Anson’s Cruise (1740–1744)

George Anson’s capture of a Manila galleon by Samuel Scott.


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): West coast of Spanish America and Manila, Philippines

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Britain hoped to launch a preemptive strike against Spain in anticipation of the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe by cutting off Spain’s supply of wealth from the Americas.

OUTCOME: Britain failed to prevent Spain from entering the European war or to do much damage at all strategically, though Commodore George Anson’s diminished fleet did manage to harass Spain’s West Coast outposts in America, to capture one treasure-laden Spanish galleon, and to pave the way for British expansion in the Pacific.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Britain, slightly in excess of 1,000; Spain, unknown

CASUALTIES: Britain, around 1,000 dead, mostly from illness and shipwreck

When the tangled web of European alliances appeared to be leading Britain into what would become the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION in 1740, the English Crown dispatched Commodore George Anson (1697–1762) to raid Spain’s Pacific coast possessions—Chile, Peru, and Mexico— and to attack Spanish galleons on the high seas. Embroiled in the machinations of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (1712–86) against the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne, Maria Theresa (1717–80), Britain’s royal command hoped to avoid a head-to-head conflict with Spain on the Continent by cutting off its supply of income at the source, Spain’s American colonies.

Given the commission in 1739, Anson was unable actually to begin his mission until mid-September of 1740 because of compounded delays in provisioning and in finding enough men—the mission, after all, required by its very nature that he circumnavigate the world. The tardy departure, however, cost Anson the element of surprise on which he had counted. Though the Spanish had become aware of British intentions and Spain’s colonies had been warned to prepare for attack, Anson nevertheless set sail with a fleet of six warships—his flagship Centurion, plus Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager, Tyral—and one supply vessel, Anna Pink. All were poorly manned, since the entire squadron boasted only 977 sailors, mostly untrained. There were some 200-plus marines among them, but they were fresh recruits with only minimal knowledge of the sea. Anson was lucky to have even them—an urgent request from Anson for more soldiers before shipping out had netted him a contingent of patients from a local hospital. Leading an ill-trained force in a late start against a ready enemy made many, including Anson himself, believe the mission was doomed from the start.

Once at sea, matters only grew worse. Another effect of starting in September was that Anson would have to approach Cape Horn in the autumn, when the westerlies were at their peak. By the time Anson’s fleet began to be battered by gale-force winds, the ships’ crews were all suffering from a severe outbreak of scurvy. Whipped about by storms and manned by sailors debilitated with scurvy, only three ships in Anson’s fleet—Centurion, Gloucester, and Tyral—survived the passage round the Horn. Anson’s fleet was cut in half, his fighting force, such as it was, reduced by some two-thirds, and his original mission effectively dead in the water. But Anson was a capable and imaginative commander, and he simply redefined his objectives. He set sail for Acapulco, fighting his way up the coast and hoping to ambush the famed “Manila Galleon,” a Spanish treasure ship—the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga—before it left the Mexican port homeward bound to Manila. Anson missed the Spanish ship by two weeks, arriving at Acapulco in September 1741.

For two years after rounding the Horn, Anson ravaged the western shores of the Americas, working his way up the coast first to Mexico and then beyond. After he had lost two more ships, Anson, determined to continue around the globe, decided to make a north Pacific crossing to China. When he reached the Portuguese settlement of Macao (near modern-day Hong Kong) on November 13, 1742, he arrived only with his flagship and some 210 men. Nevertheless, the Centurion was the first British warship to sail into Chinese waters, and its arrival created an uproar. The Portuguese, worried about the precarious trade agreements and protocol arrangements they had made with Chinese leaders in Canton, initially refused Anson’s request for provisions and repairs despite pressure from Britain’s East India Company. After careful negotiations with the Chinese, Anson secured his provisions and— recruiting more men—set sail in the spring of 1743, once again hoping to intercept and capture the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga.

Sailing with a reinforced crew fueled by dreams of immense wealth, Anson departed Macao heading south toward the Philippines. In the South China Sea Anson lay in wait for the Manila-bound treasure ship. Greatly outnumbered but with superior weaponry and a greedy crew hungry for loot, the Centurion captured the Cavadonga after a fierce battle on June 20, 1743. Victory was sweet for the beleaguered Englishman. The booty came to somewhat more than 1.3 million pieces of eight and some 35,000 ounces of silver, worth a total of about £400,000. Thus fortified, Anson and his crew continued on their voyage around the world, arriving in London in June 1744 to a conqueror’s welcome as the treasure they had captured was paraded through the streets in 32 wagons.

