1 07 840
THE ALTMARK AFFAIR
^.VESSELS SUNK BY
^* ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE"
1. S.S. CLEMENT
2. S. NEWTON BEECH
3. S.S. ASHLEA
4. SS. HUNTSMAN
6. BT. AFRICA SHELL
7. S.S. DORIC STAR
3. S. TAIROA
* S^. STREONSHALH
ond "ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE
"ALTMARK* WAITING AREA
The Altmark Affair
The Macmillan Company
COPYRIGHT 1955, BY
WILLI FRISCHAUER AND ROBERT JACKSON
Ail rights reserved no part of this book may
be reproduced in any form without permission
in writing from the publisher, except by a
reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in
connection with a review written for inclusion
in magazine or newspaper.
Printed in the United States of America
Published in England under the title
"The Navy's Here!"
Chapter I. Sogne at Sea Page 1 1
II. "You are damned early, gentlemen" 27
IIL The Huntsman is hunted 46
IV. Free Ride to Germany 62
V. "Outlook bleak" 77
VI. "Are you frightened?" 91
VH. "Abandon Ship!" 106
VIH. Graf Spee cornered 119
IX. The Altmark alone 135
X, Finis 1939 150
XI. Approaching Iceland 168
XII. British Blockade Asleep? 182
XIII. "EnglischeKriegschifFe!" 198
XIV. "This is Jossing Fjord" 211
XV. "Any Englishmen down there? " 223
List of Prisoners 25 1
Of the many people consulted, the authors are especially grateful
for help given by the following :
Tom Barnes; Geoffrey Craven; A. A. Creer; R. Cudbertson;
R. A. Curtis; F. Edwards; Mr. and Mrs. Goss; W. T. Hair;
W. H. Harrison, Officers Merchant Navy Federation; G. A, King;
Captain Hector MacLean; Wing Commander C. W. McNeill,
R.C.A.F.; T. W. Mallinson; J. Neaney, Air Ministry, Historical
Branch; F. J. Paterson; W. H. Flatten; Cyril Smith; S. Smith;
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Phitfp Vian, G.C.B., K.B.E., D.S.O.;
The plates opposite pp. 128 and 160 are reproduced by courtesy
of the Imperial War Museum (British Crown Copyright); opposite
p. 129, by courtesy of Messrs. William Parry 8c Son, Ltd., South
Shields; opposite p. 161, by courtesy of The Illustrated London
News. The copyright of the photographs opposite pp. 64, 65, 192,
and 225 is owned by the United Press; opposite pp. 96, 97, and 224,
by Wide World Photos.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
S.S. Doric Star exploding after a torpedo from the Graf Spee
had found its mark facing page 64
The Graf Spee setting out on her raiding expedition in the
South Atlantic 65
A water tank, a rough table and curtains made from carpets
were the only home comforts in one of the Altmark holds 96
Captain Hans Langsdorff taking leave of members of his crew
after he had ordered the trapped Spee to be scuttled 97
The Graf Spee in flames at the mouth of the River Plate 128
H.M.S. Cossack 129
Captain Vian on the bridge of H.M.S. Cossack 160
The Altmark prisoners try to attract the attention of the
Norwegians. Drawn by C. E. Turner under the supervision
of R. Kttam of S.S. Tdroa 161
The Altmark aground in Jossing Fjord 192
Captain Heinrich Dau 193
Lieut-Commander Bradwdl Turner 193
Lascar members of the Huntsman crew after their liberation 224
The liberated seamen arriving at Leith on board H.M.S.
Route of Altmark and Admiral Graf Spee Frontispiece
The AltmarKs hold, drawn from a sketch by Mr. F. J.
Paterson, third mate of the S.S. Tdroa page 55
The situation outside Jossing Fjord 213
Cossack following the Altmark into Jossing Fjord 229
Cossack's course in Jossing Fjord after Captain Vian had given
the order to board the Altmark 229
"Their rescue at the very moment when these unhappy
men were about to be delivered over to indefinite German
bondage proves that the long arm of British sea-power can
be stretched out, not only for foes, but also for faithful friends.
And to Nelson's immortal signal of one hundred and thirty-
five years ago, 'England expects that every man will do his duty\
there may now be added last week's no less proud reply:
'The Navy is here'."
SOGNE AT SEA
AUGUST 6, 1939 was a pleasant summer day and only
a few ripples in the English Channel reflected the sun on
playfully scintillating waves. No clouds obscured the sky as
the children on the Kentish coast splashed on the beaches
without a care in the world. Holiday-makers lazed in deck
chairs along the coast and hardly glanced at the newspapers,
which dwelt on the visits of French and British military mis-
sions to Moscow, reported briefly on a controversy between
the Polish Government and the Senate in a remote place
But all the way from North Foreland to Dungeness alert
eyes were scanning the horizon. It was two in the afternoon
at Dover when from the haze northwards the silhouette of a
big ship began to emerge into view. Soon she was sailing
serenely through the English Channel, using the lane near
the English coast a grey ship with a black funnel aft.
Three pairs of binoculars were focused on the vessel which
carried the black-and-white flag of the German "Reich
Service", and, in bold, two-foot-high letters, the name Altmark.
She looked very much like a tanker, but then . . .
Word of her passage was quickly passed to London and
presently at the Admiralty in Whitehall, officers of the Naval
Intelligence Department were flicking through the reference
books to trace her particulars. The Altmark was not listed in
the naval men's bible, Jane's Fighting Ships. She did not seem
to be a warship even though the "Reich Service " flag desig-
nated her as the property of the German State. There was no
trace of her either in Lloyd's Register of Merchant Shipping
curious, very curious.
But wait! Here she was: "Altmark, Call Signal DTAK,"
it said in the List of Coast md Ship Stations published by
the International Union of Telegraphic and Wireless Com-
munications of Berne a body sponsored by the International
Postal Union. The name Altmark sounded unfamiliar; it had
turned up in the list for the first time towards the end of
June. A hurried entry in the Admiralty's Diary, Foreign Ships
recorded her passage.
Slowly the Altmark sailed out of view, out of mind.
Sunday, September 3. For over a week now the Altmark
had been steaming eastwards. Having passed the English
Channel she had made for her destination, Port Arthur, in the
Gulf of Mexico, where she had taken on a full cargo of
diesel oil. Rotterdam, as far as the ship's officers were aware,
was her next port of call, but there was tension, uneasiness
on board as Captain Heinrich Dau entered the wardroom
with all officers standing to attention.
Dau, a dapper little man with jerky movements, his weather-
beaten face tracing a lifetime at sea in a hundred wrinkles,
an old-fashioned beard now turning to grey camouflaging a
rather weak chin, with cunning, lively eyes tending to contract
into an unpleasant stare, was not popular with his own officers.
"A lifetime at sea ... ! " He would say it again and again,
smothering all argument, reinforcing the unquestioned dicta-
torial authority of a German sea captain which made him
Lord and Master over every hand on board. It was impossible
to feel at ease in his company and his rare, stilted attempts at
good-humoured, sea-dog conviviality embarrassed his men,
who knew that they must not allow themselves to be goaded
into a response in kind.
For a moment he stood to attention. Then he sat down with
studied ceremonial. The conversation was stilted, slow. "I
wonder when it is going to start?" First Officer Paulsen, a tall
young man, ventured to say. It was the first time war had
been mentioned on board in the presence of the Captain.
Two days ago a wireless message Had been received from the
Seekriegsfuehrung, the Naval High Command in Berlin, an-
nouncing formally that "The Fuehrer had given orders to the
Wehnnacht to repel the Polish aggressors!" It was war with
Poland and ominously the wireless signal to Captain Dau
had added the instruction pre-arranged many weeks ago
for exactly this contingency that the Altmark was to avoid
henceforth the official shipping lanes and prepare for the "call
"Excellent, really excellent . . ." commented Herr
Schleusner, the first engineer, hoisting an outsize bit of the
roast veal on his fork. "The cook is improving."
"About time, too, " came the answer from Dr. Tyrolt, the
thirty-year-old, tall, thin, ship's doctor, the man who had had
a hundred jobs, they said, who had put his hand to many
other tasks before finding an outlet for his restless nature in
service with the Altmark.
"It'll all be over in a few weeks. "
Dau looked sternly in the direction of the speaker who had
cut through the thick atmosphere with the subject which had
been on all their minds. Yes, no doubt, the punitive action
against Poland would be just a promenade to Warsaw. What
"I sincerely hope," said Captain Dau in measured tones,
"that Britain and France will be clever enough to let the
Poles stew in the juice which they prepared for themselves ..."
He did not believe a word of what he said. Dau flattered
himself he knew the British. As he put it though only to
himself 1 Britain would never tolerate any addition to Ger-
many's power. Often before he had thought about 1914 it
had not been different then!
"Yes," he said in a low voice now, as if talking to himself
only, while the men at the table around showed respectful
attention: "It's twenty-five years now since the last war
started. I was forty then . . ." From his desk job in the nautical
department of the North-German Lloyd he had been called
to the command of a frigate.
"We were happy, we were jubilant when war broke out in
1914 , . ." he reminisced.
Franz Bremer, the steward, approached with a deferential
bow: "Herr Kapitaen ... if the Hen Kapitaen would be kind
enough . . . the wireless operator requests ..."
With unusual alacrity Heinrich Dau wiped the last trace of
gravy from his bearded lip, jumped up and stumped out of
the wardroom. Two minutes later, having torn a de-coded
message from the hands of the silent, startled wireless operator,
he was in his cabin. This was it!
He lifted the ship's telephone: "Paulsen," he barked his
order now, "I want the ship's company assembled on deck* in
ten minutes . . ."
"They are having their meal, Herr Kapitaen . . ."
"On deck * . . in ten minutes! "
With a sheaf of documents in his hand, Captain Heinrich
Dau marched on to the deck:
"Reporting, the ship's company!" Paulsen said in dipped
Dau cleared his throat theatrically. He glanced around him
like an orator on the platform: "England and France have
declared war on the German Reich," he said slowly, deliber-
ately hammering in every single word. The crew stayed silent.
"I am now in a position to acquaint you with the task which
the Fuehrer had allocated to the Altmark . . . Alas we shall not
have the privilege of entering ourselves actively into the fight.
The task which the Fuehrer has selected for us," and he waved
the secret orders which he had extracted from a sealed en-
velope, "is to act as the indispensable, floating supply base for
a German battleship which is going to make the high seas
dangerous, uncertain, nay, deadly, for the enemy. . . . Accord-
ing to my instructions we have to see that the battleship
Admiral Graf Spee will be supplied as expertly and quickly
as possible. . . . Our store rooms are bursting with supplies . .
we have oil ... and food yes, and ammunition. It belongs
to the Graf Spee. In the meantime our orders are above all
else to survive ... to survive not for our own sakes, but to
preserve ourselves for the Graf Spee. In the long run we shall
only be able to accomplish this task by incessant, untiring
watchfulness from the look-outs, the men at the machines."
How different it was from August 1914. The Altmark crew
stood silent. Not a word was said in response. A young sailor
from Wilhelmshaven looked at his pal. He was to have been
married in three weeks. . . . The elder men who had been
hoping against hope that it would not happen kept their
thoughts to themselves. Weichert, who had been a Nazi sea
cadet, looked bewildered. There had been no war whatever
the doubters, the weaklings, had said when Austria was
returned to the Reich, followed by the Sudetenland,
Czechoslovakia. The Fuehrer's genius had guaranteed a
peaceful aggrandisement. Why should they want to fight for
Poland? "Incredible stupidity!" he whispered.
"What did you say?" someone asked him.
"They'll pay for this ... we'll teach them!" Weichert said
through his teeth, which were grinding together as if they
were chewing up the British Empire.
Below, tension began to relax when an old hand pushed his
sailor's cap back and said: "Hope we've got enough prunes
aboard ... My digestion . . ." They all laughed. Only one
struck a different note: "Prunes! I hope we shall have
enough to eat!"
There was yet no news from the GrafSpee, which had left
Wilhelmshaven on August 21, and had reached the North
Atlantic without attracting attention. Captain Dau retired to
his cabin to study the Graf Spec's instructions, a copy of which
had been attached to his own secret orders.
The political preamble indicated that Russia would remain
neutral, but that only Spain and Japan, among the neutral
countries, could be expected to adopt a benevolent attitude.
Support, if at all, would be available only in the harbours of
these two nations. "Respect neutrality" was the definite
order laid down by the Nazi Naval War Staff.
Slowly Captain Dau re-read the cardinal section of the
orders, according to which GrafSpee was bound to be operating
already. "Disruption and destruction of Enemy Merchant
Shipping by All Possible Means" summed it up. In the
beginning merchant warfare to be waged according to prize
law Warships and supply ships to keep out of danger zones
to avoid attack by German U-boats, owing to mistaken
identity. Enemy naval forces, even if inferior, to be engaged
only if it furthered the principal task war on merchant ship-
ping. To create uncertainty by frequent changes of position in
operational areas, including temporary departure into distant
areas. If the enemy should protect shipping with superior
forces that fact alone will greatly impair his supply situa-
tion. Encounter with independent non-convoyed enemy ships
can be expected. They are valuable targets of attack . . .
The command on Dau's orders rang through the loud-
speakers. Hiding their excitement behind jokes and casual
remarks the crew scrambled on to the deck. It was the first
time the Altmark re-echoed to the ringing of the bells one
long, three short, which meant: "It could be serious!"
"Boat drill!" came the next order. Clattering, the lifeboats
rumbled down. The men grabbed the ropes, lowered them-
selves quickly. "That'll be cutting your nice white hands to
ribbons," Weichert said ironically to the doctor.
"Don't you worry." Dr. Tyrolt, who had been a deckhand
and a labourer in his day, showed his powerful hands. They
were as hard as cement.
"Paulsen." Dau addressed his first officer. "Explain to
everybody that we are not here to fight. If we are sighted,
we make off."
TheAltmark, with herfour nine-cylinder M.A.N.diesel engines,
giving 21,400 h.p., was capable of 121 knots, which was fast
for a vessel of 11,000 tons gross. She was well built, seemed
more spacious than her 178 metre length and 22 metre beam
seemed to suggest; her loading capacity of over 14,000 tons
was fully reached and she lay sound and deep in the sea.
"Instruction One," Dau commanded. Paulsen ordered
every one of the one-hundred-and-thirty-four-men crew who
could be spared to the task. The Altmark was going to get a
new face: "All hands to the paint pots." The ropes held the
swaying stages in place. Forward, over the side, a sailor
was busy obliterating the ship's name. Even before the new
light yellow colour had dried on the spot, he was scrutinizing
the sheet of paper on which the new name was drawn for him
to transfer, magnified a hundred times, to the high bow:
SOGNE. Below, in smaller size, was a new port of origin for
him to copy: OSLO.
"It's my ship now . . ." remarked Sorens, a Norwegian.
The Altmark had, indeed, changed not only her colour, but her
"Light yellow," said Harmer, a third mate; "that means
we are going south where the sun is hot and bright. "
On deck, as the Altmark cruised on the southern edge of the
North Atlantic, the men settled down to the last few days of
ease. They knew what was in store for them, for the majority
of the crew had been in the Altmark ever since she was com-
missioned from the Hochwaldt Wharf in Kiel in November
1938. Those who had joined her later had been told all about
the "manoeuvres" off the Spanish coast earlier in the year
when Graf Spee operated under war-like conditions indeed,
it was war in support of Franco's forces against the Re-
Below, in his cabin, Captain Dau was in deep conversation
with his first officer. Slowly emphasizing every word, he
acquainted his first officer with every detail of his technical
instructions. "We must not fool ourselves," he told Paulsen
gravely, "the position of our Navy is difficult. I have myself
had an opportunity to discuss the position with officers of the
Grand Admiral's staff. It would have been better if war at
sea could have been avoided for another two years . . . two
more years and we should have been really invincible. 9 *
In the seclusion of his cabin, hidden from the view of his
crew, Dau, the severe, surly, aloof disciplinarian, relaxed
a little. "Here," he demonstrated to Paulsen, stretching out
the glazed linen map on the table. "This is the spot where we
shall meet her." He pointed to a place midway between
Dakar and Trinidad.
"That is in an area between points 23N., 38W.; 28N.,
27W.; and 25N., 40W. right?" asked Paulsen.
"Correct. Captain Langsdorff \vill be impatient, I know,"
Dau continued. "His instructions are to lie low ... to make
no move. Actually, Pauben, you know . . . the Graf Spee has
not yet received orders to go into action."
The sea was calm with a slight haze shrouding the horizon.
"Let's go on the bridge, Paulsen," Dau said. "Within four
or five hours the Graf Spee should be coming into view. " He
was buttoning up his tunic, pulling his peaked cap further
down over his face -when the ship's phone purred on his desk.
"Ship ahoy!" came the voice of the first officer. "Look-
out reports smoke north-north-west!"
Dau and Paulsen rushed to the bridge.
"Bring her round . . . full speed . . . give her everything
you've got! Away! Away! "
Dau was calm now. It was impossible, he thought. This
could not be the battleship. "Wireless operator attention!"
The smoke on the horizon began to recede into the distance.
The Altmark was steaming away fast Discovered by the
enemy ... so early? "They must not get us ! " Dau swore under
For a few minutes it looked as if the menacing ghost in the
distance had been shaken off. There is no place to hide like
the immense expanse of an ocean. Nowhere else could one
disappear so fast into almost limitless nothingness. The Altmark
now and every man on board was shuddering under
the power of the engines racing in disciplined rhythm, with
the bow of the ship trying to escape from the gushing, green-
white swirl of water, riding high as if ready to jump from its
narrow, velvety track.
"Masthead in sight!"
Again the call from the look-out shattered Dau's sense of
satisfaction at the tremendous speed of his ship. There was the
pillar of smoke again . . . the very same pillar, growing,
darkening, getting closer: "Hoist Flag Two!" Dau ordered.
Up went the Norwegian flag. There was no escaping the other
vessel which was clearly hot in pursuit. If it was a British
cruiser only a ruse could save the Altmark.
Five officers were leaning over the bridge, binoculars at their
eyes, trained on the apparition aft which was taking on shape
and size. What size! And what speed!
"They're signalling in Morse, Hen Kapitam" said Paulsen.
A powerful beam of light behind shutters which closed and
opened rhythmically was just visible in the distance. "I cannot
make out what they are saying . . . wait, look!"
Captain Dau's eyes were nearly bolting from their sockets.
Long experience enabled him to shut out the blinding irritating
reflection of the sun from the sea, the thousand little sparklets
which seemed to be flying up out of the water. Above the glitter
of the dancing lights, emerged the clipped, staccato blinking
of the distant signal. Letter by letter Captain Dau repeated
what he saw:
"G-U-S-T-A-V . . ."
"They're signalling GUSTAV, Herr Kapitaenl" Paulsen
A sigh of relief escaped from Dau's tight lips. The signal
continued and now Paulsen was repeating the letters:
"Gustav Sophie . . . Graf Spec! "
It was the pre-arranged signal of recognition. A cheer went
up from fifty throats but it sounded thin in the emptiness of
The Altmark's Morse, quite unnecessarily, burst out in a
repetitious "A ... A ... A". Twenty minutes later the Altmark
was lying still just a few hundred feet from the compact, proud
Every man of her company rushed to the deck. Many of
them had their cameras at the ready to capture the great
moment of the first meeting. In the brilliant sunshine the films
registered the impressive picture of the pocket-battleship a
British-coined word which had long become currency in the
German language. There was the menacing gun-tower and,
above the bridge, the war-mast; beyond the powerful super-
structure the crane rose towards the sky the crane which was
there to recover the Graf Spec's catapult reconnaissance plane
from the sea whenever it returned from a mission. Now that
the heavy diesel engines had stopped only slight yellow vapour
rose from the funnel.
Captain Dau walked to the side of his ship where a party
was already preparing to lower his boat, but even before it
had hit the water below, other boats had begun to move
between the two ships. One was dragging the six-inch heavy
pipe-line through which the Altmark's oil would soon be
refuelling the battleship; another was carrying the chief store-
keeper with his long list of supplies from which his opposite
number on the GrafSpee could choose. Visitors from the Graf
Spee were coining across to inspect "Mother", as they called
the Altmark, or the "Mother-ship", on which they would
henceforth rely to feed the Spee with the lifeblood of oil for her
veins, to bring meat to strengthen the limbs of her sailors,
and shells to send a hundred British ships to the bottom of the
The company of the Graf Spee greeted Captain Dau with
full honours. Throwing out his chest, looking the parading
Spee sailors straight in the eye, he marched towards the steel
door, accompanied by the Spee's chief supply officer, passed it
and. walked along the gangway towards the captain's cabin.
In the door, the elegant, slender Captain Langsdorff stood to
"Glad to see you, Captain Dau," he said, adding care-
fully, to give practical meaning to the formal greeting: "Very
glad we met . . . according to plan! "
Dau was not the man to be easily impressed by a fellow-
sailor. The younger ones who had come up in the disastrous
inter-war years (id not seem to be made of the same tough
fibre as the men of his age group, who had represented a Ger-
many with a real navy. Always Dau had thought that Langs-
dorff was a little too sophisticated, too refined, too much the
eternal naval cadet. But by heavens! what a sailor, what
an expert strategist. What a sensitive brain to control the con-
centrated power of this unique floating man-o'-war. The
Fuehrer has chosen well when he appointed Langsdorff, Dau
kept telling himself. But he refused to acknowledge in his own
heart how Langsdorff also almost imperceptibly kept him in
his place. He would not recognize the tinge of irony and con-
descension in the younger man's voice, the air of authority
which he introduced into every technical discussion as if he
were gently lecturing the older man.
"Cigar, Hen Kapitaen?" Langsdorff asked.
"Very kind of you," Dau acknowledged, "to remember my
favourite brand. I am still not allowed to smoke anything
heavier ... the heart, the heart . . ."
Langsdorff quickly cut short Dau's outburst of familiarity.
Big maps had been spread out in readiness for Captain Dau's
visit. Langsdorff turned to them abruptly to explain that his
orders for action had as yet not arrived. But here was a list
of British ships which the Seekriegsfuehrung in Berlin expected
to be roving in the South Atlantic before long . . . information
from agents on the coast of Africa and South America plus
inspired guesswork, compounded by German naval intelligence
from knowledge of British shipping and the study of charts.
"We shall not approach convoys, of course," Langsdorff said.
"Shall we meet again on 25th of September?" he asked,
his casual tone disguising his command as a suggestion.
"Wattenberg," he said to his chief navigation officer, "give
Captain Dau the chart we shall be cruising southwards and I
expect you will be following me at close quarters. But, of
course," he added to Dau, "radio silence must be strictly
observed between us. By the way," he said in his slightly
patronizing tone, "I am detailing two of my wireless operators
to assist your men."
For a full day the hustle of traffic between Altmark and Spee
seemed to turn a small sector of the vast Atlantic into a market
square. Commands pierced the air; the sailors' rough humour
spiced the event. Quite a few were swimming in the calm sea.
The war seemed millions of miles away.
Standing on his own bridge again. Captain Dau could not
resist giving the order which he had long planned: "Hoist
the Fuehrer's flag!" And as the heavy diesels of the Spee
began to hum there appeared high on the mast of the Altmark
the Reichsdienstflagge and the Swastika side by side. Then the
Graf Spee turned gracefully to move southwards.
On the Altmark deck all hands were busy clearing the debris
of the supply operation. Once more, it was like the evening
of market day with brooms sweeping the decks, porters carrying
away the empty crates.
"Get that wooden plank out of the water!" an officer
barked. Quickly a boat was lowered into the sea. They did
not intend to leave any trace behind it was bad enough that
nothing could be done about the deep dark patch of oil on
the water, a tell-tale clue to enemy aircraft which might
happen to fly low across the Atlantic.
Graf Spee had disappeared from view. The Altmark was
following slowly, leisurely. These were lazy days during which
the captain himself thawed a little, strolling across the deck
to watch the games going on in every part of the ship under
the hot sun. His bare-chested men, with beards beginning
to frame their faces in hazel, vivid dark brown, red, were
really enjoying the cruise. The older sailors were explaining
what would happen to the greenhorns, soon to cross the
Equator for the first time. The first flying fish rose from the
sea, soaring away for a few hundred feet at a time, pro-
pelling themselves on to the deck and starting a wild fish chase,
with the winner triumphantly carting his prize to the galley.
Soon there were hundreds of fish to implement the meals
which were now restricted to war-time rations.
Twice, from the lookout, where Erickson, a Norwegian, was
on duty, the shout went up: "SHIP AHOY!" to be followed
by Captain Dau's instantaneous: "Action Stations," and
Paulsen's order: "Total preparedness."
The navigator came down to the crew's quarters. "Tomorrow
around noon we shall be crossing the Equator."
"What a mass Christening it will be," someone said. "What
Over a dozen novices were due for the sport, the traditional
ceremony which sailors of all nationalities observe. The youngest
men were up early next morning. They were not sure what
form the Christening would take, but none wanted to miss
the fun. "Neither shall we let you miss it! " old Gaertner said.
He had crossed the Equator over a dozen times before.
"Masthead!" Once more the warning from the look-
out pulled the men up. It was 1 1 a.m. and the shout caught
the crew like a bunch of schoolboys just about to start a foot-
ball match during the break when the teacher calls them back
to class. Captain Dau himself was giving orders for evasive
action. "There is going to be no Christening ceremony to-
day," he decreed sternly. "This area seems to be swarming
Eyes were on the navigator who was shrugging his shoulders
in silent submission: "Now!" he said looking up from his
charts and his compass. Sailors nudged each other staring
out to sea, not knowing what they were expecting to see.
Captain Dau's stern glance kept them in their places and at
the job in hand. There was no shout, no acknowledgment on
the great occasion. Twice within three hours ships were sighted
and each time the Altmark turned tail.
As night settled over a hectic day the navigator joined a
group of young sailors: "Well, boys," he said, "today you
have crossed the Equator three times." To avoid an unwanted
and untimely encounter with a British vessel, the Altmark
had zig-zagged her course across the most celebrated invisible
line in the world.
The Altmark was now passing through the notorious bad-
weather belt and heavy cloud came down to meet the sea
and drenched the ship in a flood of water. When she had left
it behind, the sun was again hot and strong, burning down
perpendicularly at noon.
The atmosphere on board the tanker was deceptively calm.
Captain Dau realized that the days of waiting were coming
to an end. Twice a day he walked purposefully into the wireless
operator's cabin where pad after pad was being filled with
the criss-cross of news and instructions as messages came over
the air. He had donned the earphones himself one day at
2 p.m., which was the pre-arranged time for hi to receive the
signals from Naval H.Q. The signals, when they came were
as clear as a bell. Even the singing Morse seemed to enhance
the importance of the coded message. Before the wireless
operator had deciphered it he knew what it was: "GrqfSpee
It had been arranged that, in the event of the signal arriving,
the battleship would slow up and make contact with the
Altmark once more. Dau ordered a double look-out and, when
night came, retired to his cabin. He did not take off his clothes
but settled on his bunk for a few hours of uneasy rest. By
dawn he was on deck again, just in time to see the Spec, rocking
gracefully near his ship. Her diesels were still but Dau almost
jumped out of his skin as a piercing drone hit his ear drums.
It came from the deck of the Spee and it took him several
seconds to recognize the source. It was the Spee observation
plane whose engines were being wanned up.
The Altmark's launch had already been lowered to take
tobacco to the Spee, a hurried operation which left time only for
a quickly whispered conversation with two sailors of the Spee.
"We had a wonderful day crossing the Equator," one of
them said. "We dressed up, we cut the line and Neptune
marched across . . . there was a lot of ducking and horse-play.
It was great! " The Altmark boys had nothing to say; the mate
pressed them to return to their ship. "The bastard I" one
of them whispered under his breath. "If they could have
their ceremony, why couldn't we? Officious, humourless old
bastard . . ." It doused spirits on the Altmark when the news
But there was no time now to dwell on Dau's merciless
disciplinarian methods. The motor-boat had no sooner re-
turned to the Altmark than the Spee's aircraft was seen, appar-
ently jumping from the deck as it was catapulted into the air
with tremendous power a most impressive spectacle. Soon
it was circling overhead before making off straight into the
sun. Flag signals from the Spee invested the incident with
ominous purpose. The flags spelled out one word: DANGER!
All eyes in the Altmark were focused on the Graf Spee. The
minutes ticked away slowly. Captain Dau was on the bridge
when Erickson signalled urgently from the look-out:
"Ship fine on the starboard bow! "
"Inform the Speel" Dau ordered. Over there, clearly visible
with the naked eye, things were beginning to happen. A quarter
of an hour later there was a gentle humming in the air and,
like a dark star, the Spee aircraft appeared on the horizon.
There was much to do on the Altmark, but few hands could
resist watching the intricate manoeuvring as the aircraft landed
on the water behind the Spee and was hoisted aboard by the
big crane. Through his glasses Dau could see the pilot jumping
from the cockpit and running towards the big steel doors.
"Personal message from Captain Langsdorff to Captain
Dau: British cruiser sighted approximately thirty miles north-
north-west. Preparing for action. Keep alert!"
Dau's excitement was tinged with a feeling of utter help-
lessness nay, uselessness. If there was to be action what
could he do except shelter behind LangsdorfFs powerful
battleship. Until recently the Altmark's armament had con-
sisted of two miserable 2-cm. A.A. machine-guns, and, if
pitted against an enemy warship, even the additional three
i5-cm. torpedo-boat cannons, which Captain Langsdorff had
sent across for mounting behind the superstructure amidships,
would be of little avail. Under attack the Altmark would be a
Enviously Dau, flanked by Paulsen and Weichert, was
watching the big ship preparing to meet any possible threat.
A vivid rainbow, it appeared, had prevented the Spee pilot
from making out the exact nature of the mysterious ship from
his height. The pilot had flown purposely at a great height
to avoid detection.
On the Spee the rails were being taken down, the torpedo
mounts were performing their ominous circular movements,
swinging around gracefully before being focused into the
quarter from which danger would come. The crew was fast
disappearing behind the steel shield. For a while the Spee
looked like a ghost ship, idle and deserted. Infected by the
manoeuvres across the water the Altmark crew to a man tensed
themselves forgetting that their specific task condemned
them to virtual inactivity however serious the position might
"If we could only fight ... !" It was the Altmark's doctor
speaking, but Dau, seeing the Spee rumbling into movement,
turning and putting on speed, returned to reality with a
harsh: "Nonsense . . . there'll be no fight! We are taking
course due south . . ."
"Between Scylla and Charybdis," remarked Dr. Tyrolt,
conscious that the Spee-Altmark unit was now virtually flanked
by two ships which could hardly be otherwise than hostile.
There was going to be no action but Altmark, following close
behind the Spee, remained on the alert as they were making
due south at full speed.
Though they were nearing the narrowest strip of ocean
between West Africa and the eastern coast of South America
they were intensely conscious of the loneliness in the vast
wastes. Somewhere away to port was Freetown, the British
base from which, they knew, Allied merchant shipping would
sally to provide game for their hunting mission. The weather
was fine, the air relaxing.
The date was September 26 when the Spee hung back and
indicated that it was time for a final meeting before things began
to happen. While the supply operation was under way Captain
Dau took advantage of the new opportunity to visit Langsdorff
again. He found the Spee captain in no mood for idle talk.
Detailed orders to begin what the Naval High Command
described as "restricted action against merchant shipping"
had reached Langsdorff early that morning and, though his
warship had long been in a state of complete readiness, the
imminence of operations cast a dark shadow on the sensitive
Dau's patter, as on all such occasions, spiced with the ver-
biage of the Third Reich, with the Fuehrer's name thrown into
conversation at every opportunity, with the far-fetched refer-
ences to "national duty" and "German mission" jarred on
Langsdorff. His practical mind rejected such artificial mouth-
ings more so now when things were becoming serious, des-
perately serious. Briefly, almost brusquely, he told Dau that
his immediate plan was to remove himself as far as possible
from Africa where British naval forces would be dose at hand,
ready to pick up any signal by a merchantman under attack.
His plan was to approach the coast of South America about
the latitude of Pernambuco. "Until we meet again . . ."
Langsdorff said in a voice full of meaning as he took abrupt
leave from Captain Dau.
Back on the Altmark Dau was impatient, irritable. Every
free moment most of the day, in fact, and often late at night-
he sat expectantly before the loud speaker of the short-wave
-wireless set. The GrqfSpee, stocked up to bursting point, had
just disappeared from sight after a full day's refuelling and
provisioning, when the crackling and booming of the set
formed itself into intelligible sound of music and song. From
Germany the strains of the Nazi Horst Wessel song were
reaching out into the South Atlantic.
Officers of the Altmark were crowding around their captain,
who relaxed sufficiently to permit a familiarity of which they
rarely took advantage. He knew as well as they did that the
rendering of the song was bound to precede a portentous
announcement and he could not restrain himself from
joining in. "Lift up the flag!" he hummed. And then came
a few clipped words spoken in a voice which seemed choked
"The High Command of the Wehrmacht announces the
surrender of Warsaw! "
"This means that the Fuehrer has triumphed," Dau said
ponderously. As his officers listened silently he discoursed
briefly on the political situation arising from this glorious
"With the imminent defeat of Poland there is a possibility
of the war coming to an end," he lectured. "The object of the
Western powers' entry into the war has disappeared. But . . ."
and he seemed to measure his words carefully, "we must not
relax our preparedness. A few hefty naval blows at the British
Empire just now may decide the issue and bring them to their
senses. We are part of the instrument which can strike this
blow. Victory in Poland will be followed by the hammer
blows of the Graf SpeeSitg Heil ! "
"Sieg Heil!" echoed the men around him.
"YOU ARE DAMNED EARLY, GENTLEMEN 9 *
WAY I see it" the speaker was the Spee wireless-
operator, who had been put on board the Altmark to reinforce
the ship's regular service with the specific task of maintaining
contact with the pocket-battleship "things are going to get
very hot . . . very hot!"
The Altmark crew was inclined to listen to him with respect
because, though he was a young man, he had brought the
prestige of the "German navy's pride" with him to the tanker.
"Spee is going into action," he mused. "That means that
she is going to attack . . . that means hell will be let loose
once the enemy know there's a raider about in these parts.
They'll be hunting us ... the whole ruddy British Navy will
be on our tail. Am I glad there's so much ocean around!"
His gloomy forecasts, clearly correct, damped the high
spirits which news of the German victory in Poland had roused.
Captain Dau, it is true, was always speaking of his regret that
the Altmark was not really a fighting ship, but there were less
than a dozen men in his crew who would not gladly have
forfeited glory and gone home in peace such as the end of
the war in Poland looked like bringing about
But the Spee operator was already back in the wireless cabin
trying with a pre-arranged signal to make contact with the
Spee. Captain Dau came down to join him at 2 p.m. (German
time) every afternoon in case the Naval High Command had
news or orders. It was a hazardous, unsatisfactory arrange-
ment The secret route outlined on the map which Langsdorff
had handed to Dau was taking the Altmark dangerously close
to the eastern shore of South America. They were only 600
miles away from Pernambuco when a signal, crisp and loud in
spite of atmospherics, indicated that Graf Spee had scored her
"What a prize she has caught! " was all the \vireless-operator
would say at first. But he honoured one of his personal pals
with a confidential hint, then wrote out in careful longhand
what he heard emerging from the mutilated coded signal;
and what he wrote started a wave of hilarity on board the
Altmark, greater than the understandable satisfaction about the
first success of the operation seemed to warrant.
"They've sunk a ship called Clement. And you know what?
. . . She had a troupe of famous chorus girls on board the
Ziegfeld Girls, I think . . . they'll soon be billeted on us!"
Boys of the Altmark were forming mock-chorus lines, kicking
their legs in the air, dancing . . . and smacking their lips in
anticipation. It was September 30 and they had been at sea
a long time far from wives and girl friends, never near any
port. The atmosphere became heady as every conversation
sooner rather than later turned on the subject of the
girls. The slap-stick jokes were heavy with meaningful
It was Eichert who first acquainted the captain with the
news: "Do you know, Herr Kapitaen," he asked with a serious
face, "that Spee has captured a lot of chorus girls ... ?"
"How on earth do you come to think that?"
"It's true, Herr Kapitaen, is it not . . . ? "
The mess-room soon reverberated with the agitation of the
officers, who were arguing about billeting arrangements for
the ladies. "At long last there'll be a little life on board,"
one of them said.
"Surely," Dr. Tyrolt retorted, "as ship's doctor it will be
my job to look after them . . . they may be sick or worried . . .
suffering from shock."
"They'll get a shock all right! "
"Enough, gentlemen," Dau said sternly. "The hard facts
are that the Clement is liable to mean trouble for us, even if
she has by now hit the bottom of the ocean."
How right he was !
He did not yet know the dramatic details of the action
which transformed their activity at sea from a sedate cruise
into a murderous game of hide-and-seek.
Cruising close to the South American coast off Pernambuco
the Graf Spee launched her aircraft to scan the sea for suitable
prey. Returning, the pilot reported that he had seen smoke
rising from a ship not far out of Pernambuco.
She was, in fact, the British s.s. Clement, a 5,O5i-ton tanker
carrying 1,200 tons of paraffin from New York, The Clement,
Captain F. C. P. Harris, was bound for Capetown.
Hardly had the pilot finished his report than Captain
Langsdorff had given the order: "Full speed ahead!" and the
well-oiled machinery of the Graf Spee's attacking power was
set in motion. Gun crews were ordered to their battle stations,
signallers sent to their posts.
Furiously, as soon as the Clement came in view, Spee signals
sent out a succession of orders in English and the orders were
still going out thick and fast when a shell from one of her
eight-inch guns cracked viciously across the bows of the
"Absolute radio silence! Not a sound or we shall sink you
without further warning! Absolute radio silence!" the signals
"Stop! Stop! Make no move! Absolute silence!"
Spee's big launch was lowered with a strong prize crew and
a unit of naval sappers carrying explosives. From the Spee it
could be seen that there was intense movement on board
the Clement. Before the Spa's boat had even come alongside
the Clement's three boats had been lowered fully manned.
Captain Harris had told the crew that there was no point in
waiting for the Germans and ordered them to row in the
direction of Pernambuco as fast as their oars would take
Only Captain Harris and Mr. W. Bryant, his chief engineer,
remained on board. The code-book and secret papers had
gone overboard in a weighted bag and the British captain
did not refuse when the Spee officer in charge of the prize crew
demanded the brief-case he carried. It contained only maps
and a few unimportant letters. Captain Harris, though deeply
shocked by his encounter with the powerful German raider of
whose presence the Admiralty had given him no warning, was
quietly rubbing his hands in silent glee.
Before the Spee had signalled her instructions Harris had
ordered his wireless-operator to send out an SOS and as
many details as they had gathered about the nature of their
"You have used your wireless?" the German commanding
the prize crew asked.
"Of course we have!*' Harris replied defiantly.
Twenty minutes later he repeated his admission on board
the Spee in front of Captain Langsdorff.
"You have defied my orders!" Langsdorff said.
"Indeed, I have..."
To Harris* surprise Langsdorff shrugged his shoulders:
"I strongly disapprove," he said in fairly good English, "but,
then, I should have done the same thing . . .'*
Leaving his two captives, he gave instructions that the
Brazilian naval authorities at Pernambuco were to be signalled
that three boat-loads of British sailors were making for the
coast: "Take any measures for their safety which you think
fit,** his message concluded. It was signed Admiral Scheer.
Later in the day the Admiral Graf Spee ordered a Greek
steamer to stop: "We are Greek ... we are neutral . . . we
are carrying wheat to Belgium . . . another neutral country!**
came the frantic signal of the Greek.
"Caramba!" the Spee replied in Spanish. "You'll take two
British merchant seamen with you ... ! "
"No fear . . . this isn't our war. We're neutral.**
"You take them or I'll sink you neutral or not!"
An hour later Harris and Bryant were on their way to
Europe in the Greek boat. But the two men did not command
the persuasive power of the Spee's big guns and they were un-
able to obtain the captain's permission to radio even an out-
line far less the details of their grim experience to London.
But already the Admiralty's First Lord had received news
from Pernambuco where the Clement crew had scrambled
ashore, happy to have escaped with nothing but their lives.
And the news truly "electrified" the Admiralty. The First
Lord "a former naval person", as he was to, become was
none other than Winston Churchill who, as he later said, was
glad to receive the signal for which he had been waiting.
It was the first definite indication that a German raider
the Admiral Scheer, it was believed by those who took Langs-
dorffs deliberately deceptive signature at its face value was
operating in the South Atlantic. Since the outbreak of war
uncertainty about the whereabouts of the marauding pocket-
battleships had already imposed a severe strain on the Royal
Navy. Not only was there not a British cruiser capable of
matching their power single-handed, but the pocket-battleships'
successful evasion of the British naval security cordon had
added to the Admiralty's anxieties.
Now one of them had struck. At once the Admiralty began
to form naval hunting groups, comprising (in Mr. Churchill's
words) "all available aircraft-carriers, supported by battle-
ships, battle-cruisers and cruisers". Each group consisted of
two or more ships to assure superiority in case of a head-on
encounter with the concentrated power of an enemy pocket-
battleship. It was the beginning of an operation in which, as
the months went by, twenty-three ships, organized altogether
in nine battle groups, were to take part. Mr. Churchill thought
it prudent to order the reinforcement of major convoys by
two or three battleships and cruisers. No wonder he noted
that "these requirements represented a severe strain on the
resources of the Home and Mediterranean Fleets, from which
it was necessary to withdraw twelve ships of the most powerful
types, including three aircraft carriers."
Every base in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean was on
the alert. Though the Altmark was but a floating annex to the
Spee being the food and ammunition as well as the oil store
of the raider Captain Dau was well aware that his ship
was a prize second only to the Spee herself; and she was on
the wrong end of the biggest sea-air hunt in history. His patient
study of all the known facts of British naval strength enabled
him to guess a few of the units which would be chasing him.
But both his pride and his apprehension would have been
greater still, had he realized that such naval giants as Britain's
aircraft carriers Eagle, Glorious, Ark Royal, Furious and Hermes
were the spearhead of the chase which was rapidly gathering
The Hermes, supported by two French eight-inch cruiseis,
was near in terms of naval warfare in the vast expanse of
ocean she could even be said to be desperately near. The battle-
ship Strasbourg with the cruiser Neptune and French support
was not far off either. Ark Royal and the battle-cruiser Renown
were operating from Freetown, but Mr. Churchill was not
content with purely naval preparations and, characteristically,
moved into the diplomatic field to secure the rear of his men-
o'-war. Quickly he communicated with the President of the
United States to point the obvious conclusions from the sinking
of the Clement on the doorstep of the American hemisphere*
Would it not be a good thing, he suggested, to keep the war
away from the shores of the Americas by declaring an American
security zone say, from three to six hundred miles from their
At the same time he told President Roosevelt that, should
he take such a measure in conjunction with the American
Republics, Britain would at once agree to conform provided
all other belligerents accepted the provision. Of course, the
United States Navy and not some weak neutral would
have to patrol this zone. He argued that such a measure might
well deter German raiders from penetrating American waters.
On October 3, the Pan-American Conference of the twenty-
one Republics adopted Mr. Churchill's suggestion and decided
to set up a three-hundred-mile security zone.
While, with the speed of lightning, these moves were set in
motion, on Mr. Churchill's initiative, the death of the Clement
at the same time, was much slower than anticipated.
Captain Langsdorff had regarded the raid on the Clement
as a trial run, and while the enemy had been forced to capitulate
before his superior power, it did not prove so easy to deal
the death blow to the gallant little British ship. The Spee's
naval sappers had planted massive explosive charges in strategic
positions all over the Clement. They had set the fuses, hurriedly,
returned to their motor-boats and made for their ship with
the utmost speed.
From the bridge Langsdorff, stop watch in hand, was wait-
ing for the explosion which would put an end to the Clement.
Slowly the seconds were ticking away.
"How much have you given her?" he asked his gunnery
"I have just had a word with the men, Hen Kapitaen," was
the reply. "She should have blown up four minutes ago!"
Langsdorff 's strained, nervous features showed, signs of im-
patience. He was clearly angry. Another five minutes passed.
"Obviously faulty detonators," he diagnosed. "Have the
charges been examined recently?" He did not receive a reply.
"Torpedo One," he said briskly now. "Make ready to
"Very well, Herr Kapitaen." The torpedo officer realized that
it was not a decision which Captain Langsdorff would make
gladly. Every single torpedo was of value; early instructions
were clear and to the point that any unnecessary expenditure
of ammunition must be avoided, especially "eels" (as tor-
pedoes are called in the German Navy), which should be used
with strict economy. And this most certainly was a waste.
There was hardly a man on board the Spee through whose
head such thoughts were not passing when the calm surface
of the sea was broken by a gentle ripple in the water, a dull
thud and a burst of white waves. Hundreds of eyes followed the
path of the torpedo which had just been launched. Now, just
now, it should have hit the Clement amidships with a tremendous
explosion. But nothing happened.
"Ignition failure," whispered the torpedo officer wringing
"Makes you vomit . . . 1" Langsdorff commented with
unusual vehemence. The Clement was rocking jauntily on the
waves, heaving to and fro as if mocking the gigantic concen-
tration of power facing her, shaking a little as if the torpedo
had done no more than tickle her ribs.
It seemed almost funny. But the superstition of the sea
began to cast gloom over the Spee's company.
"Things are going wrong," a whisper went round the
Spee. "We can't even sink a sitting duck . . . what's going to
happen if an engagement is forced upon us?"
The whispers did not reach the bridge. There Captain
Langsdorff, who had regained his composure, said calmly:
"We'll have to learn our lesson the hard way, I suppose. Get
the guns ready," he ordered.
The gunnery officer was hilarious. He would show the
torpedo wallahs . . . ! The gun crew went to the task with
glee . . . target practice on the real thing. That was something
to write home about.
With a mighty roar the eleven-inch gun went into action.
The first salvo crashed into the belly of the Clement. Two minutes
later the ship's medium artillery followed suit. Three eight-
inch guns spat their destructive metal towards the Clement.
Through field-glasses the Spee crew, crowding along the rails,
could see the jagged holes torn in the ship's side above the
waterline. But the Clement continued to ride high. Not a shot
had missed her, yet the Clement remained afloat.
On the bridge Langsdorff was in hurried conference. "Too
heavy, this stuff, for such a small boat* At this distance we
should not have used it!"
"May I suggest we try with the 10*5 cm. A.A. artillery?"
"Agreed ... no, look! We'll remember that for next
As Langsdorff was speaking a thick, black cloud of smoke
had burst through the deck. One of the many salvoes had hit
the compartment of the Clement where the .paraffin was stored.
A few seconds later the Clement was listing to port. The smoke
was growing thicker, flames were beginning to shoot up ...
the ship was an inferno. Now the Clement was shaking. Part of
her seemed to sag and collapse, throwing up her bow clear
of the waves in a cheeky, little gesture. As the steamer split in
two it almost looked as if two fingers were pointing con-
temptuously upwards. Silently she sank.
