The Altmark Incident

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Kingfish
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The Altmark Incident

Post by Kingfish » 19 Mar 2019 10:41

In reading up on this incident a couple of questions come up:

1) Prior to the boarding by crew of HMS Cossack, the Altmark was boarded and inspected three times by the Norwegian navy. The first being off Linesoy Island near Trondheim, the second and third in the vicinity of Bergen. It is clear she was taking advantage of the Norwegian neutrality by sailing down the leads to avoid interception by the Royal Navy

My question is how much of a transit is permitted through neutral waters in times of war?

2) The three boarding by the Norwegians failed to detect the presence of the 299 British POWs. It was only after Cossack intervened that they were liberated.

What would have happened had the Norwegians detected the POWs? Would the POWS be liberated but interned? Transiting POWs through neutral waters is allowed so would the Altmark be allowed to proceed?
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jwsleser
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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by jwsleser » 20 Mar 2019 14:34

I feel the best account of this event is found in Haarr's The Gathering Storm. Haarr includes the Norwegian side of this triangle and directly addresses your questions.
GatheringStormHaarr.jpg
1. Although Dau on the Altmark claimed to be a 'state ship', no such term was defined in any of the neutrality laws. As Altmark was armed and under German Naval authority, the Norwegians treated her as a warship. As a warship, Dau could refuse inspection (which he did on all three occasions) and could transit Norwegians waters for up to 48 hours. Dau did comply that all weapons were either stored below or rendered inop while transitioning Norwegian waters. He did violate the rule about using his radio, but the Norwegians saw that as a minor infraction.

2. As you stated, warships are allowed to cary prisoners. The Norwegians knew that there were prisoners aboard the Altmark by 15 Feb as stated by Admiral Tank-Nielsen in his message to the Norwegian Navy's CinC, Admiral Diesen. Given Altmark was seen as a warship, Tank-Nielsen order Dau to take the ship around the Krigshavn Bergen area per the Norwegian Neutrality Laws. This would have forced Altmark to sail ~20 miles in open waters. Tank-Nielsen saw two possibilities at this point.

a. Altmark would be intercepted by British warships. If in open waters, no problem. If in Norwegian waters, Norway would protest but likely the issue would go away.

b. Altmark wasn't intercepted and returned to Norwegian waters after clearing the krighavn. By then, the Norwegian government and the Foreign Office would have decided how best to handle the prisoner issue.

One of Tank-Nielsen's staff offered a third possibility.

c. Altmark was intercepted in open waters but fled back into Norwegian waters. In that situation, the Norwegians could seize and intern the ship and crew and free the prisoners.

This was all rendered moot as this order was rescinded by Diesen and Tank-Nielsen was ordered to escort Altmark through the krigskavn area. The Norwegians wished to get rid of Altmark as soon as possible and felt she would be intercepted when she transit the open waters between Norway and Denmark.

After the British warships entered Norwegian waters in their first attempt to board (which was thwarted by the Norwegian warships), the Norwegian captains were then authorized to use force to stop any further attempt. This order too was quickly rescinded as the Norwegian leadership realized that the Norwegian ships were vastly outgunned (the two Norwegian warships had one 76mm between them. Everything thing else was smaller).

In answer to your question, regardless of which situation that would place the prisoners in Norwegian control, they would have been freed. As they are non-combatants, they are not subject to internment unless the Norwegian government declared them enemy aliens. Even under that situation, repatriation is the likely COA rather than internment.

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Natter
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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Natter » 20 Mar 2019 20:37

jwsleser wrote:I feel the best account of this event is found in Haarr's The Gathering Storm. Haarr includes the Norwegian side of this triangle and directly addresses your questions.
FYI: Haarr's new book (2018) covers the Altmark incident in detail - including the period and events leading up to it as well as the aftermath (roughly translation of the title: The Cost of Neutrality. The Altmark-incident in february 1940, and it's impact on Norway's neutrality).
It's only available in norwegian though (I have no idea if it's going to be translated - most of his previous books were only published in english). At least it has a detailed list of all sources used for his research, including archive-references for material from the british, german and norwegian national archives.
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Atrevida
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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Atrevida » 30 Apr 2019 21:17

Under the Hague Convention (XIII) of 1907, Article 12 provides that: "Belligerent warships are not permitted to remain in the ports, roadsteads or territorial waters of the said Power for more than 24 hours."

Article 10 states that: "The neutrality of a Power is not affected by the mere passage through its territorial waters, even by prizes belonging to belligerents."

The major argument by the British Government was that Article 10 meant "mere passage through neutral territorial waters which formed part of the course to which the warship would normally have adhered if bound south after leaving the north-about route" as opposed to a passage which had been contrived, as the Altmark had done, to bring the warship unnecessarily far east to get the ship into the coastal waters of Norway for the transit.