Anson may have failed at his mission, meeting none of the objectives set for him by the Royal Navy command, but his world cruise, highlighted by the sailing of the first British warship into Chinese waters and by the capture of the Manila galleon, became one of the more famous voyages in naval history. Despite the loss of all but one ship and more than 1,000 men, Anson returned a national hero, and his cruise sparked a wave of British expansion into the Pacific. Anson, a man of some imagination and initiative at a time when the Royal Navy was known for anything but the vision and pluck of its officers, not only became George, Lord Anson, the leading admiral of his day, but also went down in history as the “Father of the Modern British Navy.”

Further reading: W. V. Anson, Life of Admiral Lord Anson, the Father of the British Navy, 1697–1762 (London: J. Murray, 1912); S. W. C. Pack, Admiral Lord Anson: The Story of Anson’s Voyage and Naval Events of His Day (London: Cassell, 1960); L. A. Wilcox, Anson’s Voyage (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970).


Hit-and-Run Raids

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


Sailing towards Leyte Gulf from left to right CA Chikuma, BB Nagato, BC Haruna, BC Kongo and CA Tone.

Approach of the Fleets to Leyte Gulf

The Battle for Leyte Gulf, October 23–25, 1944

Admiral Halsey, reacting to the presence of the IJN Center Force, which consisted of 5 battleships, 9 cruisers, and 13 destroyers, ordered McCain, then 600 miles east of the Philippines, en route to Ulithi, to reverse course and refuel in order to be ready for whatever might develop. He ordered Sherman and Davison to close on Bogan’s group, off San Bernardino Strait, and gave all three groups their combat orders in one word, “Strike!”

Davison’s search planes discovered and attacked the Southern Force. The plotting officers at CinCPac headquarters, drawing their blue and orange lines on the chart, noted that, by closing on Bogan, Davison would be in the optimum position to attack the Center Force, but his planes would no longer be able to reach the Southern Force. Admiral Kinkaid must have noted the same thing, for he took it on himself to engage the Southern Force with his surface units. He sent Admiral Oldendorf, commanding his fire-support ships, a message, listing Halsey, Nimitz, and King as information addressees: “Prepare for night engagement. Enemy force estimated 2 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, 10 destroyers reported under attack by our carrier planes in eastern Sulu Sea at 0910, 24 Oct. Enemy can arrive Leyte Gulf tonight.”

Sherman, commanding Task Group 38.3, could not comply with Halsey’s order to close on Bogan because an enemy air attack had left his light carrier Princeton afire and dead in the water. The damage to the Princeton was bad news, indeed, but to Halsey it was no excuse for neglecting the attack mission he had assigned. He radioed Mitscher, who was with Sherman’s group: “Assume ComTaskGroup 38.3 is striking large enemy force near Mindoro. Advise results of strike earliest possible.”

To Nimitz it was obvious that a piece of the Japanese puzzle was missing: the enemy would hardly commit so much surface strength in an area guarded by an American carrier force unless he intended to use his own carriers. Those carriers were known to have been training in Japan’s Inland Sea, and Nimitz assumed that they were coming down from the north under Ozawa to form a Northern Force which, together with the Southern Force and the Center Force, would attempt a triple attack on Leyte Gulf. Halsey evidently had come to the same conclusion, for at 1:34 p.m. he radioed Mitscher: “Enemy carrier strength not located. Keep area to north under observation.”

At 3:12 Halsey, listing CominCh and CinCPac as information addressees, sent his task group commanders a message that Nimitz found highly gratifying. Headed “Battle Plan,” it announced that a Task Force 34 would be formed, consisting of 4 battleships, including his flagship New Jersey, 2 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, and 14 destroyers—all drawn from Bogan’s and Davison’s task groups. Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee was to command the new task force, which would “engage decisively at long ranges,” while the carriers kept clear of the surface fighting.

CinCPac and his staff judged this the proper tactic to meet the situation—pulling out of the carrier screens a surface force to engage an enemy surface force, while retaining supporting air power in the background. Although Kinkaid was not an addressee of Halsey’s message, he knew about it because his communicators had intercepted it and shown it to him. Naturally, he, Mitscher, Nimitz, and King all assumed that Halsey would order his plan executed—possibly by short-range voice radio since the two task groups involved were close together.