Langsdorff heaved a sigh of relief: "East now, due east!"
"Africa, here we come," someone said. It sounded boastful.
The Graf Spee was, in fact, making for the African coast. The
Altmark by that time was already speeding across the ocean.
The Royal Navy on October 5 was converging on the coast
of South America to hunt down the Admiral Scheer as it
was thought while the Spee was already scanning the waters
more than half-way across the South Atlantic. The German
Naval High Command's bulletin had told Captain Langsdorff
that the sinking of the Clement "Toy Admiral Scheer 99 had been
announced in the British Press, giving impetus to the Spee 9 *
impatient anxiety to add new names to the battleship's roll of
honour. The Spee's position had just been pinpointed at
09 35'S. and 06 so'W. when the look-out reached for the
telephone to advise the bridge:
A signals officer, two pairs of binoculars dangling from his
neck, joined him aloft. It was 06.30 hours, but every hand
without an immediate duty was clambering on deck to witness
what promised to be an exciting action.
"First boarding party fall in!" the command rang over the
ship's loudspeaker system.
As yet the Spee could see no more than a cloud of smoke in
the distance. Slowly the masthead came into view. Now the
whole superstructure was clearly visible.
"It's a Tommy! " someone shouted. "A io,ooo-tonner. "
"Not on your life ... she's barely 8,000 tons . . . should
not be surprised if she is only 6,000," an elderly officer
"Looks miserably small," said the boarding-party officer
as he and a dozen of his men scrambled into the launch. Strain-
ing his eyes as the boat was being lowered, he added: "She has
a gun on board . . . careful, Jungens (boys) ! The Englaender is
capable of doing any piece of dirty work."
From the deck of the Spee the name of the British ship could
not be clearly discerned. But from the bridge, someone spelled
out slowly: Newton Beech and said the name was painted over
with grey paint. A ladder was hanging over the side of the
ship. "Yes, dear Newton Beech" a young German sailor mused.
"We are going to examine you in order to see whose spawn
The Newton Beech, 4,651 tons of the finest shipping that
Tyneside can produce, was nine days out of Capetown, carrying
7,000 tons of maize to Newcastle. A crew of thirty-five hard-
bitten sailors were fully aware of the hazards of the voyage
but accepted the risks with the traditional fatalism which
the lonely restricted life of the sea breeds. The four-inch
gun fitted in Capetown had been tested in Capetown Bay and
gave the seamen confidence.
Stewart Smith, an engineer, was in bed in his cabin when
young George Worsey, the galley-boy, burst in, tugging at his
blanket: "Third!" he shouted in his lilting Geordie voice,
"get up quickly, come up and have a look at this here battle-
Third Engineer Smith rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
"Go away!" he said, turning over lazily.
Two minutes later the cabin door opened again. It was
Len Miller, the bosun: "Get up, Third! Hurry!"
It sounded serious. Smith tightened the cord of his pyjama
trousers as he jumped out of his bunk. "Good God," he
exploded. Right in front of him, framed in the porthole, was
a pocket battleship.
In an instant Smith had pulled his trousers over his pyjamas :
"O.K., Bosun. I shan't be a tick," he said. But the door had
hardly closed when it was flung open again. A German sailor,
in blue uniform, hat on the back of his head, was sticking a
revolver into Smith's stomach: "Komm," he said. The band
on the German's cap said GrqfSpee.
He had no English, but his gestures were clear. The revolver
pointed upwards. Smith clambered up on to the deck where
most of his thirty-five comrades had already arrived,
similarly summoned with gestures, reinforced by menacing
revolvers. The red ensign had been hauled down and in its
place a German naval ensign fluttered in the morning breezfe.
The revolver of Smith's German was now pointing in the
direction of Newton Beech's ammunition boxes, which were
lined up on deck. The "Third" did not need detailed instruc-
tions. It was obvious that the German wanted him to lend a
hand to his mates who were already throwing shells over-
board as fast as they could to keep in time with the constant
bark of German commands. "Schneller!" he seemed to hear,
and, though he could not understand, he gathered that he was
expected to get a move on.
It all went very quickly. "What's happened?" Smith asked
Captain Robison, the master, who was just walking by with the
German in command of the boarding party. "I think their
plane spotted us ... I am afraid we've had it, Smith," he
"What's up?" Stewart Smith approached a German sailor
whom he had heard giving instructions in fairly good English.
"You will be going to Hamburg, Englaenderl " was the reply.
When the fortunes of war turn in such sudden and spec-
tacular manner there is little time to think. Smith gritted his
teeth: "If it's got to be Hamburg," he thought to himself, "it'll
be Hamburg, then!"
To the Germans, the quiet, unspectacular resignation of the
British crew seemed incredible. They saw most of the men
standing along the railings, in silent contemplation of the Spee.
"They look as if we were a party of visitors and not a
prize crew, " a German remarked. He came from the Sudeten-
land and this was his first trip in the famous battleship. He
had anticipated greater excitement.
"All hands parading on deck now." He repeated the in-
structions from his officer in English.
The Newton Beech radio officer, Mr. Prior, was the only
one who seemed perturbed. He looked as if he had been in
a fight. He had been at his wireless, tapping out a succession of
SOS, when a revolver in his back had forced him to put up
his hands. As he came on deck his earphones were still clamped
"Herr Kapitaen . . ." said the German officer.
Captain Jack Robison, master of the Newton Beech, was
yawning: "You are so damned early, gentlemen!" he said
with a wry smile.
"I am so sorry, Hen Kapitaen" was the reply, in mock-
politeness. "Will you accompany me to my ship?"
The Germans of the boarding party were ranging all over
the Newton Beech, examining every corner.
"Ein tramp!" one of them said. In the cabins there was
evidence of hurried packing, each man having tried to gather
his most valuable belongings together, but having been in-
terrupted by the order to assemble on deck.
" May I fetch my certificate from below? " asked Mr. Byrne,
the third mate.
"Naturally," the German replied. "But there's no hurry
... we are not going to sink you ..." he said slowly. A puzzled
look came into the eyes of the British sailors who heard him.
They glanced at each other before they caught the last word
of the German's sentence, spoken after a pause as an after-
thought: "... yet!"
"But," said Captain Robison, "isn't that the idea of the
exercise ... to sink us?"
The German shrugged his shoulders, as if he found the point
tedious. "You can have your choice, Herr Kapitaen" he said.
"You can take to your boats and hope for the best after I've
sunk your ship. Or you can follow us around, for a while.
You see," he said with a patient smile, "your ship is not the
only one we expect to capture . . . not . , . not by a long chalk."
Captain Robison looked at his chief officer, John Coutts,
and then at his men. "What chance should we have of making
land in open boats? We're hundreds of miles away."
He turned to the waiting German. "Since you give us a
choice," he said, "we'll follow you around."
Captain Robison was taken to the Spee. In a pleasant, small
cabin, guarded by a naval rating with a short carbine on
his shoulder, he was told to wait. After a few minutes a tall
officer, with a dark bushy beard and three gold rings around
his cuff, appeared in the doorway.
"Kay," he said in the snappy German manner of intro-
duction. "Kapitaen Kay," he added, as he saw the British
captain's puzzled expression. "I have Captain Langsdorff's
instructions for you . . ."
The instructions were for Captain Robison to return to his
ship and keep her on a steady course due west at 9-2 knots.
A prize crew of twenty-two well-armed officers and men would
be sailing with him. Detailed orders would be given when
necessary. "I cannot deny," Kay said in his precise, superior
voice, "that it has given us great satisfaction to corner you . . .
we should have preferred you to be a ship of ... er ... bigger
dimensions and greater value . . . however, there are bound
to be bigger fish in this great pool. Auf Wiedersehen /"
As he turned on his heels the sentry motioned Captain
Robison to follow him on deck and into a small launch, which
was soon on the way back to the Newton Beech. There the prize
crew had mounted a machine-gun on the bridge. Three Ger-
mans had settled down in the engine-room, two stood guard
near the boilers. They were waving Mauser revolvers around
with the same air of unconcern as a schoolmaster waving his
Captain Robison returned to the bridge, a German officer
by his side. "Are we going to Germany . . . ?" The answer he
received was just a shrug of the shoulders.
The "Third", like every other member of the Newton Beech
crew, was studying the Germans. Clean fellows, he concluded.
Not bad, these lads. Orderly, grim-faced but polite. Not as
bad as he expected.
"We could hit these fellows over the head and throw them
overboard . . ." someone whispered.
The "Third" pointed to the machine-gun on the bridge:
"Don't be daft, boy!" was all he said.
"Keep her hard aport," commanded the German.
The crew of the Newton Beech had not in the meantime been
idle. They had used their time to spruce themselves up. When
they came on deck again it was in clean clothes and they were
washed and shaved. They were just in time to see the Graf
Spee taking her leave with a shrill whistle. A French flag had
been run up.
On the bridge Captain Robison quizzed the German: "Why
should you want to capture a ship like mine? " he asked. "You
cannot use a cargo of make."
"Look here, old man," was the reply. "You English have
begun to make war on German women and children. You are
trying to starve our families to death. The blockade now affects
foodstuffs as well as war materials. That is not fair. So we
shall teach you a lesson."
"Politics, politics," retorted Robison. "Why did you want
to start the war in the first place . . .?"
"Quiet now! You are under my orders. You are a German
auxiliary from now on ... I want no argument. Verstanden ?"
Feeling depressed and abandoned, the crew of the Newton
Beech went about their tasks glumly, but no man on board
was glummer than Mr. Prior. After an uneasy night, the radio
officer had been summoned to the wireless room by the German
officer in charge of the prize crew.
"This wireless," he said, ominously waving his revolver
at the British set, "why does it not work? It must be sabotage."
"But," said the young German operator, taking off his
headphones to answer, "how can it be sabotage? The Eng-
laender has been under close watch every time he has been
down here. It's just that it's a new sort of set that I haven't
ever seen before."
"Silence," roared the German angrily. "I suspect sabotage.
And if it is, we'll make short work of you" he said to Prior.
" You'll be shot ... out of hand."
At noon the Spee returned and a launch carrying an officer
and a guard sped over to the Newton Beech. "Orders from
Kapitaen Kay," the officer shouted to the watching sailors.
"Kapitaen Robistm and the radio officer will report to him
immediately on the Graf Spee with the ship's wireless set."
Under Prior's supervision, the wireless set was dismantled
and handled carefully into the launch. "If you have damaged
this set, it will be so much the worse for you," Kay told the
two British officers grimly.
He left them under guard and returned an hour later. "A
circuit failure, our experts report, A normal fault. Lucky for
you that you spoke the truth," said Kay, as he saw them off to
the Newton Beech> taking with them a set of German manufacture
as a replacement. "The punishment for sabotage is death!"
Prior shrugged. "Lucky for me" he said as the launch
approached their captured ship once more, "but not lucky for
"What do you mean?" asked Robison.
"Well, lots of ships will recognize that transmitter. Suppose
the Jerry sends out a faked S O S in our name and a British
ship answers. She gives away her position straight away and
the GrafSpee will soon make short work of her."
The days passed slowly. One evening at 6 p.m. smoke
appeared on the horizon, approaching rapidly. The Newton
Beech men did not blink an eyelid as they noticed it. The Ger-
mans, too, saw it, and remained strangely calm. Within ten
minutes the reason for their self-assurance was evident. It was
the GrafSpee cruising by at high speed just keeping an eye on
The Germans did not thaw. Mechanically they went about
their business issuing instructions, checking "Moses", the
mechanical compass which kept the ship on her course. The
next day passed without a single incident to interrupt the
routine. At 6 p.m. the GrafSpee put in a brief appearance but
soon disappeared again. The Germans shared the British food.
They did not comment but their expressions betrayed their
dislike of the menu.
"Stew . . . Irish stew to us."
The GrafSpee was making closer towards the African coast.
The sun was high in the sky. It was hot and the bare, oiled
dark brown bodies of the sailors glistened. Langsdorff was quite
content to operate the Capetown-Freetown lane which was
bound to yield new victims. He was positive that the Newton
Beech had been unable to send out a warning SOS. Nobody
could possibly guess that the Spee was about.
It was 9 a.m. on Saturday, October 7, when Captain Charles
Pottinger went up on to the bridge of the s.s. Ashlea, another
Newcastle-on-Tyne ship, ten years old, a 4,ooo-tonner, heavily
laden with raw sugar. He had taken her from Liverpool to
Archangel, then to Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East
Africa, where news of the war's outbreak had reached him.
His orders were to proceed to Capetown, take on the cargo of
sugar and return to Liverpool. Captain Pottinger commanded
a crew of thirty-four eight Africans among them a happy
little band, who were confident that their small vessel would
pass unnoticed and soon be home again.
The Newton Beech, he had been told, had set out from Cape-
town only a few days earlier . . . there was no indication that
danger threatened in this part of the world, but he was issued
with a gun just in case . . .
A week out of Capetown. "Freetown here we come ... I"
one of his crew was humming to the tune of "California . . ."
He was not to see Freetown , . . not on this trip, anyway.
The captain had no sooner settled down on the bridge than
smoke appeared on the horizon. It was Bob Goss, the tough,
confident second officer, who spotted it just after he had
relieved the third mate, who had gone below for breakfast.
"It's a battleship, sir!" he shouted. Captain Pottinger was
soon focusing his binoculars on the ominous column in the
distance. "Can't make out her flag ... !"
"Maybe a Frenchman looking for the ship that sank
Clement?" said Goss.
As they watched they discussed the silhouettes of British and
French battleships: "It's impossible to tell ... I haven't any
drawings to check on."
His agitation was tinged with quiet despair. Yes, there was
no doubt. Fluttering gaily from the stern of the ship as she
came into focus was a big swastika. "This is it," Captain
Pottinger said quietly.
On the Spee y too, there had been guessing. No doubt this
was another "Tommy" it looked almost as big as the
Altmark. Yet the closer the battleship moved in, the smaller
paradoxically the British ship turned out to be. " She's not even
the size of the Newton Beech," was the final verdict.
Captain Langsdorff ordered a big signboard to be mounted
on deck. In huge black letters it said in English:
DO NOT USE YOUR WIRELESS.
STOP ALL ENGINES.
IF YOU DISOBEY WE FIRE!
Captain Pottinger was losing no time. He did not wait to
examine the enemy at close quarters as she moved nearer. In
his cabin he packed two heavy stones into the pouch with
his codes, his sailing instructions and the rest of the ship's
papers. Within a minute he had flung it overboard.
Already the Spee launch with a boarding party was coming
alongside. "Might as well get it over with quickly/' Captain
Pottinger said. "Get the ladder down . . let's see what they
are like!" It was 9.10 a.m.
His neat and clean uniform impressed the Germans, who
had been commenting on the scrappy appearance of the Newton
Beech ship's company. As they clambered aboard, one of the
Germans spotted the West Africans: "Negroes," he said,
"huh . . ." He shook himself with contemptuous disgust.
The faces of the Asklea crew were set and grim. The officer
in charge of the boarding party was on board now, a revolver
in one hand, a sheet of paper in the other. He saluted smartly
and Captain Pottinger returned the salute. Then the German,
his men standing close behind him, began to read from the
"The German Government," he read in good English but
with a strong guttural accent, as the British sailors listened in
mounting amazement, smiles soon breaking up their taut ex-
pressions, "the German Government wishes ardently to live
at peace with the English people. There are no questions
which could not be solved and settled by negotiations . . ."
"Proper little Goebbels ..." a gruff Geordie voice inter-
"Wie bitte?" the German asked, reverting to his native
language. He was baffled to see his words received by a row
of grinning faces, coughed nervously and continued to read:
"But because your government declared war I am obliged
to take over your ship as a prize. From reasons of humanity
I will do all I can to save the lives and personal property of
your crew. It will be possible only on one condition . . ." He
was now raising his voice and emphasizing every word: cc You
will have to obey without active or passive resistance all orders
given by the German officers I will put on board your ship
to take over command. In case of any resistance I will regret
to be forced to destroy your ship instantly. In that case I refase
all responsibility for any injury or loss. That responsibility will
be exclusively yours. Hdl Hitler!"
He had hardly finished when one member of his party pro-
duced a flag and made for the mast. "He's hauling down our
jolly old * blood and thunder V' someone said* The swastika
went up over the Ashlea.
"You have ten minutes to get a change of clothing and your
blankets," the officer said.
"Look who's here!" said an English voice and all eyes
turned to the Graf Spee from behind which a familiar sight
came into view. It was the Newton Beech which had been
obscured by the bulk of the battleship. "Into your boats,
gentlemen," the German officer said before the ten minutes
ran out. "Row over to the British ship." The boats were
lowered hastily and in the scramble to reach them Chief En-
gineer Strong broke an arm and Chief Officer A. Miller
sprained his ankle.
The German working-party was getting busy on the Ashlea.
Every cabin and corner of the ship was thoroughly examined.
"Herr Kapitaen" a German politely addressed Captain Pot-
tinger in flawless English, "may I advise you to take warm
"Very kind of you to tell me, I am sure!" Pottinger said.
It's best to respond if they behave decently, he thought. "I am
obliged for your kind treatment . . . goodbye . . . and perhaps,
we shall meet again!" The German was not sure how this
was meant, but Captain Pottinger himself was aware of the
double meaning. Perhaps, he said to himself, the position will
be reversed one day soon.
The captain glanced around his ship for a last time. German
sailors were busy lashing down everything loose . . . there
must be no wreckage. German sappers were opening the
hatches, selecting suitable points to place the explosive charges.
Heavy boxes disappeared in the bowels of the ship. Soon the
fuses would be set.
Captain Pottinger got into the last boat and quickly ap-
proached the Newton Beech. The Ashlea's boats were hauled
on deck and stowed on the main hatch. Coming on board,
Captain Pottinger was greeted by Captain Robison:
"Nice how-do-you-do!" he said. The two captains shook
hands, their crews got together to exchange experiences. It
was a melancholy occasion.
"They're taking us back to Germany!" A Newton Beech
sailor volunteered information which he had picked up when
two Germans were talking. He had a smattering of German
and clearly heard them say what he repeated now. Already
the curse of captivity, the anxious listening-in, the curiosity
born from uncertainty, the creating and circulating of rumours
was beginning to confuse the situation. To some captives it
was a welcome exercise of the mind, a relief from the dull
pressure of helpless inactivity; to others it was to become a
nerve- and soul-destroying vice which spread its infection and
grew out of all reasonable proportions.
Events, however, were to leave little time just then to indulge
in the double-edged pastime. On the GrafSpee Captain Langs-
dorff was conferring with his chief supply officer.
"My plan was to take these ships along with us to the
meeting with the Altmark" he said. "It would have meant a
prize crew on both . . . and on others we shall come across
before long, no doubt. I have thought it over carefully ... it
cannot be done. Meine Herren ... I assume you agree with
me that we cannot spare the men and the constant attention
against all eventualities which such a procedure would impose
on us. We shall have to sink the ships ..."
"And the crews?" Kay asked. "We shall have to put them
into their own boats and let them take a chance."
Langsdorff shook his head gravely. "Herr Kay," he said
sternly, "you know my views . . . you know that I have
accepted my part in this war reluctantly but without reserva-
tions. I am prepared to raid the British Merchant Navy right
into Hell ... but I will not kill civilians . . ."
"Herr Kapitaen . . ."
"Nothing ... I know what you want to tell me. Yes, the
Englaender are making war on civilians, too, they are block-
ading our country . . . but as far as I am concerned, what-
ever they do does not alter my own standards. I shall not kill
civilians if I can avoid it!"
"So what are we going to do with the crews? "
"Bring them aboard."
"We have decided to sink your ships now," said a Spee
signals officer who had gone across to the Newton Beech to
inform the British captains. "The Ashlea will be sunk at once;
the Newton Beech later. Kapitaen Langsdorff has decided against
taking them to Germany."
Captain Robison could not suppress a smile: "Obviously,"
"What do you mean?" the German asked him.
"Well, you know,'' the British sailor replied \vith a
broad grin, "we were not born yesterday . . . none of our
ships cany more fuel than necessary to take her to the next
port of call . . . Unless the Spee has a lot of surplus gravy how
could she get us back to Germany?"
At eleven o'clock, the Spee 9 * launch drew away at high speed
from the Ashlea. The fuses had been set. Before the demolition
crews were back on the battleship the charges exploded with
muffled thuds. The Ashlea heeled over on her beam ends, and
died as quietly and unspectacularly as she had lived.
That evening the crews of the Newton Beech and the Ashlea
were ordered to take their turn in the rowing-boats and move
to the Graf Spee. Into the tight battleship her living space
was so limited that some of her war-time crew were forced to
sleep in alleys crowded the weirdly assorted seamen of all
ages and sizes, in clothes that ranged from the smart and tidy
uniforms of the Ashlea officers to boiler-suits hastily donned on
top of pyjamas.
The Spee men received them without fuss: "Rechts, bitte!"
to the right, please was the direction which the master-at-
arms gave them. A little awe-inspired by the gleaming metal
of the impressive battleship, the British sailors made their way in
a long crocodile towards a mess-room which, it was explained
to them, would be their temporary quarters until more definite
arrangements were completed.
"Bitte here bitte there!" one British youngster aped the
Germans but without malice in his voice. "Blimey they are
treating us as if we were their guests!"
THE HUNTSMAN IS HUNTED
A gruff German addressed the captives who were huddled
together in the strange, strained silence which delayed-action
shock often produces during wartime.
"Officers and engineers hands up."
When they had been herded into a corner, the officers and
engineers were taken to another wardroom measuring about
28 feet by 20 feet. A door led to a pantry with a washroom.
There were over thirty of them and after hammocks had been
slung, there was very little room to move. Those who could
not find a place to sling a hammock, slept on the table or the
Deadlights were secured over the ports and when, that even-
ing after dark, the thuds of several salvoes penetrated the thick
steel plates they knew that the bell was tolling for the NewtonBeech.
Someone crossed himself. One seaman knocked loudly on
the door, and a German sailor's head appeared.
"Are you sinking our ship?" Smith asked him.
The German nodded, threw up his hands as if to say,
"What else did you expect us to do? "
"May we go up on deck?"
The sentry disappeared. After a few minutes he returned,
motioning them to follow him.
They went up and stood by the rails. A few hundred yards
away they saw the Newton Beech, strangely still. Nobody spoke.
A few seconds later there was an explosion and the Newton
Beech rocked and shook from bow to stern. Even in the dark-
ness they could see smoke. Flames shot up and subsided.
Within ten minutes it was all over. Silently the men turned and
followed their guard below.
"What now?" a meek voice said.
"Food I hope!" came the answer. After the shock there
was hunger. Already the prison mentality had begun to take
possession of many minds, restricting the sailors' mental
range. Whatever their hopes or fears, thoughts quickly returned
to the pressing, basic problem food.
Six Germans arrived bringing cans of watery cocoa, black
bread and butter, sausage and ham. The ham was raw, cured
and spiced in the German fashion. It was tough but tasty.
The first meal in captivity is always hard to swallow, however
great the hunger. There were many sailors that October night
with lumps in their throats to contend with lumps which
came up from aching hearts and threatened to bring tears to
Some of the men had watched the Germans carrying away
the Newton Beech provisions, including pork and beef from the
refrigerators. "Wish they'd give us our own food," said one
"Into the gangway. Line up everyone!"
There was no time to shed tears. Outside their quarters the
prisoners were ordered to stand in a row.
"Medical inspection," a guard announced. The Spee doctor,
a young man with a thin, fair moustache, sauntered along.
"Hosen haunter . . ."
"What . . . ?"
"Let your trousers down ... !"
It was an incongruous picture, a row of men, their pants
down, shirts up. It brought the first smiles to the sagging faces
of the captives. Yes, everyone was fit and healthy. No danger
of infection here . . . The doctor marched along the line,
pointing to shirts which had not been lifted sufficiently, nodding
as he passed each man, motioning M*tn to restore his trousers.
Within five minutes the medical inspection was almost over.
"I'd like my arm attended to," said Chief Engineer Strong.
"And I my ankle," said Chief Officer Miner, hobbling
The doctor examined them both. "To the hospital," he said,
calling an orderly to escort the officers.
The first "incident" in captivity dominated the conversa-
tion for some time. Then, wearily, after a hectic, trying day,
which had sealed their fate, the men prepared the hammocks
and rocked themselves to sleep.
Sunday morning brought the first real awakening to their
fate. A Spee officer addressed them in sharp and brisk words :
"We expect you to behave properly and you will be all
right. But I warn you misbehaviour we regard as sabotage
and shall punish accordingly!'*
When he left them a babel of voices broke loose.
"Wonder what they are going to do with us?"
"Taking us to Germany . . ."
"No fear . . . these lousy Nazi bastards! They'd rather
"They haven't been too bad so far . . ."
"So far . . ."
Bill Guthrie, radio officer of the Ashlea, looked confident:
"At least I got a message away ! " he whispered.
Smith, of the Newton Beech, put his fingers to his lips in
earnest warning: "Careful don't let them hear you you
never know what they might do to you! "
"I don't care by now the Navy's on her way to get us
out of this. I signalled that we were under attack by an un-
known warship. The Navy'll liberate us."
"That's what you think ..."
The futile arguments of captivity were beginning, each man
contributing according to his temperament. The Spee was now
going full steam ahead and making due west away from the
African coast. Her erratic course, dictated by the contin-
gencies of her mission and the danger from the Royal Navy,
was hardly less involved than that of the British merchantman
whose unlucky star was taking her towards the setting sun of
Tuesday, October 10.
The Huntsman, a four-masted freighter of over 8,000 tons,
was built on the Clyde, but belonged to Liverpool. She was
carrying a mixed cargo of Smyrna-type carpets, jute, tea and
tropical equipment and had touched Colombo and Port Sudan
on her voyage home from Calcutta. Captain A. G. Brown, a
pale-faced, well-set-up sailor had charge of a mixed crew of
eighty-four Englishmen and Lascars and was taking his ship
towards the Mediterranean. But when she was two days from
Suez he was stopped by a patrolling cruiser.
"The Med. is closed for shipping," morsed the cruiser to
Captain Brown. "Afraid your route home must be round the
Wearily the captain thanked the cruiser and turned the
Huntsman about for the long voyage which would take him
via Aden and Mombasa to Durban. There his owners wire-
lessed orders for him to make for Freetown.
The Huntsman had been at sea for ten days and was two
days south of the line about 08 so'S. and 05 is'W.
steaming serenely northwards. Most of the crew were just
settling down to tea with nothing to threaten the routine of
the voyage. There had been no indication in Durban that
danger was lurking in the South Atlantic the Royal Navy
was roaming the northern lane in search of the Scheer and,
though Captain Brown realized that he might have a "rough
passage" before he could bring his ship safely home, the
"sticky stretch" as he called it seemed as yet very distant
Only Chief Engineer Frederick Edwards seemed obsessed
with the idea that the Huntsman would run into a raider. "It
can't be long now/' he kept telling Mr. Creer, his "Second".
But Creer, a ruddy-faced, stocky Manxman, took it as a joke;
and each day when he ran across Edwards he would ask:
"Where's your famous raider, Chief?"
It had become quite a joke on board, but nobody linked it
with the appearance, due east, of a dark silhouette, her super-
structure rising like a menacing finger to the darkening blue
sky. Through his binoculars Captain Brown spotted the French
flag fluttering from the mast. It was nearly seven o'clock.
"Slow" he rang down to the engine-room. But he had hardly
taken in the impressive outline of the bulging battleship, when
he saw the French flag being hauled down. In its place a
swastika was run up. "STOP full astern" was his next
Below, in the saloon, Chief Officer A. H. Thompson and
Wireless-operator B. C. McCorry had just been warned of the
approach of the strange vessel by Len Frost, the third engineer,
who said: "I don't like it!" With a touch of understatement
he repeated: "I don't like the look of her! "
The chief engineer joined them and seemed to grin?as?if
he was pleased with himself: "What's so funny, Chief?" Mr.
Thompson asked. Mr. Edwards stopped grinning, but every-
body was thinking the same thing. Edwards' prediction had
come true, but now the joke was turning sour on all of them.
Edwards felt far from happy. He was certainly not in the
mood to say, "I told you so."
Mr. Greer climbed around the hot engine-room, putting
on an air of unconcerned self-assurance as he passed a group
of his Indian firemen. He knew they were watching the white
officers closely. Their reaction would be determined by the
attitude of the sahibs. Out of the corner of his eye Greer
noticed with great satisfaction that his behaviour was re-
assuring the Indians. They rolled their flashing, searching
eyes away from him and went on with their jobs.
Only a few minutes had passed but already the German
party had boarded the Huntsman. They struck Mr. Creer
as a martial lot fully armed with hand grenades in their
belts, looking straight and grim as they trooped behind
their petty officer, obviously an engine-room artificer. The
revolver in the German's hand seemed to be pointing straight
at Creer who was worried in case it went off accidentally. He
did not consider whether the German intended to use it
Revolver still at the ready, the German asked Creer to stay
just where he was on the manoeuvring platform. The boarding
party disappeared below.
"They are worried that we have opened the valves. Do they
think we're going to scuttle ourselves right out in mid-ocean? "
Captain Langsdorff seemed anxious to get the Spee and the
Hmtsman away from the scene of their first encounter. In his
cabin he received Brown and Thompson.
"You'll find quite a number of your compatriots on board,"
Langsdorff said quietly. There was no tone of triumph in his
voice. He gave the impression of a man who was doing an
unpleasant duty as best as he could. He left no doubt that it
was an unpleasant duty.
"We have no room for your men on the Sfee," he continued.
"I shall have to ask you to operate to my instructions until I
find accommodation for you ..."
The significance of his remark was not lost on either Captain
Brown or Mr. Thompson. But neither of them asked Langs-
dorff to amplify what he had said. Did he plan to put them
ashore in a neutral country? That was unlikely. Did he harbour
a cruel scheme behind a smooth and polite front to put
them into their boats in mid-ocean and leave them to a certain
On his map the Spec captain briefly outlined the square in
which he proposed to operate for a while. The Huntsman was
to follow. Brown and Thompson were returned to their ship,
where they found the German boarding party of twenty-eight
men, heavily armed, busily inspecting the ship and dis-
tributing themselves to places from which to control the
Mr. Thompson explained the position to fellow-officers.
From the Spee a barrage of signals descended on the Huntsman
laying down procedure for every eventuality. The Indians were
restless, edgy, looking at their officers with a mixture of fear
and reckless anticipation. Mr. Creer thought he knew what
was in the minds of his white colleagues, especially the younger
"Look, boys," he said, "we haven't so much as a water-
pistol in this ship and you know it ! "
The officer commanding the boarding party approached
Edwards: "I am Lieutenant Skuliman," was what Edwards
understood him to say. He noted that the German spoke perfect
English. "What speed can you make?"
"She'll do eleven knots," Edwards replied, though he knew
the ship was much faster.
"Good," said the lieutenant "Your captain and chief
officer have received their instructions on the Graf Spee. I
expect you all to obey me without questioning . . . Give her
all you've got!"
Following precise instructions, the Huntsman began to steam
in the wake of the Spee, tracking her as closely as a new-born
foal treads on the heels of his dam. The ships made an incon-
gruous couple. The German crew fell into the free and easy
comradeship of the sea where nationalities meet and mix and
part again without much ado. They were signalling to the
Spee and when asked by the British seamen what it was all
about, the Germans readily replied to the queries: "She's
making off . . . she's leaving us for a while."
"Hunting some more British ships down, I suppose?"
It was Thursday, October 12, when on the Spee, which was
now almost out of sight, Captain Langsdorff called in his
navigation officer to make a last check of the intricate arrange-
ment by which the Spee rendezvous with the Altrrtark had been
fixed. The system had worked out well, but the operation
was more hazardous now that the Spee had been in action
and had roused the Royal Navy.
Two days later the Spee look-out signalled the appearance of
the Altmark in the distance. Arrangements had gone according
to plan and soon Captain Dau was in the launch on the way
to his regular mid-ocean conference with Captain Langsdorff.
One glance up the Spee's massive superstructure and he knew
what had occurred in the interval since he and Langsdorff
had parted. From the mast of the Spee he saw four flags flut-
tering and they were British flags.
" Congratulations, Hen Kapitaen ! " Dau greeted his comrade-
in-arms, as if, in sinking four near-defenceless merchant ships,
he had performed a glorious naval feat. Dau in his joy dis-
pensed with all naval ceremonial and even omitted to salute.
His heart was bursting with pride. Anxious to hear every detail
of the Spee's operations he was framing a hundred questions
in his mind, but Langsdorff curtly accepted the proffered good
wishes and quickly turned to serious business.
"We have made many prisoners," he began. Dau could
not restrain his surprise. "Was that necessary?" he asked,
interrupting. "Was it inevitable?"
Langsdorff appeared not to have heard the remark or did
not want to hear it. "You know already," he continued, "that
we have been able to dispose of the Clement crew to Pernam-
buco . . . But we have the men of the Newton Beech and of the
Ashlea with us on board and I am not happy about it ! "
He explained that he had also the Huntsman crew to think
about including a number of Lascars because his original
plan to take the captured ships to Germany could not be
carried out under the circumstances. "They have only limited
fuel we should have thought of that," he admitted. It was
inadvisable to invest their precious oil in so doubtful and
hazardous a venture.
Altogether, Langsdorff said, there would be over one hundred
and fifty British captives. "What do you propose to do with
them? " Dau asked apprehensively.
"I am afraid you will have to accommodate them in the
Altmark." Langsdorff's words seemed to stun Dau. This was
much worse than he had expected. But the tone in which
Langsdorff communicated his decision made contradiction out
of the question. Dau was going to mention that his own crew
numbered only one hundred and thirty-four busy men; he
contemplated putting forward the hint that such a great
number of prisoners might constitute a grave danger to the
safety of his ship. He did not have to say it because Langsdorff
had clearly anticipated his objections.
"Herr Kay/' the Spee captain said, turning to his first
officer, "kindly arrange for one of our officers and ten men
to transfer to the Altmark. They will be responsible to me per-
sonally for the British prisoners. I want them to be treated
strictly but fairly. Stand no nonsense from them. They are
prisoners of war."
"But they are merchant seamen civilians,'* Dau protested.
"I have taken them prisoners in the course of a legitimate
naval encounter. This is part of the war they have become
prisoners of war."
The captain's own short-wave receiver was producing a
clamour of distant voices. For an instant there was complete
silence from the set, followed by a harsh crackling noise.
Langsdorff turned it on to its maximum volume. A triumphant
German voice trumpeted across the cabin.
"A U-boat of the German JCriegsmarine," said the announce-
ment, '''has penetrated the innermost defence of the English
enemy and has sunk the battleship Royal Oak inside Scapa
As the strains of the Deutschland song, following the por-
tentous announcement, came clearly over the ether, Langsdorff,
Dau and Kay solemnly rose from their seats and put their
hands to their foreheads in silent salute.
"Heil Hitler!" Captain Dau said.
"Heil . . ." Langsdorff and Kay repeated under their breath.
Already Langsdorff was again bending over his maps. "I
must take my leave now," he said. "We shall be meeting again
in three days' time. Here . . ." he added, pointing to the spot*
Captain Dau returned to the Altmark. Together with Wei-
chert and Dr. Tyrolt the only man on board for whom Dau
had a sneaking respect and whom he liked to have near for
consultation, even though Tyrolt was no sailor he went on
an inspection of the Altmark.
Meticulously, he examined the parts of the Altmark which
stamped her as something more than an ordinary tanker
the four decks forward and aft, originally painted white and
designed as store-rooms, about ten feet high and electrically
lit. He was panting in the heavy air. "Ventilation working?"
he asked without expecting any reply. He touched the steam
pipes which were cold. " Could be heated . . ." he commented.
"We'll put the prisoners into these holds!" he decided.
Word soon went round the Altmark that British seamen
would be billeted on them. "The Ziegfeld girls . . ." someone
said, and for a long time this was how the crew incongruously
referred to the captured "Tommies" the usual name which
the Germans gave Englishmen, soldiers and sailors alike, during
It was now October 16, six days after the Huntsman had been
caught and she was still in the hands of the Spee prize crew.
Feeling aboard was friendly. The officer in charge did not
object when he saw a dart-board being put up on deck outside
the saloon. Soon a number of Germans were watching the
British players with undisguised interest.
"Want to try it?" Quartermaster Goldstein asked. His
name and background were reason enough for him to hate
and fear the Germans, but if he felt either emotion, he dis-
guised it completely. The German petty officer gave him a
long, quizzical look. "Yes, why not? " he replied after a pause.
Soon the captives were industriously instructing their mas-
ters. One by one the Germans learned the intricacies of the
scoring; but the mumbo-jumbo of the game, coloured by
rhyming slang allusions, puzzled and confused them com-
"What's 'two Piccadilly's'?" one of them asked.
"Two fours Piccadilly whores, see?"
He could not see it. And in the lonely world between the
sky and the sea, Piccadilly and war seemed very far away.
That evening the Spee returned, approaching at great speed,
looking beautifully frightening to every sailor's eye, strong,
almost overwhelming. War had returned again.
"Take your dart-board down!" Lieutenant Dettmann of
the boarding party ordered sternly. "Everybody to his quar-
"I beg your pardon," Edwards spoke up. "We have had
a little talk . . . you have been good chaps and you've begun
to like darts . . . well, we'd like your men to have the dart-
board as a souvenir."
"That's very kind of you," Dettmann said in a friendly tone.
"I shall ask my captain for permission to accept it."
He instructed Edwards to hold himself available for fresh
orders. Edwards could guess that something important was
about to happen. " Chief," said Dettmann, adopting the British
seaman's easy manner, "you are about to be transferred to
another ship ... no, not the GrqfSpee."
Dettmann hesitated before he continued: "No, when the
time comes for the crew to be mustered on deck ... I want
you to lock all doors and throw the keys overboard. Under-
Two officers from the '5^ came aboard as the next day
dawned. The Huntsman was carrying a big load of carpets and
jute and instructions were for the riien to take as much of it
as possible with them apart from their own belongings and
blankets. "They'll come in very useful ... I assure you!"
a German petty officer said.
The Huntsman was like a beehive. The derricks were busy
all day long, hoisting cargo from the holds to the Spec's three
launches. Even copper pipes and other useful engine parts
were cut away and loaded. In fact, everyone was so busy
preparing the crew's departure that hardly anybody noticed
the appearance of the big tanker, painted a dull yellow, which
had quietly manoeuvred herself close by. Edwards was standing
on deck with a group of mates, trying to make out her name.
"It says Sogne ... of Oslo," he announced.
"A Norwegian!" a joyful chorus resounded. It seemed
fairly obvious now that they were to be put aboard a neutral
boat and liberated at a neutral port. "They are sending us
home!" It sounded excellent almost too good to be believed.
The prize crew were busy putting time-bombs down the
bilges. The men of the Huntsman were lined up on deck, carry-
ing their belongings in sacks and bundles. "I expect they'll
pinch everything we've left!" somebody said.
"No," Edwards retorted reprovingly. "I have locked all
doors and thrown the keys overboard . . . that's their own
orders. There'll be no looting of our personal things; let's be
fair, even if they are Jerries."
His charitable view of the Germans was not very popular.
An angry rumble of voices went down the line as they stood
there, facing the Altmark the Sogne, as they thought where the
German crew was crowding along the rails brandishing cameras.
There had been excited anticipation on the Altmark no
fewer than forty-eight men owned cameras and every one of
them was determined to snap the historic occasion.
The first boat with the prisoners, moving slowly towards
them, caused shrieks of joy. From the distance it looked indeed
gaily colourful bright enough to revive the Ziegfeld myth.
Dr. Tyrolt facetiously straightened his tie. The men exchanged
Looking at the approaching boat, the Altmark men certainly
took in an unusual picture. The boat was carrying Indians in
their coloured turbans sixty-seven of them: "Look, coolies!"
Tyrolt exclaimed. To the men of Hitler's Germany, taught to
regard coloured people as strange, sub-human beings, it was
a great joke.
Captain Dau himself could not restrain his curiosity; he
viewed the strange arrivals earnestly. "They don't look too
bad," he commented grudgingly. "But they are thin very
Just then a powerfully-built Indian was scrambling on board,
his muscles bulging, his shoulders like rocks. "Not so thin
that one . . ." Weichert ventured to suggest. They came to
the conclusion that he was the serang, the leader of the Indians.
The German officers stared open-mouthed while each Indian
bowed as he passed them. "Salaam I" one of the Germans
mockingly returned their greetings.
"We shall not have much trouble with them," Dau con-
"I quite agree, they seem a subdued lot. I suppose they are
"The white men do not seem to worry much either . . ."
said Weichert, whom Dau had instructed to deal with all
questions arising out of the prisoners' presence. That these
British prisoners showed no outward signs of despair, that they
did not wring their hands, weep copiously, or tear their hair
remained a constant source of surprise to Weichert.
It was an attitude beyond the comprehension of most Ger-
mans. When, among the first boatloads of prisoners, Mr.
Thompson of the Huntsman came aboard, calm, completely
composed, concerned only with the welfare of his crew as
best as he could safeguard it under the circumstances
Weichert called Paulsen, his chief officer, aside and whispered:
"I think we can win him over to our side."
The prisoners had boarded the Alimark on the weather deck,
climbing up short Jacob's ladders. The skilled British seamen
saw quickly how low the tanker was lying in the water, in-
dicating that she must be nearly fully loaded with fuel.
Thompson coolly approached the group of Altmark officers.
Dau stood stern and aloof contempt and even hatred for
everything British bursting from his pig-like little eyes. Paulsen
looked interested, curious; Weichert was puzzled and not a
little apprehensive about his new duties.
"If I can be of help in marshalling my men," Thompson
said, "call on me."
Weichert responded with a sly side-glance at Paulsen.
"Get order into this chaos ... !" Weichert replied.
"Come on, boys." Mr. Thompson urged on the men who
were clambering on board, sweating under the loads of carpets,
hessian and their own haversacks. "Get a move on."
The Germans looked pleased. Here, they thought, was a
man who was chivvying his own compatriots. Instinctively
they compared Thompson's behaviour with what their* own
reactions in similar circumstances might have been.
Thompson was anxious that none of his men should be left
behind on the Huntsman, which now was obviously doomed to
an early end at the bottom of the sea. "Here is a list of my
crew," he told Weichert. "And here are the Ashlea and Newton
Beech lists, which I was given on the Spee. It will simplify
"Scruffy lot . . ." Dau said, as he saw the victims of the
Spee's last three attacks lining up on deck. Some of them, indeed,
had come in their boiler-suits, some wore old hats, others cloth
caps. The get-up of the Indians was variegated. In the rush
some suits had been torn. Albert Greer himself was aware of
the contrast between his own uniform and the spotless tropical
white of the Spee crew.
Later that evening Tyrolt told Dau that his inspection had
been a melancholy affair. Even the British seamen were thin
not much bulkier than the Indians. "I suppose they exist on
starvation rations in these tramps," he said. "And two of
them were actually lousy."
The prisoners had not been aboard the Altmark long before
it became obvious to them that this was no neutral ship about
to take them to freedom and repatriation. While there had
been few complaints on the Spee the atmosphere on the Altmark
was oppressive from the first moment and her captain's icy,
hostile attitude cast a grim pall over the captured men from
which they never escaped.
"Herr Kapitam" Weichert said, "I want to introduce
Captain Brown to you . . . he's the captain of the Huntsman . . .
that is he was!" Weichert added with a cruel grin.
Dau looked straight at Brown without saying a single word.
"Glad to meet you," Captain Brown said, an indulgent
sardonic smile playing around his lips, "but frankly, Captain,
I do not think that I shall be long with you . . . The Royal
Navy is bound to be combing the sea. It won't be long before
they'll get the Spee and your ship, too."
"Frechheit!" Cheek! Dau said, turning his back. He
went off, running straight into Captain Pottinger of the Ashlea
who briskly averted his head and looked the other way. So far
Captain Dau had shown no inclination to enter into any con-
versation with his captives. Here was at least one prisoner who
certainly did not want to talk to him or any other German
Slowly, the busy triangle in the sea formed by the Spee,
Altmark and the Huntsman, with traffic meeting and passing as
often as trains at Clapham Junction was quietening as the
transfer was nearing completion. The last stores from the
Huntsman had been taken on the Altmark. Spee sailors were
rowing back to their battleship with supplies for their canteen.
The evening had come again and the operation was drawing
to an end.
In his cabin Dau was giving final instructions about accom-
modation. Captains and senior officers among the prisoners
were to be segregated from the crews. Dau allocated the top
forward "flat" for them. The Indian crew of the Huntsman
were to have their own quarters, aft. The store-room below the
officers was to be used as a wash-room, fifty men to be accom-
modated below and another forty just above the Altmark's
It was all very haphazard at the moment. "Make sure these
recalcitrant, rebellious elder men have no chance of instigating
trouble among the younger men . . ." Dau instructed Weichert.
"The Spee guard will see to that, Herr ICapitaen."
"You will be responsible to me . . ." Dau retorted sternly.
It was 6 p.m. before all prisoners had been accommodated
in the allocated holds. They were still grappling with the car-
pets, looking for the best places to settle down when the steel
doors on either side of the "flats" were banged and locked.
On deck the crew of the Altmark crowded the rails, ready for
the event they had every reason to expect. The Graf Spee was
making ready to send the Huntsman to the bottom of the
For weeks the Altmark had basked in the reflected glory of
the Spee, by proxy sharing the battleship's exploits with the
frantic interest of a maiden-aunt living on the fringe of her
family circle. Discussion about the details of the sinkings which
the Spee had to her "credit" had been interminable but the
reports were all second-hand, obtained from sailors who had
chanced to have direct contact with the battleship's crew.
Now, as they rushed to the deck, to watch the spectacle,
cameras again at the ready, they were to be in at the death
their first opportunity to participate in a "triumph". Nobody
was more conscious of the occasion than Captain Dau.
With an eye on history, which his crew's cameras would
record, he turned the Altmark round so that she and the eager
cameramen should have the sun behind them. From their
position, which would give them perfect pictures, his men
excitedly watched a boat from the Graf Spee moving close to
the Huntsman to fix the charges below the water-line and
retreating as fast as their engine would take them away.
One of the Spee guards, mingling with the Altmark men,
broke the tense silence of anticipation.
"Never thought I would see this," he said. Loudly he re-
called the six days in May 1937, when the Graf Spee had taken
part in the naval review at Spithead to celebrate the Corona-
tion of King George VI. "Never thought then that I would
be enjoying this thing much more," he added.
Spouts of water went up as the charges exploded one after
another. The noise and the sprouting pillars of water roused
the audience on the Altmark to shrieks. But nothing happened.
In spite of the grievous wounds in her port side the Huntsman
did not sink.
"Obviously the ship is taking on water only slowly/'
said an Altmark sailor. "It may be hours before she syiks!"
