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The Altmark Incident

on Fri, 08/19/2011 - 00:20

In December of 1939 the German surface raider and "pocket" battleship Admiral Graf Spee had finally been brought to battle by three cruisers from the British Royal Navy. Operating primarily in the South Atlantic during the fall of 1939 the Graf Spee sank numerous British merchantmen. However, the Royal Navy, after mobilizing significant assets to stop the Graf Spee, finally caught up with the German warship and after a running battle in which the Graf Spee sustained serious damage the Graf pocket battleship's captain decided to scuttle his vessel rather than attempt to fight his way past the covey of warships that had cornered him. However, prior to being brought to heel the Graf Spee had rendezvoused with the German supply ship Altmark, transferring 299 British prisoners of war taken during the Graf Spee's commerce raiding activities.

The British knew of the
Altmark's cargo and so began a tortuous two month game of cat and mouse seemingly won by the Altmark as she not only successfully covered thousands of miles in the Atlantic but also snuck into Norwegian coastal waters where the Germans failed to turn over the British prisoners to Norway; a neutral nation at that time. For their part the Norwegians failed to conduct much more than a pro forma inspection of the ship.

While the Germans were steaming through Norwegian waters, British reconnaissance aircraft discovered the
Altmark. A nearby British squadron led by the destroyer HMS Cossack then intercepted the German ship; again well within Norwegian territorial waters. The German ship made a brief but failed attempt at escaping and the Cossack came alongside the Altmark and successfully boarded in a manner reminiscent of 18th Century naval warfare; rescuing the British prisoners of war in a brief but sharp engagement that cost the German sailors numerous dead and wounded. Though a relatively minor military clash, nonetheless perhaps most importantly the Altmark "incident" substantially raised tensions in an otherwise mostly neutral Scandinavia, ultimately leading to Germany's April 1940 invasion of Denmark and Norway.

by Steven Douglas Mercatante

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