At about 4:00 p.m. Mitscher notified Halsey that a magazine in the burning Princeton had exploded, damaging the cruiser Birmingham and two destroyers that were alongside fighting the carrier’s fires. The Birmingham’s casualties were severe, estimated at 150 killed and 400 wounded. Nimitz wondered why Sherman had risked such a valuable and heavily manned vessel as a cruiser to do the sort of rescue work ordinarily assigned to destroyers.

In the late afternoon Mitscher radioed Halsey that Sherman’s search planes had located the Northern Force, evidently in two sections, and that the carrier section was some 180 miles east of the northern tip of Luzon. In the circumstances he recommended scuttling the Princeton, whose flames might serve as a beacon for enemy planes after dark. Halsey told him to use his discretion about the Princeton, After a further exchange, in which Mitscher reported the Princeton scuttled, Halsey informed Nimitz and MacArthur that the enemy carrier force had been sighted—information that Nimitz had already obtained through intercepts.

At 8:24 p.m. Halsey sent a message to Kinkaid, with CominCh and CinCPac as information addressees. He gave the location, course, and speed of the Center Force, which suggested that it was headed for San Bernardino Strait and could pass through in a few hours. Strike reports, however, indicated that the Center Force had been heavily damaged. Halsey concluded: “Am proceeding north with three groups to attack enemy carrier force at dawn.” At Pearl Harbor it was assumed that this meant three carrier groups, Task Force 34, the surface group, being formed and left behind.

Nobody at CinCPac headquarters was surprised at Halsey’s northward dash. Given a choice of objectives, he could always be expected to go after carriers, the warships with the longest reach and the hardest punch. He was frustrated at having missed a chance to get at the carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea and again in the Battle of Midway. He had condemned Spruance’s failure to go after the carriers on the night of June 18–19. Lastly, he could hardly do otherwise than go charging off after the toughest enemy force, because he had come to identify himself with the ferocious character invented by the press: “Bull” Halsey, Nemesis of the Japs. It was predictable, too, that he would not head north until it was dark, so as not to reveal his intention to any snooping enemy planes, and then he would steam toward the enemy carriers through the night, in order to cancel the enemy’s advantage in outranging the Americans with their planes.

Of course, the Japanese Center Force, damaged or not, also had to be considered, for unless something stopped it, it would soon have passed through San Bernardino Strait and be in the Pacific, heading along the east coast of Samar for Leyte Gulf. Admiral Spruance, looking at the chart, placed his hand on it just to east of the strait and said softly, as if to himself, “If I were there, I would keep my force right there.” It is not likely that many naval aviators would have agreed with him. To remain so near enemy airfields could invite shuttle-bombing by an enemy carrier force. While fighting a battle, Spruance could hardly have cratered the complex of airfields on Luzon, as he had cratered the few on Rota and Guam during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Certainly it was comforting to know that Halsey had had the wisdom to leave Task Force 34 behind to guard San Bernardino Strait. One nagging question, however, was whether he was wise to lead all three of his available carrier groups against the Northern Force. That move left Admiral Lee without any air support, as he opposed an enemy that might be supported by planes from Luzon. Nimitz must have considered this problem, but he kept hands off. In the first American carrier counterattack of the war, he had learned from Halsey himself the wise practice of not interfering with the man at the scene.

Toward dawn on October 25, two messages came into CinCPac headquarters almost simultaneously. One was from Halsey, who, still disregarding radio silence, reported that one of his night snoopers had contacted the enemy carrier force 100 miles north of his own northbound force. Halsey had succeeded in canceling the enemy’s advantage by bringing him before dawn well within the attack range of the American carrier planes.

The second message was from Kinkaid. At anchor in Leyte Gulf, he had no need to observe radio silence. Reporting on Oldendorf’s operations, the dispatch read: “Our surface forces are engaging enemy surface forces in Surigao Strait and southern Leyte Gulf.” Subsequent dispatches from Kinkaid described the progress of the battle. Sent at 4:12 a.m.: “Enemy force sighted in strait by PT boats about 0200 I, arrived entrance gulf about 0300 I. Consists of 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and destroyers. Question: Is TF 34 guarding San Bernardino Strait?” Sent at 6:23: “About 0500 I, 25 enemy surface vessels Surigao Strait pursued by our light forces.” Sent at 7:03: “At 0645 I 25th, our forces closing to polish off four Nip cripples near Kanihaan Island, Surigao Strait.”