It was 6 p.m. when the Spec first went into action against
the helpless British freighter. The sun set on the horizon, the
evening mists were settling on the sea when, disappointed to
the verge of dejection, the Altmark' crew gave up all hope of
witnessing the death of the Huntsman. By then it was too late
and too dark to take pictures.
By 9 p.m. the deck was empty. Those who were not busy
with the engines or in the galleys had retired to their bunks.
They woke up next morning to be told that the Huntsman
had sunk at midnight.
FREE RIDE TO GERMANY
Dawn had hardly broken on October 19, the prisoners*
first full day in the Altmark, when the order rang down the
holds to rouse men from their uneasy slumbers. They had
dropped off to sleep on the deck, more or less where they
had first stopped. It was a cramped, uneasy sleep for most
Chief Engineer Fred Edwards with a few others had been
even more unlucky. They had been allocated a place out in
the open on the fo'castle and had spent the night with only
loosely-woven, flapping burlap to protect them from the cool
They heard the call of their captors first and joined their
comrades who were clambering up the ladder in the trunkway.
The Lascars, yawning noisily and rubbing sleep from their
eyes, ambled along leisurely, apparently without a care in
the world, from their hold on the starboard side.
"Sine, zwei, drei, vier . . ." The roll-call count proceeded in
two languages: "One, two, three, four.' 9
The prisoners, sullen and apprehensive, were facing a small
group of Germans for the first time with mounting hate in
their hearts. But their hate and weariness did not prevent them
from "taking stock of their situation.
"Bewhiskered bastard!" someone whispered loudly enough
for everybody to hear as Captain Heimich Dau strutted up
to them. Dau threw out his chest but was obviously nervous
and pulled agitatedly at his small goatee beard.
"Knitty Whiskers!" said a rasping Liverpudlian voice.
Even in the half-light, it raised a chuckle. From then onwards
Dau was always "Knitty Whiskers."
By his side stood Weichert, to whom Dan kept up a running
flow of brisk instructions for the "prison officer" to pass on
to the Altmark's prisoners. Dau did not trouble to disguise the
fact that he regarded it as below his dignity to address his
captives personally. In the background stood the young Spee
officer, detailed by Captain Langsdorff to command the guard
heavily armed ratings from the battleship. His young, rosy
face was flat and shining and wore such a permanent smile
that it made him look like a country boy.
"Proper babyface!" remarked Edwards, nudging his
The counting progressed the prisoners replying in English
and the Germans echoing the figures in their own language
until the numbering reached one hundred and fifty-three.
"Instructions about accommodation will be issued later. No
one is allowed to remain on deck for the time being." Weichert
faithfully repeated his captain's instructions.
Dau stalked off to a conference in his cabin. He seemed to
feel that the occasion warranted a detailed programme which
he began to develop. His Germanic love of order and hatred
of the British seamen carried him into a lengthy oration.
"There will be a daily sick parade at 10 a.m.," he stipu-
lated. "Dr. Tyrolt and Herr Weichert are the only members
of my crew who will talk to the prisoners. Nobody else will have
contact with them nobody verstandm?"
Paulsen nodded and made a note to instruct the crew
accordingly. "I want no fraternization of any kind," Dau
continued. His small audience sat glumly as he warmed to the
subject. " Let's treat them correctly . . . but no more."
He was anxious to make his attitude quite clear. These men,
he discoursed, belong to the nation which has declared war
on the Fatherland. "These men are our enemies," he said
sternly, "who are out to annihilate us. They may not like
being our prisoners . . . but we cannot help that. That is no
reason why we should sympathize with them. War knows no
There was silence when Dau asked for comments, so he
continued to talk. "The chief thing is to maintain absolute
secrecy about our movements. Do not let these men draw you
out. See that none of the crew talks." It seemed inconceivable
at that moment that such a thing could happen, but the
proximity of so many ordinary people German and British
in the confined space of the Altmark would obviously soon make
close personal contacts inevitable.
Weichert was aware of it but, ignoring his instincts, decided
to raise more immediate and urgent points. "What are your
instructions with regard to food, Herr Kapitaen?"
"Well," Dau snapped. "I have spent last night studying
the position as regards international law. There is no pro-
vision for this contingency at all as I see it."
But clearly, Dau continued, the principle to follow was
that the prisoners would get less than the German civilian
population at home. "Why," he thundered as arguments
occurred to him with which to fortify his illegal proposition,
"the Englaender have begun to blockade the Fatherland, they
are thus making war on our women and children . . . the
enemy's navy is responsible for untold hardships which our
German people must suffer ... we shall certainly not deprive
ourselves of provisions to fatten these men up."
He called old Schwill, the North German cook of the Alt-
mark, and Treibel, the baker. "Here is a list of maximum alloca-
tions per day," he said severely, handing them scribbled details
on a piece of paper. "If you cannot manage, various items
will have to be reduced."
The list enumerated the daily ration of each prisoner:
J pound of bread, 4 ounces of meat, ij ounces of fat, 3 ounces
of dried peas or beans, rice or other vegetables, f ounce of
coffee, sugar and tea according to supply, ij ounces of bread-
spread and i\ ounces of dried potatoes.
"I want you to keep a prisoners' diary, recording every
single incident," Dau informed Weichert, cynically. "I order
you to start it by entering these figures. I won't have it
said that we did not do our best." The diary was the only
place where the rations were allocated. Dau's tone of voice
had made it clear enough that he was more concerned with
theory than with practice.
On this first morning the Altmark officers and men left the
prisoners much to themselves. Dr. Tyrolt's medical inspection
was perfunctory. "I understand you have already been
examined on the Spee" he remarked to one of the engineers,
waving him away.
But irresistible curiosity drew the Germans to the quarters
S.S, Doric Star exploding after a torpedo from the GrafSpet had
found its mark
The Graf Spee setting out on her raiding expedition in the
of the Indians. Cook Schwill passed on to Weichert the request
of their grizzled Serang the head Lascar that they should
be allowed to prepare their own food. "Obviously these dark
fellows want nothing to do with the Englishmen!" was
Schwill's simple verdict.
With suspicious wonderment he watched the Indians cook-
ing their ration of mutton. "They don't eat pork/' he reported,
gathering his information from a conversation which was
carried on in pidgin English on both sides. "Quite like the
Jews the Fuehrer has always said they are the same."
That evening Schwill informed Dau that the Indians wanted
rice much more rice than there was on board, although the
Indians had brought a fair quantity away from the Huntsman.
"And, Herr Kapitam, you should watch them baking a sort of
pudding in boiling fat ... the antics they perform when they
Dau looked interested. "I tried it, Hen Kapitaen" Schwill
continued. With a crude gesture he demonstrated how he
spat it out in disgust. "Horrible!" he said, "I think they
called it chupati."
Down in the holds where the white prisoners were huddled
together the activity was frenzied. The Altmark had neither
blankets nor mattresses on board and the Spee's captain had
refused to allow any of his hammocks to be transferred.
As the Altmark leisurely steamed westwards, the British
seamen began to make themselves comfortable. They took
carpets and jute looted from the Huntsman for bedding and
staked out claims for bed-spaces in the narrow, humid, dingy
store-rooms. At the head of each bed-space, the sailprs kept
their pathetic bundles of personal belongings. "Drawing-
rooms" were curtained off by carpets.
The German carpenter descended the ladder in the trunkway
which led down to the holds from inside the fo'castle. Pointing
to a heap of old ammunition boxes he indicated that tables
and other furniture could be made from them. He motioned
one man to follow him and took him to the lowest hold in
which empty forty-gallon oil drums were stacked in the corner.
"Make tops and you have your Klosettl" he said.
Only after much bewildered consultation and indelicate
pointing did the man guess the carpenter was demonstrating
how the Attmark's sanitary installations were to be produced.
At the same time, Lieutenant "Babyface" Schmidt, accom-
panied by two guards, arrived in the prisoners' "flats", to
stick up sheets on which Captain Dau's typewritten instructions
were set out in English and German. This henceforward was
to be the routine in the prison ship:
7 a.m., turn-out and wash; 7.45, breakfast; 8.30-9.15, on
deck for fresh air; 11.30, dinner; 2.30-3, fresh air on deck;
5.30, tea; 9 p.m., lights-out.
The instructions laid down that the Lascars were to have
their exercise on deck at different times from the rest.
"Possession of matches/' said the notice, "and smoking
is strictly forbidden and will be severely punished."
Dau was to tell Weichert time after time that he was to
show no mercy on this point. "We are carrying fuel oil,"
was his reiterated theme, "and any uncontrolled smoking
could be the death of us all."
The first appearance of the Indians on deck brought Dau
from his cabin. Somewhat embarrassed by his own curiosity,
he stole on to the bridge to watch the Lascars, who seemed to
exercise a strange fascination over him. Almost childishly he
drew Paulsen's attention to the Moslems preparing for their
daily prayers, as they guessed the direction of Mecca, laid out
their mats and prostrated themselves.
Dau's naweti puzzled Paulsen, who knew that his captain
had travelled all over the world as a merchant seaman. "See
those men over there . . ." Dau nudged Paulsen, "they are
not praying . . . they're Hindus. Do you know anything about
Paulsen did not know. Dau turned to Dr. Tyrolt, who had
made his first medical inspection of the Indians that morning.
"What do you think of them?" he asked.
Tyrolt's opinion was that the Indians were surprisingly
clean people. "They are always washing." Everyone laughed
as Tyrolt told Dau that he had also found the Indians extremely
modest. "They would not undress for medical inspection . . .
modest like little virgins. I had to shout at them before they
could be persuaded to take off their clothes."
Dau smiled smugly, "You don't seem to know anything
about these fellows. Some of them worship the genital organs.
That's why they would not let an outsider inspect them."
Chuckling to himself, Dau walked off.
The Indians remained the favourite topic of conversation
at the captain's table. They were apathetic, hostile to their
English comrades, never looking at anybody. Tyrolt dis-
covered that one of them his name was something like
Siblas really hated the English. He had been disciplined by
Mr. Thompson, the Huntsman's chief officer, only a few weeks
previously for some minor offence and tried successfully to
ingratiate himself with Tyrolt by telling him what he thought
of all Englishmen. As Tyrolt recounted: "He made a gesture
with his hands which indicated that he was quite prepared
to strangle them all."
"Let's make use of the man," Dau suggested. "Paulsen
take him on to assist our stewards. They could do with some
"One of the Indians is always alone ... a sort of outcast,"
"Obviously an Untouchable," Dau concluded. "Just like
these people to carry their outlandish system into captivity."
During the day the white prisoners, adaptable and phleg-
matic as most British seamen are, began to find their feet in
the floating prison.
"Let's look over this hell-ship," said a well-built Hull
seaman, named Harry Holland. The third hold from the
deck, which they later described as "C" flat, reverberated
with the hammering of captured "chippies" or carpenters,
who were making tables from ammunition boxes. Already
some boxes had been converted into chairs and in a bantering
mood, most of the seamen took turns testing them. The humour
Along the sides, carpets and jute were being cut up into
lengths, and laid on the steel deck for beds. Some of the older
men, apparently resigned to their fate, were resting with their
eyes closed. But they were not asleep. The noise the younger
seamen were producing made them wince, though it was not
yet the torture it became later as time dragged and nerves
There was a busy traffic up and down the ladder in the
trunkway. Sailors were moving about freely, inspecting other
holds, "visiting" friends in lower flats and their officers
in "A" flat. Slowly order began to emerge from the chaos.
Men were shrugging off their intolerable position and
were still cheerful. Perhaps it was as well that the prisoners
did not know what Weichert entered into his diary on the
evening of October 20: "This was the first day," his entry
said, "which passed according to the routine as laid down.
All decks are now equipped with carpets and jute. The lack
of cups has been remedied by turning tins into tumblers."
Two or three groups of prisoners were playing cards quietly
and unconcerned amid the bustle. From the corner of" C " Deck
a tune wafted gently through the big hold. It came from one
of the half-dozen portable wireless sets which seamen had
salvaged and brought with them into captivity.
This was a day of stock-taking. Belongings were sorted over,
though most men knew how pitifully little they had. Many
took a sentimental glance at pictures of wives, children, mothers,
in their wallets, hurriedly counted cigarettes and cheroots, or
patched a few extra items of clothing. Then, at long last, they
were allowed up into the fresh open air on deck for the first
precious three-quarters of an hour of exercise.
The battleship had disappeared, but there was plenty
to observe and explore in the "Hell-ship". She was about
600 feet long, 75 feet beam, the crew figured. A big, clean
"I should think her draught is about 30 feet," said
Soon imprisonment was forgotten in a babble of technical
discussion about the ship, her role and company, her engines.
An Altmark engineer, who had overheard the conversation as
he passed them, surprisingly volunteered information. "Four
double, nine-cylinder M.A.N. diesel engines with Vulcan coup-
ling," he said, translating the German technical terms into
his best English. "Twenty-one thousand four hundred horse
power," he added proudly.
Quickly the men who had a smattering of German trans-
lated this information into something the others could under-
stand. But there was no stopping the German. He seemed
eager to tell them more about the Altmark. "At fourteen knots
she has a radius of fifteen thousand sea miles," he said
A circle of interested men, chiefly engineers, crowded around
him. "Enough to take us half around the world," someone
commented, "if what he says is true."
Weichert appeared on deck and his disapproving glance
scared the German sailor away.
"Move, please! " Weichert insisted as the sailor scuttled off.
Weichert looked as if he was afraid that the prisoners might
mob him. Posted on deck the Spee guards, feeling very superior
with revolvers in their holsters, smiled indulgently.
The prisoners resumed their leisurely promenade. The keen
eyes of a deck officer noticed six anti-aircraft machine-guns
"At least three-inch," he said. Three bigger guns, probably
six-inch, protruded from the screens in the superstructure.
"Torpedo-boat guns, those fellows," he said.
"Shouldn't like to see them blazing away at us . . ."
It was meant as a joke, but it fell flat The men stood silent.
Some of the older, more depressed, men were returning to the
hold even before their time was up. The melancholy of their
position was like a blanket.
Down in the hold, Hughes, the Huntsman "chippie", gave
a little whoop of joy. As other men crowded around him there
came, faintly but clearly on his radio, the one o'clock news of
the U.B.C. Overseas Service.
"... and this is Alvar Lidell reading it," they heard.
Britain and France had signed a treaty with Turkey, he said.
"So Turkey'll be coming in with us!'.' said Mr. Lidell's
most appreciative listeners. "Not before time."
"Quiet ... not so loud."
The announcer continued reporting that Western Poland
had been incorporated in the German State. A Jewish ghetto
had been established in the Polish city of Lublin.
"Wonder what's happening at home just now . . ." The
question was to remain unanswered for the time being. Never
had Alvar Lidell's voice sounded more soothing. Now at-
mospherics drowned it. The precious contact with home was
severed as suddenly as it had been established.
The Altmark was obviously cruising leisurely. She seemed
to be going in a circle. While they were taking exercise, deck
officers had carefully noted the position of the sun, and with
lifeboat charts, were working out the position of the ship.
They had been moving south, no doubt.
"I make it isS., I5W., as near as damn it!" Goss
announced. He was the second officer of the Ashlea. The
deck officers argued for a while, as the engineers, out of their
depth, joked and jeered. There was no doubt Bob Goss was
The apparent aimlessness of the ship's movements added to
the endless futility of the prisoners' existence. The day had
dragged on with leaden slowness.
"I wonder what that damned Spee is doing now ... ?"
The same question was asked with equal curiosity in Captain
Dau's cabin, where news from the battleship was overdue.
But there was no answer for either the prisoners now com-
plaining bitterly about the smell from the drums on the staging
outside each flat or for their captors.
In the holds life was becoming organized. Each flat worked
out a "peggy " system under which a different prisoner assumed
responsibility for daily rations and meals on his flat. At the
shout of the guards, the "peggy" would climb the trunkway
and join the Indians, who carried the food from the galleys.
The "peggy's" task was to see that his "flat" got a fair share
of all the food there was.
Personalities began to emerge. During the early days few
of the prisoners had been able to tell one German from
another. But slowly, each of the Spee guards, and many
of the Altmark crew, began to be recognized by the British
sailors, who were not slow to assess their varying characters
Most important to the prisoners was "Babyface" he said
his fall name was Lieutenant Otto Schmidt. He boasted that
he knew England well, and talked familiarly of English towns
and life. All the men agreed that "Babyface" was by no
means a bad fellow. He was easy to approach and ready with
a reasonable response to any question. There was Fritz, one
of the guards, soon semi-affectionately called "Fritzi", and
he too was always ready for a friendly chat. To the prisoners,
these Spee men seemed reasonable human beings.
The short encounters with the guards relieved the pressing
monotony in the flats. All the prisoners could do was to move
laboriously from one snatch of radio news to another. Time
was killed slowly by card games and endless discussions
about the uncertain future of them all. The optimists expected
the Royal Navy any day; others set their hopes to a belief
that the Altmark would take them to a neutral port. "They
can't cope with us in the long run . . ." they tried to persuade
There was a third school of men who were darkly convinced
that nothing could save them from a terrible voyage to Ger-
many and more monotony in a prison camp until the end
of the war.
"And we'll be lucky if we live that long!" said Bert Saville,
a South Shields engineer, who had nursed engines in calm
water and stormy all over the world.
"What do you mean?"
He soon made himself clear and his matter-of-fact ex-
planation cast gloom over the entire flat Wasn't it just as
likely, he queried, that the Navy would track down the Altmark
and send her to Davy Jones' locker?
"I hope they do find us," said Bob Goss, another Tynesider.
"At least it will give us a chance to get away."
Edwards tapped his forehead and shook his head. "If they
do we stand every chance of going down with her sunk by
our own lads."
It was not an encouraging prospect. They decided to raise
the matter with "Babyface" when he came on his round.
One of the engineers tackled him. "What are you going to do
with us if you are attacked?"
Lieutenant Schmidt thought deeply. For once the smile
disappeared from his face. His little Adolf Hitler moustache
almost disappeared as he pressed his lips together before he
He had gone fully into that question, he explained. All
preparations had been made for die prisoners to be released
as quickly as possible.
"There are sufficient boats and rafts to take everybody . . .
my guards and the Altmark crew are fully drilled in emergency
"But what exactly are your plans?" Edwards pressed
A commotion broke out. Several officers shouted: "You are
going to let us drown ! "
"I am a German officer," Schmidt said ponderously. "My
duty is not only to guard you but also to protect you. If
there is any danger at sea if attack is imminent . . ."
"Tell us have you a plan?" a voice shouted.
Schmidt seemed hurt and he was goaded into saying more
than he had really intended. "Actually we do not propose
to let things go as far as that if there should be an encounter
with a British vessel."
The plan said Schmidt as he was hemmed in a corner, was
to send out a radio warning that there were prisoners on
board, that the ship was being scuttled, but that the prisoners
would be given an opportunity to take to the boats providing
no attack was made on the Altmark. "You will be in the same
position as I am myself! "
When Schmidt had left, the dissension started again. The
plan, said some, did not sound convincing. Others insisted that
"Babyface" could be trusted to carry out his promise: "But
will Knitty Whiskers let him have his way?" inquired an
Next morning Schmidt returned his exuberant smiling self
again. "You should not have worried about your Navy
sinking us. The boot is on the other foot," he said triumphantly.
The Altmark had stopped. The hatch at the top of the trunk-
way, usually half-open during the day to allow a little air and
daylight into the holds, was shut with a bang as soon as the
German had reached the deck again. Something was hap-
pening everyone sensed it. Noise from the winches re-echoed
through the big steel compartments.
"The Sptfs back!"
That was the verdict in the top flat where officers and
engineers had agreed to pool every bit of information. Nothing
was too small to be ignored, a hint by a guard, an observation
during the exercise on deck, or sound and noise from above
The Altmark was still heavy with supplies and lay deep in
the water. The sound the officers now heard was clearly the
winch that unleashed the thick oil tubes. The Altmark was
preparing to refuel a ship and no doubt it must be the Spee.
Shouts rang out and reached the prisoners' ears, though
the shouting was muffled by the thick steel deck. Every "event "
was a relief from the monotony of imprisonment. But the
officers knew that most "events" were more likely than not to
be unpleasant. They waited apprehensively.
Three hours later the prisoners heard the creaking of the
hatch as it was opened again. Everybody crowded towards
the trunkway and the ladder on which figures soon began to
appear and descend nimbly. Holland, an able seaman of the
Ashlea, looked long and hard as the first man stepped off the
ladder into his flat:
"I know you/' he said, wrinkling his eyes in thought. "Let's
see. Yes it's Mr. Cudbertson."
Cudbertson, dressed as if going ashore, in a smart flannel
suit, looked at the seaman. "Holland," he said.
Cudbertson dropped the pillow-slip in which he carried his
belongings, and mate and seaman shook hands. The last time
they had met was in their home-town, Hull, just before the
outbreak of war. Cudbertson was having a small celebration
he had just received his second mate's ticket.
"Well, you're a mate but we're both prisoners," said
Holland. "What was your ship?"
The new arrivals were blinking in the weak artificial light
as they pushed past the Hull men. The old hands were extract-
ing bitter consolation from an unusual break in their routine.
" Trevanion," Cudbertson replied. "Hain Steamship freighter
from London. We were shelled and captured. There were
thirty-three of us but they kept the captain and chief officers
on the Spee"
Questions were fired in quick succession: "What's hap-
pened?" someone asked a slim, slightly bald man, who limped
down to the flat occupied by Huntsman and Newton Beech
officers.. It was "Bill" Flatten, the second mate of the Trevanion.
"Well, it was a bit hot," he said quietly. The men split
into groups, recalling the dramatic events, each contributing
his own experience to complete the picture' of the Trevanion' $
The ship was a sturdy tramp, about 5,000 tons. Thiey had
left Liverpool in January, routed to British Columbia and San
Francisco and from there the Samoan Islands, Tahiti, New
Caledonia. "All over the .place . . . tramping around the
Pacific." They had been in Port Pirrie in Australia when war
broke out. The crew painted the ship grey and they waited for
a few days for a gun to be fitted on board.
"To sink the Spee, I suppose?" someone joked. "Where did
you run into her, anyway? "
Well, they had reached Capetown on October 17, and five
days later off the coast of South West Africa it had happened.
The Captain Jimmy Edwards knew that a Nazi raider had
sunk the Clement. He was worried that the raider would catch
up with them, too, sooner or later.
"She turned up all right flying a French flag! " Cudbertson
"She hasn't changed her tactics, then," said a small chorus;
"it was the same with us."
"... and she was signalling furiously," Flatten, in his soft,
almost gentle voice, took up the story again. He had been
on watch and had rushed below for a flag book in order to
read the signals. "Heave-to," Mr. Flatten had spelled out
letter by letter. "Sending boat. Don't wireless!"
The same words in large letters were on a huge board which
could clearly be read as the battleship moved in closely. But,
in a burst of temper Captain Edwards refused to be intimidated!
He rushed to the wireless cabin.
"We had a young 'sparks'," Flatten said. "Martinson,
'Nancy' Martinson. His initials were 6 N.C.', see? The captain
ordered him to send out urgent distress signals."
There was now a chorus of voices, all eager to ask questions.
Well, the Spee had heard the message and opened fire.
" It was pretty nasty ... her gunners were obviously searching
for the aerials," said Flatten, "because the first salvo crashed
into the wires on the hospital at the after-end of the boat-
deck ... but these were aerials of private sets. The real aerial
was under the navigating bridge."
There had been several more bursts until the woodwork was
smashed, iron scuppers buckled and ladders torn away. One
shell had landed right on the wireless table. It was a miracle
that "Nancy" escaped with his life. The Spee had kept up the
signals: "Stop your engines immediately!" Flatten translated
for his captain. Edwards finally had blown three short blasts
on the ship's siren to tell the battleship he was going astern.
Flatten saw the Spee's large launch coming alongside from
the navigating bridge and threw a pilot ladder over the side.
But before this, said Flatten, with shy East Anglian humour,
he had jumped down the ladder from the navigating bridge-
only the ladder was not there. It had been shot away and
he had crashed to the deck.
"That's how I got my war wound! " he said, smiling wearily
and pointing to his injured foot.
The Spee officer was a real sailor considerate to another
sailor in trouble, said Flatten. He had made no secret of the
fact that the Trevanion had been spotted at dawn by the Spee
"You did not hear the plane?" he had quizzed Flatten.
"Not a sound."
The German had taken Flatten down to his cabin and
advised him in a friendly way to gather together as many of
his belongings as he could carry. "I brought pretty well
everything except my stamp collection," said the Trevanion's
But not all the ship's company had fared as well. Tubby
Tommy Morgan, the cook from Cardiff, had dashed on deck
dressed in a clean white jacket and carrying a small suitcase
just in case. A German officer would not let him go below
again. "You're all ready for the trip, my friend," he said.
"Wait over there by the gangplank."
Another German had seized Jimmie Edwards' sextant,
painstakingly making out a receipt.
"What's that good for?" demanded Edwards, furiously.
The German grinned. "Churchill will give you a new one
when you show this to him," he replied, as he left the bridge
with the sextant under his arm.
The men of the Trevanion had been taken on the Spee.
"Nancy", the "sparks", had received a severe dressing-down
and been interrogated several times. But, on the whole, the
prisoners had no complaints to make against the Spee. On
October 28 the Altmark turned up out of the blue.
"And here we are," Flatten summed up. "What's the
The prisoners' first impression of the Altmark had not been
a happy one. Before they were ordered to join their fellow-
prisoners, Captain Dau, angered by Captain Langsdorff 's order
to take on a further formidable consignment of prisoners, had
had the men lined up on deck.
To the younger seamen, in particular, Dau looked like a
Daily Mirror caricature of a Nazi. His face was red. He was
clearly in a temper and a spray of saliva accompanied his
words as he spat them from his mouth. As he barked at them
his little "Imperial" beard moved ridiculously forward and
"You are not prisoners of war but prisoners of circum-
stances! You will be treated as German prisoners are treated
in England!" Few of the sailors, far away from home, and
out of touch with any news could make out what he meant.
"I do not like you I do not like the English," Dau repeated.
It seemed fairly obvious. "I have no reason to love the English.
Britain will be crushed . . . Take them below!"
"I think the feeling's mutual," said eighteen-year-old appren-
tice Peter Watson-Filcek, as they turned to go. It was a day
they would always remember October 28, 1939.
CAPTAIN DAU'S VISIT to the Spee had not improved his
temper and after his return to the Altmark the atmosphere on
the bridge or at his table during meals was almost as oppressive
as that in the holds below, where the prisoners jostled each
other in their cramped flats.
In the Spee, Captain-lieutenant Kay, as usual, had accom-
panied Dau from LangsdorfFs cabin to the boat* He told Dau
that signals from the Trevanion were most likely to bring the
Royal Navy on the track of the Spee.
"That wireless-operator ought to be shot," Dau had ex-
postulated to Kay, who shrugged his shoulders. "You know
Langsdorff does not believe in that sort of thing," said Kay.
The hard fact, which Dau half guessed, was that the Spee
was preparing to put as much distance between herself and
the scenes of her raiding activities as possible. It stood to
reason that the British Admiralty must be already rushing all
available units into the areas from which attacks had been
reported towards the South American coast where the Clement
had been sunk and along the Cape-Freetown route where other
overdue ships would be presumed to have been destroyed by
Dau was never happy when he had no exact information
about the Spee's activities. Now, as far as he had been
able to gather from Langsdorff the battleship would go off on
a lengthy and distant evasive mission. The Altmark would be
It depressed Dau to think of it as he set a leisurely course
due south and prepared for a long, weary wait. It would be
at least a fortnight before the Spee, re-equipped with fuel and
ammunition would make contact with her supply ship again.
Only Dr. Tyrolt succeeded now and then in penetrating
the morose aloofness of the captain. The tall, thirty-one-year-
old Austrian liked to delve into the rich experience of his
earlier youth and to entertain Dau with tales of his three years
in South America as a trapper, hotel head-waiter and farm
Dau was even now interested to hear of Tyrolt's return to
Austria to study medicine. He had joined the illegal Nazi
Party and had soon landed in prison.
"Yes, Doctor/* Dau would say, "you can be proud of your
sufferings in the cause of the Fuehrer.'*
Tyrolt, more expansive than most of his comrades on the
Altmark, who were largely North Germans, was quite as
loquacious during his daily round of the prisoners* quarters.
He constantly asked questions and encouraged conversation.
"Food all right?** he asked on one occasion.
"Don*t you worry about us, doc!** an old seaman replied.
"What we*d like to know is how much there'll be to eat in
Germany this winter? '*
"What do you mean?"
"Our blockade is not doing badly another 60,000 tons of
German shipping sunk last week, we hear.'*
"Yes, doc . . . and tell us whether it*s true that you Germans
have invented pills against hunger.'*
"Boys," Tyrolt said good-humouredly. "If such pills are ever
invented you may be sure a German will invent them and
not an Englishman. But don't worry. There's enough food
in Germany for many years. And we can feed quite a few
more prisoners like you."
"Say, doc,** a voice challenged him, "you don't really thmk
you can win the war? Did you hear what Churchill said two
"Never mind Churchill ... the sooner you kick him out
the better for you.**
The conversation was taking on an acid tone and Tyrolt
decided to break it off. That evening he thought the conversa-
tion would amuse his gloomy captain. He was surprised when
Dau flared up angrily:
"They are listening to their wireless,'* he shouted. "I am
not having any of this vicious anti-German propaganda broad-
cast on my ship . . . Weichert! Herr Weichert! Fetch Lieutenant
Schmidt at once!*'
The captain worked himself up.
"All wireless sets are to be confiscated forthwith," he
screamed to Schmidt and Weichert. "Take the full guard
down and search the prisoners' quarters."
"That doctor! That stool pigeon! Just like a Jerry to
come all friendly and then sell you down the river!"
The prisoners were in a dangerous mood. The appearance
at this unusual hour, of the prison officers and the guard,
sent a wave of anger through the brooding men in the flats.
Angry shouts went up as soon as Lieutenant Schmidt explained
"You've already taken our cameras," said young Filcek,
who was with the officers in the top flat. "Can't we have a
little music at least? "
Listlessly, but methodically, Schmidt and Weichert carried
out a search of all the flats. They even inspected the
wash-room below the decks. The prisoners were sullen and
Some of them never looked up as the Germans searched.
An elderly sailor from the Newton Beech was busy chipping
away at a chunk of wood. "What are you making?" Weichert
asked him. The sailor did not trouble to reply.
That evening the "peggies" brought down from the galleys
a can of dark sweet soup which seemed to consist of dried
prunes, figs and apricots boiled with bacon and other fats.
"Sweet soup! Would you believe it!" It was difficult to
swallow. Doughy dumplings swimming in it did not improve
"Can't stick this sort of thing for long," said young Peter
Warren. He was a cadet, high-spirited, normally cheerful, a
youngster, who had been as popular in the Ashlea as he was
with the older officers in the top flat.
After dinner Warren and Filcek decided that it was not
too early to begin to think of a way out of the floating prison:
"Let's try and get a message away," Warren suggested*
"Anybody got a bottle?"
Many of the younger officers thought it was a good idea.
Some of the mates had kept a note of the Altmark's movements
and quickly produced details of her position as far as they
had been able to work it out. There were suggestions about the
text of the message.
"But how shall we get it away?" Filcek wondered. The
guards and look-outs were watching all the time during their
exercise on deck. It was impossible to throw a bottle overboard
"Put it in a latrine drum/' said someone, "then it will go
overboard when the drums are cleared out. Nobody comes
near us then."
That evening the young men started work. First the message,
then a water-tight wooden stopper for the bottle. "Gently
does it," the elder men cautioned. They had agreed to the
plan but were anxious to consider every aspect of it before
making a move.
It seemed a small project; but that night, when lights went
out, there was a more hopeful atmosphere in the holds. More
than one man imagined the message floating in the ocean, the
waves carrying it towards a British cruiser . . . visualized a boat
being lowered from the cruiser, saw sailors retrieving the bottle,
taking it to the captain, and heard the ship being ordered full
speed ahead towards the position they had given and the
"Here we are, here we are," a sleeping man's shrill voice
pierced the darkness.
"Quiet, quiet. Let's get some sleep!"
The dream was ended.
Next morning, as he came on his rounds, Dr. Tyrolt faced
a stony silence:
There was no answer. "Just as well," he said glumly. "I
am running out of medicine anyway."
When he had left, the young prisoners could not sit still.
Their youthful energy demanded an outlet. A good-natured
rough-house developed and soon feet were flying and bodies
crashing on to the steel floor. The noise was deafening. A guard
put his head down the trunkway. "Stop that noise," he said.
The answer was a loud "raspberry".
It was not easy for the less energetic prisoners to keep out
of the way, but gradually men grouped themselves according
to their common interests and inclinations. Cudbertson, a tall,
level-headed sailor's son, thought the Huntsman officers snootily
kept themselves apart from the rest. Maybe they imagined
themselves a cut above the rest because they came from a
bigger ship. They were certainly turned out more smartly
than most of the others, but what was the difference? They
were all prisoners in the same stinking boat. Some of the young
Geordies called them "the aristocrats".
Something had apparently gone wrong with the bottle plan.
The wooden stopper had probably come out or the bottle
might have broken. Anxious eyes that had followed the un-
savoury operation of emptying the latrines failed to spot the
bottle going overboard. Perhaps it was just as well the guards
were keeping their eyes watchfully on the sea just then. Did
they suspect anything?
As the midday meal was being taken down one of the
"peggies" brought the news that the fresh water ration had
"That's grim!" young Ritchie, the Ashlea cabin boy com-
"That's good!" Cudbertson enlightened the young sailor.
If the Altmark was running short of water, he said, there was
reason to hope that she would be anxious to get rid of surplus
mouths to feed. "Maybe she'll dump us in a neutral port
soon. We could get to Mexico," he speculated.
Fritzi, the most popular of the guards, was quite as ready
to speculate as the men he guarded. "After all," he said,
"we are as much prisoners as you are. What's the difference
which side of the fence you are on as long as you can't
From what his petty officer had said, Fritzi was convinced
that the Altmark would remain in the South Pacific for a few
weeks and then make for Germany.
"Not on your life," said Flatten. "She'll never get through
our blockade. And if she tries it we'll be blown to bits."
"We can only hope and pray," said Cudbertson.
Someone asked him whether he prayed while shells were
falling all over his ship. "I prayed like hell that they wouldn't
hit me," Cudbertson said. Silently men were praying that
they would soon be out of their prison.
From many minds nothing was further than prayers. Two
youngsters were ragging one of the Trevanion crew. They
had removed all his clothes, and he was pleading playfully
for them back. His friends jeered and made remarks about
his skin and body.
"Anybody listening to you boys," an older man said,
"would think we're all bi-sexualists. Pack it up for heaven's
The language had been crude, the thoughts behind it the
first upsurge of frustrated feelings among the younger men.
Not far away, equally noisy, a game of knock-out whist was
in progress with shrieks of protest going up whenever someone
was suspected of cheating, which was practically as every hand
Life was not easy in this atmosphere in which personalities
and differences in character and inclinations were beginning
to emerge clearly after weeks of captivity.
A number of men were now recording the day-to-day life
in the prison ship in diaries. The diaries were really letters,
some unconsciously, some consciously addressed to a loved
one; and some merely serving as a means of gathering thoughts
and taking stock.
His captain, "Jimmy" Edwards, had given Ronald Gud-
bertson a big pad which he treasured like a friend. In minute
writing so as not to waste a scrap of space, Cudbertson addressed
pretty Marjorie Hall, the young librarian from Hull, to whom
he would have been married if he had not been caught and
imprisoned in the AltmarL
November 3. Marjorie dear, Remember John Buchan's
book, Thirty-Nine Steps? To go on deck we have to use an
iron ladder, a vertical one, and from our flat to the top
there are just thirty-nine steps. It always comes to my mind
as I start climbing the ladder and I can't help counting them.
Wish I were holding your hand. When I left the Trev my hands
were smooth and soft, but now there is hard skin across my
palms and fingers from climbing up or down the same ladder.
It's always up or down ... life or ladder what's the differ-
November 4. How rumours get around! So much talk, so
few facts. The one authentic piece of news today is that one
of the Altmark crew had a row with one of the German guards
and rather heavily tapped the boy's chin. It must have caused
quite a bother among the officers of the guarjcL
Some of us like the Spee guards and hate the Altmark crew. I
say that the crew are in sympathy with us, but I don't like the
guards. Apparently what happened was that the guard who
was hit was a nasty blighter and the incident cheered us up
no end. What a boon if the sailors fell out with the guards
and turned on them and we could step in, take over the ship
and bring her back to England. Some hope !
November 5. Shave day today. You should see the clean
faces quite unusual! I only shave once a week. As I have only
two blades I can't afford to do it more often and normally look
quite disreputable. Quite a few have stopped shaving alto-
gether and are sprouting young beards.
We are steaming south as far as I can make out. They took
my sextant away which cost 20. It won't stop me from
going to sea again even if the government doesn't give us
enough money to fit ourselves out again. Nowadays one can
buy a sextant on hire purchase.
November 6. The sailors have been bringing out and stack-
ing stores on deck. There is much activity all round us. It
can only mean one thing the warship is coming in the very
near future. I don't know what it portends but it is my birth-
day today and it may mean some surprise! Well, I am twenty-
seven years today! What will the day bring? One chappie, a
Welshman, was very put out when he had his twenty-first the
other day. Our own "sparks" comes of age before the end
of the month.
Some boys who always get bits of news from the guards
and from the crew were talking last night of the capture of a
fairly large British ship and one hundred and eight prisoners.
I thjnk it's one of those "wait-and-see-if-it's-true yarns".
It's 3 p.m. now and we are rather puzzled. All these pre-
parations for the arrival of the Graf Spee and she doesn't look
like turning up. They've put all the stores back below, put
down the derricks and bolted them as if they were not going
to be used for a long time. Most popular guess is that the
warship is being chased and that she will meet us when she
has a breather, put some prisoners on board, after which we
shall go to port.
It's a lovely day again, fine and warm.
November 7. I wish I knew what this ship is doing, some-
times heading this way, sometimes that, main part of the time
at only five or six miles an hour, but sometimes much faster
during the night. We can feel that. I woke last night and she
was trembling a lot which denotes great speed. .They say this
tanker can do twenty-five. I wonder where the Graf Spee has
got to? Well, the longer she is away the more oil she and we
are using. We shall have to fill up sometime, somewhere,
There has been a rumpus just now. The "peggy" reported
that there is to be no more tea at dinner-time. It's hard to
say whether this is because tea or water is short. Things are
getting a bit worse every day. First they cut down on the
bread and now the tea. It makes you feel weary. All hands lay
down after dinner today and are still lying there not even
bothering to go up on deck for a little spell.
One of the officers has not been up on deck for two days
now, not for fresh air nor his morning wash. He hasn't had
a bath since we arrived here. I shall make it my job to get
him up on deck tomorrow morning.
Oh this bread! Most people have blisters from cutting it
during their turn as "peggy". Our knives are not too
sharp and the brown bread has an awfully hard crust. One
can hear each mouthful drop in the stomach with a dull
Somebody has "news" again. The warship will not be
back for another fortnight. They have fixed the openings to
our places so that we cannot possibly get out if we touch land.
I also hear that the captains, chiefs and lascars, who've been
on deck under canvas, will be coming below in a few days.
I don't know why, but I can only assume that she is making
for the trade route and the canvas houses on deck would
November 8. Everybody is on their feet. There is a rumour
that a ship's smoke has been seen astern. Just a rumour!
I have lingered over my bath as long as possible and was
the last one of our lot to go below. If you work it right you
can get to the ladder just as the next lot is coming up and have
to wait on deck another five minutes until they are all out.
Stealing a little extra air, you might call it.
Remember my old American silver dollar? I have carried
it in my coat pocket ever since I got it. Today I've had to
part with it. Up to now I have had neither a toothbrush
nor toothpaste and had to use ordinary soap and a rag. But
they told me that money can buy things even here. The silver
dollar was the only money I had so I slipped it to the cook,
who passed it on to someone else and hey presto ! back comes
a new brush and a tube of paste. What a racket!
Something must be up. They were like hawks watching
the men who were getting our stores so they could not talk
to the crew. But a few chaps have had a glimpse of the ship
from which the smoke came and were sent off the decks. One
of the sailors from the flat above us was going up on deck
but when he'd reached the thirty-ninth step and put his head
through the opening on top, the guard almost crowned him
and chased him back below.
Tea was terrible tonight. Usual amount of bread and butter,
but the piece of polony was much reduced in size and there
was only a minute piece of cheese. It's all uphill from now
on, I guess.
November 9. Thursday today. My whole body aches.
Others are complaining too. I have decided not to He about
so much during the day as I can't sleep at night It's either
that or that I am getting thinner and cannot rest with my
bones on the hard bed!
It's pouring with rain. Washing wasn't very pleasant, as
it was chilly too. Altogether some of us are beginning to look
a little pale. After our three slices of bread and jam this
morning I felt I could eat a really good meal.
Everybody's fed up. Not even a card game this morning.
I suppose it's getting monotonous. But the guards have been
quite communicative. One of them told us that the sailor
who hit the guard the other day has been in the tank ever
since. It's an empty oil tank which is used as a prison cell
prison in prison!
November 10. You should have seen us last night! More
rough-and-tumble, then an "exhibition" in which we all
joined with a mock funeral and a wedding. Surprising how
daft you get when you are hard up for a .little entertainment
In the end everybody was fagged and excited. We sat around,
had a sing-song and a slice of bread and jam.
This morning it's cold and damp with a lot of fog. That's
why they did not allow us on deck for our morning walk in
case a ship came upon us suddenly before we could be put
out of sight again.
The crew has been clearing a deck two floors below. That's
where they are going to put the captains and chiefs. . . .
During last night she's been talcing some water over on deck
and the canvas house. A couple of skippers were nearly
drowned, which is why they are being put below.
Thinking of home . . . but it's difficult to make out what our
chances are. The Altmark "chippy" carpenter who is a
Norwegian, came down and said that he expects to be home
for Christmas. But "Babyface" said he could not tell how long
we would be here.
My head aches. There are only a few places between the
girders where I can stand upright and my head is still a mass
of bumps from the first week when I was walking unwarily.
We have all got bumps on the head. Just the same, we played
high cock-alorum last night.
What makes the bad food even worse is that people will
talk about what they could just fancy to eat. It makes you feel
November n. X ... did not wash after all. So rather
than let Mm get the bread and butter ready with his dirty
fingers I did it myself. Some of the fellows are beyond the
The ship was going like hell this afternoon. Obvious con-
clusion: we are getting out of the way of a British patrol.
Somehow old "Knitty Whiskers" must be getting good in-
formation to dodge like this.
It looks as if we shall be here for some time yet.
November 12. Cold, wet and miserable morning. A damp
fog. I am sure we are edging southward all the time, maybe
a little east as well. We must be somewhere near South Africa
again. I have a feeling we shall land up in the Indian Ocean
for a while and be put on some other ship or maybe ashore
in Portuguese East Africa.
I was thinking this morning . . . what a sight we must be
from the bridge every day; nearly two hundred half-naked
men washing in little tin basins, first captains, then officers
and then the white crews and the natives. Quite an assortment
One chappie this morning burst out: "Isn't this bloody
awful. I wish I was a woman and then I could have a good
cry." Impossible to imagine that fellow crying he's in a
grubby shirt and pants, bare feet, hair all over the place
with a week's growth of beard and a moustache.
November 13. I hear the purser has told somebody that we
shall be home by Christmas. Our "Fifth" George Barrett-
overheard the guards speaking, swears he understood them
saying that the GrafSpee will be coming back on Wednesday.
"Babyface" just said to one of the captains that all ships
which have been sunk have been reported except the
Wonder where we are! There is no wind, yet a nip in the
air. As it is summer in this half of the world, we must have
edged a good way south for it to get so cold.
It was three weeks yesterday since that blasted battleship
popped over our horizon it seems ages! All around me there
are people who have no book to read or do not play cards.
They just sit for hours staring and thinking . . . thinking, I
suppose, where they might be. I don't know but considering
our situation what right have we to hope that they will let
us loose at all?
November 14. Outlook bleak. Yet only this morning I
realized that I have not seen darkness for over three weeks
now not a really dark night with stars and the moon above.
I never thought a time would come when I'd be missing
But in here it is so dim that others who have also taken to
writing letters are perched on top of shell racks to be nearer
the light. For some reason or other the dynamo must be run-
ning low today.
I suppose it suits people like the "Hermit'*. That's what we
call Ted Elcock, our third engineer. He sits by himself most
of the time with his pipe. He has let his beard grow to match
his uncut hair. Altogether he presents a sedate and benign
picture like a Santa Glaus. He is only twenty-four, but he
looks at least forty.
One sailor on the deck above us, an elderly chappie, has
also grown a beard and looks exactly like the pictures of King
November 15. A rather strong breeze has kept a lot of our
fellows below today. It's Wednesday but I doubt whether
we shall see "Pluto" that's what some of us call the warship.
There's a rumour that she has sunk five more ships but this
has yet to be verified by a reliable source. Five tramps would
make at least one hundred and fifty men to be planted on
board this ship. Hardly conceivable!
I am getting weary. For the elder men I think it's not all
that bad. They seem resigned to their fate. Two boys of under
sixteen are with us and they regard it all as a great lark.
But for us "in-betweens" it is getting very hard.
Sex has reared its ugly head. There is a rumour that one
of the galley boys is a ciss. . . . Don't be alarmed! I am sure
it is not true. No matter how long we are here we shan't reach
Just before we came below in the afternoon the ship stopped
and turned round. We were wondering what was wrong when
we heard a burst of firing from the deck just the type of
bangs we heard on that fatal Sunday three weeks ago.
We could see the shells travel and they must have dropped
a target in the water. The guard was telling us to go below
but we took no notice.
Just now the cook said that his lot was rattled. They are
housed near the gun with an empty tank on either side. One
man grabbed a lifebelt, another made a bolt for the ladder
but was turned back by the guard, who threatened to shoot!
The cook was having a nap and had taken his glasses off.
He could not find them and could not see. Everybody was
dressing hurriedly and one had his suitcase packed and was
hanging on to the foot of the ladder . . .
There is excitement about . . . something is happening.
Wafts of smoke were hanging over parts of the flat. Cud-
bertson was sniffing the air polluted by smoke from those lucky
enough to have cigarettes.
"You chaps will get into a lot of trouble," he warned. "It's
not wise to light up at all times even if you do not mind
wasting your few cigarettes this way."
The hatches on top were flung wide open just then and
Lieutenant Schmidt, flanked by two of his men, came down.
"Who has been smoking here? You know the captain has
strictly forbidden it."
He followed the smoke, caught Will Venables, the Trevanion's
first mate, by the arm: "Were you smoking? "
"Come with me."
On deck Schmidt handed the mate over to Weichert, who
took him before Dau.
