163: The Altmark Incident


Before the German invasion of Norway, the Altmark reenters the podcast as the centerpiece of an international incident.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 163 - The Invasion of Norway Part 1 - The Altmark Incident. This week a big thank you goes out to Stephen, Edward, and Matthew for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, you can find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. The Second World War developed in ways that none of the belligerents expected when they entered the war. This included the invasion of Norway which would occur in April 1940. Before the war, and then during the opening months of the war, German leaders did not plan to invade Norway, and in fact they believed that they should do everything in their power to keep Norway neutral. This was due to the fact that Norway, and Norwegian territorial waters, were an important conduit for Scandinavian goods to enter Germany. Norway also had tight ties to Britain, particularly around their economies, and Norway had the fourth largest merchant marine in the world, ships that the British hoped to take advantage of by paying for them to carry goods during the war years. Britain and France also did not initially plan on taking any actions that would cause Norway to abandon its neutrality. But this would begin to change due to the events of the Winter War in Finland. During that conflict there were many discussions in London and Paris around what could be done to help the Finns in their fighting with the Soviet Union, which was in 1939 seen as an enemy of Britain and France. Many different options were investigated, but one that seemed to hold the most promise was to land troops at Narvik and then to send them across Norway. This had the added benefit of putting the British in control of the pathway that Swedish Iron Ore used during the summer months, which involved the iron ore being shipped to Narvik and then by steamer down the Norwegian coast. This idea continued even after the Winter War was winding down and then over, due to the belief on the British and French side that Swedish Iron Ore was essential to the German war effort. While preparations for the operation were being made, they became known to Germany, and Hitler and the German military began planning for their own operation against Norway, to prevent it from falling under direct British control. Capturing Norway would also provide more naval bases for the Kriegsmarine, and make it easier for ships to make it into the Atlantic, a purpose that would be largely superseded by the French ports after they fell into German hands. If Germany wanted to invade and control all of Norway it presented an interesting geographic problem, because the nation was difficult to traverse on land, pushing the naval aspect of the invasion to a place of prominence. This resulted in an operational plan where multiple small groups of German forces would be landed at important areas throughout Norway, and then they needed to achieve their objectives and then hold some territory until all of the pockets could be unified by troops slowly moving up from the south. In an outcome that would become very familiar during this early war campaigns, the swift and violent nature of the German plan would make it very challenging for the Norwegians to respond, and even more difficult for British and French forces to arrive in time to make a meaningful difference during the fighting. Most major Norwegian population centers would fall in the opening hours of the invasion, but the Norwegian forces would continue their resistance for months, far longer than expected. Their resistance on land, and the actions of the Norwegian and Royal Navies at sea, would make the invasion a costly venture for the Kriegsmarine, especially among the surface vessels of the German Navy, from which it would never really recover. In February 1940 those costs were in the future, because the story of the Invasion of Norway begins months before the actual invasion, and with the reappearance in our story of the Altmark.

The podcast last encountered the Altmark back in episode 157 when it parted ways with the Admiral Graf Spee in the South Atlantic for the last time. During the opening months of the war the Altmark had been used as a supply ship for the Graf Spee, resupplying the German surface raider time and time again so that it could stay at sea for an extended period. Eventually the Graf Spee was cornered at Montevideo and was eventually scuttled, and since that time the German supply ship had been making a slow journey back to Germany. Importantly for the events of February 16th and 17th 1940 was the fact that the Altmark was not just a supply ship, but also a prison ship. This is because, as the Graf Spee had attacked and destroyed merchant ships, the crews of those ships were brought on board the Graf Spee and then offloaded onto the Altmark. Eventually there were 299 prisoners on board the Altmark, which were still on board as it made its way into the North Atlantic and then approached the coast of Norway. The Altmark’s captain, Dau, was well aware that the Royal Navy would be hunting for the Altmark and similar ships, and that there would be British representatives in every single Norwegian port. But he believed that if he could get to Norwegian territorial waters, in which he believed he would be safe from the Royal Navy, he would be able to make his way to the areas near Germany in just around 36 hours, and if he could do that he would be safe. That timing window was also built around assumptions on how quickly the Royal Navy could respond to any sighting reports of the Altmark.

