The Altmark incident – escaping the “Hell ship”

On the 16th February 1940 naval history was made and a major diplomatic incident was triggered when the Royal Navy boarded a ship in Norwegian waters. It led to the freedom of 300 merchant sailors, one of whom was a Waterford sailor from Cheekpoint named Pat Hanlon.

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

The SS Newton Beech of Newcastle-Upon Tyne was built in Sunderland by the Pickersgill & sons shipyard in 1925. She was an average sized tramp of her day (4615 GRT) owned by Tyneside Line with a crew of 21 Tynesiders and 14 from other areas including Cheekpoint. She was under the command of Captain Jack Robinson and had departed Cape Town on September 7th heading home with a cargo of Maize.  Her last resting place is recorded here.
SS Newton Beech
Photo via Pat O’Gorman
Aboard that fateful morning was Pat Hanlon one of the eleven children born to fisherman Martin Hanlon and his wife Margaret nee Murphy who was originally from Mooncoin. They lived in Coolbunnia on the main road into Cheekpoint.  Pat like so many from the area “went to sea” to earn a living.
Pat Hanlons home Coolbunnia, Faithlegg, Waterford
Hanlon homestead in Coolbunnia today

MV Altmark

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.

Aboard conditions were tough, but apparently fair. The Altmark was a large ship of 20858 GRT and prisoners were held in various sections, Pat being unlucky to be 25 feet down in one of the holds.  It was dark, cold and very uncomfortable. At one stage Pat got in trouble as he tried to send an SOS in a tin over the side, in the hope of raising an alarm. He need not have worried.
MV Altmark following the rescue
MV Altmark
Accessed from

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 repercussions

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.

Despite his experiences Pat returned to sea not long afterwards and he along with hundreds of fellow Waterford men and thousands of Irishmen plied their trade with the merchant navy all through the horrors of the war. Unfortunately the consideration of Captain Langsdorff was uncommon and tens of thousands of merchant men died, one piece I read put it at 50,000, some of whom were from Cheekpoint and many more from Waterford and the rest of Ireland. Its worth remembering they put to sea in ships with little or no way of defending themselves and were unsung hero’s in a war where they played a crucial part, and got little by way of recognition for their bravery.
Thankfully, Pat survived the ravages of the war and afterwards got married and started a family in Liverpool and continued to work as a seaman. He died in Liverpool in 1994 at the age of 89 and his ashes were scattered on the Mersey.

This piece is an excerpt from an original piece I wrote in 2015
Here’s a story of what another Waterford man endured.

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