"Smoking? Smoking?" screamed Dau. "Do you admit it?"
The answer was a shrug of the shoulders.
"Three days bread and water!" Dau breathed. "Take him
to the tank."
The mate was given a loaf of bread and some water and
taken to the empty oil tank.
"We'll collect you in three days!" were the parting words
of the guard.
Fritzi told the prisoners what had happened to the mate.
"It's not pleasant in the tank," said Fritzi. "One of our men
has had the same experience. He did not like it at all."
Gudbertson was sorry for the mate. It could not happen
to me, he thought. He did not have a cigarette. Captain
Edwards had given Symons, the steward, five thousand cigar-
ettes from the Trevanion to be shared on a basis that each man
would have two cigarettes a day for two months. But many
of them had smoked continuously and stocks were already
There was not much time to ponder the incident. Something
was going on. The prisoners did not know what but they
knew it was something.
Captain Dau climbed jerkily down the ladder looking
brighter and happier than he had appeared before. Was it,
some of the men wondered, that he was, after all, expecting
the Spee? Had he news of further Spee exploits?
"Good morning!" he said, sticking his bearded chin out.
"I thought you might like to know what I have heard over
the wireless from Germany. The war on the Western Front
one single German officer has captured a dozen Frenchmen
in their dug-out! It happened three times during one single
raid into the French position . . ."
"Yes sir!" said Mr. Miller, the mate of the Ashlea. "I saw
that done myself once by Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms.
Only he surrounded them!"
Dau frowned. He looked hurt. But he let it pass. Perhaps
he did not quite understand the joke.
"The rate of sinkings to the credit of our U-boats is going
up steadily," he continued.
"When is the Spee coming back?" he was asked.
Dau smiled in his infuriatingly superior fashion but did not
" Goodbye ! " he said, turned sharply and went up the ladder,
followed by Schmidt and Weichert He looked as if he had
work to do.
"ARE YOU FRIGHTENED?"
FOR OVER A week now Captain Dau had been under
the impression that things had gone wrong, terribly wrong.
He imagined the whole of the Royal Navy was converging on
When the Graf Spee did not keep the arranged rendezvous
a feeling of utter loneliness descended on Dau. Langsdorff,
during their last meeting, had told him he was planning a
diversionary action to throw the British off his tract just
that and no more.
There had been no news from the battleship since* The
rare signals from Naval Headquarters, though in code, had
scrupulously avoided mentioning the Spee. The possibility that
the Altmark might find herself deserted and thrown on her own
resources, which were her speed and anonymity, and no more,
had been ever present in Captain Dau's mind. It looked as if
a catastrophe had happened.
Dau had not discussed his anxiety with his officers, but they
felt instinctively that their captain was worried, when they
saw him turning to his wireless receiver even more frequently
than ever before, twisting the knobs in a determined attempt
to glean information somehow, from somewhere.
On the morning of November 17 Dau called the doctor
excitedly to join him as a Portuguese voice came over the air.
It was faint but just intelligible. Tyrolt put his ear to the set.
He knew Portuguese well and quickly translated into German
the gist of what he heard..
Captain Dau listened, his whole body quivering with excite-
"It is now confirmed/' said the pattering Portuguese voice,
"that the ship which was seen sinking off Inhambane on
Thursday was the small, twin-engine motor tanker Africa Shell,
600 tons, belonging to the Shell Company of East Africa Ltd.,
built in England last February ... the wreck is between
Inhambane and Chai Ghai (Vila de Joao Belo) . . ."
Already Captain Dau had spread out a map of the East
African coast and the Indian Ocean and was frantically
scrutinizing the area around Lourenco Marques to pin-point
the spot. Tyrolt continued his translation: ". . . News came
through gradually, and eventually an alarming story was un-
folded of the steamer's fate it was sunk by a German raider! "
No wonder the voice expressed alarm; war had come to
neutral Portugal's back doorstep.
Tyrolt looked knowingly at Dau whose features were alight
with satisfaction. Portuguese words tumbled from the set too
fast now for the doctor to keep up his running translation.
As the news faded out he told the captain the rest.
A message from Capetown had been mentioned, according
to which it had been officially announced that the Africa Shell
had been sunk by a German raider inside Portuguese terri-
torial water, one hundred and eighty miles north-east of
Lourenco Marques. There was no exact information available
regarding the identity of the German raider, but a Durban
report suggested that it was a big io,ooo-ton ship, possibly an
armed merchantman. Rumours that it was a pocket-battleship
were authoritatively discounted.
To Captain Dau the news meant that the Graf Spee had
ventured out into the Indian Ocean, far from the scenes of her
earlier exploits. He would have preferred to hear that the
suspicion for sinking the Africa Shell had fallen on a pocket-
battleship. That, at least, would have induced the Royal Navy
to switch their attention away from Dau on to the distant
That, in spite of the inspired reference to "an armed
German merchantman" was what happened. Convinced that
the German raider which had played havoc with British ship-
ping in the South Atlantic had sailed around the Cape, the
Royal Navy focused on the Indian Ocean but did not want
the German Naval High Command to know. In a desperate
game of blind man's sea bluff, however, the Graf Spee was
already doubling on her tracks and making for the South
Atlantic once more. Langsdorff had outwitted the Admiralty.
Dau was elated. His orders were clear. He was to cruise in
a designated square until the prearranged alternative date for
a rendezvous with the battleship fell due. He was now convinced
that the Spee, her diversionary excursion into the Indian Ocean
completed, was racing towards their meeting place as fast
as her powerful engines would carry her.
Unable to disguise his relief on one of his regular tours of
inspection through the prisoners' quarters, Dau was more
talkative, less grimly aloof than usual. The prisoners, especially
the officers, their instincts roused by the slightest digression
from routine, quickly noted Dau's unusual mood. They did
not know exactly what had happened and neither did Dau,
in detail. The captain's change of mood was also felt by
his own crew. They passed on news of the change to the
guards, whose hints and allusions, boasts and exaggerations
conveyed to the prisoners that the Graf Spee had sunk several
powerful British merchantmen. The rumours flew thick and
The truth was less than the prisoners imagined. Yet Captain
Langsdorff, taking the Graf Spee back towards the South
Atlantic, was pleased.
When he was making for the Indian Ocean his movements
were guided by invaluable snatches of wireless signals between
the British Admiralty and units of the Royal Navy, picked up
by his patient operators. Langsdorff had been unable to
discover the identity of the British ships even though, advised
by his Naval Headquarters, he had long ago broken down the
British secret code.
But, just as he had arrived in the distant Indian Ocean,
the code was changed and he was left without a clue as to the
movements of British merchantmen. He signalled to Germany
a request for his own code to be changed, and this was done.
When LangsdorfFs officers told him that the crew were
disappointed about the meagre indeed negative result of
his Indian Ocean cruise, he explained to them that he had,
in reality, not gone East in search of new victories, but merely
with the intention of leaving his visiting card in another ocean.
Langsdorff had sunk the tiny Africa Shell and left the crew
to make for the shore in their own boats. He had taken only
the captain, Patrick Dove, with him as prisoner. Convinced
that he had shaken off the Royal Navy, Langsdorff was now
making for the meeting with the Altmark.
The prison ship cruising quietly in a wide circle awoke on
November 26 to a fine day. The sun was already climbing into
the sky at 8.30 a.m., when the guard pulled back the hatch
on top of the trunkway to call down to the prisoners.
"Up," he shouted, "up, up."
The welcome cry echoed round the holds below as the first
batch appeared on deck for the daily bath. They had just
begun to strip when Mr. Miller, mate of the Ashlea, gave a
warning shout and pointed to starboard.
The bathers looked up. There in the distance, about two
miles away, they saw the battleship gliding over the smooth
surface of the sea. The men had hardly taken in the impressive
picture when the guards, noisy and excited, rushed towards
"Zurtick /" they shouted in German. Everybody understood.
It was the order to return below.
At 10 a.m. the Altmark's engines stopped. From the deck
came the harsh grinding sound of turning winches, of shouts
and guttural greetings. Soon the bumps and knocks re-
echoing in the steel chambers below told the sailors that the
now familiar operation of victualling the Spee was in progress.
The humming, whining noise of oil sucked through long tubes
indicated that the Spee was refuelling.
Activity was intense all day and the prisoners were not
allowed on deck. Lieutenant "Babyface" Schmidt went below
to mingle with the prisoners. He was all smiles and spoke with
familiarity. No, he admitted, when he was questioned, the
Spee had not made a great haul.
"Actually," he confided to them, "she has only one
British prisoner on board the captain of the ship she has
"Bjabyface" shrugged his shoulders. Either he did not know
or he would not say. But the war was going well for Germany
he told everybody. The Allies were having a bad time on the
Western Front. U-boats were sinking British ships right and
"What's going to happen to us, Lieutenant?" Gudbertson
asked him. "When are we going to get out of this . . ."
Lieutenant "Babyface" was not sure. "Maybe two weeks,
maybe three weeks . . ."
"I want to get home quickly," Cudbertson said glumly,
" before someone takes my girl away from me.'*
"Same here!" the lieutenant replied feelingly in perfect
Early next morning the Graf Spee was still taking on fuel
but the guard motioned the men to come up on deck for their
exercise just the same.
"See what I see? " someone asked, pointing to the battleship.
She was sporting a dummy funnel aft and one of the gun
turrets looked different.
Miller said it. "It's phoney." The Spee had been cleverly
camouflaged. On her starboard side in big letters the name
Deutschland was painted.
"Who do they think they are fooling?"
Overhead the Spee aircraft was circling to make sure that
the bunkering and supply operation was safe from enemy
Below, in the Altmark, the excitement was intense. One of
the guards had caught a group of men smoking. Prison Officer
Weichert rushed below, red in the face.
"Who was it? "he asked.
The guard pointed to a seaman, defiantly leaning against a
"Three days," Weichert said, instantly.
He was just leaving when the guard told him that four
other men had committed the same "offence". Weichert
"sentenced" them too on the spot the sentence to be served
when the first seaman was released. There was room for only
one at a time in the punishment tank. Their offence had been
to light up in the smoking-room, which had been set aside;
but smoking was forbidden during the refuelling operation,
though nobody had told them.
There was no time to discuss the incident.
"Roll-call!" the order rang down the trunkway. "Every-
body on deck!"
What did it mean? A score of voices put forward suggestions.
It could mean early release. Or it could mean transfer to the
battleship. On deck Weichert faced the line of prisoners with
a sheet of paper in his hand.
"The following men are to pack their belongings and hold
themselves ready by noon tomorrow."
He was reading out the list: "Robison J., Coutts J. L.,
Prior M., Bell C. B., Pottinger C., Miller A "
Agitated whispers went through the ranks of the prisoners.
Soon it was obvious what was happening. The names the
German was reading out were those of captains, first officers,
engineers and wireless-operators. But it included also men
who needed medical attention two cases of severe toothache
and the injured men of the Trevanion, whose wounds had not
responded to treatment. Altogether the list contained twenty-
"They're going to chop off our 'eads!" someone jested. It
was soon made clear to the prisoners that all potential leaders
were to be transferred to the battleship.
In the flats, the officers debated furiously whether it were
better to go on the Spee or remain in the prison ship.
"I'd take my chance on the Spee if I could wangle it,"
said Flatten, a second mate, whose name was not on the list.
"Anything rather than this stinking hole."
Prior, the "sparks" of the Newton Beech, suspended his
packing. "Do you mean that, Mister?"
"Well, I don't fancy that steel man-trap not when our
boys get after her. Tell you what; let's change places."
Flatten was eager to try, but was doubtful whether it could
be done. "Risk it," said Prior. "What can they do to you if
they find out?"
That evening, the men on the list were paraded and Flatten,
his belongings in a suitcase, took Prior's place. The names
were checked off.
"Prior M.," Weichert read out.
"Present," answered Flatten.
Weichert stopped reading and looked up. "You're not
Prior," he said accusingly. "You're not the man we interro-
gated after we sank the Newton Beech.
Flatten had to admit that he was not.
"Then go below," shouted Weichert, "take your belongings
with you, and send up Prior. I'll deal with you later," he
On the afternoon of the next day the transfer was effected.
"I expect to be back in ten days," said Captain Edwards as
he left the flat. "See you later, lads."
It was an emotional moment. During their imprisonment,
whenever there had been tension among the prisoners, the
captains and mates had put their heads together to smooth
things over. When quarrels arose they had tried to make their
influence and authority felt. There had been clashes. Sea-
faring men dislike authority and some, with grievances to work
off, had tried to say that there were no ranks and distinctions
in captivity. More than once there had been angry remarks
by youngsters who had never known the harsh discipline of
the old days. They were "not going to take any orders from
the captain or nobody ".
But in the moment of parting all antagonism disappeared.
It was as if a tightly-knit community, welded together by a
common fate, was being wantonly broken up. For while the
men left behind did not know what was in store for them, the
future was even more hazardous for the officers being taken
away in the Spee's big launch. There were handshakes, patting
of shoulders, words intended to be funny. The men who
shouted rough goodbyes from the flats felt curiously lonely.
So did those who went off.
The big, powerfully-built man with the small black mous-
tache who greeted the officers as soon as they had been taken
below on the Spee looked rather like a German even though
he wore English-type, neatly pressed Red Sea kit.
He seemed anxious to be friendly with the newcomers,
but they ignored him.
"What's the matter with you chaps?" he exclaimed in his
Irish accent. He seemed disappointed and hurt.
"You English?" Captain Pottinger asked him. The Ashlea
skipper did not feel in the mood for jokes with Germans just
now however good their English. Nobody was pleased to be
back on the Spee.
"Of course I am," the big man replied. "My name is
Patrick Dove and I am the captain of the Africa Shell . . that
is, I was," he added with a wry smile.
The officers quickly crowded around him and asked k dozen
"I was sunk on the isth off Lourenco Marques," said
"But that's on the other side of Africa. . . . Anybody else
on board?" asked someone.
"None of our chaps . . . my ship is all they've sunk in a
month* She wasn't very big, but she was a fine ship."
It was crowded in the compartment. But curiosity triumphed
over discomfort. What was the latest drill? Captain Dove told
them as quickly as he could. Langsdorff, whom some of the
captains had met, was still the good chap they thought. He had
entertained Dove to drinks almost every evening. They had
had many interesting conversations and Langsdorff had talked
freely of the battleship, which was equipped like no British
warship. "See my outfit?" Dove asked. "Been pressed by a
Chinese they have a complete Chinese laundry on boaid.
And cobblers, tailors, a hospital, a dentist, a surgeon every-
"We know all about this ship," said a captain slowly.
"Of course," said Dove, "you have heard that the Rawalpindi
was sunk three days ago? "
That certainly was news. Dove gave them full details of
how the ship had fallen victim to the combined attack of the
Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst, Germany's biggest battleships.
Now the Navy was chasing them.
Dove repeated what Langsdorff had told him. But Langs-
dorff did not know-^nor did the Royal Navy then how close
one of the foraging destroyers, the Cossack, had come to meeting
the powerful units of the Nazi Navy on that occasion.
"How long before our chaps get this Spee bastard ... ?"
They sought Dove's opinion. His amiable contacts with Langs-
dorff were more recent and had enabled the alert, intelligent
tanker captain to form an up-to-date picture of the position.
^ "Langsdorff says we've only three ships which can make
life unhealthy for him Repulse, Renown and Hood. He is sure
they can't find him while every sea in the world is his hunting
Dove reminded them about Kay, Langsdorff's right-hand
man, a queer mixture of devil-may-care sea-dog almost in the
British tradition, yet a Nazi disciplinarian who seemed to
have little love for his cosmopolitan captain; of Commander
Meusemann, "a very fine chap"; of Wattenberg, the naviga-
tion officer, "first-class sailor".
"This raiding operation," said the talkative Dove, "must
have been thought out very carefully in advance ... the Spee
officers have been specially selected for their local knowledge.
Each one specializes in a different coastline and part of the
vast operational area. There are men who have spent a life-
time in the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, around the
But equally. Dove had noticed the weakness of the Spee.
"Time after time she's making an absolute beast of herself/'
he explained, "rolling and heaving as if the power of her
engines was too much for the hull."
Dove's new companions in turn soon told him of their
experiences. He heard about the Altmark for the first time.
"It must be hell," he commented.
That was exactly how the men in the dim holds of the
Altmark were beginning to feel.
The warship had disappeared from sight and the Altmark
was putting on speed: the engineers reckoned a good twelve
knots. There was a temporary feeling of elation as the idea
got around that she was now making for shore perhaps to
put them all on neutral territory.
Yet, just as suddenly, the engines slowed down, the ship
stopped and turned . . . and "There is the blasted Spee again! "
someone exclaimed. The men had been forward, the Spee
directly astern and they had been unable to see her, though
she had been in company with the Altmark all the time.
During roll call next evening Weichert told the prisoners to
put their watches back one hour. He seemed upset about it
and told them with a show of reluctance. It was clear that
Weichert was as disappointed as the prisoners. Putting the
clock back meant that they were going West,
"You can't get to Hamburg by going west!" Cudbertson
Shortages had begun to add to the discomfort. There were
very few cigarettes about and men felt a craving for tobacco
far greater than that of heavy smokers. It was a sign of deterior-
ating nerves. Some of the seamen made such a fuss about the
shortage that the "sharks" among them were ready to cash in.
It amazed the non-smokers how some seamen had managed
to hoard cigarettes and how cigarettes became currency. A
fine new shirt went for five cigarettes. A pair of shoes eight
cigarettes. Half a dozen prisoners seemed to have an inex-
haustible supply as long as they could get a bargain in
The guards were soon in the racket. One or two of them
could produce almost anything at a price.
"Look here," one of the Germans said. "We're all
prisoners together. Why not let us make the best of it all
Daily rations were getting smaller every day. The Altmark
officers waived complaints away contemptuously.
"I have told the captain of your complaints," Weichert
said, "and I have a message from him." It was that they
should be satisfied with what they had. It was far more than
they would get at home. Britain was already starving, Dau
let them know.
The men from the Trevanion worked out that they had now
been away from home for ten months. It was December 2
and the Altmark was still speeding westwards when the noise
from the cargo winches roused the prisoners from their lethargy.
A derrick had been shifted into the refrigerating hold. That in
itself seemed mysterious. Then daily exercise on deck was
Next morning Dau accompanied Tyrolt below.
"What's up, boss?" a seaman asked him.
"You'll get all the news soon enough. There will be com-
pany for you before long. No, your own officers are not coming
It could only mean one thing. The previous evening Dau
had received a brief signal telling him about the Spee's latest
The action had been directed against a io,ooo-ton British
refrigerator ship Doric Star, which was on her way from Cape-
town to Freetown, where Captain W. Stubbs was expecting
to join a convoy for the final stage of the voyage home.
"Lofty" Miller, one of her crew, had just been relieved in
the look-out nest by Tom Foley, who, in the hot midday sun,
was sitting contentedly leaning against the main mast and
watching the blue choppy sea. It was not long since two bells
had rung the one-o'clock time signal and Foley had re-
turned the signal.
A few minutes later he was shaken by a violent explosion
which nearly knocked him from his lofty perch. A U-boat?
He could see nothing.
Quickly the explosion was followed by a splash to starboard,
and water spouted up in the air. On the bridge Captain Stubbs
prepared for action. The Doric Star was a merchantman, but
that did not mean he would not fight it out with a U-boat,
if he could see it.
The captain ordered his 4-7-inch gun the only weapon
he had to be slewed round. At the same time he prepared
for evasive action in case the U-boat surfaced and attacked.
At that moment several members of the crew saw flashes
on the horizon. It meant only one thing a surface raider
was moving in to the attack. This was far more serious than
any U-boat. But there was little time to wonder what was
happening. Another explosion shook the air and a burst was
observed in the sea only a few yards from the ship.
Something hit the deck either a shell splinter or a bolt
loosened by blast. The noise put urgency into deck activity.
Captain Stubbs was now assuming that a well-armed enemy
was moving in for the kill, although he could see nothing.
But the sharp eyes of Chief Officer Ranson could. "I can See
her, sir, well on the horizon." The raider, ten miles away,
began to close in swiftly.
By this time the four lifeboats were being swung into position
and some men rushed to their allotted stations. Others made
below for the store-rooms to get food, bread, milk, tobacco
as much as each could carry. Blankets were being stacked
on deck; men scrambled to their blinks to get clothes and
tools. Foley managed to grab his compass and chronometer.
Sailors, once the frenzied activity abated, began discussing
the emergency. Superficial calm disguised their agitation.
There had been rumours of a German raider in the
Indian Ocean but what had they run into in the South
Foley noted the exact position. The vessel was about four
hundred miles west of Port Loango at i9i5'S., O505'E. It
was 1.25 p.m.
"I want a man on the bridge!" Captain Stubbs shouted.
Foley went up and was ordered to destroy the ship's papers.
Already the captain was on his way to the wireless cabin
when he met Chief Engineer "Wilky" Ray.
"We must signal for help," Captain Stubbs told him. Ray
passed the order on to "Sparks" Comber, middle-aged veteran
of the First War.
The Doric Star's SOS went out at once. Almost immediately
there was a response from a foreign vessel.
"Under attack ...SOS! 5 ' Comber's Morse-key tapped
out his signals again and again.
Already most of the crew of sixty were clambering into the
lifeboats, anxiously peering towards a choppy, angry sea, when
Simonstown acknowledged the Doric Star's signal.
"O.K., 'Wilky'," Captain Stubbs told Ray. "As long as
they know what's happening to us. I only wish I knew more . . ,"
He had not long to wait. As he emerged on deck he knew
the answer. Moving astern of the Doric Star in a sweeping curve
the big battleship had appeared literally almost out of the blue.
"It's the Admiral Sckeerl" Captain Stubbs called out. He
had been told at Capetown that this German pocket-battleship
had already sunk a number of British merchantmen. As the
warship bore down on him his first thought was how incon-
gruous it was to call her a " pocket " battleship.
"Scuttle the ship!"
With a dry voice Captain Stubbs gave the order from the
A few moments later Ray said anxiously: "Suppose they
leave us to sink with the ship? I think, sir, I'd better go below
and try to close the valves."
"AH right, 'WilkyY' agreed the captain.
Below, having received the captain's orders, Ronald Curtis,
Fred Wall and the other engineers were already taking off
the covers of the valves. The water was beginning to flood
the ship and Wall was among the engineers hurrying on deck
when Ray passed them. "I'm going down to try and close
the valves," he shouted. It was an impossible task,
"Damn it all," said Ronald Curtis, hastily donning his
uniform, "only last week from Capetown I cabled my wife
I'd be home at Christmas!"
As the crew assembled on deck they stared incredulously
at the enemy battleship on which sailors lined the rails. A big
brown canvas, fixed up like a signboard, faced them. In thick
black letters it bore the inscription:
STOP WIRELESS OR WE FIRE.
The battleship had hardly stopped four hundred yards away
before a motor launch, carrying well over fifty men, was
lowered and set off towards the Doric Star. As it approached
the Doric Star lifeboats, which were already in the water, the
Germans began to shout orders to the crew to return on board.
Smoothly the boarding operation went under way. Led by
Lieutenant Herzberg, the Spee sailors showed that they had
by now fully mastered the piracy technique.
Lieutenant Herzberg was short and to the point:
"I give you ten minutes to get ready. You are coming with
me to my ship."
But some of the crew did not believe him. Before they went
below, sailors were fastening explosive charges around the
hatches and in other parts of the ship. "God, they're going to
let us get below and then they'll blow the ship up and us
with it," said a seaman despairingly.
Well within the allotted ten minutes the crew were back
and the boats were being lowered again. Angry shouts went
up as the choppy sea began to wet the sailors. Even in acute
danger no sailor likes a wetting. An overcoat went over the
side and floated away, leaving the owner shivering at the
thought of long cold nights ahead. With a dull thud the
wireless-operator's typewriter was "lost" at sea.
"It's the Deutschland," McManus, a Doric Star seaman,
remarked as he saw the warship's name on her bow.
"No, no," Foley said. He had observed the tabs on the
caps of the sailors in the boarding party. "It's the Graf Spee."
On board the Spee Captain-Lieutenant Kay, now sporting
a wild black beard, with the master-at-arms, Albert Jerichow,
at his side, received the prisoners and checked their names
from a list which Captain Stubbs had given to Herzberg.
"Below deck bath, medical inspection," he said in a
clipped, Prussian accent.
Sailors of the Spee, escorting them, were sneering. "You
frightened?" one of them asked Ron Curtis.
"Why should I be?"
"You are in our hands now ... !" a young German said
triumphantly. Curtis did not understand what the lad was
"If we'd been captured by the British Navy," the young
German said, "our lives would not be worth much eh?"
"What do you mean you'd be treated as ordinary
"Yes and our hands and feet would be cut off so we'd
never be of any use to Germany again ! "
Slowly Curtis and his mates were learning something about
the strange Nazi mentality. No doubt the German really
believed what he said.
Imperiously a German officer demanded that the men
hand over the stores they had brought with them whisky,
To their surprise, however, he collected all the confiscated
goods and distributed them equally among the prisoners.
The cabin to which they were taken was already over-
crowded with the captains and officers from the Altmark. The
encounter was a melancholy one. What was there to say?
The newcomers felt stifled in the oppressive atmosphere.
The small cabin now held over fifty men. Shouts went up
suggesting a protest to the Spee officers.
"Never mind that!" Captain Dove, the "senior resident",
told them. "I have seen how crowded the Germans themselves
are; just as bad as this! Some have to bunk down in the alley-
ways at night."
Protests would have been useless. There was nothing any-
body could do. Two hours later they were shaken by a sharp
crack. The Spee's guns boomed again and again; and the
prisoners, locked below, heard an answering explosion in the
"That's the Doric Star that was!" Captain Stubbs said.
There was silence. The other captains looked at Stubbs. They
knew exactly how he felt.
There was now shuddering and trembling all over the Spee
as she made off at speed. While she had gone into action against
the Doric Star, Captain Langsdorff had been on the bridge
scanning the horizon, when his wireless-operator reported that
distress signals were coming from the British vessel, in spite
of the Spee's threats.
"That's a hell of a fellow!" Langsdorff growled. "His con-
founded signals will bring the whole British fleet about our
His indignation was justified, for the Doric Star's intrepid
wireless-operator had frustrated the whole purpose of the
Indian Ocean excursion. Obviously Britain's naval com-
manders would turn at speed towards the scene of the attack
on the Doric Star.
"I do not think that the British Navy is anywhere near at
the moment," Langsdorff told his officers. "We shall be able
to stay here for another day or two ..."
It was a borderline decision. Alerted by the distress signal,
two of the nine British squadrons engaged in the search for
the German raider were already making for the spot marked
with a big X on every map. They were Force H with the heavy
cruisers Sussex and Shropshire and Force K with the battle-
cruiser Renown and the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal.
But if Langsdorff thought that all British ships on the look-
out for him would be lured to the West African coast without
exception, he was as it turned out to be quite wrong.
Commodore Harry Harwood, for instance, in command of
Force G, decided not to move his squadron from its position.
His four cruisers, Cumberland, Exeter, Ajax and Achilles, remained
at their station off the River Plate.
"Sooner or later," Commodore Harwood argued, "the
raider is going to turn up here. All we need is the patience to
wait for her."
But before fate proved him right another British merchan*-
man was to appear in the sights of the insatiable Spee.
ONE OF THE ships' wireless sets which picked up the
Doric Star's frantic, incomplete distress signals on the high
seas was operated by Fred Cummins, the middle-aged, well-
built, but agile radio officer of the s.s, Tairoa. Cummins was a
First War veteran from Liverpool. He had been torpedoed
six times and mined twice by the Kaiser's men; he took emer-
gencies in his stride.
Captain William B. Starr, "the gentleman sailor", as his
crew called him, had brought the Tairoa, a coal-burning,
meat, cheese and butter ship of 7,900 tons, from Australia to
Durban, which she had left on November 27. Starr knew the
journey home would be risky, but apart from mentioning the
danger to senior officers he kept his fears to himself.
The Doric Star's signal had given no details just the position
of the ship, which Captain Starr quickly worked out was
barely one hundred and fifty miles away; a mere half-a-day's
run ahead. He now put the ship's company on the alert and
retired to his cabin to consider on what he might do. He had
little time to lose, with a Nazi raider so obviously close. The
prospect was terrifying and not only for the Tairoa. Barely
fifty miles behind, as Captain Starr well knew, the Sterling
Castle was carrying a large number of women and children;
other ships, including the Ceramic^ were moving along the same
That night Captain Starr did not sleep much. He donned
his white tropical uniform over his pyjamas, and moved con-
stantly between the bridge and the radio officer's cabin to
listen to the signals and news that "Sparks" Cummins took
down from the wireless set. The choice before Starr was an
unenviable one. He could steer towards the African coast
about one hundred miles away, which might mean virtually
abandoning the trip, although he would be nearer land if his
ship was sunk. Or he could turn westwards in the hope of
getting out of the raider's way. He took the latter course. The
Tairoa steamed west all through the night of December 2.
Danger was nearer than the dauntless, tubby little captain
anticipated. Even before the Doric Star had been sunk Captain
Langsdorff had ordered his aircraft to take off on a rapid
reconnaissance of the area in the hope of finding new victims.
Nazi agents in South Africa were efficient. The departure of
every British ship from Durban and Capetown was wire-
lessed to the German Naval High Command.
Already the Spee aircraft had observed the smoke no more
of the Tairoa and signalled back to the battleship. The pilot's
own instructions were to return to his floating base at once.
Langsdorff had set course towards the Tairoa when he, in turn,
was informed of a distress signal which had come from his
own aircraft. Engine trouble had forced it down in the sea,
and it was floating helplessly several miles away.
"Let's go and pick that fool pilot up," Langsdorff stormed
in one of his rare fits of temper. Time was pressing and delay
could be fatal. It took two valuable hours before the plane
was located and recovered. Hauled aboard, the pilot, however,
was unable to add to his brief wireless report
The day of December 3 was dawning when, with a semi-
circular sweep, the Spee was cutting through the waves towards
"I want quick action no fuss, complete wireless silence.
If there is any more of that Doric Star nonsense, we fire."
Langsdorff was angry and impatient.
It was just after four o'clock when the look-out in the Tairoa
saw the Spee steaming towards her at tremendous speed. She
looked as if she were preparing to run the British freighter
down. But Captain Starr kept his head. Calmly he gave in-
structions: "Fred," he said familiarly to Cummins, "send
out a signal. Give our exact position. Here you are: 2Oao' S.,
03O5 / E. Under attack by enemy vessel." Cummins sped
off to his cabin.
His fingers had scarcely left the key when the blast of a
shell nearly blew him out of his seat. Once more he repeated
his brave signal: "... being shelled by enemy vessel," he
The Tairoa was quivering and groaning, and in places on
fire. Cummins did not know it, but the first shell had hit
the spare cabin off the saloon in which Kean, an officer of the
Shaw Savill Line, returning on leave and technically a
" supernumerary mate", was sleeping with his legs mercifully
drawn up to his body. If he had not been in this position, the
shell would have torn the officer's legs away.
Cummins was still at his post. He was sending out a third
message when another shell hit the ship, bursting in the cap-
tain's cabin and wrecking his desk. With hardly a pause a
third shell went through the sandbags in front of the chart and
radio cabin. It tore through the wall and wrecked the set
Cummins was using, but Cummins scrambled away unhurt.
Reaching the deck he saw the captain on the bridge, stand-
ing like a rock, flanked by "Pat" (Francis John) Paterson,
the third officer and Chief Steward John Cyril Smith. With his
face white, a seaman was hanging on to the wheel.
"Beat it!" Paterson said unceremoniously, when he saw
the youngster. Paterson himself took the wheel.
Langsdorff 's fury was unleashed on the Tairoa. Four hands,
hit by splinters, were writhing on the deck, one with a jagged
hole in his thigh. As Captain Starr's roving eye caught sight of
them another shell whined across the bridge in front of the
big brass telegraph at which he and his officers were standing.
"My God!" Starr said. He snapped out an order to the
men standing ready on the deck. "Lower the boats." Stan-
was a deeply religious man. Nobody before in the Tairoa had
ever heard him use an oath. "I think it's time we went, too,"
he said to Paterson and Smith.
The Spee had moved in close. From one mast the French
flag was flying, but Captain Starr's glance was fixed on a
tattered standard on which he could just make out the swastika.
The Spte had not finished yet. As Starr quickly came down from
the bridge her double-barrelled three-inch pom-poms began
to spatter the Tairoa's side with bullets, riddling all except
two of the lifeboats.
Paterson acted quickly. Even a murderous Nazi raider
would surely not continue to fire at a surrendered ship. In a
few nimble leaps he was back on the bridge and had lowered
Starr, on the deck, reiterated his order with a heavy heart.
The two undamaged lifeboats were being lowered now with
a ^uggestion of^panic. Still the firing continued. Some men
tried to give aid to the injured and to get them into the
boats. John Bammant, a young, rugged, six-foot, fourteen-stone
fourth mate, was bleeding profusely, but limped around
apparently unconcerned to lend a helping hand wherever he
Under the hail of bullets the Spee boarding party had reached
the Tairoa in two launches, one from aft and one forward.
Chief Steward J. C. Smith, whose initials inevitably gave him
the nick-name "Jesus Christ" among the irreverent, had come
down from the bridge with his captain. They and several
others had been too late for the boats, which were now well
away from the stricken ship. Smith, in trousers and singlet
his cabin had been set on fire by the shelling and all his be-
longings- burnt was attending to one of the wounded young
deck hands, a lad of barely seventeen who came from Glasgow.
The boy's bloody hand was hanging limply by his side. The
first shell had shot away three of his fingers.
As Smith bent over him trying to fit his own lifebelt around
the injured lad another shell exploded on the deck. The blast
blew Smith against the rails and his eardrums began to bleed.
He was stunned and holding his ears in agony when he felt
a revolver prodding into his back. Turning round, the dazed
chief steward faced the officer of the boarding party.
"What's down there?" the German asked, disregarding
the bleeding youngster. He was pointing to the door of one of
the refrigerating holds. There were 20,000 pounds of prime
lamb and many Christmas turkeys in the hold. Smith could
not hear what was said but he could guess the German's
"Coal," he answered. Instinctively he put his hand in his
trousers pocket to clutch the keys to the store-room. But the
German was satisfied.
By this time, one of the Spee's launches had overtaken the
Tairoa's boats, and the officer, flourishing his pistol, had ordered
the men to return to their ship. "Back!" he barked.
The men were shocked and truculent. The shelling had
stopped but smoke was pouring from the Tairoa. They took
no notice of the German's order.
"Don't be daft, lads. Do as he says/* Paterson admonished
them. It was no time for foolish heroics. Slowly the boats
returned. "Set them adrift," the German ordered Paterson as
soon as the men had climbed aboard.
The crew was lining up on deck when an officer of the
boarding party addressed the captain:
"Your orders are to follow the battleship. For information
what is the speed of your ship?" he asked.
"Eleven knots!" was the reply.
The information a considerable underestimate was sig-
nalled. A few minutes later came a change of .plan.
"Never mind," Langsdorff signalled back to his men on the
Tairoa. "Give the Englaender ten minutes to pack and bring
Officers and men, carrying an assortment of suitcases, hold-
alls and kitbags, were returning on deck when Paterson rushed
below for a second time. He was closely followed by an armed
"Money," growled Paterson. "I forgot my money."
The German smiled, waved him onwards and waited until
Paterson had found and counted thirty shillings all the cash
he had in his cabin.
Back on deck the commander of the Spee boarding party
turned to Chief Officer F. M. Murphy, who was known to
his men as an officer with a strong sense of humour.
"Certainly," Murphy replied. He knew that Captain Starr
had thrown the Tairoa's papers overboard as soon as he realized
that he was being attacked by a German. Motioning the com-
mander to follow him below Murphy descended to his own
cabin. In the hope of giving his mates a few more minutes in
which to pack, he rummaged among his own things while the
Spee officer stood by beating the desk with his fingers.
"Here! " Murphy said with a disarming smile. "Ze papers ! "
He held out several packets of cigarette papers. Angrily the
German knocked them out of his hand.
Now it was time to leave the Tairoa to her fate. The Germans
ordered Captain Starr into one of their launches and the crew
followed. The white-haired captain looked calm and dignified
in spite of his predicament and his unorthodox clothes, his
pyjamas still showing under his uniform. Sad but defiant,
the brave men from the Tairoa climbed aboard the Spee.
"Look," said Bammant, to his senior, when they were lined
up amidships, "there's the name of this damned raider." He
pointed to a name-plate on the superstructure: Von Sheer.
Paterson looked around cautiously. After a while he gave
his verdict. "No," he said, nudging Bammant. "It's a blind.
That's the ship's real name." Looking upwards, the officers
saw under the "Viking top" on the mast the words: Graf Spee.
"Down below, everybody."
The order was given while the Tairoa's crew were shuffling
into position. "But we've only just got on deck. Get on board.
Get on deck. Get down below," grumbled a sailor. "Why
don't you make up your minds."
"Captain's orders," said the German. "You don't want to
see your old ship finished off, do you?"
The dull thud of torpedo tubes had no sooner stopped
shaking the Spee than the battleship turned westwards towards
the Altmark, which had reached a point half-way between
South Africa and South America. The Altmark's prisoners were
aware that their floating prison had been cruising in circles
for some time. Obviously the tanker was waiting. But waiting
Incidents, small in themselves, soon added up to a general
belief that something was afoot, and the prisoners began to
engage in their favourite pastime of guessing what might
happen. All day long they compared notes of what they had
seen, passed on snatches of conversation they had heard,
interpreting the smallest hints from "Babyface" or Dr.
Two prisoners one morning saw "Knitty Whiskers" leaning
out over the bow to make sure that every trace of his ship's
real name had been obliterated. Was he preparing to make
Gudbertson, whose common sense rejected most of the
rumours as wild and impossible, pronounced his view firmly.
"This going round and round in circles can only mean one
thing," he said. "She is waiting for the Spee."
"That means some more poor devils have caught it in the
neck," was someone's rejoinder. The thought depressed the
Wednesday, December 6, was a particularly fine day, but
the bright sun tended only to deepen the fears of some prisoners.
"They said we were bound to be sunk, anyway," Flatten
reminisced gloomily as he paced the deck during morning
exercise. "There was a hoodoo on the Trevanion from the
He recalled a rumour that two men had been killed when
the ship was built in 1937. Flatten was not sure whether the
story was true, but it set tongues wagging.
"When that happens to a ship, it should be scrapped."
"Don't talk nonsense."
Tempers were getting frayed. The guessing and arguing
stopped abruptly after a scrappy dinner of near-raw bacon
such as Germans are very fond of, but which most English-
men find indigestible if they can swallow it at all.
The rumbling of the rolling winches, the activity on deck
were unmistakable signs that told the prisoners of the Spee's
imminent arrival. At 7.30 p.m. she was suddenly there.
From a crack at the top of the trunkway Carpenter H.
Hughes of the Huntsman reported to the prisoners below that
the Altmark's boat was being lowered. Pompously Captain Dau
was trying to stand upright in it and looked like a puppet as
he swayed and bent nearly double rather than sit down.
In a second boat he recognized Dr. Tyrolt with three men
from JJ deck who needed medical attention. Dau was quite
satisfied with the Altmark's little hospital, but Tyrolt was well
aware that it lacked most of the essential equipment for
serious and urgent medical cases. It had no equipment even
for dentistry and none for X-ray examination.
Tyrolt had not found it easy to persuade his captain to let
him take his patients to the Spee.
"All they want is the rum they get after treatment . . .
they won't get any rum from me," he had muttered.
With an angry glance in the direction of Tyrolt's boat close
behind him, he boarded the Spee, acknowledging on the deck
the salutes of Captain Langsdorff 's men. The Master-at-Arms,
Albert Jerichow, received him and conducted him to the
"The position is not easy," Langsdorff told Dau after a
quick exchange of pleasantries. The new prisoners would have
to be transferred to the Altmark yes, there were a lot of them,
but there was really no choice about it. And that was not the
"My ship," Langsdorffsaid slowly and deliberately, "needs
overhauling. We have been at sea for a long time. The engines
require attention, more than we can give them under the
circumstances. Other repairs are due also/'
"I understand, Herr Kapitaen," Dau replied. "I understand
all the better because, frankly, my ship is in a similarly pre-
The only thing to do, Langsdorff indicated, was frankly
to acquaint the Naval High 'Command with the facts.
Langsdorff looked straight at Dau. He was about to say
something which he knew would not fall on favourable ears.
The Spee captain was a sailor, first and last Politics were dis-
tasteful to him. Dau was known to share the Hitler Govern-
ment's all-pervading fanaticism which often disregarded the
cold facts of war. Langsdorff regarded Hitler's as an unpro-
fessional, purely political approach to naval strategy.
"They will not appreciate the position," he said slowly.
"They may think we have had enough of all this. They are
not taking kindly to bearers of bad news. But I feel in duty
bound to advise them that it is time for them to recall us to
Dau's reaction was a silence that spoke volumes. His sly
glance at Langsdorff suggested that he had begun to regard
his senior compatriot with to say the least political sus-
"It's up to the Fuehrer," Dau said finally.
"Nonsense!" Langsdorff burst out. "It's up to the Naval
Chief of Staff. It's up to the Grand Admiral. Raeder knows
these things. Only a sailor understands."
After this exchange, current business was transacted in a
cool, impersonal manner. Number of prisoners, charts, routes
. . . The two old captured captains, Brown of the Huntsman
and Starr of the Tairoa, it was decided, should stay in the
Altmark. Langsdorff thought it was expedient now to change
the Altmark's waiting area and the spot for the next rendezvous.
He said: "I suggest two hundred miles west of Tristan da
Cunha, which will at least bring us south of the tip of South
Dau pleaded for a less distant meeting-place.
"The fact is, I agree that your fuel supply is low and I
shall have to make contact sooner or later with our tanker
Tacoma, which will be loading up in Montevideo. However/'
Langsdorff conceded, "let us make an alternative arrangement.
But you must understand. Hen Dau, that I shall have to go
west as fast as possible and if anything unforeseen happens
we shall have to revert to the original plan."
The interview ended. Dau believed he had noticed a
defeatist attitude in LangsdorfPs manner. That evening for
the first time the Altmark captain wrote in his personal diary
which rarely corresponded with the official record he kept
about the flaw he was positive he had detected in the Spee
captain's political outlook.
Already while he had' been on board the Spee the transfer
of one hundred and forty-four new British prisoners from the
warship to the Altmark had been set in motion. They were
sent over in three launches and although a fresh south-east
trade wind was blowing and there was a moderate sea, the
operation did not take long.
The newcomers, most of them in warm clothing, were being
lined up on deck as Dau retired to his cabin. Weichert was
conducting the roll call, counting and recounting the men. It
was dusk before he told the guards to conduct them to the
holds. Apprehensively the prison officer found himself in the
middle of a crowd of jostling British sailors. He felt uneasy.
"Himnter, vorwaerts!" he shouted in German. His voice
betrayed his agitation.
"Step down this ladder, gentlemen," "Babyface" Schmidt
repeated in English.
A rough shout went up as the men in the hold crowded
towards the trunkway ladder to welcome the new arrivals.
The old prisoners pushed forward, holding out helping hands,
completely oblivious of Weichert, who was unable to extricate
himself from the sailors swarming all around.
Weichert spoke English well. But his voice was lost in the
noisy exchange of greetings, the meetings of friends, the shouts
of excitement, as the two parties of prisoners, now three
hundred strong, mingled together.
The German's cheeks were flushed. Now there were shouts
addressed specifically to him; he could not mistake the threats
and insults uttered in a dozen rasping English dialects. Later
he confessed that at that moment he was near panic. His
trembling hands clenched into fists. He tried to turn round,
but felt caught. He made towards the ladder but many noisy
moments passed before he reached it. Like a monkey he
ascended to the trunkway head and the deck. He had no doubt
that he had only just escaped physical attack, maybe death.
"Herr Kapitaen" he reported to Dau, still flushed and tense.
"Revolt is brewing in the holds." He was breathing heavily.
"Am I glad to be up here again. They have been threatening
"Tell me exactly what happened."
"They have been crowding me. Those in the background
were most insulting . . ."
"What did they say?"
Weichert hesitated. Dau made a gesture encouraging him
to speak. Slowly the prison officer wrung the words from his
"Nazi bastard . . ."
"Well, the main thing is that they let you go and that you
are unhurt. Obviously these men are as arrogant as all
Englishmen. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye."
He called Paulsen to his cabin. After all, he reckoned quickly,
the number of prisoners was now twice that of the crew.
Might they not plan to take over the ship? Could this not
have been a first attempt to test their strength?
"I shall put a stop to this before they get out of hand. I
want all the prisoners on parade first thing tomorrow morning."
It was to be Dau's great moment, a psychological master-
stroke to crush the revolt before it could spread or even start.
"Herr Kapitaen" Weichert addressed him ceremoniously at
8 a.m. next morning, "I have the honour to report all
prisoners on parade."
"I have something to say," Dau began, glancing up towards
the bridge on which he had posted twelve guards, with rifles
at the ready. The sight reassured him. It had taken him half
the night to prepare his speech. Now he cleared his throat.
"A great number of you," he said harshly, looking over the
prisoners* heads into the air, his goatee beard thrust out and
quivering, "a great number of you do not seem to know what
precisely is your position on board this ship ... do not seem
to realize that we are at war ... a war which was instigated
by England to reimpose on Germany the kind of slavery which
my Vaterland suffered after 1918 ... chiefly through England's
fault. Now let me tell you this war will not be won by
England as surely as I stand before you . . ."
There were mutterings, grins, the hint of a challenge. Dau
was fully aware that hardly a single prisoner believed in the
possibility of a German victory. Angrily he glared at the
captains, whose sunburned features gave no hint of what they
"I have not assembled you here to discuss these things
with you," he continued incongruously. His voice rose: "My
purpose is to make you realize that you should not expect me
to harbour any feelings of friendship for you. Why, only
yesterday, I heard on the wireless how cruelly Germans in
South Africa are being treated by the English authorities. As a
German I am reluctant to vent my spite on defenceless pris-
oners. This ship was not originally intended to take prisoners
on board and we have been forced to use what facilities
we have the ammunition holds in which you have been
accommodated. Happily we have found jute and carpets on
the Huntsman which have enabled us to make the holds toler-
able. I shall do what I can to make you as comfortable as
"Hear, hear," the prisoners responded ironically. There was
some derisive clapping.
"You can skip your approval," Dau said harshly, once more
misinterpreting the prisoners' sarcasm. "What you think leaves
me completely cold. You will be treated as prisoners are
treated everywhere as far as conditions permit. For the rest
it entirely depends on your attitude whether supervision is to
be mild or strict. But if you think you can challenge me ..."
Many of his words trailed into nothing. The phalanx of un-
wavering looks facing him was clearly throwing him off his
stroke. Abruptly he broke off his lecture and departed.
