Altmark incident

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Flag-draped coffins containing German fallen are brought ashore for burial after the Altmark Incident in Jøssingfjord, Norway.

The Altmark incident (Norwegian: Altmark-saken; German: Altmark-Zwischenfall) was a naval incident of World War II between British destroyers of the Royal Navy and the German supply ship Altmark of the Kriegsmarine, which happened on 16–17 February 1940. It took place in what were, at that time, neutral Norwegian waters. On board the Altmark were many Allied prisoners (officially internees), whose ships had been sunk by the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

British naval forces cornered the replenishment tanker and later the destroyer HMS Cossack boarded the Altmark near the Jøssingfjord and liberated 303 (other sources claim 299) British merchant sailors; eight Germans died and ten wounded. The boarding was a violation of international law and Norwegian neutrality.


Flag-draped coffins containing German fallen are brought ashore for burial after the Altmark Incident in Jøssingfjord, Norway II.png


In February 1940, the German supply ship Altmark was returning to Germany with captured British sailors on board.[1] These were prisoners of war who had been picked up from ships sunk by the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee (de).

On its way from the southern Atlantic to Germany, the Altmark passed through Norwegian waters. International law did not ban the transfer of prisoners of war through neutral waters.


Altmark was spotted off Egersund on 15 February by aircraft of the Royal Air Force, which raised the alarm in the Royal Navy. The aircraft were stationed at RAF Thornaby, in the North East of England. After being intercepted by the destroyer HMS Cossack, captained by Philip Louis Vian, Altmark sought refuge in the Jøssingfjord, but Cossack followed her in the next day. The Altmark's Norwegian naval escorts blocked initial attempts to board the ship, and aimed their torpedo tubes at the Cossack. Captain Vian then asked the British Admiralty for instructions, and received the following orders directly from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill:

Unless Norwegian torpedo-boat 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 torpedo-boat 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 ceasing fire when she desists. Suggest to Norwegian destroyer that honour is served by submitting to superior force.[2]

The Norwegian naval forces refused to take part in a joint escort. The British then boarded her (Altmark) at 22:20 on 16 February, and – after some hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets – overwhelmed the ship's crew and went down to the hold. HMS Cossack left the Jøssingfjord just after midnight on 17 February. The Norwegians protested, but did not intervene. The official explanation later given by the Norwegian government was that, according to international treaty, a neutral country was not obliged to resist a vastly superior force.


Seven German sailors were shot and killed as well as eleven wounded (six seriously) during the fighting. All but one of the German seamen (one of the wounded) who had jumped overboard in a panic to get ashore across the fjord ice were rescued from the icy water. The death toll of the Germans thus increased to eight. The British gunner Warrant Officer J. J. F. Smith was the only British casualty, wounded by a booby trap – he won the Distinguished Service Cross.


The "Altmark incident" makes public the attitude of the Allies toward intervention in Norway, and provides impetus to German planners to accelerate their plans. The Norwegians were angered that their neutrality had been infringed by the British, as they did not want to be dragged into the war. Nonetheless, the incident sowed doubts about Norwegian neutrality among the Allies and in Germany. Adolf Hitler ordered intensified planning of Operation Weserübung.

External links


  1. Simpson, Brian (2005). The Rule of Law in International Affairs. Oxford University Press, 213–264. ISBN 978-0-19-726324-2. 
  2. NA-ADM 1/25843. Last sentence is omitted in Churchill’s account: Churchill, Sir Winston (1948). Volume 1 of The Second World War: The Gathering Storm. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-41055-4.