Obviously the Seventh Fleet gunnery vessels had won a resounding victory over the enemy’s Southern Force. This was cheerful news indeed. Still, Nimitz was worried. The course and speed of the Center Force, as given in Halsey’s 8:24 message to Kinkaid, should have carried it through San Bernardino Strait a little after midnight. If Task Force 34 had been waiting outside the strait, there should have been a night battle. On the other hand,

Admiral Lee, as Nimitz knew, had developed a distaste for night combat in the battleship night action of the Battle of Guadalcanal. Perhaps Lee had managed somehow to hold off till dawn. Now the sun had risen over the Philippines, but there was still no word from him. If the Center Force had met no opposition, it could be east of Samar heading straight for Leyte Gulf. The only ships that might challenge it in that area were the three little escort carrier units, Taffy 1, 2, and 3.

A suspicion was growing in Nimitz’s mind that Task Force 34 had not been formed after all, or that, if it had been formed, it had not been left behind on October 24. Halsey in his battle plan had assigned his own flagship New Jersey to that force, yet in the 8:24 dispatch he had said: “Am proceeding north with three groups.” That he personally had gone north with three groups was indicated by his contact report, which concluded, “Own force in three groups concentrated.” Nimitz knew that he was not alone in his concern; Kinkaid’s inquiry about Task Force 34 showed that he too wanted assurance.

Nimitz buzzed for his assistant chief of staff. When Captain Bernard Austin entered his office, Nimitz asked him if there were any dispatches regarding the situation off the Philippines that he had not seen. Austin replied that he knew of none and added, “Will you tell me in particular what you are looking for?”

“I’m very concerned,” replied Nimitz, “because nothing I have seen indicates that Admiral Halsey has left San Bernardino guarded against Japanese units coming through there and getting our ships off Leyte.”

“Well, Admiral,” said Austin, “that is an unclear point in dispatches, and several other people are wondering the same thing.”

“If anything comes in,” said Nimitz, “let me know right away.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” said Austin and left the room.

Admiral Nimitz sounded a good many buzzers that morning in his search for information and opinions. About the third time he called in Austin, the latter got up his courage sufficiently to suggest that Nimitz ask Halsey if he had left any force to guard San Bernardino. “That’s what you want to know,” said Austin. “Why don’t you ask him?”

Nimitz thought a moment and then gave Austin the expected answer—he did not want to send any dispatch that would directly or indirectly influence the responsible tactical commander in the tactical use of his forces.

Out in the Philippine area about this time, communicators were startled to intercept a dispatch in plain English. The sender was Rear Admiral Clifton A. F. Sprague, the commander of Task Unit 77.4.3, known as Taffy 3, northernmost of the three Seventh Fleet escort carrier units stationed outside Leyte Gulf. This message, addressed to Commander, Third Fleet, and Commander, Task Force 34, read: “Enemy battleships and cruisers 15 miles astern this unit and firing on it. My position is 80 miles bearing 060 from Homonhon Island.” Taffy 3’s bearing and distance from Homonhon, which is at the mouth of Leyte Gulf, placed it due east of Samar.

Taffy 3’s call for help was not heard at Pearl Harbor. It was soon followed, however, by an encoded message from Kinkaid to Halsey. Sent by the Wasatch’s powerful transmitter, this message was read by both Admiral Nimitz and Admiral King: “About 0700 CTU 77.4.3 reported under fire from enemy battleships and cruisers in position 11-4, 126-25. Evidently came through San Bernardino Strait during the night. Request immediate air strike. Also request support from heavy ships. My old battleships low in ammunition.”

Kinkaid followed this message almost immediately by another to Commander, Third Fleet, this time in plain English—evidently intended as much to frighten the Japanese as to prod Halsey into action. This message read : “Enemy force attacking our escort carriers composed of 4 battleships, 8 cruisers, and other ships. Request Lee proceed top speed cover Leyte. Request immediate strike by fast carriers.”

Kinkaid continued to call on Halsey and Lee for help. “Fast battleships are urgently needed immediately at Leyte Gulf,” he cried by radio. Nearly an hour later, he was signaling, “My situation is critical. Fast battleships and support by carrier strikes may be able to keep enemy from destroying escort carriers and entering Leyte.”