^ Without troubling to watch his strutting figure, the prisoners
dissolved into small groups and returned to the holds.
Dau was dissatisfied with himself. Obviously, with the Graf
Spee within hailing distance, there could not have been a
calamitous revolt. He had allowed his temper and his hatred
for everything British to carry him away. His speech, he felt,
had not gone down well and might possibly even have damaged
his authority. The contemptuous smiles, which he had noticed
just before he left on some prisoners* lips, haunted him.
He was waiting for a signal from the Spec, whose gunnery
officer had requested his assistance in a short series of target-
practice and distance-measuring tests. The Altmark was to have
put out the targets. But the morning of December 7 had hardly
dawned when the Spee signalled cancelling the exercise. Soon
the pocket-battleship was steaming off westwards.
Dau hurried to the bridge to see the Spee disappearing in
the distance. The string of signal flags spelled out: "Auf
Wiedersehen." It was the last he saw of the warship. But at
that moment he did not dream that he would never see the
Admiral Graf Spee again.
The prisoners knew that the Spee had gone almost as soon
as Dau. They had organized, with the help of the newcomers,
a regular look-out "watch" and at first light had taken turns
at the top of the trunkway. When word was passed round
that the Spee was departing and they had given the warship a
mock send-off "with all the worst wishes", they, like Dau, did
not think they had seen the last of the battleship.
During roll call, some of the officers tried to compute their
total numbers. Twenty-seven men captains, senior officers,
radio officers and sick men they knew, had been taken to
the Graf Spee. The captains left were Starr and Brown, to
whom Dau had allocated a compartment with two beds.
Including the two captains, the Indians and West Africans,
the officers calculated there were over three hundred prisoners
aboard the Altmark.
The eight West Africans had now superseded the Indians as
the favourite topic of conversation at the Altmark captain's
table. Dau said his worst view of Englishmen was confirmed
when he was told they had raised no objection to the West
Africans sharing their quarters. On board their own ships
they had done so. Why not in captivity? a Geordie had asked.
Dr. Tyrolt contributed to the fun by telling his captain how
fond the Africans were of castor oil, which they forever asked
him to prescribe as a remedy for their digestive troubles.
"The fact is," Tyrolt sneered, "these fellows love to drink oil
and will go to any length to get it! "
The following evening Weichert was ready with another
tale. One of the white prisoners had been involved in a fight
with a "coloured gentleman", but an older white-haired
nigger a sort of foreman had separated them and made
"I should have killed the nigger," Dau commented.
From his bridge, during the exercise periods, he always
watched the powerfully-built West Africans carefully. At lunch
one day he described contemptuously how he had watched
them taking part in deck sports tug-o'-war.
"They were cheating," he said. He had seen them attach
their end of the rope to a deck capstan so that their opponents
could not pull them across the line. But he had missed the fun
and good-humoured banter when the deception was dis-
As always happened when Spee and Altmork met and ex-
changed news, the prisoners' grape-vine the "rumour fac-
tory" some called it soon began to hum. The men of the Spee
were always better-informed. They would pass on scraps of
information to the Altmark crew, who in turn gave snatches
often distorted beyond recognition to the captives.
It was John Bammant, bubbling as ever, on his day as
"P e ggy"> who brought back from an excursion to the Altmark
galley one explanation for the undercurrent of apprehension
which had preceded the Spee's last meeting with the supply ship.
"Our battleship Rodney has been chasing the Spee and
nearly caught up with her. That would have been the day! "
"Good for the Royal Navy."
"Well, chaps," Bammant doused their enthusiasm, "she got
away that time. But the next time, oh boy!" Even the restless
Bammant was quiet for a time contemplating the fate of their
GRAF SPEE CORNERED
THE Graf Spee still had her ninth and last victim to
kill. Langsdorff turned westward, partly to avoid the avenging
ships of the Royal Navy and partly to prey, as a final fling,
on the rich shipping always to be found, in peace or war,
steaming along the River Plate-Freetown route.
The s.s. Streonshalh, 3,895 tons, registered at the little York-
shire port of Whitby, was six days out from the South Amer-
ican coast when she met her doom. The small ship had made
the outward journey with a cargo of coal, in convoy, but for
the return trip with grain was taking her chance alone.
News that a raider was ranging the South Atlantic had not
reached the master, J. J. Robinson; and when he saw the Spee >
flying a French flag, at tea-time on the day after the Spee and
Altmark had said goodbye for the last time, he did not worry.
Langsdorff followed his well-tried plan. Half a mile away,
he hauled down the tricolour and replaced it with a swastika.
Captain Robinson had sprung to action before the change-
over was completed. "Take the ship's papers below and burn
them in the boiler," he snapped to one officer. He rang down
" German raider. Lower the boats. Prepare to abandon ship."
The ship came to life in seconds. Four boats were lowered
and the crew were rowing furiously from their unlucky ship
before the Spef& launch was in the water.
"May be either a long row or a long sail for us, lads," the
captain had told his men as they pulled away.
But it was neither. Ten minutes later, menaced by Spee
sailors, thirty-three members of the Streonshdh's crew were
climbing the rope-ladder on to the battleship's deck. Their
imprisonment had begun. The fate of their ship had been sealed
by ten six-inch shells fired from almost point-blank range.
"Your men will not be here long/' an officer told the captain,
as with Chief Engineer Jeffries, he was led away to a separate
cabin. "You will stay here, but we have another home for
them on our supply ship." Between six and seven o'clock
they met the rest of the British captains and officers in the Spee.
That same evening, as the Streonshalh's crew, under their
chief officer, T. W. Mallinson, were drawing a meal of coffee
and black bread, Bammant, in the Altmark, said:
"If they catch any more of our boys we shall be packed as
tight as these sardines."
He was smacking his lips over a luxury special issue of sar-
dines. Only a few minutes before he had been using his pen-
knife like most of his comrades he had ignored a German
order to surrender it to dig a piece of shrapnel from his leg.
It had been embedded since the shelling of the Tairoa and had
only just found its way to the surface.
Bammant's jokes, while he performed the painful operation,
had kept a big, interested audience amused, even though his
blood was flowing freely.
" Going to put some oil on my wounds . . ." he joked, juggling
the sardine tin.
George King, the stocky engineer of the Doric Star, who
came no higher than Bammant's shoulder, demurred.
"Why waste it, boy?" said he in his sing-song Welsh voice.
"Look, if we collect all this oil, you never know how it would
come in useful." He moved his head from one side to the
other, and continued, as if thinking aloud:
"For instance, these water-tight doors are bolted on the
outside every night and we can't get from one flat to t'other;
now, if we oil the hinges we can force out the pins and get the
doors open from the inside. Let's save all the oil from the
sardines, boys, and try it out." That night the hinges were
The accumulated experience and ingenuity of three hundred
seamen began to produce many more ideas. The deck officers
were especially active. Evans, the Doric Star's third mate, had
secreted in his kit a magnetic variation chart of the world
and used it to plot the Altmark's course. Every day, ten minutes
before noon, one of the mates would climb to the top of the
trunkway and with a piece of string weighted with a button
would mark out on paper the maximum shadow made by the
"What's it for?" echoed Paterson, who had devised the
method. "It gives us the noon altitude of the sun. Helps us
to work out where we are, when we've got the longitude at
sunset to go with it."
"Can't expect you ignorant engineers to understand such
things," quipped one of the younger mates.
One of the Altmark's sailors showed himself helpful to the
prisoners in many ways. He had just come down to E flat
with a few cigarettes and was beginning to pass them round
when 'Fritz', the smooth-faced Spee guard, his eyes screwed
up, burst out in rapid German:
Some of the Tyneside seamen had a fair smattering of the
German language, picked up in Hamburg and other German
ports before the war. They followed the angry exchange.
"He is threatening to tell old 'Knitty Whiskers' . . ." one
of them translated.
Some of the men felt inclined to sit back and enjoy the
quarrel between the two Germans. Others angrily prepared to
go to the aid of the friendly Altmark sailor. The altercation
grew. Noisily the two Germans returned to the deck.
Next day the swastika flag was run up on the Altmark. The
prisoners thought it was a curious sight considering the prison
ship was still posing as the Norwegian vessel Sogne. But soon
grim news filtered along the grape-vine the flag was flying
because a court-martial was in session. The Altmark sailor,
they heard that night, was sentenced to eight days in the tank.
Tempers shortened as the days went by. One morning
Johnny Wright, a fireman of the Doric Star, picked up a piece
of canvas on deck to bind his disintegrating boots to his feet.
"Zuriickf Put that back!" a guard ordered.
"It's only a rag."
The guard made a threatening gesture. "Don't argue," he
shouted and moved as if to strike Wright. But Wright was
quicker and struck first.
Captain Dau was fuming when Wright was brought before
him the following day. From a torrent of abuse the savage
sentence emerged: twenty-one days solitary confinement
Already at the end of his second day in the dark, evil-
smelling tank, Wright was dismally chewing his black bread
when another German entered. Without a word he handed
over five cigarettes.
"What's the gag?" Wright asked, suspiciously. Remember-
ing a more easily intelligible German word he repeated:
The German sailor explained that he, too, had been in the
tank for smoking in a prohibited place. He had just been
released and wanted to get rid of his cigarettes so as not to be
tempted to repeat the offence.
Unaccountably to the prisoners, the atmosphere on board
grew more and more oppressive among the German crew. A
Spee guard one day, in a talkative mood, told a group of
prisoners that the Altmark crew were getting restless. Perhaps
it was the approach of Christmas. He shrugged. Dau had tried
to pacify them and told them they could expect to be home in
January. The Altmark crew knew that oil stocks were growing
lower every day.
The ship's course was still due south. Routine was changed
and the daily turn-out and bath was put forward to 6 a.m.
The water ration was getting perceptibly smaller. The south-
ward course was reflected in the cool air. The prisoners began
to shiver on deck. Then it grew colder in the trunkway, and
in the stuffy airless flats.
Attempts to pass the time with games often broke down.
One day a spelling bee was organized; it kept some of the
prisoners interested for a time. A pack of cards and a few
enthusiasts induced another group to try the "cissy" game of
bridge. But it was all haphazard and the men were hard to
rouse from their listless mood.
On Monday, December n, it started to rain. Cudbertson
was one of the men who had saved up a little water to wash
his trunks. He hung them up to air. A few minutes later they
had disappeared. He knew it would be hopeless to search for
"It wouldn't be so bad if I had another pair," moaned Cud-
bertson, "or if I hadn't first wasted precious soap washing
Other comments, especially by some of the older officers,
were harsher. "Thieving hounds," they muttered. "Must have
been one of our boys. Stealing from their own kith and kin
the bastards. Worse than the Nazis."
Men ground their teeth but anger was wasted. Anxiously
they scanned the horizon every time they had a chance to
go on deck.
"Wonder where the Spee's got to?" someone asked.
Captain Dau wondered, too. There had been no news from
Langsdorff for a full week. Neither, in spite of a twenty-four-
hour watch, had the Altmark succeeded in picking up a single
British wireless message. To Dau it was an ominous indication
that radio silence was being observed all over the South
Atlantic. And that meant one thing. The Royal Navy were
out to avenge many innocent British merchant ships.
It was December 13, not much after 5.30 a.m., on the sort
of grey day which favours hunting warships, that the Altmark
master's premonition was confirmed. Dau's radio officer
stormed into his cabin just as he awakened.
"Spee signal to the Seeknegsfuekrung" the German Naval
War Command he reported. He had just picked up Captain
LangsdorfTs short report, according to which the Spee was
being engaged by a British cruiser.
The one thing that Dau feared was happening. He knew
that Langsdorff would never willingly steam into battle; it was
contrary to his basic orders. The Royal Navy's radio silence
obviously heralded a carefully prearranged manoeuvre which,
he believed, could only be directed against "the German
ghost ship", as the Spee had been described in previous
Danger was bound to be present where he assumed the Spee
was hunting for booty near the Argentine and Uruguay trade
Battened down in the midshipmen's quarters of the Spee, the
imprisoned British merchant officers were trying to guess what
was happening, when five short bursts on the alarm buzzers
roused them. Captain Dove was first to recognize it as an urgent
alarm signal much more urgent than the call to battle
stations which he had previously heard when the warship had
attacked a merchantman.
"I believe he's caught something this time," Dove said in-
tuitively, sensing that a battle was imminent.
"I hope these Germans get a damned good hiding/* said
Captain Edwards, master of the Trevanion, as he roused himself
on his locker-top. "Suppose it's the Renown she'll blow this
tin can out of the water."
There were twenty-seven British prisoners in the room
twenty-four captains and officers and the three wounded lads
from the Tairoa, who had just been discharged from the Speeds
hospital, although some shrapnel splinters still remained in
their bodies. Old men and young tensed themselves to face
the tremendous events which not one of them doubted
were about to unfold on the deck of the battleship above them.
Patrick Dove, calm in this decisive moment, glanced round
the crowded room. The Doric Star chief officer, Mr. Ranson, was
carrying on with his morning ablutions; he was gargling with-
out any outward sign of concern. Others were quietly lashing
and stowing their hammocks. A few were shaving. The Newton
Beech first officer, J. L. Coutts, was carefully cutting up his
tobacco to stuff into his pipe.
The engines of the Spefs plane, which had been warming
up for its daily early morning reconnaissance flight, suddenly
stopped. For an instant there was complete silence. But the
silence did not last long. It was followed by the frantic clatter
of boots along the steel alleyways, by the rattling of ladders
as bodies hurled themselves one after the other to action
stations, by the rumbling commands crackling and distorted
over the loud-speaker system.
All eyes were turned on the corner of the cabin and the
wires which converged on the electric alarm. Suddenly it
emitted a series of three shrill rings. The prisoners had never
heard this sound before.
Mr. McCorry, the Huntsman's radio officer, rushed to the
peep-holes screw apertures in the door which had often
enabled them to see what was happening outside. Through
the tiny holes he could just see parties of German sailors un-
loading shells as they came up the electric elevators.
"This can only mean one thing," deduced Dove, "a bijr
Behind the locked doors the prisoners paced their quarters.
They felt trapped, like animals in a cage. The three wounded
boys shuddered as the Spee's diesels were opened out.
Crisis below, crisis on deck. On the Spee's bridge, high above
the prisoners, there was crisis too. Captain Langsdorff was in
vital conference with Lieutenant-Captain Kay, Navigation
Officer Wattenberg and the gunnery expert.
A little earlier Langsdorff had risen to find that the Spee>
in accordance with his instructions, was moving away from the
coast of Brazil. The previous evening he had been within a
hundred and fifty miles of it. Now, his plan was to take his ship
astride the shipping lanes which led from the north and north-
east to the River Plate, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Once in
position, his aircraft could range in a wide semi-circle in search
of new victims.
Look-outs were scanning the horizon with tired eyes at dawn
when a sailor, more alert than the rest, reported the appearance
of a tiny needle of a mast at the limit of his vision. No sooner
had his telephone report reached the bridge than Wattenberg
fixed his own position: 34* '22' S., 49 14' W. The strange mast,
just visible, belonged to a ship which was over fifteen miles
The signal started an urgent argument among the Spefs
three senior officers as far as Langsdorff ever allowed a con-
ference with his officers to lapse into controversy. They were
deliberating whether the distant ship could possibly be a mer-
chantman, when a signal from another look-out suggested
that it was suspiciously like a cruiser. Whether it was light or
heavy could not yet be seen, but it was probably hostile. Soon
two other masts were reported. The cruiser was apparently
accompanied by two destroyers.
For a moment Langsdorff appeared to hesitate.
"We can still avoid contact," Kay suggested. "They may not
have spotted us. We can still evade action." He was thinking
of the Naval Command's orders.
"Evade action?" Langsdorff repeated rhetorically.
Reports were now flashing up to the bridge. All in-
dications were that the enemy ships were continuing on
their course right across the Speis route. Kay expected his
captain to give orders to halt the Spee on its course. In
this way, he was convinced, the enemy would pass the ship
"I believe we are dealing with a valuable convoy protected
by a few destroyers," Langsdorff said. "The escort can be
nothing like a match for us in range and power. We shall
That was as far as Captain LangsdorfF was prepared to
explain to his officers. "Stay on course," he ordered decisively.
His plan was to engage the escort vessels and destroy them.
"Herr Kapitam . . ."
Once more Kay tried to demur. He raised his voice in protest,
but he had no opportunity to say any more.
"Los." Langsdorff interrupted him. " Let's go."
The chain of command was already in motion when Kay
left the bridge, shaking his head gravely. The nerve-rattling
buzz of the alarm mingled with the drone of the engines.
The Spee was moving full speed ahead towards the unknown
If Langsdorff had known more, his actions would have been
far different. The "enemy" was, in fact, H.M.S. Exeter, an
eight-inch cruiser, called by Commodore Harry Harwood,
Commander-in-Chief, South America, from patrol over two
thousand miles away to join his flag-ship, the smaller New
Zealand six-inch cruiser Achilles, in a hunt for the German
"ghost ship". In company with the two was another six-inch
cruiser, H.M.S. Ajax.
For ten days now this was the moment for which Harwood
had planned. He had guessed where the Spee would turn up
after sinking the Doric Star. But when his officers reported that
the Spee was actually closing to meet him at fall speed, Harwood
could not believe his ears. He had expected the enemy ship
whoever she was to run for her life.
Langsdorff, quietly chewing his unlighted cigar-end, as usual,
on the bridge, nodded when the gunnery officer approached
"Distance twenty-six thousand metres," said the officer.
"Ha,ve I permission to fire?"
Through his glasses the Spee captain saw the flamboyant
battle ensigns on the masts of the three British ships. Slowly
they fluttered in the morning breeze. Langsdorff's challenge
had been accepted. The British warships were advancing at
fall speed. The Spee had not shirked a fight. Neither had they.
"Permission to fire granted," Langsdorff said.
There were no British merchant ships in view anywhere to
which the British squadron might be acting as escort. But the
Spee officers were too pressed to reflect whether their captain
had miscalculated or whether he was seeking battle for reasons
he had not disclosed. Exeter was clearly within range when the
order to fire was given.
"Fire," repeated the gunners.
The Spee's first salvo of eleven-inch shells from her main
guns shook the ship. Second and third salvoes followed. Seconds
later the shells plunged into the sea close to the Exeter. Water
rose in great cascading fountains.
There was a distant flash. The Exeter's smaller guns from
nineteen thousand four hundred yards were going into action.
Tense moments passed until their shells hit the water ahead
of the Spee. A second salvo moved nearer. The gunners were
getting the range. The pace of the exchange quickened with
Ajax and Achilles joining in from the east. Salvoes followed one
another across the calm expanse of sea, which was being
ploughed up by bursts all round the ships.
Now Captain Langsdorff was no longer in doubt that he had
underestimated the enemy. For a moment he considered
whether it would be possible to slip away. But it was too late.
There was nothing left except to fight it out.
The Exeter 9 s shells now found their mark and Langsdorff saw
that he must damage her irretrievably before the two lighter
cruisers could close with their smaller guns. His position
before the battle had been in progress many minutes was
precarious. The Spee was in shallow water with the coast to
At this moment Langsdorff 's heavy guns found Exeter.
Direct hits on the bridge and one of the gun-turrets almost
put the British cruiser out of control, and killed many officers
and men. But while Exeter took her punishment, Ajax and
Achilles had moved into more favourable positions and nearer
between the battleship and the coast. Their smaller guns
began to pound the Spee.
While the Spee's eleven-inch guns poured shell after shell
into the stricken Exeter, LangsdorfFs gunners were trying
frantically to range their small armaments on Ajax and Achilles.
Shell splinters damaged Achilles, but Ajax was more fortunate.
Shells from the Spee's smaller guns fell short; those from one
of the Spee's big guns straddled but did not hit the speeding
The battle had now been in progress nearly half an hour
and both sides had wounds to show. The British, with
Achilles' controlling wireless out of action, were firing blindly.
Exeter was hit, badly damaged, listing and on fire. But Langs-
dorff had no time to congratulate his crew. Almost as soon
as he observed his success, shells from Ajax wrecked the
Spee's control tower, which housed the direction-finding in-
struments for his heaviest guns.
The Exeter's sacrifice had not been in vain. Rapid inspection
showed that before her guns were put out of action she had
done *najor damage. Big gaps yawned in the hull of the Spee.
The ca*r. laities among gunnery officers in the battleship's control
tower v* /re heavy. Many members of the crew had met their
death when a shell had penetrated one of the compartments
just above the water line.
"Smoke!*' Langsdorff ordered. He was anxious to break off
the engagement for the time being and obscure the position
until he could attack the British ships from a better point.
Before he turned north-west he saw with satisfaction that the
Exeter, his most powerful enemy, was limping away in the
direction of the Falkland Islands. Her guns had fired only
spasmodically for some minutes and no further danger could
come from her. She had been hit a hundred times.
But Harwood was still full of fight and the size of his enemy
did not frighten him. Boldly he led Ajax and Achilles into the
Spec's smoke screen. Ignoring the battleship's heaviest guns,
the light cruisers closed nearer to the Spee.
If Langsdorff had had it in his mind to pursue Exeter
and send the crippled cruiser to the bottom, the lightning
approach of the two daring cruisers foiled it.
Their six-inch guns began to fire as soon as they were through
the screen and the first salvo hit a gun-turret of the Spee >
killing the entire crew. Harwood boldly moved so close that
the Spee's eleven-inch guns could not be brought efficiently to
bear on his ships. When the big shells were on target, they
cut over the cruisers and did not explode until they had
reached the sea on the other side.
Smoke, black and menacing, now covered the entire battle
area as Langsdorff tried desperately to manoeuvre out of range.
From time to time he stopped to fire at the worrying
cruisers, and two direct hits smashed both Ajax's after-
turrets, silencing the guns at once. Another hit did damage to
Achilles. But the smaller ships fought on and one of their
shells left a hole six feet square in Spee's starboard plating.
Things were getting serious for Harwood no less than for
Langsdorff. Out-gunned, the British were short of shells and
had suffered many casualties. Both commanders decided to
change tactics again Harwood to lay smoke to cover his
movements and Langsdorff to try once more to shake off the
cruisers as he ran for South America. Now, as he sped west-
ward, he called for urgent reports on the damage which the
Spee had suffered.
The crew's galley had received a direct hit and was com-
pletely destroyed. Part of the torpedo compartment and the
crew's living-quarters had been badly damaged. Mast and
bridge had been hit and the munitions elevator serving the
forward six-inch guns was out of action. Two of the boats
were riddled by shell splinters. Sixty-one sailors were wounded,
forty of them seriously. Many were in agonizing pain. Thirty-
six sailors were beyond help. Their bodies were laid out on
deck casualties of the first fierce battle of the war.
The British ships were turning away and prudently were
keeping just out of the Spee's range. But, though their light
guns were useless at the range, the Spee captain needed
all his skill to avoid the torpedoes which the cruisers kept
The morning wore on. The wounded were succoured and
order of a tattered sort was restored. Captain Langsdorff was
on the ship's telephone, hearing reports from his signallers,
who were listening in on the wavelength of the British ships.
At regular intervals the Spee picked up signals which gave the
exact location otAjax and Achilles as well as the course and the
speed of the Spee. Langsdorff believed that the signals were
being sent to strong British naval reinforcements which no
doubt were speeding to the scene of the battle from all over
the South Atlantic.
Kay reported to the captain with a sheaf of papers in his
hand. Without a word he handed them to Langsdorff. They
contained a calculation of the Spee's remaining stock of am-
munition. Expenditure during the brief but decisive battle
had been great. The Spee at no time had intended to join action
against enemy warships and logistically relied on ammunition
supplies from the Altmark to maintain a narrow safety margin.
What now remained in the ammunition lockers on this fateful
day was not enough to meet another emergency.
Slowly, with mounting dismay, Langsdorff read the ominous
figures, and Kay, watching him closely, had no doubt that
the Spee captain was facing the crisis of his career. What would
he do? As he watched he became convinced that Langsdorff
would never listen to advice. His thoughts seemed to be far
away, his features were tense, his free hand clenching and
He might, Kay thought, be considering the possibility of
an escape into southern waters before the Royal Navy could
collect a force strong enough to attack him. But the gaping
hole in the Spee's hull would obviously endanger the ship in
rough Waters. True, the vital parts of the warship the engines
and the heavy artillery were intact or could be repaired,
but it was clearly impossible to replace torn and mangled
Langsdorff came out of his trance and quietly asked abouc
the possibility of repairs.
"We cannot carry out such major repairs at sea. Welding
and other equipment is wrecked."
"And the flour's drenched, sir," the second officer reported
from the cabin door. His interruption sounded incongruous.
Nevertheless, the destruction of the Spee bakery, on which he
was reporting, was also an important matter.
"The ship and the men need respite the wounded must be
put ashore," Langsdorff said at last "I am taking her in."
In the midshipmen's quarters the British captains and
officers held their breath as the uncanny silence above, follow-
ing the fury of the battle, posed the puzzle: What had hap-
The prisoners strained every nerve to interpret the muted
sounds, to understand the loudspeakers* crackling orders. The
battle, at first intense but diminishing after the initial violence
had passed, had lasted a long time. The first hits on the Spee
had sent crockery flying among the prisoners, and even in the
locked wardroom they could feel the shell blasts. But a cheer
went up, confident and unafraid. The prisoners knew that
the British shells were not meant for them.
Through their spy-hole McCorry and Dove had seen
wounded sailors carried from the elevators; they passed on the
news in a graphic running commentary when, within their
view, a shell struck a gaping hole on the deck and was halted
only by a thick steel beam. Through their hole they saw the
"If that had struck the plating between the beams . . ."
Captain Dove said.
Everyone understood. A few inches the other way and the
shell would have reached their quarters and burst right among
them. They were about to shake off the dust and the wooden
splinters which the shell had sent flying when they discovered
that one of the wounded boys had crumpled up silently in
great agony. A stray shell splinter had hit him and gashed his
arm. Another flying fragment had narrowly missed Fred
Edwards of the Huntsman.
The manoeuvring of the Spee had caused the prisoners great
discomfort; zig-zagging, the battleship had heeled over con-
stantly, throwing the men, without warning, into confusion.
A hit had damaged the electric wiring system and put out
the lights, though later the engineers managed to get a solitary
bulb alight again.
Then came the silence which oppressed the helpless prisoners
as they waited, while their own fate and that of the Spee hung
in the balance. During one lull a German sailor appeared in
the door. "Are you all right in there? " he asked.
He brought water but refused to answer questions.
There was nothing for it but to try and clean up the mess
the battle had left in the wardroom. It did not dawn on the
prisoners for a long time that the battle was over.
There was a mess of a different sort in the compartment
forward where Chief Officer Mallinson and his men from
the Streonskalh were quartered uncomfortably. When the battle
began, the door of the compartment was flung open and an
armed guard was thrust into the room with the prisoners.
Then the door was locked again.
The guns began to boom, crack and thud according to
calibre. Presently an engineer tapped Mr. Mallinson on the
shoulder. "Look at him," he said, pointing to the guard.
Head in his hands, the German was sobbing convulsively. After
some minutes, Mallinson could stand it no longer. He banged
on the door and shouted for the guard commander*
"For heaven's sake take him away," he said, seizing the
still weeping guard by the shoulder and propelling him
through the door. "He's upsetting my men."
The compartment door was locked again. A moment later
a shell crashed on to the deck above and water began to
trickle down the plates. The trickle grew into a flood.
"That one hit the lavatory," said Mallinson, as he watched
the water cascading down. "Here, lads, start baling or we'll
be drowned before we're killed by shells."
The running fight had taken the combatants far towards
the shore of Uruguay. Moving in as close as seemed prudent
which was some distance away Captain Fernando Fuentes,
commanding the Uruguayan cruiser Uruguay, watched the
final stages of the dramatic struggle. An entry in his diary
recorded that it was 8.42 p.m., more than fourteen hours after
the battle opened, when he saw the last flashes from the guns.
Langsdorff had made his decision. The cold staring eyes
of his officers told him they did not approve. If they were
thinking of a death-and-glory battle to the finish, he did not
propose to oblige. Outwardly as reticent and uncommunicative
as ever, he was still not unaffected by their attitude.
"Cypher Officer," he called.
There was now no longer any need to maintain radio silence.
His position was only too well known to the enemy. He wrote
out a short signal, explaining his position, enumerating the
damage to his ship and the casualties among his crew.
"To the Naval High Command," he ordered.
He knew that he could not expect a reply with definite in-
structions because Grand Admiral Raeder had always in-
sisted that battle decisions should be left to the captain on the
spot. In any case, which commander-in-chief would offer
advice to a captain and ship in such a desperate situation?
Without awaiting for a formal answer, Langsdorff began to
consider the complicated manoeuvre necessary to take him to
the nearest port.
The choice was limited. It must be either Buenos Aires or
Montevideo. But Buenos Aires was a hundred and thirty-five
miles up-stream, while Montevideo stood on the tip of the
wide mouth of the River Plate. Argentina was certainly more
friendly towards Germany than Uruguay, but without much
thought Langsdorff knew than Montevideo was a safer bet.
Ajax and Achilles were still at his heels, keeping out of range
but determined not to let their prey slip away. Though Langs-
dorff knew that they dared not attack him they spelled deadly
danger to him as the watchful eyes of approaching reinforce-
In Ajax Commodore Harwood was wondering what Langs-
dorff would do. He hoped to be one jump ahead whatever the
German did. The Admiralty had informed him that Cumber-
land? Renown and Ark Royal had been directed to join his force,
but the ships were as yet far away. Would Langsdorff try to
run for it?
"Close in," he ordered. But no sooner did Achilles venture
within range than the Spa's guns fired again.
From Punta del Este, the Uruguayan Lido, where a fas-
cinated crowd was watching the approach of the warship, it
looked as if the battle might well be resumed on Montevideo's
doorstep. But the noise died down quickly and the night lights
began to come out until the hillsides were ablaze.
Commodore Harwood, reviewing his position, now calculated
that Langsdorff might possibly try to move his ship from
the harbour under the cover of night. He took Ajax towards
the mouth of the River Plate to cut off the Spee. His radio
officers reported that Langsdorff was in touch with the German
Naval High Command, but there had been no time to decipher
the code. Where was Langsdorff steering?
The German Naval High Command's reply was as expected.
It was up to the captain of the Graf Spee to take responsibility
for a course on which he was already well set. The Spee had
reached Uruguayan territorial waters. Achilles fell back and
joined Ajax on watch. They saw the Spee steaming into the
harbour of Montevideo, where she dropped anchor. Her engines
Below deck, British officers and men were still, too. Each
was wrestling with a thousand racing thoughts, whispering from
time to time to his neighbour in the stillness, trying to guess
what the utter silence might mean.
The sound of a key turning in the lock brought the men to
their feet. Lieutenant Herzberg, accompanied by two guards,
entered. He tried to smile.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we are in Montevideo harbour.
Tomorrow you will be free."
"Are we anchored?" Patrick Dove asked him. Herzberg
Dove joyfully shook his hand. In their joy the others, too,
rushed forward to shake his hand to shake with each other,
with everybody who was within reach. Herzberg did not mind
their questions. Briefly he told them what had happened.
"We have badly damaged the Exeter, but we could not
stand up to three of your ships."
It was midnight but nobody thought of sleep.
THE ALTMARK ALONE
"I'M THIRSTY, IN fact I'm damned thirsty!"
George King, the Doric Jter's second engineer, woke up
with these words on his cracked lips. It was 6 a.m. and exactly
eleven days to Christmas. There had been no drinking water
on the previous day. The Altmark seemed to have put on speed
at last and was steaming in a northerly direction, but even
that did not make the prisoners much more cheerftd.
"Wonder whether our folks know that we are alive," Foley
pondered. A group of sailors were discussing whether Red
Gross regulations applied to prisoners in a ship like the Altmark.
Had they any rights? More important, had the ships sunk by
the Spee been reported to the British authorities.
The Altmark prisoners were worried about their own fate,
but, far worse, they had for weeks lived with the depressing
thought that families and friends were probably mourning
them as dead. To think of a wife giving way to hopeless despair,
or a mother's tears, or the choking sobs of a little boy at home
was more painful than imprisonment
The Altmark carpenter had worked on Tyneside for some
years before the war and often it seemed sometimes that he
liked to show off his crumbling knowledge of English he
would join the prisoners in conversation. Now, during a
break, he had slipped down for a chat with news for the men
in the bottom flat.
"There's been a big naval battle," he said. "We have just
heard it over the wireless."
The "chippie's" information had not always proved reliable
in the past and few men in the flat paid much attention. Ac-
cording to the tale he told with relish, the Spee had been in
action against a superior British naval force. She had gallantly
attacked and crippled a British . . ."How do you say: Kreu&r ? "
"A cruiser, you mean?"
"Yes ... the Exeter. That's the name."
The news could be true but perhaps it was not. It could
not in any case make an immediate difference to the prisoners,
and they changed the subject.
But later that day, as George King picked his way around
the flats, a thought struck him. He stared long and hard at
Lieutenant "Babyface" Schmidt and from the lieutenant his
sharp glance travelled to one of the armed guards. There was
something unusual about him, and King could not make it
out at once.
"Of course," he murmured. The German had removed his
The prisoners and the crew were all in a curious unsettled
mood. For no apparent reason the two captains, Starr and
Brown, were moved from their little compartment to new
"We're going back to Germany," said the "chippie" when
he came down next time. The Spet rumour was gaining ground
and many of the prisoners were inclined to believe the car-
penter's latest story.
"Lay anyone ten to one in slices of bread against getting
there," Cudbertson offered, sportingly.
Still the Altmark was heading north and increasing her
speed every hour. During the morning exercise on deck the
sailors noticed that cases of beer were being brought up from
"I say," Bammant scrambled down shouting, after he had
been to the galley. "I know the whole Spee story."
The battleship, the Altmark cook had told him, had been in
action against British warships. She had sunk two but was
so badly damaged herself that a third had to take her in
"Sounds like a lot of nonsense," Cudbertson commented.
The older officers argued that a warship like the Spee would
never allow herself to be captured. She would do exactly what
the British would do scuttle herself. It was common sense
the thing was not worth arguing about. Everyone lost interest
in the Spee.
But there was another, more immediate problem to be
solved by most of the prisoners: soap. A big naval battle
might or might not have been fought and important things
might or might not soon be happening, but there was no soap
to be found anywhere in the Altmark and that was really down
to earth. It was not easy to wash with a square half-inch of
soap, which was the most anyone had. Sticky bodies made
uneasy minds. And there was a shortage of tooth-paste, too.
Many prisoners had run out, without hope of buying more.
A bad taste in the mouth was depressing, especially when
the cigarettes had run out, as well.
More moving around gave rise to more rumours. This time
it was the Lascars, who were directed from the deck space to
a store-room below* It obviously meant, said the wise ones,
that the Altmark was going north and into bad weather.
North . . . south . . . fast . . . slow who knew what the
Altmark would do?
Captain Dau, too, was in a quandary. His last two days
had been spent mostly in the wireless cabin where his signallers
were tuned in to the Spee wavelength, and to Naval High
Command and German stations. The German propaganda
machine was making big play of a "victorious battle". But the
news of the Exeter's "defeat" failed to give Dau the feeling of
triumph which German victories would have roused under
normal circumstances. He was anxious to keep his doubts to
himself and to dispel among his officers and men any fears
which might spring up about their future.
"Besantschot an /" he ordered the German version of "splice
the mainbrace". But it was a synthetic celebration. Beer was
distributed instead of the usual schnapps. When they met as
they went about their duties, his closest collaborators, Paulsen,
Weichert and Schmidt, seemed to be engrossed in their own
thoughts. Each was obviously trying to imagine what had
happened to the Spee, and each was baffled as he wrestled with
his own thoughts.
From the Spee, on the morning of the day after he had
fled for sanctuary to Montevideo, Captain Langsdorff re-
quested facilities for repairs. He wanted favours. Through the
German Embassy he asked the Uruguayan Government to
allow him to stay more than the normal twenty-four hours
which, under international law, any combatant ship is per-
mitted in a neutral harbour.
The Uruguayan attitude to the German request was cool
and correct, but Langsdorff soon learned that local sympathies
were with the Allies. He could expect few concessions.
Ship-repairers, he was soon told, were "too busy at the
moment" to undertake any work. But if he wanted an ex-
tension . . . why, certainly, that could be arranged.
"You know why they are letting us stay?" he said to Kay
with a bitter smile. "Because British reinforcements are coming
up. Every hour longer means that we have less chance to
"Set the prisoners free," he ordered.
All night long the prisoners had been gaping in wonder
at the multi-coloured lights of the Uruguayan metropolis.
When morning came they had passed the time clearing up their
quarters. It was 4.30 p.m., and some of the exhausted men
were dozing fitfully, when the Spee master-at-arms entered
"Can you be ready to leave in twenty minutes?" he asked.
Twenty minutes! Within twenty seconds the officers and
men were stamping their feet impatiently at the door. A few
moments later they were filing on deck, past the coffins in
which the Spee's dead sailors had been laid to rest. Gravely
they saluted the German flags which covered them.
As they moved forward the British seamen saw with amaze-
ment the extent of the damage which the British attack had
wreaked on the warship. Now they fully realized how close
they had come themselves to death. The Spee's port side and
bow were riddled with holes. Two of the forward eleven-inch
guns sagged in their mountings out of action. The barrel of
a six-inch gun touched the deck and was cracked and splintered.
The battleship's seaplane, which had spotted so many of
their ships, was a charred skeleton, without skin or wings.
The small gun-deck abaft the funnel was a heap of scrap iron.
The galleys had been blasted into wreckage.
In war sailors fight sailors, and many of the British prisoners
harboured bitter feelings against the Nazis. But as the prisoners
took leave of the Spee some could not suppress seamen's sorrow
at the wreckage of a proud ship, though it had destroyed their
own and been their prison.
^The reception which awaited them ashore, however, soon
dispelled any upsurge of sympathy. Members of the British
Embassy met them on the quayside. From a big crowd of
Uruguayans a mighty cheer of welcome went up. But before
they could celebrate, the officers had work to do.
"Hundreds of British seamen are on the Spee's supply ship,"
one of them explained to the naval attache who was on the
quay to question them. "There were no fatalities, but three
hundred men are prisoners on that hell-ship Altmark."
"The Altmark ?" It was the first time a British naval officer
had heard the name. But soon messages were flashing across
the world. A detailed description of the tanker was composed
and the signal given top priority to the Admiralty. In care-
fully worded interviews the news of the floating prison was
circulated to the world.
As the Spee prisoners went to sleep that night in the soft
beds of a Montevideo luxury hotel, Winston Churchill in
London, engrossed at the Admiralty in the minute-to-minute
news of the Montevideo drama, gave orders that this "hell-
ship" must be traced at all costs. No effort was to be spared,
he signalled to his warships, to liberate the captured merchant
There was no sleep for Captain Langsdorff, either. Nor did
Commodore Harwood close his eyes. Observation from the
shore by naval experts had revealed the extent of the damage
to the Spee. Information from the prisoners had completed
the survey. But Harwood still had plenty of cause for worry.
The Admiralty had informed the Commodore that only
Cumberland was immediately available to join the damaged
Achilles and Ajax. It would be many days before the Spee's
British equals Renown and Ark Royal could reach Monte-
Harwood decided to bluff. "Take this message to the city
authorities of Montevideo," the Commodore instructed his
secretary. In the message the Commodore requested adequate
police measures to avoid incidents when he gave general shore
leave to the crews of Renown and Ark Royal immediately after
their arrival at Montevideo on December 16.
The secretary's well-disciplined eyebrows shot up. Com-
modore Harwood laughed. The Germans, he said, could be
trusted to have an efficient intelligence organization in Monte-
video. No doubt his request would immediately be passed to
them and they would assume that the arrival of reinforcements
was imminent. Langsdorff would be informed.
When the information duly reached Langsdorffhe regarded
his freedom of action as desperately narrowed. There were
additional hints that the French battleship Dunquerque was also
approaching. The apparent accumulation of enemy sea-power
outside Montevideo Harbour was overwhelming.
Ajax and Achilles, strengthened by the arrival of Cumber-
land, now began to perform mysterious manoeuvres in the
distance to give the illusion of numbers. To the Spee's chief
observation officer on look-out in the anchored warship it
seemed as if the whole Royal Navy were gathering for the
slaughter of the Spee.
The Spee hummed with activity as the crew frantically tried
to patch up the battleship. Friday night fell and the ship's
hours of grace were running out.
"Do everything you can to keep the Spee here/' Harwood
urged the British Ambassador. But Uruguay had stretched the
provisions of neutrality far enough. The Government set a
final time limit: seventy-two hours.
That evening a British freighter in the harbour weighed
anchor. The 8,ooo-ton Dimster Grange slowly steamed out to sea.
A coincidence? Or was it? According to the Hague Con-
vention no warship of a combatant power can leave a neutral
harbour within twenty-four hours of an enemy merchant ship
a provision designed to avoid attack within neutral territorial
Thus, the departure of the Dunster Grange automatically
forced the Spee to stay on. Nervously LangsdorfF studied press
reports from every corner of the world. They all agreed
faithfully echoing British Admiralty information that the most
powerful British naval forces were ready to finish off the Spee.
"To the German Seekriegsfuekrungl" Langsdorff dictated.
His dispatch was brief and to the point.
"In view of presence of Ark Royal and Renown in close
blockade, escape impossible. Suggest permission to try break-
out towards Buenos Aires. If break-out impossible without
opportunity to damage British units please decide whether ship
to be destroyed in spite of insufficient depth of River Plate
mouth or whether internment preferred."
Promptly the reply arrived:
"Try with all means to gain time for consideration. Per-
mission for attempts to break-out towards Argentine granted.
No internment in Uruguay. If scuttling inevitable destroy
It was signed "Raeder, Grand Admiral", and was sent after
a conference with Hitler.
Next day the funeral of the dead Spec sailors took place.
The released British captains and seamen attended, and laid
wreaths on the graves. Captain Langsdorff was present,
quietly praying and white-faced.
While the dead were being buried the minutes were slowly
ticking away for the living. The hour of decision approached.
It was midnight on December 16 when the captain gathered
his officers around him and informed them of his plan. At
dawn next morning they began to put it into operation.
Thousands were crowding the quayside, their eyes riveted
on the Spec. British naval, military and diplomatic experts,
with powerful binoculars slung casually round their necks,
mingled with the sightseers. All Montevideo and all the
world knew that a great drama was about to unfold.
To the watchers, it seemed that nothing was happening
as the damaged battleship rode at anchor in the harbour,
impotent yet still an impressive sight. But below deck, away
from prying eyes, frantic sailors had started to carry out
Captain LangsdorfFs instructions.
The secret documents were consumed in a bonfire. Piece
after piece of delicate mechanical apparatus the eyes and
ears of the battleship were quickly destroyed. Heavier equip-
ment disintegrated as electrically detonated grenades were
exploded in it. Only six torpedoes were left in the Spee. Two
were fixed in the engine-rooms, the others buried in the
munition holds, and connected to a plunger.
Slowly the German tanker Tacoma, which was to have
supplied the Spee on the high seas when the Altmark's oil and
ammunition were exhausted, moved alongside. From the
shore it seemed a puzzling move. The onlookers saw banana
crates taken from the tanker to the battleship. It looked as if
the warship were taking on provisions for her voyage.
But Langsdorff had worked out a ruse. From the shore it
was impossible to see that, as each boat unloaded its crates,
a group of Spee sailors boarded it and were transferred to the
Tacoma. The unobtrusive operation went on for nearly twelve
hours. The crowd did not realize what was happening. But
Commodore Harwood, scanning reports of every single move,
was not deceived. He was sure the end was approaching.
By early evening nearly one thousand sailors had left the
Spee and had been swallowed up in the holds of the Tacoma.
Following LangsdorfTs instructions some of his specialist
officers boarded a launch and slipped ashore to the German
The Spee, which they had left, was no longer a fighting
battleship, it was a disembowelled ghost of a vessel, in which
only the engines had been left intact. Next a small boat
loaded with sailors' kitbags made for a tug which took the gear
on board and steered towards the inner harbour. Slowly, while
the watchers still puzzled out what all the moves meant, the
Spee began to move down-river. With the Tacoma by her side she
was making for the open sea.
The procession was joined by two freighters, which came
alongside the Tacoma. The British knew they had steamed up
from Buenos Aires. Rapidly the Spee crew were transferred to
them. The Spee engines stopped.
Like a concentration-camp victim forced to hover over her
own grave before death, the Spee came to rest. It was now
half-past eight and in the twilight the Spee was difficult to see
from the shore. The commander's launch and a second boat
carrying a demolition unit, were just specks in the distance as
they moved away. The two boats made towards the Tacoma.
Hardly had they reached her when a pillar of smoke rose
from the Spee and billowed into a huge black mushroom. A
thunderous explosion followed. There were other smaller
but still shattering explosions in quick succession. In Monte-
video the windows rattled.
Captain Langsdorff had been the last to leave his ship. He
was just being received aboard the Tacoma when a final ex-
plosion tore through the warship's stern, hurling three big
guns bodily into the air. Fire darted from oil tanks and from
the oil which poured across the deck. High to the sky rose a
frightening glow, shot through and enveloped in thick black
smoke. It wanted a few minutes to nine o'clock, December 17,
when the Spee began to burn and a circling aircraft reported
to Harwood waiting in Ajax that the Spee had destroyed herself.
She was still burning on the morning of December 19
when Captain Langsdorff and his crew reached Buenos Aires
and internment in the local Marine Arsenal. For the last
time the captain gathered his men around him: "I am sorry
that it had to end like this," he said. "But conditions of in-
ternment will not be bad."
There was a large German colony in the Argentine, Langs-
dorfftold them, and their compatriots would do everything to
make life pleasant during internment.
"No doubt," said Langsdorff, "there will be public dis-
cussion whether the scuttling of the ship was justified or not,
whether it would have been more courageous to take up the
challenge and fight it out to an honourable seaman's death.
We might all have died such a death. There will be ample
opportunity for me to prove that I was not lacking in personal
He bowed stiffly and left them. They did not appreciate
the significance of their commander's last sentence.
That evening, though under detention, Langsdorff was per-
mitted to give a small dinner which was attended by the
German Ambassador to the Argentine, members of the Embassy
staff and officers of the Spee. Langsdorff engaged them all in
animated conversation. They left him at midnight.
Next morning he was found in his room dead with a bullet
through his head. On his desk was an envelope with a letter
he had addressed to the German Ambassador.
"Your Excellency" (said the letter) :
"After a long struggle I have decided to destroy the Admiral
Graf Spee to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy.
I am firmly convinced that this was the only possible decision
after I had led my ship into the trap of Montevideo. With the
remaining ammunition any attempt to reach free and deep
water in battle was doomed to failure. And only in deep water
could I have sunk my ship without letting it fall into enemy
hands after a brave fight. I decided not to fight but to destroy
the installations and to sink the ship.
