In mid-February 1940, the ‘Altmark’ incident occurred. The ‘Altmark’ was a supply ship for the scuttled pocket-battleship ‘Graf Spee’, sunk at the River Plate in December 1939. The ‘Altmark’ was returning to Germany and as a naval auxiliary ship she could legally claim freedom from search by foreign forces. However, she also had a large number of British merchant sailors on board from ships sunk by the ‘Graf Spee’. Once these men were in Germany, they would have been excellent propaganda fodder for the Nazi government at such an early stage in the war.
The 'Altmark' aground in Norway
On February 16th, 1940, the British cruiser ‘Arethusa’ with the 4th Destroyer Flotilla intercepted the ‘Altmark’ of the south coast of Norway. Two small Norwegian warships escorted the ‘Altmark’ and they warned the British ships not to interfere with the ‘Altmark’. The commander of the 4th Flotilla, Vian, received orders from Winston Churchill at the Admiralty to board the ‘Altmark’ even though she had taken refuge in Norwegian waters. An offer was made that the ‘Altmark’ could go to Bergen under escort where she would have been searched. However, when the destroyer ‘Cossack’ tried to pull alongside the much larger ‘Altmark’, the supply ship attempted to ram the ‘Cossack’. In doing so, all the ‘Altmark’ succeeded in doing was to run aground. British sailors rushed aboard her and freed the 299 merchant sailors who had been held on board. The ‘Altmark’ was re-floated at high tide and continued to Germany – minus her prize.
The incident was greeted with joy in Britain and the legality of it was never questioned. The Norwegians were angered by what they saw as a blatant infringement of their neutrality as the ‘Altmark’ was in Norwegian waters at the time of the boarding. Hitler was furious. What should have been a propaganda coup for Germany turned out to be the opposite. Within days on February 19th, he had ordered planning for the invasion of Norway. After this, events moved relatively swiftly.