Evidently these cries for help were not reaching the Lexington, for Admiral Mitscher was notifying Admiral McCain that Task Force 38 was attacking four enemy carriers. They were reaching the senior commands, however. At Pearl Harbor the usually serene Nimitz was pacing the floor. In Washington Admiral King was pacing, too—and swearing.

Finally at 8:48 a.m. Halsey indicated his awareness of the situation off Samar. It was later learned that Kinkaid’s dispatches had reached him after much delay and confusingly out of sequence. Halsey’s response was to order McCain to proceed at best possible speed toward Samar and strike the enemy force, whose position he gave. To Kinkaid he signaled: “Am now engaging enemy carrier force. Task Group 38.1 with 5 carriers and 4 heavy cruisers has been ordered to assist you immediately.” He gave McCain’s estimated position, which was nearly 300 miles northeast of the beleaguered Taffy 3, and his own, which was more than 350 miles due north. The implication was that help from McCain’s Task Group 38.1 would be considerably delayed and that timely help from the rest of Task Force 38 was out of the question.

Halsey’s message to McCain answered the main question in Nimitz’s mind. Had Task Force 34 been anywhere near Samar, Halsey would have ordered Lee to attack the enemy that was attacking Taffy 3. He would probably have ordered McCain to attack also, but he would certainly have signaled Lee. That he did not implied that Lee was with Halsey. There was a possibility that Task Force 34 had never been formed, but Nimitz conjectured otherwise. Knowing Halsey, he was convinced that Halsey had formed it that morning and was now in it, forging out ahead of the carrier groups to fight an old-fashioned surface battle with stragglers and with the cripples left by Mitscher’s carrier planes.

Austin, who had brought the latest dispatches to Nimitz, was several miles behind his chief’s thinking. He could see that the admiral was perturbed, and he concluded that he was still wondering where Task Force 34 was. Trying to be helpful, he suggested, “Admiral, couldn’t you just ask Admiral Halsey the simple question: Where is Task Force 34?”

Nimitz thought for a minute and then said, “Go out and write it up. That’s a good idea.”

Austin thought the question was intended as a simple inquiry, but Nimitz was using it as a nudge. What Nimitz meant was: “Where ought Task Force 34 to be—and hadn’t it better get the hell there as fast as possible?” He was sure that Halsey would take the hint. Now, in Nimitz’s considered opinion, these were extraordinary circumstances that justified his interfering with the man on the scene.

Because Nimitz’s Task Force 34 message became famous, or notorious, and because it produced a remarkable effect on Halsey, it is interesting to trace its progress to the addressee. Captain Austin went to his office and dictated the message to his yeoman: “Where is Task Force 34? From Admiral Nimitz to Commander Third Fleet, with information to Admiral King and Admiral Kinkaid.”

The yeoman, having caught a certain emphasis in his boss’s voice and feeling that he ought to indicate the emphasis in the message, stuck in the words “RPT [repeat] where is.” He then took the message down to the communication department, Jack Redman’s domain, and handed it to an ensign on duty. The ensign prepared the dispatch for transmission. He changed the words Admiral Nimitz to CinCPac, Admiral King to CominCh, and Admiral Kinkaid to CTF 77, added padding, and assigned a date-time group, 250044, meaning 44 minutes past midnight, Greenwich time, on the 25th of the month (9:44 a.m. in the Philippines).

Padding consisted of nonsense phrases placed at both ends of encrypted radio messages to bury the opening and closing words which, because they tended to be stereotyped, might provide easy points of attack for enemy cryptanalysts. The rules for padding specified that it may not consist of familiar words or quotations, it must be separated from the text by double consonants, and it must not be susceptible to being read as part of the message.

At this point we shall digress to point out that October 25 is no ordinary day in military history. For one thing, it is Saint Crispin’s Day, the date of the Battle of Agincourt (1415). It is also the date of the Battle of Balaklava (1854). The latter was marked by the magnificent, futile charge of the Light Brigade, of which Tennyson wrote:

When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wonder’d.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred!