"It was clear to me that this decision might be misinter-
preted intentionally or ignorantly by people who do not know
my reasons, based, as they are, wholly or partly on personal
views. That is why, from the beginning, I was determined to
bear the consequences of this decision; for a commandant
with a sense of honour need not be told that his fate cannot
be separated from that of his ship. I have delayed my intention
only as long as I was bearing the responsibility for the welfare
of my crew.
"After internment by the Argentine Government I can do
no more for my crew. Neither shall I have an opportunity of
taking an active part in the current struggle of my Fatherland*
I can only prove by my death that I am prepared to die for
the honour of the flag. I alone bear the responsibility for the
destruction of the Panzer ship Admiral Graf Spee. I am only too
happy that I can banish every conceivable shadow on the
honour of the flag with my death. I am facing my fate in the
firm belief in the just cause and the future of our people.
"I am, your Excellency, writing this letter in the quiet of
the evening after objective consideration to enable you to
inform my superiors and to contradict rumours, if that should
"Signed: LANGSDORFF, Captain at Sea.
"Commandant of the Panzer Ship Admiral GrafSpee"
On Sunday night, in the Altmark, Ronald Cudbertson turned
back the pages of his diary and re-read the entries of the last
December 13, Wednesday. The cook says all the prisoners
on his deck have been stopped going on deck for three days.
Two boxes of matches were found concealed under the carpets
and no one would own up about it.
There was a general search on that deck later. Imagine
what they found! A brass name-plate from the Graf Spee. It
was among the belongings of our general servant. He received
a proper dressing-down and was told that he would be trans-
ferred to the Spee when she comes and have to answer for it.
They have started giving us drinking water again. There's
a rumour that the captain has told his crew they would be in
Germany in January.
December 14. Extra bit of speed petering out. Still heading
northerly direction. Nothing much happening.
December 15. There was some commotion about cigarettes
as someone was willing to sell two hundred cigarettes for a
suitcase. It would be interesting to find out who had so many
cigarettes as we have all reached rock bottom. Surely they
must have been originally the Old Man's cigarettes and should
be shared out? My suggestion nearly caused a riot Everybody
denied all knowledge of the cigarettes.
December 16. There is general moving around. It is getting
December 17, Sunday. The crew did not do any work
yesterday afternoon. All day today Sunday if you please
they have been working like mad.
They have been painting the whole ship grey. Everybody
took a hand except the guards and the "boss ". Even the doctor
and the purser and every spare man apart from the prisoners
gave a hand. We were on deck for our morning exercise. But
after twenty minutes we were chased below again. I cannot
work out any reasonable idea for this.
In his cabin Captain Dau, his little beard moving rhythmic-
ally up and down as he ground his teeth, read the de-coded
wireless message from the O.K.M. over and over again.
" Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine" (High Command of
the War Marine) "To D.A.T.K." (call-sign of the Altmark):
"Announcing with regret that Panzer ship Admiral GrafSpte
has been scuttled in face of superior enemy forces. Altmark to
return to home waters. Observe total radio silence."
As the tanker's position was not known to the German
Naval High Command, instructions concerning the home-
ward passage were indefinite except for firm orders to avoid
the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores in the North Atlantic.
From I5N. and approximately 4OW. Altmark was to make
for the southern point of Greenland.
Dau called Paulsen into consultation.
"Some good these instructions are," he grumbled. It was
a new experience for the first officer to hear his captain quar-
relling with Naval Command orders. "How are we going to
get to the North Atlantic in the first place?" Dau asked.
He did not wait for Paulsen to answer his question. "I
shall go as fast as I can to the south-east of the Cape and
signal to the O.K.M.," he explained.
Paulsen looked at him questioningly. Were the orders not to
maintain absolute wireless silence?
"It will give the Grand Admiral some idea of our position,"
Dau said, "and at the same time deceive the enemy into
believing that we are en route to the Indian Ocean. Then we
can turn round in a wide sweep and make for home provided
"The engines are very worn, Herr Kapitaenl" was all Paulsen
replied. His captain's plan did not appeal to him. Obviously
the British naval forces, released by the defeat of Admiral Graf
Spee would turn on the heat. " Many squadrons will be search-
ing for us."
His guess was not far wrong. Britain's First Sea Lord,
Winston Churchill, was already reviewing the new situation
arising from the elimination of the menace of the Spee. His
signal to Commodore Harwood included a passage: ". . . it
would be very good if all returning forces could search
and scrub the South Atlantic on their way home for the
Over the wireless Dau heard the description of his ship
repeated over and over again. For an instant he smiled con-
fidently as the English words came over the air: "Yellow
funnel . . . white deck houses . . . black top sides!"
Sunday's painting had altered all this. Several canvas
structures, painted grey like the whole ship, had been erected
on deck on his orders to alter the silhouette of the Altmark.
On Monday morning when the first batch of prisoners
reached the deck for exercise they quickly noted that the name
Sogne had disappeared and had been replaced, in bold black
letters, with Hangsmund.
As they stopped to discuss the change "Babyface" Schmidt
appeared on deck. Whenever they had seen him before he had
always been immaculately turned out, his rosy cheeks smooth,
his lively eyes shining. Now he was unshaven, his collar was
dirty, his tie awry. His eyes were dull and tired. Guessed
someone: "'Babyfkce' has been up all night."
The ship was rolling badly. "She's getting empty. No more
oil," concluded Bert Saville, one of the Newton Beech's engineers.
He knew that empty tankers always roll badly and the Altmark
was rocking like a toy boat. It made life unpleasant even for
"What's happened?" young Wall, a Doric Star engineer,
asked Becker, of the Altmark, when they had gone below again.
"Haven't you guessed? The Spee is gone ... yes: gone,
The German shrugged his shoulders. He did not seem to
care much. Somebody pooh-poohed the idea.
"It's true. This time it's true."
Excited groups gathered in the flats when the news spread.
From the bottom flat men came up to join the officers, seeking
"It means we are going home/' said one of them hopefully.
"We are heading east-south-east," Cudbertson retorted.
"That's not where Germany is."
A spasm of optimism gripped the prisoners. If the Navy
had struck down the Spee, surely it would not be much longer
before it caught up with the Altmark.
"Let's rush the bastards!" John Bammant suggested en-
thusiastically. Still bursting with strength and confidence in
spite of small rations, lack of water and inadequate exercise,
the young giant called in the whole flat to join him.
"There are three hundred of us and only one hundred
and thirty of them," said Bob Goss.
Many of the younger men agreed. If Lieutenant Schmidt
and his two guards could be overwhelmed during their daily
tour their weapons could be seized and used against the Ger-
mans on deck.
"Don't talk nonsense," one of the older men warned. "How
do you know that the rumours about the Spee are true."
"We can trust Becker."
"We can trust no one."
The excitement did not die down for a long time. Already
in the corner of Flat B four men were bending over a tin.
From the deck officers one of them had learned the position of
the Altmark and he was writing out a message in big block
"SOS l8.I2.I939. WE ARE 300 SEAMEN OF BRITISH SHIPS
SUNK BY GRAF SPEE. WE ARE NOW ON THE GRAF SPEE SUPPLY
SHIP ALTMARK OF HAMBURG AND SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF THE
GAPE OF GOOD HOPE. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT WE SHALL BE MOVING
TOWARDS GERMANY SOON BUT WE ARE NOT SURE. WE ARE
QUARTERED IN HOLDS FORWARD AND AFT. THE ALTMARK HAS
SUFFICIENT OIL AND PROVISIONS FOR THE VOYAGE."
A roll of tin-foil appeared. It had been used to line a cigarette
case which was empty except for three small butt ends. The
message was rolled in the tin-foil and put in the tin, to which
a short stick of wood was attached. Someone brought out
from his belongings a tiny Union Jack. Next morning the tin
was dropped overboard.
Several men had warned against this attempt to attract
attention. It was futile, hopeless, dangerous, they said. It
could only cause trouble. For a few hours the project had split
the prisoners into two camps, the cautious prisoners arguing
against the impatient
Now Captain Dau and the officers on watch on the bridge
were staring at the object floating in the backwash of the Altmark.
Angrily Dau gripped the telegraph, threw the handle to
STOP. A few minutes later the tin with the little flag gaily
waving from it was fished out of the water. "Break it open"
Carefully, slowly, he read the message.
"Find out who is responsible for this," he shouted. "I shall
have the man responsible shot It's espionage. It is an
outrage ! I am not going to have these English swine sabotaging
Weichert and Schmidt were in charge of the interrogation.
Their heart was not in it. They knew it would produce no
results. It did not Dau was prepared for their report.
"The size of groups for exercise on deck will be halved,"
he ordered. It was a severe penalty for men cooped up for
most of the day and night
"What did we tell you?"
The feeling of hope, followed so soon by new restrictions and
a tightening of discipline, caused despondency among the
prisoners. Some men refused to talk to those whose frustrated
efforts were responsible for their added hardships.
"I could kill that fellow," Bammant muttered whenever he
set eyes on Captain Dau.
The men could not agree on anything now. "He's not so
bad," said someone, "he has to protect his ship."
The sun was warm and continuous and, though many of
the prisoners on short rations had lost weight, short spells on
deck turned their bodies brown. Most of the prisoners looked
as if they had just spent a holiday on a summer cruise.
But all the indications were that the Altmark was preparing
for bad weather. Becker brought down with him a shipmate
named Popp who spoke some English and said that he was a
machinist. With them was a stoker, who did not open his
mouth and never looked at the prisoners.
Becker said they had orders to fix strong wooden covers
over the trunkway hatch. "They don't want you to get wet,"
Next morning the sky was cloudy and it looked as if the fine
weather had come to an end. The AltmarKs position was
estimated as well south of the Cape latitude between 35
"We are approaching the territory of the 'brave west
winds'," Becker volunteered.
"The * Roaring Forties' is what we call it," said an officer.
The sea was indeed roaring. Waves swept over deck. The
tanker was pitching badly as she struggled in the heavy seas.
But the noise could not drown a discordant note.
"Something's wrong with those diesels. I know I've worked
on them." George King's trained ear had detected an odd
sound as he listened to the rhythm of the engines.
It was December 23 and the Altmark had reached a point
3OW., 45S. It was pouring with rain.
"Herr Kapitaen," Paulsen told Dau. "We shall have to attend
to the engines."
IT WAS THE turn of the engineers to do the thinking for
the prisoners. For some time they had felt themselves pushed
out of the picture by the deck officers, whose calculations were
of absorbing interest even though some of the engineers mock-
ingly professed to disbelieve the results. But now, in the fog
and driving sleet, the fate of the Altmark and her prisoners
depended more on engines than navigation and the Altmark's
engines were doing little more than idling for most of the time.
"Can't understand these fellows/' grumbled George King,
when he returned to the flat one day just before Christmas,
after a visit to Dau's cabin to complain about the cold and
damp in the prisoners' quarters, "they must want us to know
they're overhauling the engines. They haven't much sense of
"What makes you think that?" said someone.
As one of the two officers liaising with the Germans, King's
view, seldom expressed, was always heard with respect.
"Well, there are pistons and liners lying all over the deck.
What else could it mean?"
King's view was confirmed the same evening. Some of the
prisoners, who had no drinking mugs, clustered round Schmidt
during his rounds, holding up the tin cans they had been using
for drinking. "Look what we've come to," said Whelan, a
tough trimmer from the Tairoa. "Your engineers have plenty of
time and you're always boasting how well-equipp_ed the ship
is. Can't you ask them to solder handles on our tins?"
Schmidt was sympathetic, but his reply was unhelpful.
"Sorry," he said, shaking his head, "our engineers are far
too busy just now."
The engineers were now convinced that once an overhaul
was complete, the Altmark would make a dash for home. One
suggestion was that Dau might try to reach the Pacific, put
into a Russian port and make for Germany through the
"If you ask me," interjected a voice grimly, "it could not
be colder even in Siberia."
The prisoners were shivering and few spent the whole of
their short allotted time on deck, across which the wind
ceaselessly drove icy sprays of water. Roll call was rushed
through and even the Germans in their heavy leather jackets
trembled with cold.
The day's "peggy", Cyril Smith, the Taboo's chief steward,
returned from the galley to the top flat
"They have a Christmas tree," he reported. "For a trunk
it has the handle of a big broom, the branches are wire, and
the whole thing's painted, with lots of little parcels and things
hanging from it. Sentimental devils."
"What a way to spend Christmas in this cold and stinking
But a quiet, contented smile appeared on Smith's pallid
face and it grew into loud chuckles. Bad-temperedly, one of
the officers asked: "What the hell is there to laugh at,
Smith looked around the flat "Who'd like a nice fat chop,
instead of this muck?" He jerked his thumb towards the
container of soup.
The joke was going too far. "Gome off it Smithy," said a
rough voice, "get on with dishing out the grub."
But Smith shook his head, dived into his pocket and produced
a large pork chop, well-done and still sizzling. "The captain's
dinner," he said, with pride, as all eyes gazed hungrily and
with astonishment at the meat "I pinched it when cook's
back was turned." He looked quickly round the flat "Here,"
he said to Bammant, handing over the meat, "you've got a
pretty big frame to fill. Eat it"
Bammant began to protest that he could not take Smith's
prize, but the chief steward cut him short. "Eat it, lad," he
said, kindly, "eat it quickly. When the guard comes, he won't
find it if it's inside you."
But though Smith's daring theft heartened the prisoners for
a while, the mood did not last long and depression oozed with
the fog through the flats.
Nor did the festive season find the Altmark crew in a much
happier frame of mind when Dau ordered all hands to assemble
in the prisoners' shelter on deck. Below, in the holds, the
prisoners could hear stamping and murmuring.
"My first duty," Dau told his men, "is to pay homage to
my great comrade, Kapitaen zur See Langsdorff, who has died
a hero's death. Fate has ordained that he should not live to
celebrate this Christmas."
He paused solemnly before he continued.
"To us at sea Christmas means as much, if not more, than
to those who are spending it surrounded by their families . . .
We did not expect to spend Christmas at sea . . . but we arc
doing our best."
As usual his speech petered out in platitudinous nothings.
Each man was given a parcel containing half a slab of chocolate,
three cigarettes and a few peppermints. In some of the parcels
were soap, toothbrushes or braces.
"Any special orders with regard to the prisoners? " Weichert
" Christmas Eve as we know it, means nothing to the English.
But give them roast mutton this evening, anyway."
He wrote out a notice to be posted in each of the flats
early next morning:
NOTICE TO PRISONERS
ABOUT ALL SHIPS SUNK BY THE ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE UNTIL
THE END OF NOVEMBER INCLUDING THE DORIC STAR AND
TAIROA. IT HAS BEEN MADE KNOWN IN ENGLAND THAT THE
CREWS WERE SAVED.
The guard they called "Fritzi" slipped below.
"We had a glass of beer and a glass of punch each," he
told the prisoners. "Most of our celebration consisted of a
speech about Langsdorff."
He repeated what Dau had said in his speech. Another
Spet guard all of them were now minus their cap-bands
joined in the conversation. The British Navy had used poison-
gas shells, he said, looking evilly at the sailors. "We'll pay you
back," he threatened.
Lieutenant Schmidt went among the prisoners next morning.
Many now called him "Cherub", which seemed to fit his
personality well, and he was again his usual self, smiling and
cordial. He supervised the posting of the captain's notice and
stood by as the men burst out, spontaneously and joyfully at
this piece of authentic news.
"Merry Christmas, Lieutenant," some shouted.
"Merry Christmas to you."
There was another visitor during the morning. Captain
Starr, white-haired and benign as Mr. Pickwick, had sought
permission from Dau to give his officers and men his own good
wishes. In the top flat, he produced a small parcel and handed
it to his chief steward, Cyril Smith, who was shivering in the
only clothes he had trousers and singlet. "A Christmas present
for you, Cyril," said the kindly captain. It was a pullover.
"Take it. I insist," Captain Starr cut short his steward's
protests, "you need it far more than I do."
The atmosphere was transformed. Even unemotional and
sceptical prisoners like Cudbertson, who had fiercely dis-
ciplined their wants, felt the urge to splash out. The distribution
of cigarettes among the Altmark crew had immediately put new
supplies in circulation. Cudbertson decided that the day war-
ranted a little extra luxury. He approached one of the known
"black marketeers" and quickly arranged the transaction.
He sold his last shirt for ten German cigarettes. Other deals of
the same sort were going on all round*
For dinner there was chicken broth, macaroni, rabbit stew
and tinned fruit. Several men were smoking openly. The guards
looked in at the door and could not have missed such a flagrant
breach of the rules. But they just grinned and looked the
other way. Or so the prisoners thought.
Dau sent for Schmidt, whose smile disappeared when he
saw his angry face. "It has just been reported that a prisoner
has been seen smoking," Dau began quietly. "It so happens
that this man Smith was orderly when a chop was stolen
today. Never mind the chop we've no proof about it. He
will be tried for smoking now. Bring him in."
Wearing his new pullover, Smith stood disdainfully before
Dau and several other officers flanking him. The guard gave
his evidence. "Were you smoking?" demanded Dau, his eyes
Dau banged the table furiously and looked round to the
other officers. "See how these pigs defy me?" he almost
screamed. "I sentence you to forty-eight hours solitary con-
finement And when I get you to Germany, 1*11 make sure
you get further punishment."
Smith stood his ground. "You'll never get me to Germany,"
For a time Dau could not speak for rage. "Another twenty-
four hours for insolence," he shouted beside himself. "Take
When he had with difficulty recovered his composure, Dau
took out the ship's diary and made careful note of the difficulties
created by the worn condition of the Altmark's engines.
There could be no thought now of carrying out his original
plan for an elaborate manoeuvre in order to mislead the British
naval authorities. That was in the past. He had already picked
up another signal from his own command to the effect that
the Royal Navy was, indeed, gathering the strong forces freed
by the defeat of Spee to hunt him down.
Dau saw clearly that his only hope lay in remaining in this
distant, lonely area until the engines had been overhauled and
the passage of time had, perhaps, wearied his pursuers. It
was an unpalatable decision and having made it, the old
acute feeling of helpless loneliness came over him again. His
tormented mind turned viciously on the prisoners.
"Herr Weichert," he called his fourth officer with a for-
mality that presaged evil. "I have decided to take sterner
The prisoners, he explained, had obtained information about
the fate of the GrafSpee. Therefore it was a first essential that
those members of his own crew responsible for the leakage
"those fraternizing traitors!" he called them angrily should
be brought to book.
"I want an immediate investigation and your early report
on the result," Dau said harshly.
Next he produced a new notice to be copied and put up
in the prisoners' quarters. He had drafted it himself:
NOTICE TO PRISONERS
HEREBY IT IS FORBIDDEN AND WOULD BE TAKEN FOR A
SERIOUS MISDEMEANOUR TO THROW OVERBOARD (OR TRY
TO DO SO) WITHOUT SPECIAL PERMISSION ANY FLOATING
OBJECTS, WHATSOEVER, SUCH AS BOTTLES, TINS, PIECES
OF WOOD, ETC.
DECEMBER 27, 1 939.
SIGNED: DAU, COMMANDER*
Finally, there was to be no exercise at all until further notice
for the prisoners of the flat who were on deck when the sur-
reptitious message was thrown overboard.
"No deck exercise no washing water," Dau barked. "No
exception for seventy-six hours."
Weichert and Schmidt talked over the captain's order. It
was an instruction which they were not anxious to carry out.
The mood of the prisoners was getting grimmer; it was develop-
ing into a devil-may-care attitude of bravado, especially among
the youngsters, who seemed to think that conditions were so
bad that they could not possibly be worse.
For the first time the Indians had begun to give trouble, too.
In the past nothing could be said to dissuade Dau from his
view that the Indians were potential anti-British fifth-columnists
of whom the Germans should make as much as possible. He
had decreed preferential treatment for them and, announcing
that it was strictly in accordance with international law, had
ordered them to receive payment for the duties they were
performing for the Altmark officers.
f. But "these fools", according to Dr. Tyrolt's report, per-
sisted in washing in the open in all weathers and quite a
number of them had caught severe colds. Many were laid up
with high temperatures.
"They will infect the crew," Dau stormed at Dr. Tyrolt.
Originally, he had not meant the "no washing" order to
apply to the Indians, but now he instructed the doctor to put
an end to the practice. "Tell them that we have no medicine
and if they don't take care of themselves we shall have to let
them suffer. I do not really care if they die."
That evening, the tall, athletic Dr. Tyrolt, returned to the
captain's cabin with grimly-set features. He was alarmed by
the worrying discovery he had just made.
"One of the Indians is seriously ill, Herr Kapitaen" he said
in a manner which made it clear that he was preparing Captain
Dau for worse news to come. "I have isolated him in the
accommodation, which the two British captains have recently
"What's the matter with the fellow? Come! Speak up!"
"It's very serious, Herr Kapitaen, very, very serious," Tyrolt
answered. "I have carefully considered my diagnosis and I
suspect he suffers from . . ."
Dau went very pale. "What can be done?" he asked.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. There was nothing that
could be done in the ship. Strict isolation, he said, was the
only prophylactic measure under the circumstances.
"The man ought to be shot and buried at sea," Dau flared
up. Dr. Tyrolt did not reply. It was impossible to say whether
the captain was serious or whether it was just another tem-
"I am responsible for a crew of nearly one hundred and
"Jawokl, Herr Kapitaen" Tyrolt answered softly, "and for
three hundred prisoners. "
"Exactly. Keep this entirely to yourself, Tyrolt. No one
aboard must know no one."
In the prisoners* flats the atmosphere was fetid when Tyrolt
went on his tour of inspection.
"It's sixty-four hours since we last had a wash," George King
told the doctor in the top flat. "If this ban is not lifted soon
there'll be an epidemic."
King never knew why the doctor winced at his words.
"Epidemic" had an ominous ring to Tyrolt. But he decided
not to rouse the captain further by telling hi about King's
The prisoners' nerves were clearly on edge and they did not
take kindly to it when the angry captain ordered the guards to
make more and more surprise visits to the flats to catch prisoners
who were smoking. Twice during the morning the guards burst
into the flats so suddenly that they nearly caused a riot.
In the afternoon "Babyface" Schmidt descended the steel
ladder, followed by four guards.
"Got a fag, Herr Lieutenant?" a wisecrack greeted him.
Schmidt was not in the mood for jokes. He was stern and
silent as the guards searched every square inch of the flats.
"What are you looking for?" a voice asked sourly.
"Bottles, tins, wood things like that," he said. "I am
damned if I am going to be caught by your Navy as a result
of your messages."
New notices went up about deck exercises. A new wash-
house on the deck had been prepared while the men had been
"You'll be allowed up tomorrow," said a member of the
Altmark crew who had come down for the first time.
"Hey, you," Foley asked him. "Where's Becker, the
carpenter. You know?"
"Eingesperrt!" he said. "Locked up!"
Weichert had narrowed his investigation into the Spee
leakage down to two Spee guards and the carpenter. The three
had been seen talking to the prisoners. The testimony of the
two ratings, anxious to exonerate themselves, had incriminated
"Which two 'shopped* the 'chippie'?" asked a seaman.
"I'd like to be sure it was a German and not one of us,"
There had been an investigation in the prisoners' flats,
too the question was whether someone had given the
carpenter away. But few had any doubt that the denunciation
was the work of the tall, squinting, slit-eyed sailor who often
seemed to linger in the prisoners' quarters much longer than
was necessary. For a long time, the observant officers had
suspected the man as an eavesdropper and tale-bearer.
Either he was the captain's spy or a Gestapo man. He had been
asked whether he understood English. "Not-so-much," was
"For my money it was 'Not-so-Much' who split on the
* chippie' and who put Smith in the cooler," King said. "I'll
get him for this. Don't worry, boys, our time will come."
It was snowing when the prisoners were allowed on deck
again, but in spite of the cold, the Altmark crew were sweating.
Schleusner, the chief engineer, was supervising work on the
engines and even on deck the clatter of hammering could
From below a shout went up. An Indian, who nosily went
to investigate, came back with information: "One of the Ger-
mans has been injured," he reported.
The ship was rolling heavily. A cylinder, it turned out, had
been hoisted out of its housing for inspection and in falling
had broken an Altmark sailor's leg.
"First casualty of the Altmark" said John Bammant. "One
of the heroes of the war. He will get the Iron Gross from the
Herr Fuehrer, no doubt." Bammant was one of the very few
whose spirits were still not damped.
The cold was so intense that it was decided to ask for pro-
tective clothing. Many prisoners wore singlets only. Few had
overcoats. Tyrolt agreed to pass on the request and Dau
ordered a few bales of hessian to be taken down to the flats
so that the prisoners could make them into sleeping bags.
As the men stitched them together Bammant quickly
gathered up enough snippets to make a football. Soon the
young men were engaged in a boisterous game. It helped to keep
them warm. But their noise and the careless way they tumbled
against the others caused irritation. Hard words flew across
the holds. One man flared up: "I'll break your bloody neck
if I get hold of you."
"Boys, boys!" Creer, King, and a few of the senior officers
tried to keep the peace. "Look here," said King grimly, "we
all know it's bloody awful and getting worse every day. But
think of it sanely. We can't get out and walk home, can we?
And now that the Spee has gone we are really better off. We
must be liberated soon. The old so-and-so can't keep the ship
here for ever. Supplies are getting short or they wouldn't have
cut our sugar again today. And once she starts sailing towards
Germany, the Navy's bound to get her."
King's little speech sounded reassuring.
"Well," he was asked. "What can we do?"
For several days past King had been discussing matters with
some of the older men. It was time, they all agreed, that the
prisoners organized themselves more tightly. Greer, the stolid,
sensible second engineer of the Huntsman, suggested that the
most important thing was to prepare for liberation.
"That's easier said than done," grunted an officer.
But Creer stuck to his point. Liberation would not come by
way of a fairy godmother opening the doors. There might be a
battle. They might be at the wrong end of the right attack.
Liberation was most likely to come as the climax of some fast
and furious event. The main thing was to work out a routine for
the great moment, so that they would not be caught unprepared.
The idea caught on rapidly. Talk and thought of liberation
stimulated hope. The old year was coming to an end the old,
bad year. The new year would be the year of freedom.
King co-operated with Creer in working out a scheme.
Cheerftdly Creer accepted the fact that he would actually be
the last man to leave the floating prison.
It was not easy to spread news of the arrangements agreed
on by the officers to the men, or to be sure they would be acted
on. Merchant Navy discipline has always been looser and more
flexible than in the Royal Navy, depending on personality as
much as on a fixed code. Separated from their men even
by no more than a few feet of German steel many officers felt
that traditional discipline had been weakened by the conditions
of their imprisonment. Sometimes, when they were together,
men blamed their officers for their predicament. The question
was: Would any arrangements made be carried out?
In spite of doubts, Mr. King went ahead* He noted the
exact details of their position and distribution.
"There are fifty-five officers in the top flat," he calculated.
"We shall be last to get out except for the two apprentices,
who can go as soon as they like. First to come up will be the
oldest of the forty-eight men from the bottom flat on D
Deck. Next the fifty-four from C Deck below the washroom.
Oldest out first again.'*
The rest, including the Huntsman crew, were aft. The Indians
were in their separate compartment.
But all the plans naturally revolved around the true fate of
the GrqfSpee, which remained a recurring topic of conversation
long after the first report that it had been sunk. Half the cap-
tives were quite satisfied that their information about the
warship was correct.
The remainder were ready to debate at any hour any
argument that was raised, though news of the carpenter's mis-
fortune turned many prisoners to the belief that the GrqfSpee
was no longer afloat.
"I am sure the Spee is interned in Montevideo/' Cudbertson
argued. For him, as for most others, it was an unalterable
conclusion and made further talk futile.
"Still foggy and cold. FINIS 1939," Cudbertson entered in
his diary as a hectic year drew to a close.
The prisoners had stayed up late to see the New Year in.
Melancholy voices joined in a sing-song, ending up with near-
tearful "Auld Lang Syne" as the bells of the alarm clocks in
the flats, ingeniously set at midnight, chimed out simultaneously.
Next morning, New Year's Day, Ronald Curtis, Doric Star
engineer, woke up early. For a moment as he lay still under
his solitary blanket, rolled in one of the Huntsman carpets as
protection against the biting cold, a warm glow ran through
his body. "Happy New Year, Grade," he whispered to
himself, as he thought of his wife far away in Barking. "Happy
New Year to you and to our son Roger."
A steady patter of voices came across the room. George
King was miserable as the day of stock-taking dawned.
"What a rotten business to spend New Year in captivity,"
he said to Hughes, the Huntsman carpenter.
The two hardened sailors began thinking and talking of
home, their voices almost breaking, tears near to their eyes. A
sailor is used to being away from home and does not often
feel homesick, but many prisoners were homesick that day.
From below, as if hell had been let loose, came the noise of
banging tin plates and metallic thuds as bulkheads were bat-
tered with every conceivable object a riotous, raucous greeting
to the New Year from the younger prisoners.
"Not so much noise," a guard shouted down. A chorus of
oaths and abuse answered him. The Altmark sailors looked
glum, almost hostile, chilling the cold atmosphere still further.
It was a pleasant change when Dr. Tyrolt came down with a
hearty: "A good year for all of you!" which he said as if he
really meant it.
Mr. King sat up when he was told that the clock was to be
advanced one hour that night to bring the ship's time in line
with G.M.T. He did a quick calculation.
"We must be between 7|W and 7JE.," he concluded.
"And I estimate about 46S."
Smiles broke out everywhere. The Germans could not be
so smart or they would not reveal when they put the dock on,
especially as they were always careful to keep the Altmark's
position a closely-guarded secret. Perhaps they would slip up
on something even more important before long.
Rain was turning to sleet and the "promenade" on deck,
extended to fifty minutes as a privilege, was an ordeal rather
than a pleasure. The crew and the prisoners seemed to be
settling down to a despondent aimlessness with nothing to
relieve the monotony.
The arrival of meal time was greeted regularly with a roar
of applause when the food looked palatable. It turned to shouts
of disgust at the sickly "sweet soup" beetroot or other
German "specialities". Whatever the fare, however, there was
always an unruly scramble for any second helpings that were
"Is there any wonder we are just like animals in a cage?"
King asked one day.
The economy of shortages began to operate with inevitable
incongruity. Talk was about a young cadet, never a heavy
smoker, who said without boasting that he just could not
do without cigarettes now that they were practically non-
"This stupid lad has been saving up things for months,"
Ronald Curtis told one of his friends. "Now he has given
everything away for cigarettes which would not be worth
more than half a crown ashore. Imagine a shirt, a suitcase
and a blanket for ten fags."
Curtis was chatting with Burrows, second engineer of the
Trevamon. They had never met before, had hardly exchanged
words since they were prisoners. Now it turned out that Bur-
rows* uncle was the next-door neighbour of Curtis's father.
"Of course, I recall him now," Curtis said. "He's the head-
master of Abbey School in Barking."
Below there was a commotion. The guards were pompously
solemn as they descended on Lieutenant Schmidt's instructions.
One of them, particularly, looked self-conscious as if he had
much on his mind.
Curious glances followed them as they escorted two young
sailors towards the deck.
"Where are you taking them?" one man inquired as the
"To the hospital*" He tapped his forehead with his finger.
The incident sent a shiver of uneasiness, a feeling of awkward
embarrassed anger through the crowd of captives. There had
been talk about the habits of the two sailors for some time.
"They have gone off their heads, those two lads," one of
the guards suggested.
"Nonsense," someone snorted, as they mounted the trunk-
way; "they're a couple of nancies."
The incident left an ugly taste behind. But nobody ever knew
what had really happened or why the two sailors were so
solemnly removed to the tiny ship's hospital it was discovered
One day early in the new year, Dau called for a report
about the engines.
"It will take us another two weeks at least, Herr Kapitaen"
They both knew that if the Altmark came under attack with
her engines virtually out of action, she would be a sitting
target The prisoners might suspect it, but Dau was determined
not to let them know that the engines had been completely
dismantled. It took all his skill to manoeuvre this floating ship
so that he avoided the worst battering by the pounding waves.
"Herr Wegener," Dau called on the administrative officer.
"I want you to take a complete stock of all our supplies. It
may be March before we get home. Work out a daily menu
for crew and prisoners. Yes ... for every single day till March.
There should be plenty of Indian tea from the Huntsman and
our macaroni supplies will last out easily. That's the main
thing. Bottled fruit three times a week. Can we manage that? "
After Dau's warnings to his crew, few cared to risk imprison-
ment by passing on any news and Schmidt remained the
prisoners' major source of information*
"What's the news, Lieutenant?" the officers would ask him.
"Not so good for you chaps," he replied once, with a smile.
He had been listening to the wireless and told the prisoners
that the British merchant fleet had been virtually driven from
the seas by U-boats. Britain was starving as a result of the
U-boat blockade. Some of the prisoners remembering their
own predicament, were inclined to believefliinu Others laughed.
"Nazi propaganda," was their verdict.
"But there's a bit of good news for you after all," said
Eagerly they crowded around him. "Hore-Belisha has been
kicked out of your government!" he said solemnly.
The men did not appreciate the importance which he seemed
to attach to the fact. They were amused when he explained
that Britain was after all coming round to Hitler's views on
"When did it happen?" he was asked by an officer, who
wanted to find out how up-to-date his information was.
"The day before yesterday," Schmidt replied.
The date was January 7. There had been a minor recon-
struction of the British Government on January 5.
The conversation appeared to link the prisoners with home,
and they felt brighter. The link was slight and the prisoners
had little interest in Hore-Belisha's resignation, but somehow
the scrap of news seemed to bring embattled and distant
It was exactly one month since they had last set eyes on
the GrqfSpee. Whenever they had been on deck they had seen
nothing but water and sky.
But below, there was water, too. Water was everywhere.
Condensation produced by closely packed human bodies and
creeping, penetrating fog made the steel stancheons and plates
in the flats sweat. Fifty-five men were eating, sleeping, living
in the same compartment. The air was foul. It was dripping
inside as well as raining outside.
"Look at it," Bob Goss stormed at Schmidt one day; "where
I come from we wouldn't keep animals in such conditions. Why
can't be have more sacking there's plenty in the stores
looted from the Huntsman."
Several of the older officers tried to calm Goss down, but he
shook them off. "It's disgusting," he said.
"Perhaps you would like to see the captain," said Schmidt,
ironically. "It can be arranged, you know."
Later in the day, Goss stamped into the captain's cabin,
flanked by several armed guards and repeated his request
for sacking so that the moisture could be wiped from the drip-
ping bulkheads. Dau was in no mood to listen.
"I am tired of your complaints," he said, spitting out his
words. "I shall make an example of you. Five days' solitary
confinement when the cell is free." Before the enraged
Goss could leap at Dau, the guards had hustled him on to
Permanent lassitude, due partly to inadequate food, to
lack of exercise and to plain hopelessness now began to over-
take the prisoners. As soon as the lean meals were eaten, officers
and men lay around with eyes closed in a dreamless daze.
Only the very young maintained any interest in games and
noisy spells of cock-alorum, with its jumping, kicking, rolling,
on die ground only made the older men more bitter.
The younger officers did not give way to despair except for
short periods. They were insolent and truculent. Their itchy
fingers sometimes seemed almost to reach out for the guards'
waists as they strutted past, with revolvers and bayonets
dangling from their belts.
"One day if I catch a Hun with his holster undone, I'll
jump on him," Curtis vowed to his friends, Nick Watson and
the bearded engineer named Smith from the Newton Beech.
Curtis and his friends counted fifty men, Spee ratings and
Altmark crew, mainly concerned with guard duties. On the
bridge he had seen racks of rifles. And there were the machine-
guns. There might be little chance of overpowering the guards
but it was always a possibility.
The prisoners could never make out with certainty exactly
how many guns the Altmark carried, but they never missed a
chance to learn. On one occasion when King was marched
under guard to see Captain Dau, the captain was called away
and for a minute King was alone outside the cabin. He strolled
forward casually and noticed a sliding section on each side
of the bridge.
"Those sections could take a twelve-pounder gun each,"
he told Creer and Paterson, when he returned.
From the ship's wireless came the strains of the Deutschland
" If they play that damned tune, it means a German victory."
When asked, the guards sneered in a superior non-com-
mittal manner. They said nothing. There was nothing to say.
But, feeling as isolated and despondent as the prisoners, it
was one of their few diversions to tantalize the prisoners.
During one morning "life" appeared in the vicinity of the
Altmark for the first time after a long interval, although it
was bird life. Flights of albatrosses were accompanying the
ship. The big, clumsy birds hovered over the ship with sharp
eyes on the look-out for whatever morsels of food the im-
poverished prison-ship had to spare.
The German sailors were throwing bits of bacon into the
sea and amusing themselves watching the birds pouncing
on them "Like Stukas," they shouted. Stukas were the
Sturzkampf-pl&nes of the Luftwaffe, which, the crew explained,
descended on British targets like birds of prey.
The meagre diet began to take its toll. Chief Steward Smith,
of the Tairoa, who had never been robust and still suffered
with his ears, which had been damaged by shell-fire, was one
of the first to report sick.
"I have no medicine," Tyrolt told him. But the doctor
promised to arrange for a special diet.
There was one case of suspected appendicitis, but it was
not acute. It was fortunate for the sailor, because the Altmark
carried no operating instruments.
But, in spite of everything, acts of generosity occasionally
heartened the men. One day, the New Zealander, Colin Watt,
produced a big packet of cheroots from his haversack and dis-
tributed them without accepting anything in exchange.
Black-marketeers glowered as a dozen men happily puffed
away at the small cigars, without a thought of prying guards.
That did not happen often. Nothing seemed to happen.
Even the diligent diarists, wrestling with their shortened stubs
of pencil, began to record ever more frequently:
"Nothing of interest today."
"Issue of soap, " Lieutenant Schmidt called out one morning.
Everybody got into an orderly queue. "It's the last piece we
can give you. Make the most of it," said Schmidt.
"When that's gone we shall be home," Cudbertson said.
It was a weak joke. But everything, everybody, was getting
On deck the Altmark crew was assembled to hear an address
by the captain. His voice cut through the air sharply. Two
prisoners who understood some German scrambled to the top
of the stairs to listen for clues anything that might abate
the dismal uncertainty of their life. They returned without
news. They had not been able to understand what he was
"Any news?" Paterson asked Schmidt later that day.
Several men roused themselves to their elbows to hear his
reply: "No news we are waiting for a signal from the Graf
He was puzzled when his answer was greeted by a gale of
laughter. Embarrassed he withdrew. For several days after
that he would not talk to the prisoners.
The hilarity did not last long. Nerves were frayed, and
temperaments clashed constantly. Weak though they were,
the prisoners were in fighting mood and their anger was not
solely directed against the Germans. Small arguments often
quickly developed into angry quarrels. More than once every
day fists were raised. The peace-makers had to be quick on
their feet to prevent fights.
Some of the men had not been on deck since Christmas.
What was the use of it? they argued. Far better to conserve
energy against the time it would be needed.
It was midday on January 16 when a buzz of excitement
ran through the holds. Everybody jumped up. Even the per-
manently apathetic took notice. Agitated groups formed.
The senior engineers motioned the men to keep still quite
still. A hush fell over the flats.
Clearly in the silence the rhythmical hum of the engines
could be heard. Slowly they revved up and gained power. It
was the first time it had happened for many long days. George
King, the only engineer with experience of M.A.N. diesel
engines of the same sort as the Altmark's, held up his hand.
"They sound fine to me," he said. "Seem to be in perfect
condition. 9 '
It was difficult to keep the men quiet. The guessing game
began again, interrupted from time to time by urgent requests
for silence. "Let me listen,'* King pleaded.
"She is making at least eighteen knots," Cudbertson said.
The engineers agreed with the mate's guess. The Altmark was
cruising, changing course, manoeuvring. The engines seemed
to be running at full speed.
"We're going home," shouted a lad.
A whistle blew somewhere. It was a cheerful sound.
For two hours the Altmark steamed on, gathering speed, her
engines turning at full power. Then, as suddenly as they had
started, the vibrations died down. Faces fell. It had been no
more than a trial run.
The disappointment increased the tension among both the
prisoners and the guards. One of the guards hustled Tom
Foley as he was getting down from exercise.
"Don't push me," Foley said defiantly.
"Why not- what's going to happen if I do?" the guard
" If you push me again I'll crown you."
"You try." The guard laughed contemptuously, but pru-
dently moved out of the way.
Hopefully some men were making mental notes of the
guards* behaviour. The time would surely come when they
could pay them back in kind. First to be dealt with would be
the convinced Nazis. High on the list was the fellow they
called Hans, an Austrian, who constantly sneaked on every-
body, reporting to the lieutenant every move that was made.
But there was one man, nick-named Blondie, who behaved
well. Several times he had by "accident" dropped a handful
of cigarette ends among the prisoners. When the word "Nazi"
was mentioned, he hardly troubled to disguise his contempt
Looking over the side during deck exercises some of the
men noticed that the name of the ship had been changed again.
It was Ckiriqui of New York.
On January 19 the engines started up again. It was midday
and the men below were as usual idling, or sleeping.
Suddenly they were startled by the boom of guns. They
tried to rush on deck. Roughly, the guards pushed them back.
"Obviously practice shooting," decided the senior officers,
"but it's a sign that something's going on."
The men who had been predicting for the last few days
that the Altmark was about to leave the distant waiting area
and move on were jubilant. Captain Brown, the old, urbane
Huntsman skipper, paid a visit to the senior officers* flat. He
agreed with their conclusion.
"We'll soon be off to Germany," he said.
THE MEN OF the Altmark continued to be as restless as
the prisoners. They too were busy with their diaries. Willi
Rademacher, a young North German, impatiently studied what
he had written before. "We have been rolling around for
exactly a month," he worked out. "Got down here the day
before Christmas. We could be home by now if we'd been
steaming towards Germany."
"What day is it?" George Cerch, his companion, asked.
At that moment, Captain Dau's voice came over the loud-
speaker, calling the crew together for an announcement.
"Must be important," Cerch said, "or he would not call us
The Altmark officers, driven to desperation, had finally re-
ported to their captain on the low state of morale aboard. They
had told Dau of the bouts of home-sickness, the general irrita-
tion on board, which was resulting daily in acrimonious ex-
changes with the prisoners.
"The atmosphere is getting explosive," Paulsen had told
Dau took the bad news calmly. He knew that his announce-
ment would swiftly change the mood of the ship. What he
had to say was what his men were most anxious to hear.
"I have decided," he harangued them, "that the time has
come for us to sail home again. But wait, there is no cause
for you to cheer, my men. No reason at all. This operation will
be neither easy nor without grave danger."
He repeated his conviction that the enemy would no doubt
try everything in his power to catch the Altmark. Her size and
silhouette were bound to be familiar to Allied patrols by
now, in spite of the camouflage.
"We shall have to be lucky," Captain Dau concluded, "to
get through unrecognized. But, as always in life, luck is with
those who remain alert and at their posts."
In the privacy of his cabin, Dau expounded his operational
plans in greater detail for the benefit of his officers. For some
days past as they well knew he had disregarded all wireless
signals from the German High Command who were in com-
plete ignorance about the Altmark's fate.
"The Allies are bound to listen-in and any reply I made
would only lead them to our trail. Rather than reassure the
Seekriegsfuehrung about our safety, I propose to remain silent
and alive as long as possible."
Watchfulness, he added, was the key to their success. Twelve
look-outs were to be at their posts at all times.
"The most difficult area through which we shall pass at the
beginning of our voyage is on the Natal-Freetown route in
the region of the equator, where Africa and South America
"The North America-Europe lanes present another grave
danger and here we must fear most the convoy-track from
Halifax to England. Then there is the tricky Iceland area.
You see how difficult it is going to be."
On the map before him Dau surveyed the familiar scene
Freetown, Britain's main base in the central Atlantic; Dakar,
near Cape Verde, the French base. He enumerated the chain
of British and French bases on the other side of the Atlantic
the West Indies with Trinidad, Barbadoes, Martinique,
According to Dau's reckoning, the French, on British in-
structions as he put it would have advanced their submarine
patrol lines on both sides of the Atlantic. He assumed that the
Natal-Freetown lane would be under constant surveillance
by air patrols. Special vigilance would be needed to avoid
the heavy Allied cruisers or even an aircraft carrier which he
strongly suspected might be stationed near St. Paul's Rock
or in the vicinity of Fernando Norohna Island.
In the strategic picture which unfolded in the German
captain's mind, his ship was the centre piece of the biggest
naval hunt in the history of sea warfare. Egotistically, though
with reason, he saw the whole British Navy concentrating on
Target Number One the Altmark.
"The prestige of British naval power is involved, deeply
involved," he told Paulsen again and again. "Not only does
the defeat of the Graf Spee remain incomplete without our
destruction, but we are carrying prisoners whose liberation
would be Churchill's ultimate triumph."
It sounded as if the problem had narrowed down to
a personal conflict between Captain Heinrich Dau and
Winston Churchill. " We must not fail, " Dau said with great
"No," echoed Paulsen. "We must not. Our Altmark must
never be allowed to fall into enemy hands to augment British
Dau, mumbling now and then to himself rather than to
Paulsen, was by no means confident that the Altmark could
really pass through the Atlantic completely unnoticed. But
there was one thing he was sure of. Never would he allow his
tanker to fall into enemy hands. "Rather die we shall all
rather die than allow such a thing to happen."
He reached for pencil and paper to note the phases of the
moon times of rising and setting on every single day for a
whole month ahead and to these times he related the speed
and direction of the Altmark.
The "hurdles", as he called all areas in which danger of
discovery by Allied ships was greatest, would have to be
passed during the early February new moon period.
Dau's weary spirits rose visibly at the prospect of this
hazardous voyage. He began to revel in it, as a new sense of
purpose unfolded with his charts; it was a chance to show his
mettle in a great naval manoeuvre. He would be making history.
The responsibility for every move, which Langsdorff had so
rudely assumed in the raiding operation, was at long last
restored to Captain Dau.
He was almost lyrical as he told Weichert that his Finger-
spit&ngefiuU, which Germans mention so often, but possess
so rarely that mysterious, intuitive feeling in the finger tips
was as acute as lie instinct of a migrating bird.
"Charts and maps and mathematical calculations," he
lectured his surprised but silent navigation officer, "are just
subordinate to a real seaman's sixth sense."
His own sixth sense his Fingerspitzengefuehl would see him
safely through, he was firmly convinced. Almost jauntily he
set out on his tour of inspection of the prisoners, climbing down
to the lowest flat and working his way up to the top.
The senseless noise of a hilarious card game was the only
greeting he received in the lower flats. It was some time before
the men took notice of him- Jack Flanagan, Billy Riley, Sam
Flowers and Tom Foley, the "four inseparables", playing
knock-out whist, were not the sort of British seamen to be im-
pressed by a strutting German captain's presence.
With studied interest he inspected the work of Arthur
Underwood, Doric Star cook, who had spent weeks carving out
a model boat from a chunk of wood.
