Admiral Graff Spee
What became known as the Altmark incident began with the pride of the German naval fleet, the Admiral Graff Spee. At the commencement of World War II she was dispatched to the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Hans Langsdorff. Langsdorff was an old fashioned sailor, and sought to try protect the lives of fellow seamen. As a consequence the Graff Spee modus operandi was to approach allied shipping with the French flag at her stern, and once alongside run up her colours and put a crack boarding party aboard the allied ship. The crew were then transferred, or if close to land, were given the option of rowing to shore in their ships lifeboats. Charges were then set and the ships sent to the bottom. As a consequence, he probably sank less ships than would have been possible, but of the nine he did sink, no crew man died.
SS Newton Beech
|SS Newton Beech
Photo via Pat O’Gorman
|Hanlon homestead in Coolbunnia today
As sinkings escalated the numbers of prisoners grew and they were transferred to the Graff Spee’s supply vessel the tanker MV Altmark who shadowed the battleship and hid under a Norwegian flag and fake name SS Sogne. As the allied net closed on the Graff Spee and her ultimate fate, it was decided that the Altmark would break away from the scene and return to Germany. Working hard to avoid capture her Captain, Heinrich Dau, headed northwards towards the Arctic and nursed her towards the Norwegian coast.
Accessed from http://www.llanellich.org.uk/files/284-german-ship-altmark
HMS Cossack to the rescue
British naval intelligence was aware that prisoners had been taken and were busy trying to track likely vessels. As the Altmark approached Norwegian waters, the navy demanded she be searched. Despite three boarding parties of Norwegian navy personnel on three separate occasions, nothing was discovered. British suspicions were obviously aroused however and she was tracked down by a spotter plane. The Altmark was confronted by HMS Cossack, a destroyer and challenged whilst still in Norwegian waters. The resulting diplomatic incident became so heated that none other than Winston Churchill, gave the order to intercept and board the Altmark. She ran aground in a fjord and was subsequently boarded by the Navy where hand to hand combat was used, in case gun shot would harm any prisoners.
|HMS Cossack attacks the MV Altmark
A print from the original by Norman Wilkinson
National Maritime Museum Greenwich
When the hold containing Pat Hanlon was thrown open, with a call of “The Navy’s here” he was first out of it, and risked falling back off the ladder such was the surge from below. The call would later become the catch cry taken up by the press and media as a symbol of naval potency. All the freed “Prisoners of war” were taken aboard the HMS Cossack and she departed for Leith the following day. The newsreels rolled and the opportunity for propaganda was not missed as this footage highlights.
The incident created history in that it was the last naval boarding undertaken by the British navy. It also led directly to the invasion two months later by Hitler of Denmark and Norway, as he determined that the Norwegians were not prepared to stand up to the British on matters of neutrality. The incident was widely reported in the media and Pat found himself on the pages of several newspapers including the Irish Independent and the local Munster Express.