples in between these major players also helped stabilize relations. Kush had ongoing conflicts with the same desert raiders that harassed the Roman southern frontier. Rome and Parthia managed to keep the peace for more than a century in part because they were able to limit their conflicts mostly to competition over influence in Armenia. Relations in the North were helped because, during the Marcomannic Wars, the rulers of Himlingøje were at war with the same peoples the Romans were fighting.

Caught in between these larger forces, the “tribal” peoples of the frontier did what was necessary to survive. Sometimes they were able to make a profitable peace with Rome and their other powerful neighbors. Sometimes they were pushed into open war. Much of the time, they got by in a state of uneasy cooperation, taking chances to profit from trade or military service when they could get them, indulging in petty raiding and customs evasion when they could get away with it, and suffering the abuses of bored soldiers when they had to.

Good fences may make good neighbors, but what is good for the neighbors is not always good for the fence. Earlier conceptions of the Roman frontier often imagined the peoples just beyond the Roman borders as an outer wall of client states, held in place by Roman diplomacy and intimidation as a bulwark against uncertain threats from the unknown lands of the far distance. When significant new threats to the security of Roman military and political authority arose in the third century, however, they did not come from the far-off reaches of Scandinavia or central Asia but from the frontier zone itself. The peoples that Rome had been bribing, intimidating, patrolling, and generally meddling with for centuries finally began to push back in more effective ways. In the third century, peoples all around the edges of the Roman world—in Scotland, Germany, the Black Sea steppes, Arabia, and North Africa—began to succeed at what Arminius had attempted in the first decade CE: to create large, stable alliances that could stand up to Roman power.