"You are making a model of the Altmark> yes?" Dau beamed.
Underwood did not trouble to contradict him. He was
making a model of the Doric Star.
A hasty shuffle of papers did not escape Dau's attention as
he reached the top flat. As he bent over the rough table to look
beyond the shoulders of the mates grouped round it he smiled
benevolently. "Very good, my friend, " said Dau, "you should
leave the sea and become an artist." Flatten was showing him
the shapely figure of a scantily-dressed girl which Evans,
third mate of the Doric Star, had drawn in bold strokes. Cud-
bertson, sitting next to him, looked up at Dau.
The captain moved on. When he had left the flat there was
a sigh of relief. The officers had only just had time to turn
over their chart of magnetic variations, salvaged from a life-
boat, with the help of which they had been making the same
calculations which had occupied the Altmark's captain. The
shapely lady was on the back of the chart.
Dau had marked spots along the Altmartfs route to Europe
with a mental "danger signal". But on the prisoners' carefully
kept lifeboat chart the spots appeared as beacons of hope. At
any of these points the Royal Navy might turn up to challenge
their jailer, inspect his ship and liberate them.
Every day the deck officers and engineers conferred about
the tanker's position. They were sure that their home-made
instruments gave them accurate data. It was true they had
not a chronometer between them and could never be sure of
the exact time. But within limits, the officers were certain they
knew where they were.
"Let's put this down it's as near as we can go," said Evans,
It was noon on Saturday, January 20, and the engineers had
estimated that the ship was doing sixteen knots. There was
no doubt she was steaming north-west. Evans placed the ship
about two hundred and forty miles S.S.W. of Tristan de Cunha.
"Maybe she's making for a neutral port, after all," Curtis
said optimistically. In the same breath he drew a cheerful
deduction from the monotonous appearance of the same sort
of soup every day. Surely supplies were getting desperately
low and if there was one thing that would speed the Altmark-
Chniqui into port, it was shortage of food.
"Not necessarily." Paterson quickly reversed hopes that
seemed to be based on sound reasoning. "Who knows whether
another raider has not slipped out from Germany? If it has
the whole business might start again."
Next day the clocks were put back one hour. "That," ob-
served Cudbertson, "brings us back to exactly the same longi-
tude as a month ago."
The Altmark was travelling N.N. W., when Paterson, King and
two or three others were plotting her course three days later.
It was Wednesday, January 24, and the Altmark was steaming
slightly more slowly, but still making about fifteen knots. It
was getting noticeably warmer.
"Clocks back one hour," Lieutenant Schmidt announced
once more on his rounds.
"That makes us two hours behind G.M.T.," King reasoned,
"and puts us bang in Zone Two." Just as Dau had divided his
route into danger areas, so the prisoners had marked off their
chart in liberation zones.
The tanker's steady steaming on the same course, plodding
at 12 knots during the day, but opening up to twenty-three
knots at night, pointed to a definite, fixed object in view.
"She's going home," said Goss jubilantly.
"You mean she's going to Germany," grunted an older man.
Everybody had a theory about the ship's destination and
most theories differed but every knot which reduced the distance
to Europe was cheered. For the first time in many days the
men joined in a sing-song.
"Wonder what my wife thought when she heard that the
Doric was sunk," Curtis mused. The married men all asked
the same question. The northward voyage increasingly brought
back thoughts of families and friends at home.
But day-dreams were often interrupted. One day, the clatter
of the pom-poms jolted the prisoners back to reality. Obviously
"Knitty Whiskers" was preparing for all eventualities. Practice
shooting went on for some time and the prisoners' look-out
reported that two-centimetre-calibre guns were firing tracer
shells. The guns quickly fired about two hundred rounds,
Schmidt and the guards had lost their affability and were
always taciturn. They shrugged off questions without uttering
a word. A prisoner joked that it was almost impossible to obtain
any definite news. The hell-ship was clearly in a state of siege.
But rumours still cascaded round the holds. Several officers
made up their minds to trace each rumour to its source. They
went about it methodically, asking each rumour-monger \vhere
he heard his news and following the trail. It made nonsense of
many stories. Yet still rumours continued.
"Italy's entered the war against us," was one day's "sensa-
tion". "Russia's attacked Germany," someone pretended to
Confusion increased when the Russian news item turned out
to refer to the Russo-Finnish War.
"Wonder whose side we're on?" asked someone.
The guards had new instructions every day. Their latest
duty was to supervise the disposal of the fish tins after meals.
They ordered a hole to be cut in each tin, before it was
"Not-so-much" was in charge of the operation and he did
nothing to appease the hatred which his words and movements
aroused. The Trevanion crew were after his blood. Often he had
pretended to know "not-so-much" English, but the prisoners
knew he constantly listened-in to conversations and reported
them to his officers.
"I'll stick a bayonet into him and make him goose-step for
twenty-four hours once we're free, the sneaking bastard,"
threatened Wilkins, a Tairoa storekeeper. "I'll still have
strength to do it." Wilkins had the build of a policeman.
Palmer, the Trevanion cook, manoeuvred one of the guards
into a corner: "Are we going into port?" he asked, con-
"Maybe you'll be seeing something in a week's time," was
the German's reply.
There was no answer.
If land was sighted, the position of the prisoners would be
considerably brighter. Creer, King and other senior officers
began to discuss what plan of action could be adopted. Bam-
mant and other young officers clamoured for drastic action
as soon as they could even smell land.
"If it's ten miles away when I see land, I'll jump and swim
for it," he asserted. "I don't want to end up the war as a
'Geffy V The prisoners, sometime before, had discovered that
"Gefangene" was the German word for prisoners, and the
shortened form had passed into everyday use.
"I am with you there, John," said Keith Brown, a Tairoa
"And me," agreed Wells, another young engineer.
The young men were determined to take a chance, but older
officers counselled caution. "Wait awhile," said one of them,
"our time will come. Why throw your lives away?"
Some of the Huntsman men going up on deck for exercise
one day, observed the finish of a boat drill by the Altmark
sailors, complete with gas masks and armbands denoting each
man's station in an emergency. It was a pointer that gave
"Let our fiiend King organize action when the time comes,"
Creer suggested. He and King were now the acknowledged
leaders among the prisoners, who at once agreed to his sug-
gestion. There was a spirit of optimism and confidence about.
King bowed gracefully and accepted the honour. Then he
went off it was his turn as orderly.
The prison-ship was running at full speed, and half the
crew seemed to be on look-out. Perhaps, thought King, moving
along the catwalk, the idea of land and liberation was not as
far-fetched as it seemed. Two men at the top of the main mast
never put their binoculars down for an instant. The Altmark
crew were as glum as the prisoners were cheerful. They did not
appear to rate their chances of a break-through very high.
"Cherub" Schmidt was as morose as the crew. He did not
seem to regard the possibility of dramatic events as very
"Yes, yes," he said when challenged by prisoners in the
top flat "I have already told you that you will be given every
chance to get clear if we should meet up with one of your
warships. Yes, I personally assure you that we shall signal
to any man-o'-war that there are prisoners aboard."
Wistfully he added: "It's in our own interests, isn't it?"
The gist of this short exchange was soon common knowledge.
When the lieutenant reached the bottom deck he was sur-
prised to see men already busily packing their belongings.
Some of those who had no bags were hastily stitching up hessian
into make-shift sacks. The optimism was so foolishly infectious
that by Sunday morning January 28 there was not a
prisoner who could not have picked up his kit and walked off
the ship at a moment's notice.
That they would get off the Altmark, most of the men were
sure. But how? Cudbertson thought that they might run
into a British cruiser at almost any moment.
It was Cudbertson's turn to collect the daily rations from
the stores and, passing the cabins under the bridge, he saw
one of the Altmark officers packing his bag. They, too?
Loud voices came from the bridge where Captain Dau and
Lieutenant Schmidt were engaged in furious argument. Their
strident shouts Schmidt interrupting his captain in an un-
heard-of manner made it clear that a first-class row was in
"Their nerves must be rather ragged," Cudbertson reported
to his friends. On deck the crew were busy getting out the pilot
ladders in readiness to reach the boats. They were obviously
nervous and apprehensive.
Captain Dau called his officers together as the Altmark
approached the equator. He had navigated his ship so that
the Altmark would cross the line about 22jW. and so cut
through the narrowest part of the ocean at right angles.
With a ghost of a smile he apologized for speaking of the
"Straits of Natal". The vast expanse of the ocean between
South America and Africa, he agreed, hardly warranted a
description of "straits". But the speed of modern cruisers and
air patrols, he explained, had narrowed the passage tremend-
ously since the days when he had first crossed the equator
forty years before.
Dau had been counting on the rain and fog prevailing in the
area most of the time to help him pass through the "straits"
i 7 6
unobserved. But it was dry and warm and unusually clear
during the day. He did not dare to take off his clothes to sleep.
Restlessly he wandered up to the bridge at night, to make
sure that the look-outs were alert. As soon as dawn broke he
reached for his binoculars, to scour the horizon.
Never before, even when he was waiting for his first rendez-
vous with the Spety had he experienced such nerve-racking days.
He was jumpy, irritable, explosive, withdrawn, thoughtful, all
in one morning. The prisoners watching him noticed that he
was ageing before their eyes.
Their own nerves were not much better. Soon after mid-
day on January 31, deck officers working out the tanker's
position, agreed they were about 3 or one hundred and eighty
miles south of the patrol line which they expected the British
Navy to have flung from Dakar to Pernambuco. The change
of course to north-west to enable the Altmark trf cut across the
line at right angles had not escaped their attention.
That morning, Curtis and his friends were making ready to
climb on deck for exercise when the hatch was clamped down.
"You'll stay below today," a voice came down from the
top. "The exercise has been cancelled."
"Hope to heaven she's been sighted!" Curtis said.
The hatch was battened down all night. Few men found
sleep and their only consolation was that "they" the pro-
noun used by the prisoners for the Germans in the ship must
be just as anxious. This was to be the night the night which
would end with the dawn of liberation.
"The guards are scared I am sure they're scared!" King
said when the daily inspection was over. "Keep your fingers
crossed, lads 1"
Night fell and amid whisperings, grunts and wheezings, the
prisoners tried to sleep. So it was for several nights and days.
February 10 was an agonizing day that few of the men
would ever forget.
All through the morning the prisoners incessantly asked only
one question: "Where's the blasted patrol?"
A disappointed sailor offered a casual explanation: "You
bet your life they've been on the booze all night in Dakar
and the bloody Admiral is away with his girl friend."
They were all standing up, their hands full of gear. The
rumbling voices in the flats had risen to shouts. But there was
instant silence as the hatch was opened and Schmidt appeared.
He looked apprehensive as he surveyed the prisoners.
Ostentatiously he gripped his revolver. If they were thinking
of breaking out ... if they tried to take advantage of the difficult
geographical position ... if they were hoping to get succour
from the British Navy . . .
Schmidt's glance and gesture made it clear that he knew
what the prisoners were thinking.
"Three men to the galley, no more than three/' he said.
The number of "peggies" going aft to fetch the meals had
been increasing steadily. It was always a good chance to look
around and the Germans had not troubled to check the practice.
Schmidt himself had not minded. But Dau had noticed there
were far too many prisoners on deck and had ordered Mm to
cut the number down drastically. The men were quite capable
of attempting a revolt, he said.
As King retired to his carpet-bed that evening he summed
up the feelings of his fellow-prisoners in three words in his
diary: "Still not caught."
Cudbertson called it a day more forcefully. In the dim
light he pulled out his pad and wrote: "To hell with the
The prisoners had faced disappointment before and though
it grew harder to endure, they still had a reserve of optimism.
Fortunately, the unceremonial crossing of the line was followed
by permission to go up on deck again. True, the "privilege"
was extended to no more than fifteen men at a time but it was
a welcome escape from the damp atmosphere below. Against
that, the pessimistic prisoners pointed out that it meant the
Altmark's danger was ending. They might as well abandon all
hope of rescue.
"Well north of the line," Captain Dau entered in the ship's
"We can breathe freely now one of the most critical points
lies behind us," he said, in a pep-talk to his crew. "While I
am grateful for the alertness of all officers and men I should
like to remind you that vigilance must not abate. Any ship
on the way to the West Indies or Central America could still
cross our path."
Up in the wireless cabin, the operators dared not stop listen-
ing to the signals that filled the air. The Altmark radio operator
could pick out the various Morse notes clearly even though
they did not make sense to him. But what was important the
Altmark's officers could determine the positions of ships* in the
vicinity. On three occasions the Altmark set a zig-zagging course
hurriedly to steam out of harm's reach. Dau did not want to
be seen even by unarmed merchant ships.
Only a day or so ago it seemed that the ship could never
again settle down to the old wearisome routine. Yet it had
happened. Apathy returned and all day long the prisoners
reclined idly on their make-shift beds, propped up by lifebelts,
and stared into space.
Once or twice, a flash of temper would show that all hope
was not dead. "You wait. The Navy will get you yet and you'll
be in the same position as we are now," growled a young
officer to an arrogant guard.
But the threat sounded a little hollow. There was little con-
viction in his voice and the other prisoners did not even join
in the argument.
One of the guards had complained that his coat had dis-
appeared. A thorough search was ordered and it stung the
prisoners to life.
"Do you think we pinched it?" a group of prisoners asked
the searchers mockingly. "What would we want with a guard's
coat? The boot's on the other foot. You're all a pack of thieving
The prisoners' quarters were turned upside down. Nothing
was found except a box of matches in the Indians' quarters.
Dau's friendliness for the Indians vanished. Next day he gave
six Indians three days each in the imprisonment "cell".
Once more the guards clambered down for a full-scale search.
It was another surprise visit and only Captain Brown, of the
Huntsman, knew why a search had been ordered.
During his morning walk on deck, Dau had approached
Brown and told him that Chief Officer Thompson's trunk had
been burgled. Many of his belongings were missing.
The Huntsman** officers had been more fortunate than the
rest. They had been allowed to salvage most of their belongings
before their ship was sunk. But Thompson, like most of the
captains, chief officers and engineers and radio officers, who
had been transferred to the Graf Spee, had had to leave his
baggage behind on the Altmark. During tie frenzied preparations
for liberation near the equator, Thompson's baggage had been
moved about by the prisoners. More out of boredom than
viciousness, they had broken open the lock and rummaged
through Thompson's kit.
Dau did not care what had happened to Thompson's goods.
It was a heaven-sent opportunity to scourge the prisoners and
pay them back for their impudent confidence in the hours of
his great anxiety. He ordered Weichert to carry out a thorough
"There are thieves among those Englishmen," he said.
"And no thief is worse than an English thief,"
During dinner he went into a rambling analysis to prove
his point. The crews they held prisoner, he said, had been hired
indiscriminately in British, Australian, Chinese and Indian ports.
"Riff-raff! " he exploded. "Altogether a sorry lot" Some of
the prisoners, he said, were warm and cosy in woollies, scarves,
heavy coats. Would they share their garments with others
who had only brought singlets or boiler-suits along? "They
would not," announced Dau in his ignorance.
"Weichert," he instructed the prison officer, "point out to
these fellows that they do not know the meaning of good
fellowship. We must educate them."
According to Dau's careful reckoning the Altmark was now
approaching the Halifax-England convoy lanes, which meant
great danger for her. How close she was to danger emerged
from an urgent, early-morning summons by the radio officer,
who reported that he had overheard a loud wireless conver-
sation in the immediate proximity in English.
"Must be a large convoy," pronounced Dau, in the wireless
It was pitch dark. Dau never knew whether it was an east-
west or west-east convoy with which he had almost collided.
He had not expected the Atlantic traffic to be so frequent at
this time of the year. But Dau was as gullible as many Nazis.
He had accepted much of Goebbels' propaganda broadcasts
at face value. According to Goebbels the U-boats had long
since driven the British Merchant Navy from the high seas.
He had eaten his breakfast and was preparing for a nap on
his couch after a sleepless night when his telephone roused
him again. Within a minute he was on the bridge which was
just above his cabin. The look-out reported: "Ship at 75."
Already, on the instructions of the officer-on-watch, the
Altmark had turned away from the unknown ship. Through his
binoculars Dau observed a ship with two masts, a funnel and
an impressive superstructure, steering on a south-westerly
course. Rapidly he ordered the Altmark into a stern-to-stern
position to hide her silhouette from the stranger. He clenched
his fists. This might be the moment he had feared.
Three men with ear-phones clamped over their heads lis-
tened anxiously to discover whether a wireless signal would
report their position. They heard nothing.
In their holds the prisoners were aware that something un-
usual was happening, although their look-outs could see nothing*
The blustery weather seemed to favour their prison-ship. It
was misty and the sea was rough.
"She's jumping around so fast and so suddenly," Cudbert-
son thought aloud, "that she must be on the run from some-
thing. We must be in the Atlantic traffic lanes now."
This was the Altmark's most anxious day since she had set
sail for Germany. On the evening of February 7, Dau recorded
in his diary that they had sighted six enemy vessels. "The
Englaender seem to have diverted the traffic from the North
Sea which usually passes through the English Channel. Every-
thing seems to be coming by way of the Faroe Islands . . ."
Again that night, he was roused from his sleep. The ship
seemed to be a bedlam with prisoners banging excitedly on the
hatch at the top of the ladder.
"Ignore them . . . they are only trying to make trouble," he
told Weichert, who appeared with his greatcoat over his
pyjamas. The banging continued.
In the bottom flat a British sailor had thrown a fit. To sea-
men without medical knowledge, he seemed to be dying.
"Quiet, quiet," the guards admonished, shouting down the
trunkway. They, too, feared a riot Peering through the grating
the guards suspiciously inquired what the noise was about
when the prisoners continued to shout.
"The doctor ... get the doctor," implored someone.
Tyrolt was the only German who did not fear the prisoners.
Called by the guards, he calmly opened the hatch himself,
stepped down and attended to the sick man.
Next morning Dau issued orders that the "peggies" were to
collect four days* rations all at once.
"I don't want to see any of the prisoners on deck," he
The look-out was calling him again. Dau braced himself for
bad news, but ignoring the shouts Tyrolt pressed for an im-
mediate hearing. Below, the prisoners were surly and openly
"Doctor, quickly, what is it?"
"The Indians look sluggish, Herr Kapifaen. I wonder whether
there is any infection?"
"Examine the lot," said Dau, ruthlessly.
Weichert appeared on the bridge: "There is talk of leprosy
among the prisoners in the bottom flat what shall I tell
"Tell them to go to hell," said Dau, impatiently.
"Approaching Iceland, Herr Kapitatn" Paulsen reported.
Dau looked as if he was praying. The hour of supreme crisis
was approaching. He was sure that every single British captain
had been ordered at all costs to capture the AltmarL
Through his glasses the officer-on-watch observed a tiny
speck on the horizon.
"Looks like a warship of the British North Atlantic patrol,"
The weather had cleared up to make Dau's calculations
more difficult. He was working out course and speed so that
he would pass through the critical area at night. The moon
was due to set at 21.00 hours and he knew there was bound
to be darkness until five or six o'clock at least. The evening
hours dragged with leaden slowness.
"Our last hope," Ronald Curtis recorded in his diary, "is
the vigilance of the Navy on the Iceland-North Sea patrol.
Like all hands, I pray to God that we are caught and saved
and spared endless days of captivity in Germany."
The moon had disappeared below the horizon. But it was
not dark. A clear North Light illuminated the night. It was a
rare, a beautiful sight. The prisoners in their holds never
saw it. The luminous beauty of the scene sent a shiver of fear
down the spine of every member of the Altmark crew.
BRITISH BLOCKADE ASLEEP?
THREE HUNDRED MEN waiting, wondering, hoping, in
a ship that rolled worse than a Panama tramp in a typhoon*
In the stagnant atmosphere of the flats few men could sleep
that night. An air of expectancy pervaded the Altmark which
the prisoners now knew was fast approaching the end of her
voyage. Home . . . but for whom? Among the prisoners, every
man conjured up a different mental picture.
Ronald Curtis expounded his belief that the Altmark would
pass through the Denmark Straits, but had no more paper
on which to commit his thoughts. He was confident that the
next seven days would at least decide his destination one way
or another. Lying awake on his hard bed-space he thought
of his wife and son at home in Barking, waiting, not knowing
that he was steaming nearer and nearer to them, although he
might land far away in a German prison camp.
George King, leafing through his diary, worked out that
this Saturday, February 10, marked the beginning of his tenth
week in captivity. He said a silent prayer and hoped his im-
prisonment would not last much longer.
"Getting close to freedom," noted Cudbertson laconically
Up on deck, the crew of the Altmark were gripped by a
strange uneasiness. It was acute enough among the sailors,
but it crept below too, among the men who were watching the
engines. If the British Navy found the Altmark^ and opened
fire they knew their chances of escape would be as slight as
those of the prisoners.
The chief stoker diffidently approached Captain Dau to
request permission to join the look-out on night watch. He
concealed the fears of his men with a specious excuse. "Four
eyes see more than two," he said.
Paulsen reported that nearly half the crew had approached
him with similar suggestions; he had posted a few of them
below the bridge. Captain Dau ordered him to send the men
back to their allotted stations. Already he had two look-outs
in the crow's nest on the foremast, one on the mainmast and
three on the bridge. "Too many eyes see more than is neces-
sary," he quoted.
The engines were now full out and the Altmark vibrated as
her yacht-like bows cut through the bright night at well over
twenty knots. Some of the German sailors crept on to the
blacked-out deck and were thinking sentimentally of home,
when a sharp shout from the look-out made moonshine of their
"Mast in sight/'
John Bammant moved cat-like for all his bulk, up the
thirty-nine steps of the ladder in the trunkway and peered
through a gap in the hatch. There was little to see. The guard
seemed to have moved away a few steps, but voices came from
beyond the door. He could not make out what was said but
there seemed to be no doubt that the Altmark*$ crew were
On the bridge with his binoculars to his eyes, Captain
Dau tried to penetrate the night. He was convinced that the
unlit ship, which he saw gliding along in the strange light
before dawn, was a British cruiser. He dare not take any
"Hard to starboard," he ordered.
"Hard to starboard," the man at the wheel repeated.
The captain's commands followed in quick succession and
were acknowledged by the officers. One officer received the
instructions to keep the unknown ship in view. The rest of the
look-outs were visited to make sure they were alert. If one
warship was in the area, there might be another and Dau
did not want to be taken unawares from any direction.
The Altmark was steaming away fast well off course but
safe for the moment Officers held their breath as they watched
the ghost ship disappear into the night.
Below, the prisoners settled down uneasily to rest. They
were unaware how close their floating prison had been to
discovery. The long arm of the Royal Navy, groping in the
darkness, had nearly found them.
Day dawned. It was another day like so many pointless,
dreary days that had gone before. Discussion among the
prisoners was fixed by the conviction that the Altmark was on
"Up here, this damned tanker will have to turn and run
from every dirty old tub she sees," said an officer. The sudden
change of course during the night had not escaped the notice
of the prisoners. The Altmark might be on the run, the senior
men agreed. How else could the manoeuvre be interpreted,
after all the commotion on board during the night.
The younger men still full of vitality, in spite of privations,
were puzzled by the serenity of the older prisoners who, though
the crisis approached, settled down to the fixed routine they
had now followed for many weeks. Their iron indifference to
the ordeals made the younger sailors marvel. "Don't they
really care what happens?" burst out a young officer.
As if he was on a pleasure cruise, old "Pop" Kean, of the
Tairoa, who had signed on as a supernumerary mate, so that
he could get to England and retire, called his friends to their
daily game of bridge. Harry Gandy, the Doric Star's chief
steward, George King and "Pat" Paterson, of the Tairoa,
were always ready to make a four.
"I think I heard one engine cut out last night," King said
casually. "And she is still not going. Three hearts." He
bid almost in the same breath.
"We must be right in the middle of the blockade," said
Paterson, hunching his spare frame into a more comfortable
position. "Three spades."
The game went on. Furiously, the opponents were out-
bidding each other, but at the same time their minds were
never far from the more serious game between the Altmark and
the Roya) Navy, on which their lives and liberty depended.
Paterson and King made three spades and put the cards
down. "On Sunday," said King, "we were about five hundred
miles to the north-west of Ireland. Things are getting very,
very hot. "
"My guess," said Paterson, judicially, "is that she'll make
for the Denmark Strait. That's what the Moewe did remember
the first-war raider?"
The Altmark, in spite of engine-trouble, was still steaming
at close on twenty knots.
"To think that a week today I shall be in Hull," Cudbertson
said, as if there were no alternative. That night was stormy, and
at one o'clock a big sea broke over the Altmark with such
a roar that everybody woke up. "Thought I heard a gun,"
mumbled Paterson half asleep. The prisoners were expecting
to be rescued day and night and no one now ever slept without
On Sunday the clock had been advanced an hour and the
ship was worked on G.M.T. Food was scarce, but even food
did not interest the prisoners much. They fed on hope. The
Altmark was turning east again, stopping and waiting during
daylight and steaming fast in darkness.
"Rolling home, rolling home ... by the light of the silvery
Loud and clear the words came from below. The prisoners
in the lower flats the seamen were singing at the tops of
their voices. Any hour, any minute, deliverance. Two sailors
cheerfully made cigarettes with toilet-paper and the remnants
of their tobacco.
In the officers' flats, John Bammant and his friends were
talking over plans for a break-out as soon as land was sighted.
They were sure it could not be long whether it was Greenland,
Iceland, or Germany.
"When the guards come down, I shall take on the * Cherub *,
and you can take on ..." The talk went on for hours.
The sun was setting and the guards came down wearing
steel helmets and gas-masks and looking very martial. Silence
fell instantly as they entered the flat. The prisoners were not
quite ready to carry out their plans, and wanted no trouble
"Now, gentlemen," said the German banteringly, "where
is your British blockade? Asleep, eh?"
"Just you wait," Tom Foley countered. "You haven't got
to Germany yet, have you? We'll be changing places before
long you'll be sitting below and me on top."
"Never," the German retorted indignantly. "When you
wake up one day we shall be in Hamburg."
So it was Hamburg? Had the guard been stung into revealing
the Altmark's destination? Did he really know where the ship
Mr. King was battling with his own doubts. The hours of
waiting and hoping were beginning to tell on everybody.
There had been a short spell of exercise on deck and one man
had reported to him that on the bows of the ship the name
Altmark had reappeared. It was ominous.
There was yet another fact that seemed to point in one
direction only. When the time came for the rations to be
issued, the "peggies" were turned back at the top of the
trunkway and the German guards themselves brought down
another three days' rations.
"We must be approaching land," someone said.
"Should be," King agreed. He was turning over the pointers
in his mind. First there was the cocky confidence of the guards
and their sneers at the British blockade. Then the putting
forward of the clock to Central European time. Surely, the
facts proved that the Germans were confident that they would
"Curse them," he said despondently.
One man returned to the hold from the hospital, where he
had been detailed to act as orderly. "Any news?" King asked
"Trouble over there," he replied. "Seems to be an infectious
case. Somebody's been isolated but I couldn't find out who
"We'll be in Hamburg soon," said a voice. "Why worry?"
Hamburg was uppermost in the mind of Captain Dau,
during the long sleepless night he passed. It was six months
almost exactly to the day since he had taken the Altmark to sea.
He had not seen or even approached land once all that time.
Suddenly a feeling of almost uncontrollable excitement came
over the cold, calculating master.
The night of February 13 would never be obliterated from
his memory. It was pitch-dark on the bridge, and in the chart-
room the light was dim. Bending over his maps, with a pro-
tractor in his hands, he called his first officer.
"Paulsen," he said, "there is news. We are in Norwegian
The two Germans looked in thankful silence at each other.
Safety at last.
Paulsen broke the silence with a question. "And now, Hen
"Well," Dau said slowly, "it is exactly 5 a.m. I think the
worst of the heavy weather is over. If the weather had con-
tinued rough and had not looked as if it would be clearing up
properly, I should have preferred to make for the West
Fjord and Narvik. But it looks clear along the Norwegian
" So ? " Paulsen asked.
"Steer for Halten Lighthouse. We will make for Trond-
Below, the long restless night was coming to an end. It was
very cold but the first men looking out from the top hatch
"Beautiful weather. Just right for our rescue."
A youth named MacMillan nearly fell down the ladder as
he turned from the top to shout to the group below,
"There's some signalling going on."
Fifty voices responded all at once: "We must be near
land." "We are approaching the German coast," Sam Flower
could be heard saying above the noise.
Tom Foley was inclined to believe that land was near, but
surely not the German coast?
Bob Goss, the AsMea's athletic second mate, was waiting
impatiently to climb the trunkway. "Come down," he roared
to the seamen on the ladder, "get out of it and let someone
up who knows the coastline." From his youth Goss had often
sailed out from the Tyne to Norway. He was back within five
minutes, still sniffing appreciatively. "No doubt at all about it,"
he said to the officers. "Norwegian air smells better than any
other in the world. We're steaming along the Norwegian coast."
"How can you be sure?" someone asked.
"Want to take a bet?" asked Goss with conviction.
"The Navy'll get us out wherever we are," a voice said
bravely. It sounded confident. But hopes and fears alternated
with confusing speed. From above came the sound of tramping
feet, and the prisoners heard the hatch go down with a clang.
When Goss climbed up again, he could see nothing. Not
even a glint of light came through cracks that had been widened
by the prisoners. The guards had placed a canvas across the
hatch. The prisoners shuddered; it was as if the lid had been
nailed down on their coffin. Some felt sick with excitement.
The atmosphere grew heavier, as no air could seep through
the covered hatch.
"Maybe we're in Kiel!" a young sailor suggested in the
bottom flat. He had not heard Goss's confident report.
"It's Hamburg. They said we're going to Hamburg!" came
a dispirited response.
While the prisoners continued to argue, Dau, up on the
bridge, heaved a sigh of relief.
"We can relax for the time being," he told Wegener, his
administrative officer. He looked eastwards towards the dawn
and in the bright morning light it was easy to recognize the
contours of the coast.
"Our voyage is virtually over," Dau asserted. But it did
not sound like a dogmatic statement; it was as if he were trying
to reassure himself. "We are now protected by Norwegian
neutrality. Our German Fatherland is so close that we can
almost reach it with our hands. Once we have crossed the
Skagerrak, we shall be there," he said.
"We have made it, Hen Kapitaen" Wegener said. "Haven't
we? " he asked as an afterthought. There was no reply. "Home
in three days," Wegener continued, "home to my wife and
children." He had four sons. His chatter and that of other
officers, who had come up on to the bridge, began to irritate
"Wait a moment," Dau held up his hand commandingly.
"This is the position. We were not discovered as we passed
between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The British North
Atlantic patrol did not observe us in the North Sea. I consider
the English can have no idea that we have passed their blockade
He stopped in the middle of his sentence, almost afraid to
continue. He knew that although the Altmark had so far escaped
detection, she had not the slightest chance of passing through
Norwegian waters without her presence being reported to the
British Naval authorities*
At Kristiansund, if nowhere else, the resident British Consul
would be alert. Whatever happened after that there was bound
to be a delay while Admiralty instructions passed along the
complicated chain of command. If the Altmark, could reach the
Skagerrak by the following night, it was more than likely
that the Royal Navy would be too late to catch her.
Aloud Dau said: "Home in six days. No, no. Let us say
home in eight days, Hen Wegener."
For once, as he climbed down from the bridge, Dau did not
object to the crew crowding around him. He smiled, but did
not reply to one of his sailors who asked loudly: "Shall we get
Easter leave, sir?"
"Leave . . . but then what?" said another.
"Up and at it again," a grumpy German declared bitterly.
"They won't keep the Altmark in port for long."
The Altmark had come to a full stop near Halten Light-
"Request pilot," Captain Dau signalled.
He went to his cabin and turned on the wireless. A London
news broadcast was saying that all British merchant ships in
the North Sea were to be armed. He switched to Germany.
On the Hamburg wavelength came an announcement of the
German Naval High Command that all British merchant ships
would be treated as warships in future.
Dau switched off and sat back to wait for a Norwegian pilot.
Darkness had fallen at Port Edgar, the Royal Navy's bleak
base near Rosy th in the Firth of Forth, and a thousand hard-
ened British sailors were settling down to a quiet evening.
Among the ships in port was H.M.S. Aurora, a cruiser, which
was being fitted with degaussing equipment, as protection
against the magnetic mines which the Luftwaffe had begun to
scatter in the shipping lanes around Britain.
Even though the war had been going on for less than six
months, it had been tough for the Aurora. German bombers
had attacked her and she had spent long spells on patrol in
remote waters looking for the elusive German Navy. Aurora's
men were not on leave, but they were standing easy. Degaussing
equipment took some time to fit and officers and men were
wondering whether it was worth while asking their wives and
girl-friends to come up for a few days.
Petty Officer Tom ("Barney") Barnes, a quiet, round-faced,
well-built Regular, was one of Aurora'* men who was looking
forward to a restful evening with a book. It was 6 p.m. and
he had just stripped for a bath when the tannoy loud-speaker
"The following -will report on the quarter-deck/' crisply
ordered a voice. Barnes looked at the calendar. It was February
13. "Unlucky thirteenth. I'll bet I'm in on this," he thought,
as the announcement continued: "Petty Officer Barnes, Petty
Officer Meadows, Able Seaman Bennett . . ."
Barnes counted twenty-one names in the group and, while
he was hurriedly dressing, other groups of twenty-one names
were recited in the same deliberate manner.
On the quarter-deck, when they had fallen in, an officer
gave instructions that were short and to the point. Those whose
names had been called out were to report back at 19.30 hours
to go to ships of 4th Flotilla Group. Orders were to get their
steaming kits only the most essential personal things, one
change of underclothes.
"You are leaving for temporary duty on a short-term inter-
ship transfer. When your duty is finished you will return here.
I know that whatever happens you will not let Aurora down,"
said a senior officer, wishing the men good luck.
The ship to which Tom Barnes had been allotted was H.M.S.
Cossack, which also had already fought the Germans. She had
recently been on escort duties in the North Sea and had taken
part in the abortive chase of the German battleship which
had sunk the Rawalpindi. Though a small ship, the flotilla
captain, Philip Vian, flew his flag in her.
In Cossack, Vian, a fierce, outspoken sailor, with a reputa-
tion for aggressiveness, was cursing fate. A minor epidemic of
influenza had laid low half the crews of the flotilla's ships just
when a signal from Home Fleet had ordered him into action.
"What's it this time?" a young fellow-officer asked Geofirey
Craven as they went aboard the Cossack.
"Ice recce in the Skagerrak," said the tall, dark, temporary
paymaster sub-lieutenant, who was Captain Vian's assistant
secretary, a "Sunday sailor", as he described himself defen-
sively, whose wide knowledge of North European languages
had been of great use to the flotilla already.
Graven had been on patrol in the North Sea with the Cossack
since the beginning of the war and had joined many a boarding
party to examine ships on the high seas. He now took things
as they came. "Routine," he said, "but, of course, anything
The cruiser Arethusa, the destroyers Sikh, Nubian, Ivanhoe and
Intrepid, were all under sailing orders and launches were passing
busily between the ships. Before ten o'clock that night, under
the orders of Lieutenant "Nosey" Parker, Petty Officer
Barnes and other Aurora ratings, carrying rifles, bayonets,
steel helmets, and webbing, had joined their temporary ship
They were a formidable-looking group standing on the sea-
men's mess deck waiting for orders when Cossack's "Jimmy-
the-One", Lieutenant-Commander Bradwell Talbot Turner,
came forward to address them. Turner, a tall, slender naval
officer, quiet and serious in manner, struck them as a bookish
type rather than a man of action. But his first brisk words dis-
pelled their illusions.
"Boarding procedure will be as follows,** he said, out-
lining two alternative plans. One envisaged boarding by boat
and the men were allotted to positions in various boats. "But,"
said Turner, "if there is a boarding direct from the ship, you
will take up the following positions." Each man was told
exactly from which point on Cossack he would jump on to the
enemy vessel and was given his specific task.
In the early hours the flotilla, led by Arethusa, sailed line
ahead into the North Sea and set a course due east Graven went
below to the wardroom and joined the big Irishman, Lieutenant
L. Burkett, who was the captain's first secretary.
"I'll wager things are likely to happen on this trip," Burkett
said. "This is going to be more than an ordinary ice recce.
The Old Man is only waiting for further orders."
The newcomers to the Cossack were equally convinced that
the ships now heading into the cold dawn had not been suddenly
reinforced with Aurora men just to see how far the ice extended
in the Skagerrak. Often, previously in wardroom and mess
deck, men of the Home Fleet had talked of action in Norway.
Surely Britain could not afford to let Hitler get in there first
and take control of the vast coastline, with its fjords and safe
anchorages and inlets, from which raiders could harry the
shipping between Britain and the Baltic countries?
The units of the flotilla were splitting up. As the morning
dawned each was sweeping a wide area in a pre-determined
pattern which left no square mile of the ocean uncovered.
"Wouldn't be a bit surprised if we were after that Nazi
hell-ship -with hundreds of our blokes aboard . . . you know
the ship I mean! What was her name?*' said a Cossack petty
"Altmark. You mean the Altmark," said Barnes.
Earlier in the month the Navy had heard a report that the
Altmark, carrying over three hundred British merchant sailors,
as prisoners, had reached her home port of Hamburg. But there
had been a swift Admiralty denial and in many of the warships
of the Northern Patrol the topic of the Altmark prisoners crop-
ped up continuously.
"Would be just the job to run into this Altmark. She must be
coming through here somewhere/' said Burkett.
In the bright sunshine Vian continued to direct a sweep
of the ocean, edging eastward aJl the time.
About nine o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, February
14, George King went down to the washing deck and brought
up a bucket of dirty washing water. Schmidt had given strict
orders that no one was to attempt to get on deck, but the wily
Doric Star engineer convinced the guard that the water must
"We can't wash. It's bad enough in the hell down there.
We are suffocating. We must have a rinse to freshen up."
"Well, quickly, then . . . schnell, schnelll"
King was on deck for only a minute but it was enough. There
to port, snow-covered, but still there, was land the first he
had seen for many weeks.
"Land! I have seen land!" King was unable to keep back
a shout when he returned to the hold. It was impossible to say
where they were. The Altmark was lying well out at sea. "But
it's land land, I tell you."
Gross went quickly up the trunkway, but was back again
almost at once. "You're right," he shouted jubilantly. "It's
the Norwegian coast I've seen it scores of times."
His shout was taken up and grew into a mighty roar. All
through the flats there was singing, screaming, whistling. The
whistles, discordant at first, soon began to keep time in a
"Quiet down there, absolute quiet." The guards were be-
coming panicky. Quickly they opened the hatches to send down
tea and take up the lavatory drums. "It will be the last time
we shall have to do this dirty work for you," one of them hissed.
The Altmark aground in Jossing Fjord
"You bet it will be," a chorus replied The hatch was re-
placed, with more threats, but the shouting continued*
"Keep those fellows quiet whatever you do/' Captain Dau
ordered Weichert and Schmidt They could see that the
captain was in a vicious mood. As they had entered his cabin a
Trondheim port official was leaving. He had arrived in a pilot's
boat and had been in conference with Dau for some time.
"The swine," muttered Dau as the pilot's launch cast off.
Paulsen thought he was talking about the prisoners. "We'll
keep them quiet, Hen Kapitaen. Don't you worry."
"JV>m, nein!" Dau retorted. Words cascaded from his lips
and his little beard jumped angrily up and down as he re-
peated what the Norwegian had told him. There were only
pilots for the passage into Trondheim. But, said Dau angrily,
he was not going to walk into this trap. If he went to Trond-
heim the British might force the Norwegians to interpret his
arrival as a landing in a Norwegian port which was different
from cruising in Norwegian waters.
"No coastal pilots before Kristiansund!" Dau dismally re-
peated the Norwegian's words. "We shall have to coast along
as best as we can. I have sent a request to Kristiansund.
Now," he added wearily, "I shall rest a while, Paulsen. Please
"Herr Kapitaen, Hen Kapitaen . . ." Rudely the call roused
Dau half an hour later. "Torpedo boat astern."
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes like a child, Dau hurried
to the bridge. A Norwegian ship had moved in close, and Dau,
his eyes now open wide, could see her name without difficulty:
Trygg. From the Trygg a flag signal gave the order: "Stop."
Her siren whistled.
"What do you want? Verdammt!" Dau expostulated. "We
have no time to lose. Every minute counts with me."
Below, the Tairoa's second mate, Robert Costa, heard the
Trygg's siren and called loudly for silence.
He listened intently. "Got it," he said. "That's the letter K."
"What's that mean?" asked an engineer.
"International signal," said Costa, looking round for con-
firmation from the other mates. "Some ship is telling the
Altmark to stop."
Costa was right. Already a boat was on the way carrying a
Norwegian officer to the Altmark. His request to inspect the
ship was polite but firm. Dau, not to be outdone in courtesy,
conducted him to the bridge and showed him the navigating
cabin. "We are an unarmed tanker," he insisted.
The Norwegian officer was satisfied and saluted Dau as he
left to return to the Trygg. "Two things Herr Kapitaen-
Leutwnt" Dau stopped him. "I should be grateful for a
certificate saying that you have searched us. And, what about
the pilot I have requested?"
The Norwegian made an entry in the ship's diary.
M 3 a > jfl . I am afraid there is no pilot here, though you
may be able to get one at Alesund. But if you would accept
the help of one of my men? He has no certificate, but he knows
these waters well."
Dau was full of gratitude. The Norwegian sailor came aboard
and, easier in his mind, Dau ordered the Altmark to steam on
the next stage of her voyage.
When the tanker approached Alesund, Captain Dau, back
on duty peered from the bridge at the Trygg> which followed in
his backwash like a faithful watch-dog. He had only just rung
down "Slow", when a rowing-boat drew alongside.
"Ah, the pilots," Dau said. He seemed relieved; but his relief
vanished when he found that the pilots, on whose knowledge
of the coastline he intended to rely, were accompanied by a
Norwegian naval officer.
Peremptorily, the officer demanded full details about the
"I have already given all necessary information," Dau
"That may well be so," the Norwegian insisted, "but my
orders are to take details."
"These are not British orders?" Dau asked, facetiously.
The Norwegian disregarded the German's sarcasm. Quietly
he followed Dau around the ship asking questions, making
notes of what Dau said. No, there were no guns on board.
Prisoners? Certainly not.
"The Altmark is a tanker, not a warship," Dau tried to
work up indignation. "I cannot understand why all this is
necessary. Surely I have every right to sail in Norwegian
"Maybe ... but you are approaching the fortified base of
Bergen and are not permitted to pass it in darkness."
He was turning to go when the captain caught him by his
sleeve and kept him in his cabin. "One moment, Hen Kapitaen-
From below Dau had heard a significant rumbling. He left
his visitor unceremoniously and called to Paulsen urgently.
"Turn on the winches to drown that noise. No violence
now, but keep the prisoners quiet/ 5 he ordered, in a whisper.
From the look-out post at the top of the trunkway, John
Bammant had seen the Trygg officer aboard the Altmark. If a
Norwegian officer was aboard, his boat must be near. Bammant
called for action. "All together, lads," he shouted. "Give it
all you've got."
The next moment pandemonium broke out. Bammant
picked up a wedge of wood and started beating the big lavatory
drum. Officers and men followed his example. Everybody ham-
mered on the steel plates and stanchions and flakes of white
paint spattered in all directions. Feet drummed on the iron
deck, heels kicked against steel doors. The din was indescribable.
Bammant, Brown, Gross, Cudbertson, Wall and other young
officers were not satisfied with noise. As he looked around,
Bammant's eye fell on the heavy steel girders which kept
ammunition in position before the prisoners were quartered
in the holds. It did not take the powerful young man long to
wrench one from its fitting. Raising it aloft, he staggered with
it towards the trunkway. Willing hands grasped the girder
and sent it thudding against the hatch. The noise had now
"Can't you hear us?"
The girder shot upwards, battering and splintering the heavy
wooden hatch in places. But it was heavy work for the weakened
young men and one after another was forced to rest. Over
part of the hole the prisoners could see a guard seated on the
hatch in order to keep it in position.
"I'll shift him," promised BammanL
He seized a jagged tin can and, standing on a lavatory drum,
thrust it at the guard. An anguished cry told the cheering
prisoners that Bammant's jab had gone home. The girder was
lifted in position again.
"Heave," roared Bammant.
The hole in the hatch grew bigger and the hatch itself now
threatened to disintegrate. Thoroughly alarmed, a guard
looked down into the holds at the shouting prisoners. His
pistol was drawn* "Stop, or I fire/' he yelled menacingly.
On the Altmark deck, the freight winches were turning on
their rumbling cogs. Every winch on the tanker was in opera-
tion when Dau returned to his cabin to release the impatient
"My ship is empty," he said with a pious smile. "The crew
find it very cold after our stay in the South Atlantic. I have
given them permission to generate heat with the winches."
The Norwegian was already leaving the ship and returning
to the Trygg.
"They are still trying to break out, Herr Kapitaen." Pale and
agitated, Weichert reported on the bridge.
"Put the hoses on them. But no shooting, not here, anyway,"
Dau ordered. "This is revolt," he added under his breath.
"Turn out the lights down there," he shouted.
The German with his revolver withdrew and the hoses were
inserted in the holes in the hatch. Now, in the darkness, water
hissed down into the flats. It flooded the lavatory drums and
drenched the prisoners. The stench was overpowering.
A few men still trying to scramble towards the hatch were
beaten back by the rifle butts.
Lieutenant Schmidt pushed his way through the guards.
He too had dra\vn his revolver. "Another move and we shoot
without further warning."
It was 2 p.m. when the Norwegian had boarded the Altmark.
Now it was 6 p.m. and the tanker was under way again.
There was no hope left of a break-out. The chance had not
been missed it had never really existed. The noise died down.
Once or twice pocket whistles spelled out desultory SOS
signals again. But the prisoners, tired and dispirited, knew
they were beaten.
They were in complete darkness except for the tiny lights
from a few torches which had escaped detection in spite of
many searches. In the past some of the older men had filled up
oil barrels with water, as a protection against fire. Now their
foresight was rewarded.
Oil was rising in a thin film to the top of the water and some
men dipped rags into it so as to make crude lamps. But pungent
smoke from the "lamps" poisoned the atmosphere, and the
prisoners decided it was better to remain in darkness.
The stillness was broken by the sound of the hatch being
pulled back. Weichert appeared, followed by Schmidt and
twenty guards. Silently they pinned a sheet of paper on the
notice board. It said:
NOTICE TO PRISONERS
ON ACCOUNT OF TODAY'S BEHAVIOUR OF THE PRISONERS
THERE WILL BE BREAD AND WATER ONLY TOMORROW INSTEAD
OF REGULAR MEALS.
FURTHER I HAVE GIVEN THE ORDER THAT NEITHER PRISON
OFFICER NOR DOCTOR WILL MAKE THEIR REGULAR ROUNDS.