As the Altmark approached Norwegian waters, the ship was spotted by the Norwegian coast guard station on February 14th. This was expected, and the coast guard station sent the standard report to the offices in Trondheim. A Norwegian vessel was then dispatched to approach the vessel and do the standard inspection that was done for all merchant ships that were entering Norwegian waters. This was standard procedure during wartime because the belligerents were not allowed to send warships into Norwegian waters, due to Norways neutrality. After the Norwegian coast guard vessel came on board the an officer was sent aboard to do the standard inspection, which would begin at around 2:25PM. Dau informed the Norwegian coast guard officer that the Altmark was making its way from Port Arthur in the United States to Germany with fuel oil as contents, with a crew of 133 and no other passengers. A standard question was around armament, which Dau answered that the ship had two anti-aircraft guns which had been stowed when the ship had entered Norwegian waters. Hearing nothing that made him concerned, the inspector came to the conclusion that the Altmark was probably just a very standard merchant ship that was following all of the required neutrality regulations and could be sent on its way. After the inspection was complete, the report was sent to the coast guard office in Trondheim, but there concerned surfaced in the mind of Rear Admiral Tank-Nielson. He believed that the inspection was not thorough enough, and not enough to ensure that Norwegian neutrality was being respected. This was very important, because under the neutrality regulations it was Norway’s responsibility to ensure that none of the belligerents violated Norwegian neutrality, and the responsibility to ensure that these violations did not occur often trickled down to men like Read Admiral Tank-Nielson, or even lower, a fact that will be critical to future events. These concerns would result in orders being dispatched that another inspection should occur the next morning with the goal of better understanding the nature of the Altmark’s armaments and to ensure that there were no naval personnel aboard. During the inspection the Altmark was also spotted by a British freighter moving north through the same waters, and the captain of that ship, Captain Harlock, informed the British naval control officer in Trondheim about the ship. Then that sighting of the Altmark was sent immediately to London.

The next morning, following orders from Trondheim, the Norwegian destroyer Garm was sent alongside the Altmark and another coast guard officer went on board. During discussions with Dau it was explained that every room on the ship would have to be inspected, which was not something that Dau could allow to happen. If such an inspection was completed, the prisoners would be discovered and then the Altmark would be interned. But the Norwegians were clear that if Dau did not allow the inspection then it would have to leave Norwegian territorial waters immediately, and if it wanted to continue on its way south it would have to do so in international waters. The exact boundaries of Norwegian waters were pointed out on maps and Dau was given information on the best way to proceed to avoid any of the dangerous areas. At this same time the prisoners became aware that Norwegian officers were on the ship and did their absolute best to make as much noise as possible, including using empty boxes as battering rams on the doors of their compartments. This noise was heard by the Norwegians, who did not do anything immediately, but they would make a report to Trondheim that they had heard something on board and that it seemed very likely that there was more than just the crew on board the German ship. When all of this information was sent up the chain, an order arrived that said that the Altmark should not be forced out of Norwegian waters, and instead the ship should simply be escorted south by Norwegian destroyers and sent on its way as quickly as possible. Dau was thrilled with this news, as it would allow the Altmark to move closer to German waters while still in Norwegian territorial waters, and it would also allow him the set the speed of the Altmkar so that it would leave the protection of Norwegian waters at night for the dash back to Germany. The orders that allowed this to happen were really just an attempt to avoid any kind of international incident. Neutrality patrols, and the position of neutrals like Norway, were always challenging, a constant balancing act between the belligerents, both of which were frequently pushing boundaries in the hopes of gaining an advantage.