Did the ensign who prepared Nimitz’s dispatch remember that this was Balaklava Day and recall the lines of Tennyson? It would not be too surprising if he did, for English professors and students of literature tend to be attracted, or assigned, to communications. If our anonymous ensign did remember the Light Brigade, he must have compared its charge into the teeth of the Russian guns with Taffy 3’s combat with the battleship force, the story of which had been coming in over his desk in dispatches all that morning. The padding he wrote at the beginning of Nimitz’s message, “Turkey trots to water,” was nonsensical enough, but his end padding, “The world wonders,” echoed Tennyson. Perhaps it was an unconscious echo, because when he was called on the carpet about it, he said, “It was just something that popped into my head.”

Admiral Halsey had a standing order that, when he was in his flagship New Jersey and a “hot” message came in addressed to him, the communicators were not to take time transferring it to a dispatch form but were to rush it to flag country as quickly as possible by the pneumatic tube. When Admiral Nimitz’s message was deciphered in the New Jersey’s communication department, a yeoman tore the strip off the ciphering machine and handed it to Ensign Burton Goldstein, who realized at a glance that this was a message that should go to Halsey without delay. He routinely ripped off the opening padding, but the end padding puzzled him. Although it was separated from the rest of the dispatch by a double consonant, it read devilishly like a part of the message. Goldstein showed the strip to his superior, Lieutenant Charles Fox, who advised him to send it on with the words attached. The liaison officer in flag country, said Fox, could point out to the admiral that the concluding phrase was probably padding.

So up the tube went the strip. The liaison officer plucked it out of the holder, noted that it was addressed to Commander, Third Fleet, and immediately handed it to Halsey. It read:


Halsey, not accustomed to seeing padding, took the final phrase to be part of the message. It looked to him like heavy-handed sarcasm, with King and Kinkaid called in to witness his humiliation.

“I was stunned as if I had been struck in the face,” recalled Halsey. “The paper rattled in my hands. I snatched off my cap, threw it on the deck, and shouted something that I am ashamed to remember. Mick Carney rushed over and grabbed my arm: ‘Stop it! What the hell’s the matter with you? Pull yourself together!’

“I gave him the dispatch and turned my back. I was so mad I couldn’t talk. It was utterly impossible for me to believe that Chester Nimitz would send me such an insult.”

Admiral Nimitz’s surmise was correct. Halsey had formed Task Force 34 that morning; it included all six of his fast battleships, and with it he had forged ahead to attack stragglers and finish off cripples. After brooding for an hour over the supposed insult from CinCPac, Halsey angrily ordered Task Force 34 to reverse course from due north to due south. “For me,” he later wrote, “one of the biggest battles of the war was off, and what has been called ‘the Battle of Bull’s Run’ was on.”

As Halsey passed Task Force 38, which was still northbound, he picked up Bogan’s Task Group 38.2 to provide air cover for Task Force 34 and detached from Task Force 34 four cruisers and ten destroyers to provide additional surface support for the carriers remaining under Mitscher. To CinCPac he reported: “Your 250044. TF 34 with me engaging enemy carrier force. Am now proceeding with TG 38.2 and all fast battleships to reinforce Kinkaid. 1 enemy carrier sunk. 2 carriers dead in water. No damage own force. . . . TG 38.1 already ordered assist Kinkaid immediately.”

To Kinkaid, Halsey radioed: “I am proceeding toward Leyte with Task Group 38.2 and 6 fast battleships. My position, course, and speed later, but do not expect arrive before 0800 tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Kinkaid continued to sound off by radio. First, he reported that the Center Force had turned away, then that it was threatening Leyte Gulf again. The enemy force was, in fact, retiring. To intercept it, Halsey detached his fastest ships, 2 battleships, 3 cruisers, and 8 destroyers, and with these sped ahead. When Halsey reached the vicinity of San Bernardino Strait a little past midnight, the only ship of the Center Force that had not passed back through the strait was a destroyer that had lingered behind to pick up Japanese survivors of the battle with Taffy 3. Halsey’s cruisers and destroyers darted ahead and sank this lone vessel with gunfire and torpedoes. His fast battleships had steamed 300 miles north and 300 miles back south between the two main enemy forces without making contact with either.

Afterward, when U. S. naval officers reviewed the Battle for Leyte Gulf, they gave each of the four main actions a name. They called the air attacks made on the Center Force as it plowed its way eastward on October 24 toward San Bernardino the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. In this phase, Halsey’s carrier planes put a heavy cruiser out of action, damaged several other ships, and sank the superbattleship Musashi.

