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Posted on Jul 31, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

An Incident of War

By Carlo D'Este

One of the least known incidents of World War II occurred in February 1940 during the so-called “Phony War” – the period between the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 and the invasion of the West on May 10, 1940. These months, when the future course of the war was still unclear were not quite as “phony” as history would have us believe. Although there was no fighting on land, there was nothing bogus about the deadly naval war on and under the sea between the Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine. The battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk by a U-boat in Scapa Flow in October 1939 with the loss of more than 800 lives, followed shortly thereafter by the sinking in the Bristol Channel of the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous by a U-boat, with a loss of more than 500 lives. Between September and December 1939, 158 British, 17 allied and 138 neutral merchant ships were lost.  

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The advent of war with Germany brought Winston Churchill back into an official government post after a decade in the political wilderness as a backbencher in Parliament. During the 1930s he had warned repeatedly, but to little avail, of the threat posed by the rise of the dictators. Adolf Hitler and his creation of Nazi Germany posed the gravest menace, he predicted.   

On September 3, 1939, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time. His first tenure, from 1911 to 1915, was instrumental in preparing the Royal Navy for World War I, but also resulted in the greatest humiliation of his life when he was removed from office in May 1915 after his initiative to knock Turkey out of the war by forcing the Dardanelles failed disastrously. 

As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, Churchill found that the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had no real strategy, a void quickly filled by Churchill who thrust the Royal Navy into the forefront of the war. During the eight months of the Phony War he was Britain’s de facto warlord. Nevertheless, 1939 ended without a national strategy or a real conception of how the war would evolve in the coming year. Save for Churchill, there was no other minister in the War Cabinet who could even remotely be called a strategist. Militarily, however, a good deal had been quietly accomplished, from the Royal Navy’s aggressive pursuit of the U-boats, to the dispatch of a small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France, and the initiation of new civil defense measures. Slowly but surely the nation was being converted from a peacetime economy to a war footing.  

At the top of Churchill’s war aims in early 1940 was to find a means to halt the flow of vital Swedish iron ore to Germany. This source accounted for an estimated half of the twenty million tons required yearly to feed the vociferous and growing German war machine. (The other half came from French Lorraine that, since September 1939, of course, was no longer obtainable.) In winter, the waters of the Gulf of Bothnia and the Baltic were frozen; however, the Germans were able to ship iron ore across northern Sweden by train to the all-weather Norwegian port of Narvik. From Narvik, German ore carriers took advantage of Norwegian neutrality by staying inside the three-mile limit, and evading attack by the Royal Navy and the RAF as they made their way to German North Sea ports. Neutral Norway refused to intervene, thus posing a dilemma with grave diplomatic implications should Britain intervene to halt the flow of iron ore.

In the autumn of 1939 the German pocket battleship Graf Spee rampaged unhindered in the South Atlantic, sinking numerous unarmed British merchant ships. In December, Royal Navy cruisers located and engaged the Graf Spee, forcing it to flee up the River Plate to neutral Montevideo. With its escape blocked, rather than surrender her crew scuttled the Graf Spee.

altmark2.jpg
The Graf Spee sank nine merchant ships during four months
patrolling the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean

Although he clearly recognized that violating Norwegian and Swedish neutrality might drive either or both countries to join Germany, Churchill wrote on February 14, 1940 to his War Cabinet colleagues that, “It has been painful to watch during the last two months the endless procession of German oreships down the Norwegian territorial waters carrying to Germany the material out of which will be made the shells to kill our young men in 1941, when all the time the simplest and easiest of motions would bring it to an end.”

Churchill’s relentless purpose regarding the Norwegian neutrality issue came to a head two days later. The German ship Altmark was a fuel and support vessel of the Graf Spee during its rampage in the south Atlantic. After its scuttling, the Altmark fled Montevideo, and was a floating prison with 299 British merchant sailors aboard, who had been plucked from the sea after their ships had been sunk by the Graf Spee. Locked in filthy, foul-smelling conditions of darkness and on starvation rations, the prisoners held out scant hope of rescue. After eluding the Royal Navy for nearly two months in the enormous expanses of the South Atlantic, the Altmark was making a dash for the sanctuary of a German port when it was spotted on February 16 by an RAF aircraft in Norwegian territorial waters near Trondheim. If the Altmark managed to reach Germany (she was within some two hundred miles of home waters), the British seamen would not only have been interned as POWs but would also have represented a considerable public relations coup for Adolf Hitler.

A Royal Navy destroyer flotilla, commanded by Captain Philip Vian, skipper of the HMS Cossack, was operating in the general area and was ordered to locate the Altmark. Although as an auxiliary vessel, the Altmark was theoretically a neutral, when the sighting was flashed to the Admiralty, Churchill thought otherwise and the morning of February 16, ordered its seizure “in territorial waters should she be found,” calling it “an invaluable trophy” that was “violating neutrality by carrying British prisoners of war to Germany.” Churchill was correct; the Altmark had shrouded its guns and was pretending to be an innocent merchant vessel, immune from interference.          

That afternoon the Cossack sighted the Altmark, which immediately sought sanctuary in nearby Jösing Fjord, south of Bergen. Vian used his destroyer flotilla to barricade the mouth of the fjord, then, along with another destroyer, HMS Intrepid, the Cossack attempted to enter the fjord but was intercepted by two Norwegian gunboats. The Norwegians not only refused permission to board the Altmark but also pointed their torpedo tubes at the British ships and threatened to resist, claiming that they had searched the vessel three times and had found no POWs aboard. Although the Norwegians had hounded the Altmark during its passage through their territorial waters, none of their boarding parties had searched the ship and had gratuitously accepted the protests of her intimidating captain that she was carrying no prisoners.           

When Vian’s signal detailing the standoff reached the Admiralty, Churchill immediately went to the War Room. “He called for the Duty Signal Officer and dictated a signal of precise instructions to Vian,” recalled the Duty Captain. “Get that ciphered up and be quick about it,” he instructed. “I’ve told the Secretary of State [Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax] that those orders are going at a quarter to six unless we hear to the contrary.” Churchill paced up and down, chewing on his cigar, his coattails flapping, before coming to a decision. “I can’t wait,” he announced: “Get me Lord Halifax.” Within seconds Halifax was on the line. “We didn’t hear what Halifax said to him . . . but we heard what he said to Halifax and that was an education.” Halifax promised to respond within ten minutes and did so by supporting Churchill. The orders Churchill sent to Vian were to board the Altmark, “liberate the prisoners and take possession of the ship, pending further instructions.”

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