In the early afternoon of February 16th, a flight of three Hudson aircraft spotted the Altmark, and then circled the ship to get exact identification. This required them to enter Norwegian airspace, but it did allow them to read the name of the ship, the Altmark, and its position was forwarded to the Admiralty at 12:55PM. This information was then sent to British ships in the area, which moved into a position right along the Norwegian territorial limit, but paralleling the course of the German ship. The Captain of the largest ship present, the cruiser Arethusa, flashed a single for the Altmark to leave Norwegian waters, which Dau of course ignored. The Arethusa then sent information to London that he had located the German vessel, and then sent an order to two accompanying destroyers that they should enter Norwegian water, intercept, and board the German ship. The Arethusa would stay outside of Norwegian territory, but would continue to cover the destroyers. The two destroyers, the Ivanhoe and Intrepid would move in, and would fire a warning shot at the Altmark, which did not elicit a response from the Altmark, and so two more shots were fired which caused the Altmark to begin to slow. Orders from the Admiralty were clear that the British ships were authorized to fire on the Altmark if it refused to stop, but they would hesitate to do so when Norwegian civilian pilots were seen on the bridge. The Norwegian torpedo boat, Kjell, hoisted a protest signal and then positioned itself between the Ivanhoe and the Altmark. Dau then took the Altmark into the Jøssingfjord, and moved up the fjord before sending a radio message to the German embassy in Oslo to explain the situation, and that the Altmark was safe inside of Jøssingfjord, but there were British ships hovering outside, with the only thing standing between the Altmark and British ships being a few Norwegian torpedo boats. These signals then prompted conversations between the British naval attache and the Norwegian naval staff around the situation. Maps were brought out and the Norwegians tried to make it clear to the British officer that the Altmark could not leave its current position without entering into international waters at some point. As soon as it did this then the British could attack if they wanted to. And if it stayed in the fjord for a lengthy period the Norwegians were committed to taking care of the prisoners that were on board. The Norwegians then asked for British assurances that their naval vessels would not enter into Norwegian waters again, violated Norwegian neutrality. Meanwhile the British ships had exited back into international waters and information was forwarded back to the Admiralty to inform them of the situation and to gain further information on the next actions that should be taken.

The orders that came back were definitive: the destroyer cossack was to enter Jøssingfjord in Norwegian territorial waters, in this movement it would ignore any protests by Norwegian warships that were present, under the assumption that none of them would actually fire. A boarding party would be put together and it would move from the Cossack onto the Altmark with the goal of removing any prisoners from the German ship. Due to the nature of these orders they were signed off on by none other than Winston Churchill, who was at this time the First Lord of the Admiralty. When the order arrived the captain of the Cossack would order a 45 man boarding party to be assembled, with most of the men actually coming over from the cruiser Aurora. These 45 men were broken into 4 groups that would move to four distinct parts of the German ship. All of the other assembled British ships were informed that the Cossack would be moving forward alone and then at around 10:45PM the Cossack was back in Norwegian waters. The Cossack was of course signaled by the Norwegian ships that were present, with the answer being that the Cossack was under orders from the British government to liberate the prisoners. The message also included an offer for some Norwegian sailors to accompany the British destroyer and the British boarding party. This offer would be accepted, and at least 1 Norwegian officer would board the Cossack before it continued on its way. As the Cossack approached the Altmark the signal was received asking what the name of the ship was that was approaching the German freighter. The only response was the signal asking if the Germans needed assistance, and then to hang a ladder over the side of the ship. At 11:58 the Cossack moved close to the Cossack and signaled that if the Altmark tried to do anything the Cossack would open fire. The Altmark began moving and the two ships collided as the Cossack attempted to come along side to put aboard her boarding party. There had been discussions aboard the Altmark before this moment for how to scuttle the ship, but that action was not taken due to Dau hesitating, with that hesitation saving the lives of the prisoners which would have almost certainly have perished if the German ship was scuttled.