The Southern Force was actually two enemy groups that never got together. The first group, consisting of 2 battleships, 1 heavy cruiser, and 4 destroyers, was nearly annihilated in the Battle of Surigao Strait, fought before dawn on October 25. Oldendorf had set a trap for it by lining the sides of the strait with his destroyers and PT boats and placing his battleships and cruisers on T-capping courses across its northern end. The second Japanese group, seeing what happened to the first, prudently withdrew.

The action, fought a few hours later, between the Center Force and Taffy 3 was named the Battle off Samar. The Center Force opened fire on the six jeep carriers of this unit, sinking the Gambier Bay and heavily damaging two others. The unit’s destroyers and destroyer escorts made smoke and courageously counterattacked with torpedoes. Three of these vessels were sunk by gunfire, but the enemy was thrown into confusion. Planes from the Taffies and from Leyte struck at the Center Force, sinking three of its cruisers and inducing the remainder of the force to retire. In the afternoon of October 25 aircraft from McCain’s Task Group 38.1 attacked the Center Force but did little damage. Striking from extreme range, they were hampered by wing tanks and were obliged to carry bombs instead of the heavier torpedoes. That same afternoon Japanese pilots, flying land-based planes, crashed into five carriers of Taffy 3 and nearby Taffy 1, heavily damaging all and causing one to sink. These suicide, or kamikaze, attacks were the beginning of a development that was ominous for the Americans.

Task Force 38’s attack on the Northern Force was called the Battle off Cape Engaño. In this operation, U.S. carrier planes sank the fleet carrier Zuikaku, last of the Pearl Harbor raiders, three light carriers, and two destroyers. They also damaged a cruiser, which was sunk by an American submarine as she limped homeward.

Because the Northern Force made no counterattack and its carriers appeared almost bare of planes, some officers concluded that it was as helpless as the Combined Fleet had been two years earlier and was being used merely to lure Halsey away from Leyte so that the Southern and Center forces could close in on American shipping in the gulf. After the war the Japanese confirmed that this conclusion was correct. Their carriers had lost most of their planes in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Any Japanese fleet aviators who had attained proficiency after that time had been sacrificed in trying to protect the Formosan bases from Halsey’s carrier attacks.

As long as he lived, Admiral Halsey rejected all evidence and every assertion that the Northern Force was bait. The notion that he had been lured away to the north did not sit well with him.

During the cocktail hour and at dinner in Admiral Nimitz’s quarters on the evening of October 25 (east longitude date), discussion of the day’s battles was lively and sometimes caustic. In addition to high-ranking officers present on this occasion, there was a lieutenant commander who, having just relinquished command of a submarine, was en route to the United States for leave. This young man was by no means awed into silence by the age and rank of the other guests. He felt free to express his opinions in such lofty company for the very good reason that his name happened to be Chester W. Nimitz, Jr.

Chet was amazed that CinCPac and his staff had let hours pass while they wondered whether Task Force 34 was covering San Bernardino Strait. Why, he asked, had they not asked Admiral Halsey point-blank where it was and told him to send it forthwith to wherever they wanted it to be. Patiently Admiral Nimitz explained that he and his staff were thousands of miles away from the operational area, and it was his policy to avoid like the plague interfering with the judgment of the tactical commander at the scene of action.

Later in the evening someone read or quoted the directive in Op Plan 8-44 specifying that if Halsey saw an opportunity to destroy a major portion of the enemy fleet, such destruction would become his primary task. Chet was again surprised. In signing such an order, he said brightly, Admiral Nimitz was practically giving Admiral Halsey carte blanche to abandon the beachhead. He said it was a mistake to offer Halsey any alternative whatever to supporting the landings in Leyte Gulf. “It’s your fault,” he concluded, looking at his father.

The room fell silent. This was too much. The elder Nimitz turned a bleak gaze upon his impertinent offspring. “That’s your opinion,” he said, ending the discussion.

At a little after 7:00 p.m. (Philippine time), Kinkaid, by then reasonably sure that the Center Force was retiring, expressed his appreciation to the Tames by radio: “For your magnificent performance of today my admiration knows no bounds. You have carried a load that only fleet carriers could be expected to carry. Well done. Kinkaid.”

At 9:26 p.m., Halsey, still southbound with Task Force 34, radioed Nimitz (date-time group 251226): “It can be announced with assurance that the Japanese navy has been beaten, routed, and broken by the Third and Seventh Fleets.” Nimitz passed the message to the Navy Department, and King told him not to release it because Halsey had not had sufficient time or opportunity to evaluate the situation completely. Secretary Forrestal concurred with King but nevertheless informed President Roosevelt.