Norway, a classic weak neutral, had been induced by the British Government into classifying the Altmark, a fleet tanker, as "assimilated to a warship". This term appears in the British documents of the time arguing the justification of their action . The Norwegians, looking at the Altmark and seeing what they saw, believed that she was not really "assimilated to a warship" at all but was in fact exactly what she looked like, namely a fleet tanker. That was why she flew the State service flag and not the German war flag.

At the time, as the result of an earlier incident, it had not been resolved to the satisfaction of the Norwegian Government what the British Government meant by the term "blue ensign vessel" as applied to Royal Navy fleet auxiliaries. If the Altmark had been British, the Norwegians would have classified her as a "blue ensign vessel", equivalent to a Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and therefore not a warship as such, and the extent to which the Hague Convention applied to a fleet tanker returning to her home port even with prisoners aboard was not clear.

All the dithering of which the Norwegians were guilty from the unhappy moment when the tanker appeared outside Trondheim Fjord was the result of this uncertainty.

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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Atrevida » 01 May 2019 14:27

Even before the action against the Altmark had taken place, Norway was doomed to a justified invasion by Germany for the violation of her own neutrality by failing to uphold the Hague Convention and afford protection to German merchant shipping, in particular the all-important iron ore traffic from Narvik in Norwegian waters. Merchant shipping had the legal right of passage without limit of time through neutral waters and immunity from attack there by enemy warships.

During the search for the Altmark, early on the afternoon of 16 February 1940 the light cruiser HMS Arethusa entered Norwegian neutral waters west of Jössingfjord to intercept and capture the iron-ore cargo ship Baldur. The German crew scuttled the ship when HMS Arethusa opened fire. This action by Great Britain was in contravention of Articles 1, 2 and 5 of the Hague Convention (XIII),1907 to which Britain, Germany and Norway were signatories:

"Article 1: Belligerents are bound to abstain in neutral waters from any act which would, if knowingly permitted by any Power, constitute a violation of neutrality.
Article 2: Any act of hostility, including capture and right of seach committed by belligerent warships in the territorial waters of a neutral Power constitutes a violation of neutrality and is strictly forbidden.
Article 5: Belligerents are forbidden to use neutral waters as a base for naval operations against their adversaries."

The action by HMS Arethusa would have been the primary cause of the decision by Germany to occupy Norway whatever transpired later that day with regard to the Altmark.

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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Hop » 04 May 2019 12:07

Atrevida wrote:
01 May 2019 14:27
Even before the action against the Altmark had taken place, Norway was doomed to a justified invasion by Germany for the violation of her own neutrality by failing to uphold the Hague Convention and afford protection to German merchant shipping, in particular the all-important iron ore traffic from Narvik in Norwegian waters. Merchant shipping had the legal right of passage without limit of time through neutral waters and immunity from attack there by enemy warships.
"Justified invasion"? It was the Germans who began attacking merchant ships in Norwegian waters, sinking Thomas Walton (British merchant ship) on 7 December 1939, Garoufalia (Greek) on 11 December, Deptford (British) on 13 December. All were torpedoed inside Norwegian waters with no warning, with 51 crew killed (including 2 Norwegian pilots)

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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Atrevida » 04 May 2019 15:43

As I pointed out, Norway was a classic weak neutral, unwilling or incapable of defending its neutrality irrespective of which belligerent was the offender. These neutral waters were vital for the German war effort, all merchant ships of whatever nation were entitled to immunity and protection while making transit but could expect no protection from the neutral Power, therefore the invasion was justified and inevitable.

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Natter
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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Natter » 04 May 2019 23:53

Atrevida wrote:As I pointed out, Norway was a classic weak neutral, unwilling or incapable of defending its neutrality irrespective of which belligerent was the offender.
Nonsense. The problem was mainly certain key figures within the government and the armed forces that in various ways hindered proper actions before and during the german attack (including the Altmark incident).
The way the german invasion was fought back clearly shows both will and capability to fight despite poor/none preparations due to the before mentioned weak (or perhaps traiterous) politicians.
If not the allied support had been withdrawn in june 1940, the germans would likely have been defeated - at least in the north.

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Re: The Altmark Incident

Post by Atrevida » 05 May 2019 14:14

As you rightly confirm, Norway was a classic weak neutral. Its Government and armed forces worked against each other to "hinder proper action being taken" throughout the period of the war up to the Altmark/Baldur incident on 16 February 1940.

When the Germans actually invaded on 9 April 1940, Norway had had several weeks forewarning that that was likely to be the case, and as one would expect, Norway put up a fight, and fought well. Allied support was withdrawn because Norway did not offer the same strategic advantage for the Allies as it did for the Germans.

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