Even though the ships did not come together easily, the first British sailor aboard the Altmark would simply jump for it, with Lieutenant Commander Bradwell Turner making the 6 foot jump and then helping another sailor who was not quite as skilled at jumping. A rope was thrown across and the two ships were secured together so that most of the rest of the boarding party could quickly also board the Altmark and get to work. A very important part of what would happen over the next few minutes were the orders given to the boarding party around the use of deadly force, the Captain of the Cossack would later say that he told 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.” It is unclear as to who fired the first shot, the only thing that is clear is that a firefight developed on the ship as both the British and German sailors began to fire at one another. Some of the Germans lowered themselves off the other side of the ship and made a run for it on the ice that was right up against the ship on that side, but as they moved across the ice they were fired at by the British. This act was witnessed by the Norwegian officer that had accompanied the Cossack, causing him to state that he had agreed to be a witness to an inspection, not a gunfight. In total 6 Germans would be killed during the fighting, with a 7th dying from his wounds a few days later, 10 others were wounded. While some of the boarding party was busy shooting at the Germans, another group was quickly searching through the Altmark for the prisoners. They were slowed in these efforts by locked and barricaded doors, but eventually they would find the room with the prisoners with the exchange that followed being “Any Englishmen down there?” with the response “Yes, we’re all English.” The response was then, at least according to later accounts “Come up on then. The Navy’s here.” All 299 prisoners were quickly moved to the deck of the Altmark and then over to the Cossack. The boarding party also came aboard and the Cossack was off and heading back down the fjord. The rest of the German sailors were left aboard the Altmark, and the ship was not damaged in anyway by the British as they left the scene. The British ships would then make their way back to Britain, with the message given to all of the former prisoners that the sailors of the Royal Navy had “unbounded admiration for the courage, which sustained in their voyages the officers and men of the Merchant Fleet, and of our heartfelt gladness that those of that service who were on board now should have been released from captivity.” Once they were back ashore, the merchant sailors spent the next bit of time making it clear to every newspaperman who would listen how amazing the Royal Navy was. There would be diplomatic fallout that we will discuss in just a moment, but at least initially the entire operation was a tremendous victory for the British. Not because it was some massive operation, in all honesty the entire operation meant very little when it came to the overall course of the war. But in a war that had up to that point not contained a good number of victories for the British, to have one that so readily captured the public imagination was a great morale boost.

While it may have been good for the pages of the British newspapers over the following days, the longer lasting legacy of the Altmark would be around the diplomatic, and then military fallout. The first thing to discuss is the fact that the actions of the Cossack were clearly, and blatantly, a violation of Norwegian neutrality. This fact was not really in anyway up for the discussion, and instead the British would focus on the idea of whether or not the Altmark should have been allowed to also move through Norwegian waters in the way that it did. The fact that the Altmark had prisoners on board did not alter its position in terms of its ability to transit neutral seas, and in fact the British would do similar things throughout the war. The best that the British could do was claim that the Altmark was abusing Norwegian waters by slowing is movement through the waters so that it could better time its exit back into international waters to then make its run for Germany while it was dark. But there were also some grey area around what exactly the Altmark should be considered during this time. If it was a warship, its transit through neutral waters was more limited, but it had the right to deny the British requests to inspect the contents of the ship. If it was a commerce vessel, its ability to move through Norwegian waters was a bit more broad, but it could not deny a Norwegian inspection, in which case the Norwegians could have demanded that all of the prisoners be released, as they could not be on board a civilian merchant vessel. At the end of the day, this was all playing within the grey areas of the Hague Convention that all three nations were signatories of, as it just was not defined well enough exactly when things could or could not happen and how they applied to the Altmark in this situation. And as is so often the truth, the actual exact ruling on whether or not the British or the Germans were at fault, or even if the Norwegians were because they did not stop the British does not matter at all. Instead, what mattered was the fact that the British had so brazenly ignored the Norwegian navy and that the German crew had given no real resistance to British actions. It just made Germany look bad, and Hitler was not a fan of that at all. The Altmark incident did not cause the German invasion of Norway, but it did accelerate German planning for their eventual invasion, and if it had not occurred it is unlikely that the Germans would have been able to launch the invasion before the invasion of France. But the Germans were not the only nation preparing to invade Norway, and in fact the British plans to land troops in the neutral country were far more advanced, and much closer to becoming a reality.