The Navy’s hand was forced by MacArthur, who, on his own, released a victory communiqué to the Reuters news agency. Harry Hopkins, special assistant to the President, called Forrestal and suggested that Halsey’s message be given to the press. Forrestal was, he said, dubious about releasing good news without being absolutely certain of the facts. Hopkins thought it was worth taking a chance. Consequently, at six o’clock on the evening of October 25 (Washington time), the President called in the White House reporters and read them a paraphrase of Halsey’s victory message to Nimitz.

When the facts became known, they more than justified Halsey’s optimism. Not only had the Japanese been thwarted in their scheme to sink American shipping in Leyte Gulf, but they had lost 306,000 tons of their own combat ships—3 battleships, 4 carriers, 10 cruisers, and 9 destroyers. The Americans, at a cost of 37,000 tons of warships—1 light carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers, and 1 destroyer escort—had utterly destroyed Japan’s capacity to wage another fleet battle. In short, they had won uncontested command of the Pacific Ocean.

At 10:17 in the evening of the 25th, Halsey sent a top-secret message (date-time group 251317) to Nimitz and King explaining his tactics:

Searches by my carrier planes revealed the presence of the Northern carrier force on the afternoon of 24 October, which completed the picture of all enemy naval forces. As it seemed childish to me to guard statically San Bernardino Strait, I concentrated TF 38 during the night and steamed north to attack the Northern Force at dawn. I believed that the Center Force had been so heavily damaged in the Sibuyan Sea that it could no longer be considered a serious menace to Seventh Fleet.

In a letter to King, dated October 28 and marked PERSONAL and TOP SECRET, Nimitz observed:

I am greatly pleased with the Fleet operations of the past week with two exceptions. My first exception and regret is that so valuable a unit as the BIRMINGHAM was taken alongside the damaged PRINCETON instead of relying on destroyers for the rescue, salvage, and fire fighting operation. My second exception and regret is that the fast battleships were not left in the vicinity of Samar when Task Force 38 started after the striking force reported to be in the north end of the Philippines Sea, and composed of carriers, two battleships, cruisers and destroyers in support. It never occurred to me that Halsey, knowing the composition of the ships in the Sibuyan Sea, would leave San Bernardino Strait unguarded, even though the Jap detachments in the Sibuyan Sea had been reported seriously damaged. That Halsey feels that he is in a defensive position is indicated in his top secret despatch 251317.

That the San Bernardino detachment of the Japanese Fleet, which included the YAMATO and the MUSASHI, did not completely destroy all of the escort carriers and their accompanying screen is nothing short of special dispensation from the Lord Almighty; although it can be accepted that the damage the Japs had received the day before in the Sibuyan Sea undoubtedly affected their ability to steam and shoot when they attacked Sprague’s escort carriers.

Nimitz was careful not to criticize Halsey publicly or to permit criticism of him in any records that might subsequently be made public. When Captain Ralph Parker, head of the CinCPac’s Analytical Section, sharply condemned Halsey’s tactics in the official CinCPac report of the battle, Nimitz refused to sign the report. He sent it back with a note written across it: “What are you trying to do, Parker, start another Sampson-Schley controversy? Tone this down. I’ll leave it to you.”

Halsey reported in person to Admiral King the following January, and his first words were, “I made a mistake in that battle.”

King held up his hand. “You don’t have to tell me any more,” he said. “You’ve got a green light on everything you did.”

In his autobiography, however, King criticized both Halsey and Kinkaid. He attributed “the element of surprise in the Battle of Samar not only to Halsey’s absence in the north but also to Kinkaid’s failure to use his own squadrons for search at a crucial moment.”

Rarely in military history have two successive battles presented more similar tactical problems than those of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, and rarely have the commanders responded so differently. Long afterward Halsey sadly suggested that it might have been better if he had commanded in the Philippine Sea and Spruance at Leyte Gulf.

One reason why historians have treated Halsey’s blunder so gently is that his earlier advice had led to the speeding up of the timetable for action against the Philippines. Had the Leyte invasion taken place on December 20, as originally scheduled, Ozawa would have had time to train his aviators enough to give the Americans a real fight. Since Halsey was responsible for the speed-up, his strategic insight more than offset his tactical lapse.