ANY SEVERE CASE OF SICKNESS CAN BE REPORTED ON OCCASION
OF HANDING DOWN THE FOOD.
AT SEA, FEBRUARY 15, 1940.
OUTSIDE, THE NIGHT was clear and cold and the stars
sparkled* Dau, uneasily pacing the bridge, talked nervously
and incessantly to Paulsen about his plans. Several times
within the hour, Paulsen had tried to go to his cabin, but Dau
detained him. While the Altmark ploughed across the ocean,
he had been strong and self-reliant. But now near land, he
seemed to need the support of his strong and steady first officer.
"Permission or no permission," he repeated, "I am going
on. Tell the pilots that I relieve them of their responsibility
for our safety. Please go and tell them, Paulsen," he said.
"No, wait! I shall tell them myself."
But when he did so, the senior pilot replied: "That makes
no difference. There are hundreds of fishing smacks about a
whole fishing fleet between here and the coast You could not
pass them in darkness without running them down."
"But it is not quite dark," Dau protested. "I can steer
"As you wish," the senior pilot shrugged, "but that means
leaving Norwegian territorial waters. If I were you I should
drop anchor here."
Dau did not reply. By this time he had decided that the
sympathies of the two pilots were certainly not with the
German Reich or any of her ships and captains.
"They're British agents," he whispered to Paulsen. "Watch
them. Not an unguarded word in front of them."
Dau thought it wise to pretend to fall in with the pilots'
wishes. He instructed his first officer to manoeuvre as if he were
trying to drop anchor.
"If we do as they say," he added, "they have lured us into
a trap. We shall have violated international law. But we shall
be all right while we cruise along."
Paulsen understood. With a stentorian voice, loud enough
for the listening Norwegians to hear, he reported to Dau that
the anchor winch was frozen up. There was nothing they
could do except carry on*
When he had made his report, Paulsen pulled Captain Dau
"One of the pilots has told Wegener that ours is a futile
endeavour altogether. He said England would win the war
anyway and that would be the end of Germany."
"Facts will soon disabuse you gentlemen of your silly
notions," Dau said patronizingly to the Norwegians. They
looked Dau up and down and smiled tolerantly.
The Altmark had now turned away from the rugged towering
coastline which she had followed closely since dawn. Leaving
a large fishing fleet on her port, the tanker put on speed, and
was soon gaining the open sea. The Trygg dropped back.
"Good riddance," Paulsen commented, as he saw the
Norwegian gunboat disappear in the darkness.
But the words were hardly out of his mouth when he saw
the flash of a signal lamp. It came from another Norwegian
torpedo boat which had appeared suddenly out of the night.
Now, it was so close that he could already see the name
"Full astern," Dau ordered. His face was red and he could
not disguise his irritation. The commander of the Snoegg came
aboard and said brusquely that he had orders to question the
"Really I must protest. I have been asked these questions
twice already," Dau flared up.
The Norwegian cut him short: "Orders," he said.
He asked his questions and Dau answered bad-temperedly.
The Norwegian did not stay long. But when he had gone Dau
noticed with annoyance that the Trygg had taken up the
Altmark's trail once more.
With a tired smile he left his charts and went out to look to
port. The Altmark was passing Sogne Fjord. Sogne . . . the name
he had adopted which had served to camouflage the Altmark
for so long. Dau was still well north of Bergen and estimated
that he could pass into the Skagerrak in the following night
between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. so long as he could continue on
his course at full speed and without interruption. In his own
mind, there was no doubt, it was his last chance to reach
"Ship to port." Paulsen's call shook him out of his reverie.
Dau peered to port He could see a destroyer churning up
the water as it approached. Its lamp was signalling unmis-
Paulsen said: "It is Garm, a destroyer of the Royal Nor-
" Jttzt zxrird's mir aber zu dumm!" Dau nearly screamed. The
whole business was getting too stupid.
While the destroyer approached, he wirelessed the nearest
coastal station requesting that a telegram be passed to the
German Embassy in Oslo.
"Have just been ordered to stop for the second time (he
wrote out) by a Norwegian destroyer after Norwegian officers
already on three occasions have been given all the infor-
mation they requested. Must protest energetically against
this repeated delay which in my opinion is a breach of
As Dau had finished drafting his signal the Garm's captain
was coming aboard the Altmark. He was taken at once to Dau's
cabin. He hardly nodded his head.
"I must protest," Dau began. "This interference is bound
to have disastrous consequences for my ship. I have already
protested through my embassy."
"I have orders to search your ship," interrupted the Nor-
wegian. "No ship of any nationality is allowed to pass the
fortified Bergen naval area without prior search."
"I am sorry," Dau retorted. "The Altmark is sailing under
the flag of the German Reich Service. Therefore, I am unable,
on principle, to permit a search, but if you axe concerned with
her armaments, I can give you an assurance that the Altmark
carries no armament at all."
"I am afraid that I cannot personally accept your pro-
position," said the Norwegian. "My admiral is on the Garm.
I shall consult with him,"
The consultation did not last long. He was back on the
Altmark within twenty minutes.
"Since you refuse us permission to search your ship," he
told Dau stiffly, "you will have to leave the fortified area at
once. Further, I am instructed to advise you that permission
to use telegraphic facilities cannot be granted. Your best
course is to use the Feje Osen passage. Goodbye."
Dau saw there was nothing to be done except rely on the
two pilots to show him the way. He explained the position.
"No, sir ... not us," they said at once. They were smiling
at the German captain's discomfiture. "We shall have to
leave you now."
The noose was tightening around the Altmark. As a last
desperate expedient, Captain Dau gave orders for one of his
officers to hail the Garm through a megaphone. Would the
captain of the Norwegian destroyer consent to transmit a
message to the German Embassy in Oslo.
The captain would. "But it is requested that the master of
the Altmark bring it across in person! "
Dau called his officers into consultation. There could be no
doubt at all in his mind now that the Norwegians were acting
in concert with British interests. It was clear to him that his
earlier telegram had never reached its destination and it might
be already in the hands of British agents. Obviously this was a
new trick Dau let his imagination coast on. Perhaps, he said,
there was a British Secret Service man on board the Garm, luring
him into a trap. "I should not be surprised at all," he said.
The officers looked at their captain in astonishment. They
did not doubt that he was talking nonsense. Dau quickly pulled
himself together as he noticed their expressions of surprise.
"Signal to the Norwegian that I am prepared to go on
Dau climbed into his launch and set out. To his surprise,
the traditional whistles piped him aboard the Norwegian
"Captain Dau may I introduce you to the Commander of
Bergen defence zone," the Garm captain said.
Speaking in fluent German the Admiral explained the inter-
national law as he interpreted it. "I am afraid I cannot accept
your version of the status of your ship," he said politely. "There
is no provision in international law for a ship such as yours.
The flag of the Reich Service is a nebulous thing. You must
appreciate this, Hen Kapitaen."
"But, Admiral, you must realize what it means if I cannot
pass the Skagerrak tonight. Tomorrow I am bound to run
into British naval forces."
"Tonight * , * tomorrow night," the Norwegian said stonily,
"I do not think it makes much difference."
Dau did not Tyii$? the Norwegian's meaning and inflection.
The argument was pointless and, he considered, was being
drawn out unduly long. It was getting late, very late . . . too
late. He was ready to return to his ship.
"Well," the Norwegian said, concluding the fruitless con-
versation. "You may carry on a little longer." He said it with
the air of a man who was conferring a great favour.
Dau laughed bitterly as he took his leave. There was no
longer any hope of making up for the delay. The Skager-
rak and safety seemed farther away than ever.
"Bureaucrats sticklers," Paulsen said when the captain
repeated the gist of the lengthy conversation with the Bergen
"They're all in the pay of the British," Dau thundered.
"Gangsters, hirelings. The Fuehrer will punish them. We
shall make them pay." He stumped off to his cabin.
In the darkness of the Altmark's evil-smelling holds nobody
thought of sleeping. They were near the Norwegian coast,
neutral and forbidding, but at least it was not Germany
not yet. With luck, the prisoners never would see Germany.
The lights had come on again, and George King bent low
over his diary with his stubby pencil poised. If he could only
make a few notes about this memorable exciting day. Calmly
King began to sum up:
" 15.2.40. Vessel running at fall speed from 6.30 a.m. but
still in the fjords. Still locked down here. Ship stopped at noon
and launch came alongside. We made brave effort to get out.
Then, an hour later, we were pulled up again and two des-
troyers and two gunboats examined the ship. Another effort
was made but we were repelled by hoses and lights out. Tried
S O S on whistles. What an awfal position. Ships right along-
side and still not rescued. The ship was held up for houis,
then under way again. Still we are not at Kiel yet or Hamburg
and in God we trust. We were given tea about six o'clock.
Nearly too disappointed to write."
As the lights went out a voice said despondently in the dark-
ness: "We've been forgotten," It expressed the thoughts of
most of the prisoners.
But they had not been foigotten. As the prisoners huddled
miserably together in their holds the diplomats were busy,
and no one slept in the Admiralty. From the First Lord of the
Admiralty, down the naval ranks to the ratings, thoughts that
night centred around the Altmark.
Britain had many friends in Norway and as the Altmark
passed the approaches to Bergen, an alert watcher observed
the vessel and deciphered her name. Within half an hour the
dramatic news was in the office of the British Vice-Consul,
who quickly informed the British Embassy in Oslo.
From the Naval Attach^ to the Admiralty went the coded
signal: "ALTMARK STEAMING TWO MILES OFF NORWEGIAN COAST
NORTH OF BERGEN."
The First Lord himself set the hunt in motion. The Admiralty
alerted ships of the Northern Patrol and the R.A.F. warned
its aircraft to watch for the Altmark. Naval Intelligence had
been expecting the prison ship to approach Northern Europe
for days. Officers had noted with derision the clumsy attempt
of the Goebbels propaganda machine to mislead them by a
wireless news report, according to which the Altmark had
returned to her German base on February 2. It had been
taken up by the whole Nazi Press. But the Admiralty was not
British Naval Staff officers had been wise to send Captain
Yian's flotilla on "ice reconnaissance" into the Skagerrak.
The position of the ice in the strategic straits would obviously
have an important bearing on the final lap of the Attmark's
voyage. It had proved impossible to trace her in the Atlantic.
But with a strong flotilla cruising and searching, positioned
carefully in a striking poise, the Altmark would find it hard to
escape detection once she neared her home port.
Out in the North Sea that night Vian in the Cossack re-
ceived from the Admiralty the news from Bergen and a new
objective. Find the Altmark. Every effort, Vian was told,
would be made through diplomatic channels to prevent the
prison ship, clearly a Nazi auxiliary war vessel, from sheltering
behind the security of Norwegian territorial waters.
Churchill, angered by the Altmark's flagrant violation of
international law, had at once realized Norway's dilemma.
He knew that any violent Norwegian reaction might rouse the
German High Command. It was not enough for Norway to be
strictly neutral. Her insistence on the letter of international
law would probably be interpreted as a sign of hostility against
Germany. It could serve as a pretext for an attack on Norway.
His instructions to the First Sea Lord for transmission to
Captain Vian were as clear as they could be. The Altmark was
an invaluable trophy. "Find her, edge her into the open sea,
board her and liberate her prisoners."
The signal included a rough "fix" the estimated position
at the time the Altmark was reported. When Captain Vian
gave his officers the news, it threw the destroyer in a turmoil.
"If I only knew what I am looking for," Vian said in ex-
asperation to his flotilla navigator, Lieutenant-Commander
"Don't you, sir?"
It was a difficult, an incredible situation. A cruiser and five
destroyers were racing to meet a prison-ship with three hundred
British merchant seamen on board, but the flotilla commander
was without a detailed description of the ship he sought. It
did not help Vian to carry out his orders.
Every day, wily Nazi vessels hid their identity behind
Scandinavian flags to escape the attention of the Royal Navy
while they carried vital Swedish iron ore supplies to Germany.
On the Northern Patrol Cossack had learned how difficult it
could be to frustrate such ruses. The Admiralty's latest in-
formation was that the Altmark flew a German flag. But sup-
pose, once she had left Norwegian territorial waters, that the
ship changed her nationality again.
A junior officer of the Cossack hurried to the bridge proudly
waving the ship's newest copy of the London Illustrated News
that he had found in the wardroom. It was the issue of February
4, and here for all to see was a picture of the Altmark.
The senior officers crowded round the magazine. "Is that
the Altmark?" asked somebody.
"There. Just where I've got my thumb."
The officer looked incredulous. "That thing, a tanker of
20,000 tons?" he enquired. "Must be a mistake somewhere."
By eight o'clock on the morning of February 16 the Altmark
had covered a hundred miles in a leisurely, uneventful night
cruise. Captain Dau, who had dozed for an hour or two in his
cabin, went up to the bridge.
"Position, Hm Kapitaen," Paulsen reported. The Altmark was
off Kopervik, south of Hagesund and just north of Stavangen
"The pilots are changing/'
Suspiciously, the Altmark captain, officers and crew, watched
the Norwegians come aboard. The Norwegians greeted each
other but wasted no words on the Germans.
"Your instructions?" one of the new pilots asked the
Dau decided he must be careful. A whole and very critical
day was in front of him. There was nothing the Altmark
could do except to steam slowly along the rugged coast and
watch the steep rocks, the hidden and picturesque little islets
A hundred miles ahead were the deep waters of the Skager-
rak. Late that night the Altmark would make the dash across
the Skagerrak towards the Danish coast and, with luck, to
In the sharp, dry cold wind the crew shivered, in spite of
greatcoats and leather jerkins.
"What's the position below?" Dau asked Weichert. Neither
Schmidt nor Dr. Tyrolt had visited the prisoners' quarters
since the previous afternoon. Guards, heavily armed, had
taken the ship's biscuits and water down the punishment
rations prescribed by the captain. Beyond that, there had been
no personal contact with the prisoners.
"They are worse than ever, Hen Kapitaen," Weichert re-
ported. The guards, he said, were frightened by the menacing
attitude of some of the prisoners. They had been assailed with
threats and shouts, angry and ironical.
"They probably thought their hour had struck when we
stopped," Dau decided. "Now that we are steaming ahead
I am sure they will lose their confidence."
Dau was almost right The leisurely progress of the ship
puzzled the prisoners. She had been nearly stationary when
it was Cudbertson's turn on watch at 4 a.m. After that she
had drifted slowly along the coast and all Gudbertson could
see was a red light nearly astern. It was the Norwegian gun-
boat still tagging on to the Altmark.
The men were too tense even to talk. They were sure the
day would bring great events, but how or when they did not
dare to think. Logically, only a miracle could deflect the
Altmark from her course from her "march to Germany", as
the German sailors called it But miracles had happened before
and most of the prisoners believed a miracle would save them
ere the day was out*
By 10 a.m. Cossack was far to the south of some of the ships
of the flotilla when her look-out reported a ship that resembled
"We'll go and inspect her," said Captain Vian, jauntily.
But as Cossack approached the ship, it became obvious that
she was a Swede. An hour later the destroyer bore down on a
ship carrying the Norwegian flag, steaming a few miles from
"Question her," Vian instructed Craven, who requested
details, addressing the ship in Swedish through the megaphone.
Swedish and Norwegian voices replied. The assurances they
gave were satisfactory and Captain Vian let her go. The same
thing happened several times during the morning. The area
was alive with shipping, but there was not a sign of the Altmark.
Nor had anyone seen her. "No, no tanker, sir," said a Dutch
trawlerman, when lieutenant Parker rowed over in the
Cossack's whaler, "but we've had some very good fishing today.
Take some back with you for supper."
The fish tasted good but it was a poor substitute for the
Earlier that morning around 7.30 the crews of two Hudsons
"F. for Freddy" and "K. for King" were called to the
briefing room at Thornaby Station, Tees Bay, on the borders
of Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire. The time had
come for the R.A.F. to take a hand in the hunt for the prison-
Pilot Officer C. W. McNeill, a Canadian, P.O. Lawry, a
New Zealander, his co-pilot, Leading Aircraftsman Sheekey
and Rear Gunner Corporal Hugill, the crew of "K. for King",
listened attentively as the intelligence officer outlined their
mission, which was to be undertaken in co-operation with
"F. for Freddy".
Somewhere along the coast of Norway maybe either in
the North Sea or the Skagerrak a German tanker was
making for Kiel or Hamburg. Their mission was to locate the
tanker, identify her, photograph her, give her position and
direction as speedily as possible.
"Here is a sketch of this ship. The name is Altmark" the
briefing officer told McNeill and his crew.
From the rough sketch they gathered that the Altmark was
a ship of bold and distinctive outline. Her upper decks were
likely to be painted black and white and her tonnage fairly
large around 20,000 tons.
"The ship must on no account be attacked." The airmen
looked puzzled. "She is carrying hundreds of British seamen
as prisoners," said the briefing officer. "Note her exact position
and report. In code, of course."
By 8.25 a.m. the two Hudsons were airborne and had crossed
the coast. The day was brilliantly sunny and the sea looked as
blue as the Mediterranean. Soon, on a track about ten miles
north of the strongly fortified Heligoland, the German coast-
line came into view.
Diving low, with "K. for King" leading, the Hudsons
inspected all shipping along the Danish coast and the Skager-
rak as far as Skagen. There was plenty of it but no sign of a
tanker. The aircraft turned out to sea again and, as they did
so, noted that pack ice was drifting away on the horizon.
In the fine weather they reckoned they could see as much as
fifty miles ahead.
At Thornaby wireless operators were listening in for news
from the two aircraft but it was 12.52 before the message came.
"F. for Freddy" sent it: "Tanker steaming southwards on a
Within minutes, the top priority message had been relayed
by the Admiralty to Cossack. Vian was too far south to act
himself and signalled a warning to Aretkusa. Her look-outs
were just deciphering the name of a ship when to their sur-
prise they saw her crew taking to the boats. The name was
Baldur, a tanker of about 6,000 tons. Before Aretkusa could
reach the ship the Baldur had begun to sink. Her crew had
panicked and scuttled hen
McNeill in "K. for King" had heard the message passed
by "F. for Freddy" but still kept his attention on the vast
At 12.55 p.m., fifteen miles north of the course of his flight,
he could see a dark shape which grew into a ship as he ap-
proached. She was steaming southwards, he estimated, at
about eight knots. McNeill made a big sweep to get a better
broadside view and a minute later they could make her out
quite clearly. She was a big, grey tanker.
"Could be/' he said on the inter-comm to his crew, as
he roared down to deck level. The ship was not black and
she had no white deck tops. He flew so low that he went
under her bow. There, clear as noon-day, was her name:
A call on the inter-comm alerted Corporal Hugill and L.A.C.
"Sheekey," MacNeill asked, "is 'F. for Freddy' trans-
McNeill knew that "F. for Freddy" had seen the ship and
he was sure that his fellow-pilot was going through the long
process of enciphering a message on his hand-held machine.
"That job," McNeill snapped to Pilot Officer Lawry, "is
bound to take too long."
McNeill thought quickly. He estimated that at this latitude
the sun would be setting and dusk beginning to descend within
an hour. He was certain that if the Altmark were not inter-
cepted that evening she would be safely through the Skager-
rak by morning.
A coded message must be decoded before it could be passed
to the Royal Navy, and that would take time too much
time. Yet his instructions that code must be used were clear
The Altmark was steaming at eight knots. Her exact position
was 58 i7'N., 06 os'E.
McNeill made his decision. He wrote an "enemy first
sighting" report in self-evident code.
"Bang it out, Sheekey," he instructed his wireless-operator.
He was sure that anybody engaged on the Altmark search
would understand the message immediately. British naval
units in the area could intercept the signal and act at once.
McNeill, his mission finished, turned for home. He had
barely enough petrol in his tank to reach the English coast.
"Returning to base" he advised his station. His message was
picked up at Coastal Command's Leuchars base, which at once
sent other aircraft to keep an eye on the Altmark.
McNeill was received coldly when he returned to Thornaby.
His commanding officer put on a show of anger. There had
been a good reason for the instruction that any message about
the Altmark was to be sent in code. McNeill, said the station
commander, had not set a good example by deciding for him-
self whether to follow instructions or not. For days to come
McNeill worried and wondered whether his judgment had been
He need not have worried. His wireless message had been
intercepted by the Cossack. Without losing a second and long
before a signal through ordinary channels could have reached
him Captain Vian gathered ids flotilla. Intrepid and Ivanhoe
were at the time nearest to the Altmark. They were ordered
to intercept at full speed, covered by the cruiser Arcthusa.
But the whole flotilla quickly assembled.
On the Altmark bridge Captain Dau had watched the British
aircraft with mounting agitation. "There are three of them,"
he said, unable even to count. As they circled above he tried
to keep them in his binoculars. "They are photographing us, 91
he said, plaintively.
The wide turns of the aircraft carried them inland after
they had dived on the Altmark. As the aircraft reappeared
from the direction of the shore Dau shouted angrily: " Criminals
they are violating Norwegian neutrality."
Paulsen* frowned. "Don't worry about the aircraft, 5 * Dau
said. "They will not touch us. But it proves that the Englaender
must have known about us ever since we passed Kristiansund.
I am not going to be bluffed into interrupting our voyage
He scanned the sea as the aircraft turned away. There must
be no further interruption. Full steam ahead towards the
Skagerrak. And tomorrow Germany.
It was an hour later at 245 p.m. when he gave a startled
little shout. On his starboard to the south-south-west the
silhouettes of three ships moved menacingly into his view.
The look-outs' warning was superfluous. Paulsen, Wegener,
Weichert stood near the captain without a word.
"Englische Kriegschiffe," Dau said. They were British war-
ships. He was sure he could recognize from the silhouette
that one of them was a cruiser. Majestic, in spite of her dull
camouflage paint, Arethusa was steaming on a parallel course
with the Altmark. Intrepid and Ivankoe were approaching.
"They have seen us, Herr Kapitaen. They are coming to-
Vian's ships were beginning to close in* From Artthusa came
a Morse signal: "Steer west. Steer west."
"They want to get us out to sea, Hen Kapitaen"
Dau did not reply at first: "They are already in territorial
waters," he said, turning to one of the Norwegian pilots.
"Just like German U-boats," the pilot replied. He did not
trouble to suppress a smile.
"Paulsen." Dau's warning just restrained his first officer,
who had raised his fist to strike the pilot. The pilot turned
away, still smiling,
"Calm, Paulsen, calm," Dau repeated. Then he said wearily:
"We can do nothing but cany on. Continue at half-speed.
They will not dare touch us."
"THIS IS JOSSING FJORD"
IN LONDON PRIME MINISTER Neville Chamberlain called
a Cabinet meeting to discuss the position of the Altmark. In
Oslo Norwegian Foreign Minister Koht was at his desk study-
ing the report of the Admiral in Command of Bergen defence
zone. At his field Fuehrer headquarters Adolf Hitler considered
signals to the German Naval High Command being passed
on by Grand Admiral Raeder.
But in the noxious holds of the Altmark, the prisoners, power-
less pawns in the international turmoil, were ignorant of the
attempts being made to liberate them.
Only once during the long morning was the strong wire
removed from the hatch top; it had been wound round the
trunkway head the previous evening after the riot had been
quelled. Lieutenant Schmidt with four guards and several
Altmark sailors in attendance climbed down to the lowest deck
to busy themselves with the bilges.
Goss, Bammant and a group of youngsters watched the Ger-
mans suspiciously. What were they doing in the ship's bottom?
Were they making preparations to scuttle?
"What are you up to now?" someone asked Schmidt
"Getting ready to scuttle? "
Schmidt said: "If your Navy attacks us we shall certainly
have to destroy this ship. We are unarmed. We can't resist."
"And what about us?" asked King, who had joined the
"I have told you a hundred times that we shall unfasten
the hatch in good time. After that it will be every man for
Schmidt and the guards left and the hatch was battened
down. But through a crack the guards could be seen outside.
Some had keys in their hands, others revolvers at the ready.
The prisoners were overjoyed when the lookout reported that
they were looking skywards.
The drone of an aircraft, flying very low, could be heard in
the holds. But whose? The sound roused a rumble of voices;
everybody was fully dressed. Belongings long ago had been
gathered up and packed in cases, bags or bundles.
For the last half-hourit was now 3.15 p.m. Captain Dau
had not taken his eyes from the British warships. The two
destroyers were now moving in very close.
The Altmark was going half-speed and a new Norwegian
gunboat, Skarv, had taken over from the Trygg and was fol-
lowing closely in her backwash.
"Signal this message to the Norwegians," Dau ordered,
passing his hand wearily across his forehead. "The English
are sailing in Norwegian territorial waters. Their ships are
warships. It is the duty of the Norwegians to stop them."
As they drew closer, Dau could see clearly on the side of
the nearest destroyer the marking D.io. Hurriedly he asked
an officer to consult the reference books and find out what
class the ship was. D.io he was told presently was the descrip-
tion of the destroyer H.M.S. Intrepid.
The Altmark was now approaching a narrow channel of
water formed between the coast and a few small islands. On
her port was a small fjord, the waters of which were glistening
with ice. Dau's original aim had been to steer around the
islands. But with the destroyers on his starboard he moved
In Intrepid, Commander R. C. Gordon prepared for action.
He ordered a boat to be lowered.
"Boarding party fall in." The first lieutenant sharply re-
peated the captain's command and a party of thirty doubled
to take up positions along the ship's rails.
"Repeat the last signal," Captain Gordon ordered.
The flags went up with the command: "Heave to." Dau
ignored the signal and the Altmark slowly steamed on.
"Put a shot across her bows." The gunnery officer sprang
to obey his captain's order. There was a flash from the des-
troyer's four-inch gun and the sound of the shell reverberated
round the mountains.
The situation outside Jossing Fjord
The curse echoed across the deck of the Intrepid. Owing to
the high-speed manoeuvring the shot had fallen wide of the
Altmark and had landed squarely on Norwegian soil.
"Another round, but for God's sake aim across her bows."
A second warning shot cracked out and the captain saw the
Skarv approach, her commander shouting through his mega-
The Intrepid, unperturbed either by the mishap or the
Norwegian's approach, continued on her course. If she could
interpose herself between the Altmark and the coast she could
force the prison-ship out to sea or, at worst, board her on the
fringe of the three-mile limit But the Skarv was in the way and
seemed bent on frustrating the Intrepid** intention.
With despairing resolution Dau turned the Altmark to port
and made for the entrance to the fjord at full speed. Not many
yards separated Intrepid from the Altmark, but between pur-
suer and pursued were the protecting Norwegians.
"Full ahead," Dau commanded again. There was nothing
else he could do to give his ship respite. The thick ice covering
the ^waters of the fjord groaned and cracked as the powerful
engines of the Altmark pushed her through, leaving behind
grooves of dark-green water, filled with ice chippings.
"This is Jossing Fjord," said Wegener. "I know it I have
been here before."
Dau did not care where he was so long as the tanker was
undamaged. The impact of the Altmark against the pack ice had
made the ship shudder. On deck, it hurled the sailors against
each other. Below it threw the prisoners into struggling heaps.
"She's run aground," one of them shouted.
Cudbertson climbed up the thirty-nine steps of the ladder.
Through the hatch he could see that they were in a narrow
"We're in a creek," he reported to the prisoners. "It must
have been the RjLF. we heard. They've driven old 'Knitty
Whiskers' inland ..."
There was a wild scramble for a view of the scene outside.
Watchers said that the Altmark crew were in a state of agitation
and fright Fully dressed, with life-jackets in position, their
sea-bags in their hands, they ran blindly from one side of the
ship to the other.
The ship was still now, though large blocks of floating ice
crashed continually against her sides. The prisoners nibbled
their biscuits, moistened their cracked lips with the remains
of their drinking-water and waited. They did not know what
had happened or what would happen. It was enough for the
moment that something had happened.
For Dau, the final test had come. He admitted ruefully to
himself that his calculations had been wrong. He had been
positive that the Royal Navy would not dare attack him so
close to the Norwegian coast. His main fears had centred
around the night dash through the Skagerrak, where he could
have pitted his speed and navigational skill against all that
the Navy could send against him* Speed, skill and darkness
would have helped him through.
There was no hope now of reaching the Skagerrak that
night. He looked around at the fjord in which he was trapped.
The snow-covered mountains towering high above him gave
him a sickening feeling of claustrophobia. On several occasions
during talks with his officers on the long voyage home, he
had hinted that Captain Langsdorff had been a fool to allow
himself to be trapped at Montevideo. Would they say in turn
that Captain Dau was a fool too, to fall into the trap of Jossing
His thoughts turned from distasteful speculation to pro-
fessional matters. He estimated that, at the point where the
Altmark had come to rest, the fjord was about four hundred
yards wide. Behind him he could see the Skarv following in the
water groove he had churned up. The Norwegian stopped about
three hundred yards away. A second Norwegian gunboat
appeared and he read her name: Kjell. Lying side by side they
reminded him of watchdogs, at the entrance to a rich man's
"That's good," Dau said to Paulsen, pointing to the
Norwegians. "The English cannot touch us now."
The sight of the gunboats made Dau feel better. Their
presence meant he had time to consider his future. He was well
inside Norwegian territory. He had managed so far to hide
the fact that he was violating international law by carrying
prisoners. He reasoned that if the Norwegians did not know
or preferred not to know because they feared the Fuehrer's
wrath right was clearly on his side.
However, a final decision about his next move would have
to come from the Seekriegsfuekrung.
"Signal to the Legation in Oslo," he said to the wireless
officer. His signal included a hurried description of his position.
"I request instructions/ 5 he ended.
"We can help you no more/' the Norwegian pilots told
Captain Dau. They signalled to the Kjell for a boat to take
them off. The boat arrived with a visitor a Norwegian
customs officer: "My instructions are to stay on board your
ship while you are in this fjord," he said.
Through the narrow entrance of the fjord Dau could still
see the two British destroyers which had tried to intercept
him. But out of sight Cossack had also arrived off the fjord.
Vian had expected to fight he was eager to board the
tanker but he had not expected to be involved in an inter-
national incident. He had his ships disposed around him in
fighting order. If the tanker was an innocent merchant ship,
why had she failed to heave to? There was only one answer:
the tanker was hiding something and the something was
But Vian knew he must act carefully. The Altmark was
without question in Norwegian waters. And so signals he
had just received said she might be armed with two six-inch
guns, which would make her very dangerous. The fjord was
narrow, and movement inside would be restricted. "Going in
alone," he signalled to his captains.
He steamed between the tiny islands and the coast and
ordered Craven to hail the gunboats. It was tea-time and the
steward brought mugs of hot tea on to the bridge.
"Good. No point missing our tea," said Lieutenant-Com-
mander MacLean. The tall navigating officer of the 4th
Flotilla rarely lost his sense of humour. "Unless she's going
He pointed to a motorboat from the Kjell which was chug-
ging towards Cossack. "They can't have heard what I was
saying," said Craven. "They're coming over to see."
The Norwegian captain came aboard and stiffly saluted Vian
on the quarter-deck. Vian received the Norwegian coldly.
But for the actions of the Norwegians, the Altmark would already
have been searched and the business would be finished. He
spoke bluntly. "That tanker's got British seamen on board
according to our reports. She is violating your neutrality. I
must find out whether our reports are true.'*
The Norwegian replied slowly: "The Altmark has been
searched three times. The Admiral in command of the Bergen
defence zone assures you that she carries no prisoners. My in-
structions are to resist your entry."
They were pacing the starboard quarter-deck and their
voices began to rise. "The captain's having a real argy-
bargy," an A.B. reported to his mess. Vian pointedly looked
towards the Kjell. His glance could not be misunderstood. It
was as if he had laughed and said: "You will prevent me
From a respectful distance the officers of the Cossack were
watching the two captains, wondering how much longer Vian
would wait before giving them the word to go in.
The argument was coming to an end. "Did you hear what
I heard?" Craven asked. The officers were overjoyed to
hear Vian angrily telling the Norwegian to get off his
The Norwegian had hardly gone when MacLean noticed
intense activity on board the Kjell. Several of the crew seemed
to busy themselves with the torpedo tube on the upper deck.
"Do you think, sir," a junior officer asked him, "they're
going to launch that thing at us?"
"Looks like it!" MacLean said uneasily.
But Vian was unconcerned when the incident was reported
to him. He was busy drafting a signal to the Admiralty,
summarizing his conversation with the Norwegian. Craven
enciphered the message and despatched it to London. He
asked for instructions.
From the bridge Vian saw the Kjell moving towards the
Altmark. Dau, too, had been watching closely. What did it
mean? The Kjell came so close that her captain's voice could
clearly be heard on the tanker's bridge.
"How many men have you on board?"
"One hundred and thirty-four men," Dau instructed
Paulsen to answer, "Tell him that this information is not to
be passed on to the English."
"He wants your assurance that we carry no prisoners,"
Paulsen reported. Dau had heard himself.
"You can give him that assurance," he said quickly.
The Kjell moved off and once more anchored by the side
of the Skarv.
In the Admiralty's map room Vian's latest signal was in the
hands of Mr. Churchill. This was more than a naval matter
it involved diplomatic considerations as well. He telephoned
Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary. It was imperative that the
prisoners be rescued, Churchill insisted. There were certain
risks. The Norwegians might resent it, but there was no
alternative. The Foreign Secretary agreed.
Time was pressing. It was 5.25 p.m. when the First Lord,
ignoring subordinate commanders, dictated a personal order
to Captain Vian:
"Unless Norwegian torpedo-boat undertakes to convoy
Altmark to Bergen with a joint Anglo-Norwegian guard on
board, and a joint escort, you should board the Altmark,
liberate her prisoners, and take possession of the ship pending
further instructions. If Norwegian torpedo-boat interferes, you
should warn her to stand off. If she fires upon you, you should
not reply unless attack is serious, in which case you should
defend yourself, using no more force than is necessary, and
ceasing fire when she desists."
The message was on its way to the Cossack when Lieutenant
Bradwell Turner called his men together.
"We shall probably have to board her," he said. "Every
man knows his position. Any questions? "
There were none.
"Expect we're waiting for confirmation from London,"
Petty Officer Barnes told the men under him. There was nothing
to do except to carry on. They went below to the mess-deck
for the supper they had collected earlier from the Dutch
fishermen, and were still eating when Lieutenant Turner looked
in. He told them gravely: "Those prisoners will be rescued
whatever the cost/'
In Jossing Fjord darkness had fallen but it was easy to see
by the reflected whiteness of the snow on the mountain-sides.
The Cossack had steamed out to sea again and Dau had no
idea where the British warships had gone. For over a week
he had not taken off his clothes and it was thirty-six hours
since he had slept. His eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot
and his legs seemed shackled as he dragged himself from the
bridge to his cabin.
He did not think he had seen the last of the British but he
did not expect anything more to happen that night. A knock
on his door shattered his hope of a few hours' escape from his
"Ship entering fjord, sir," the look-out reported.
Yes, they could make out its name. It was a Norwegian
patrol boat called Fircrn and it was making fast to a small
landing stage on the east bank of the fjord.
"That's all right," Dau said. "The more Norwegians the
better. I shall go to sleep now. Good night."
"Good night," said the officer. Dau looked at his watch.
It was 7.30 p.m.
In Cossack Captain Vian, after studying the First Lord's
fighting message, sent for the flotilla's navigating officer.
"How long will it take to get back where we were this
afternoon?" he asked Lieut.-Commander MacLean.
"About twenty minutes, sir."
"Right We're going in."
Turner alerted the men under his command. "Stand by
to board," he ordered. There was no question of boarding
from boats. It was to be a full-blooded ship-to-ship affair.
Officers and men, hurriedly buckling on webbing, took up
their stations on deck. All eyes turned towards the coast where
lights were flickering from the windows of the little houses.
"Funny," Barnes said. "At home there's blackout. Seems
odd to see all those lights at night. I'll bet they go out quickly
enough once we move in."
At that moment, Hector MacLean's was the hardest job
in the flotilla. All evening he had kept his eyes fixed on a
green light on which he intended to set his course. It was his
beacon and he had not let it out of his sight for more than a
few seconds. But the Cossack had been steaming towards it for
well over twenty minutes. A full moon lighted land and sea
brilliantly, yet Jossing Fjonl was nowhere in sight.
Captain Vian looked at his watch. "Your twenty minutes
are up, MacLean," he said. "What's happening? Why haven't
"Perhaps we are a bit farther off than I thought, sir," said
MacLean. It seemed obvious that the Cossack was not on course.
The destroyer stopped and turned.
"Switch on the searchlights," Vian ordered.
The beam lighted up the clifls and MacLean swore
"Sorry, sir," he told Vian. "We have been making for the
wrong green light That's the right one over there." He
pointed towards the cliffs.
Tension eased all over the ship. "When they report this
action," an officer remarked laughingly, "they'll say we went
in with our searchlight blazing. No one will believe that we
had to switch it on to find our way about."
"Go right in," Vian ordered. The Cossack did not hesitate
as she reached the entrance to Jossing Fjord.
Craven was nonchalantly expounding his theory about the
imminent action. He had joined the boarding party as Swedish-
speaking interpreter as usual, though he was fully armed and
ready to take his part in the fighting. "All we've got to do is
to get her out of here," he explained, "and take her back to
Bergen for inspection." He was thinking to himself that if he
went into Bergen on the Altmark he would not cut a very dash-
ing figure in his old blue burberry.
In the fjord itself a view of great beauty unfolded before
the sailors. Apart from the lights, there was no sign of life,
either on land or sea.
"It's just like fairyland," said an officer. The houses round
the fjord looked like toys. Snow glistened from the fir trees,
and sparkled on the mountain sides. But the ethereal beauty
of the scene concealed dangers.
"Pack-ice to starboard," the look-out warned. His cry
swiftly brought the boarding party back to harsh reality.
The destroyer was now approaching the Norwegian torpedo-
boats. The passage was not easy. During the evening the tem-
perature had dropped and there was far more ice in the fjord
than in the afternoon. It drifted about in blocks and crunched
against the sides of the destroyer.
From the Kjell, as the Cossack came alongside, a voice hailed
the British destroyer.
"You are requested to leave Norwegian territorial waters."
"Let's start talking sense," said Vian through his mega-
phone. "My orders are to ask you to join us and take the
Altmark to Bergen for inspection. Come on in with me. 5 *
"I am no ice-breaker. Captain/' was the Norwegian's reply.
He pointed to the ice-floes all around.
The Cossack's company was standing close by, listening
delightedly to the exchange. Every man on board considered
that from the moment the Norwegian had appeared on the
ship in the afternoon he had been covering up for the Nazis.
It was a pleasure to hear the captain speak his and their
"Anybody could get alongside her," they heard Vian reply.
His temper was running out. "Perhaps they are going to play
after all," he added to officers on the bridge, as he saw a small
launch bringing a Norwegian officer towards Cossack. But
when the Norwegian had come aboard it did not take Vian
long to discover that he did not mean serious business. He
dismissed the Norwegian peremptorily.
"Half speed ahead," Vian ordered now. "We're boarding."
Slowly the destroyer was moving towards the Altmark.
It was 10 p.m. and in Captain Dau's cabin the telephone
gave two short buzzes the danger signal. Dau scrambled into
his jacket and overcoat and ran to the bridge. A strong search-
light coming from the entrance to the fjord nearly blinded him.
The light played half-way up the fjord's banks, and reached
out like a threatening arm towards the Altmark. Before
Dau could shield his eyes to discover its source, the light
"A Norwegian patrolling the coast," Dau reassured the
officer on watch. The officer's nerves were even more on edge
than Dau's. "I am going back to my cabin. If there is any-
thing else, let me know."
Wearily he slumped on to his bed once more and closed his
eyes. A frantic knock at his door roused him within a minute.
"A ship is entering the fjord, sir," reported a rating.
Dau climbed slowly back on the bridge and in the reflected
light of the snow could easily make out the shape of a ship,
slowly steaming up the fjord. Her lights were doused, but
it was difficult to believe that she was an enemy.
"Put on the searchlight," Dau ordered. In the strong clear
beam he saw one of the Norwegian gunboats go alongside the
stranger. "A conference/' he said, "the ship must be another
Norwegian after all/*
The strange ship stopped, lying seawards at an angle to the
Norwegian gunboats. A Norwegian? Or an enemy? Dau felt
he must make sure.
On his instructions the Altmark's lamp was directed on the
"What ship? What ship? " he queried.
The signals officer in Cossack read the signal but did not
"What ship?'* the Altmark's signal repeated.
"Ask the Norwegians," Dau sighed. "Ask them what ship
The light went out. The Norwegians did not answer.
Dau was on the bridge with his officers around him. But
he felt old and alone and his men, watching him, thought he
was ready to give up. But, suddenly, as they watched he
squared his shoulders and summoned energy. A signal was
coining from the stranger. What did it say, demanded Dau
"Drop your Jacob's ladder," flashed the Morse lamp from
the dark invader of the fjord.
"Must be a Norwegian," Dau said almost to himself.
"Don't reply," he said aloud. "Repeat our signal: What ship?
I want to know her name."
"ANY ENGLISHMEN DOWN THERE?"
"IHAVEHAD enough now," Vian said, looking at his watch.
It was 22.58 hours.
"Ask him to heave-to or we fire," he told MacLean.
On deck Bradwell Turner and his men were tensing them-
selves for action. For all his size, even in his steel helmet, the
Cossack's first lieutenant did not look very bloodthirsty as he
stood on the ship's starboard rail. "Brad", the former Christ's
Hospital boy, was an intellectual sailor rather than a man
with a gun. When he went through the naval colleges he
had always been top in the most difficult subjects. He had
liked games and was good at them, but his brother officers
admired him most for his staff work and his ability to grasp
Yet he inspired confidence as he passed quietly along the
thirty men lined up on the destroyer's deck. While he waited
he had a cheery word for everyone. He checked the assign-
ments he had given to each man once they should be aboard
the prison-ship. Since he was to be a raider, he would go
about it in a scientific, methodical manner.
The destroyer's rails had been let down so that the boarding
party could leap unimpeded on to the Altmark, In the last
anxious minutes Turner found time to lean over the destroyer's
side to make sure that her "fenders", hazel rods secured with
wire, were in place. It was an important detail. When the
ships crashed together, the fenders would save Cossack from
In the lambent moonlight Vian on the bridge could see
Turner in a final conference with Lieutenant Parker and
J. J. F. Smith, the burly commissioned gunner. At a respectful
distance behind him, stood Barnes, Petty Officer Norman
Atkins and one or two others.
The destroyer began to move. Vian had given the order to
board. The ice cracked briskly, like the grinding together of
so much crockery into small pieces. Above the sound of the
engines sharp orders were rapped out. It was past eleven
In the Altmark the entire crew was standing by. Earlier in
the day when the ship had entered the fjord it had been
wedged insecurely in the ice but the freezing night had formed
more ice, which now gripped her tightly.
Dau gave the order to start the engines and the powerful
diesels began to push the ship clear. Slowly the Altmark moved
another two hundred yards into the fjord.
Dau's plan was to position his ship at a slight angle to the
bank of the fjord so that, unobstructed by the funnel, he could
get a better view of the fjord and the sea beyond. The Altmark
was still moving when a lamp from the stranger flashed out:
"Heave-to or we open fire."
No longer could Dau deceive himself that he had a Nor-
wegian to deal with. He directed his searchlight on to the
bows of the Cossack. In the glaring light he saw the destroyer
cutting through the water towards him purposefully, menac-
ingly. The time was 23.12 hours.
"r ist ein Englaender," he called out. " It's English."
The Altmark siren screeched an alarm.
"The Norwegians will not permit him to attack us," said
Paulsen. "It would mean war between Norway and Germany."
"Maybe . . . maybe not," said Dau between his teeth.
"Final operation." His fears and indecision had dropped
from him. He was composed, and talked and moved with the
air of a dedicated man.
"But HenKapitaen . . ." Paulsen for once queried his captain's
orders. Final operation, they had agreed long ago, was the
scuttling of the ship. But the plan had been devised before
there were any prisoners on board. It could not be put into
operation now. Quite apart from that, it was unlikely that
the Altmark would submerge in the shallow waters of the
"What about the prisoners?" Paulsen asked.
Dau had dreaded the question. He had told Lieutenant
Schmidt that the prisoners were to be released if the ship
Lascar members of the Huntsman crew after their liberation
faced a superior enemy against whom it was hopeless to fight.
But it was one thing to allow them on deck on the high
seas where their fate was bound up with that of the Altmark
crew. It was quite another to release a horde of enemy
prisoners who could easily overpower the Altmark men on
"He is closing in," Dau said quickly. "Keep the prisoners
down there. I shall make one last effort to save the ship. I
shall throw the destroyer on to the bank. I can do it. We
have the advantage of weight."
^ He had formulated his plan as the destroyer swept towards
him. He moist try to prevent the British from coming alongside.
"The main thing is," he said, when he had given his orders,
"that my manoeuvre cannot be interpreted as a warlike action.
This is going to surprise the world. We are going to make his-
tory, but we must not put a foot wrong."
On the Cossack the destroyer's only passenger decided that
it was time for him to go. The captain of the Norwegian warship
stumped worriedly up to the bridge.
"I did not come to see a fight, Captain," he said to Vian.
"I go back to my ship at once." He called for his launch and
climbed down the ladder.
The Altmark's searchlight caught him before it was turned
back on Cossack's bridge, blinding the British officers in its
swathe of light; but on a lower level the boarding party could
see. To them, it looked as if the Altmark was moving astern
towards the destroyer.
"She's going to ram us," someone shouted in alarm.
But Vian understood Dau's plan. His command rang out
clearly. The Cossack swung round as neatly and swiftly as if
she had been a sailing yacht. The full force of the blow at the
Cossack was warded off and the two ships crunched together,
locked for a moment in an uneasy embrace, and swung apart
Turner, on deck, countered Dau's cunning manoeuvre.
The boarding party had been ready to jump from starboard.
Quickly he ordered them over to the port side as the Altmark,
moving faster than the Cossack, came at the destroyer from
an angle of about thirty degrees.
Now she was no more than yards away. In a few seconds
she would hit the destroyer amidships with the full force of
her weight driven at power by her great engines.
The boarding party had to act quickly. By the time the
Cossack was alongside the tanker's poop deck four or five feet
separated the ships and the distance was growing every
"Come on," Turner shouted. "What the hell are you
He took a great leap outwards and upwards and officers
on the bridge gave him a cheer as he grasped the tanker's
rail, steadied himself and looked round for his men. He had
drawn his revolver, Parker was over beside him and rifles
thudded on the deck as petty officers and ratings followed
Most of the first small group were across and ready for
action when Turner saw Atkins hanging on to one of the lower
guard rails. Unable to take a run, he had failed to grasp the
Altmark's top rail when he jumped, and was trying desperately
to get his footing as he swung. Turner leaned over the side,
grabbed him by the collar and the seat of his trousers and
hoisted him aboard. "Thanks, sir," Atkins said breathlessly.
The ships had moved too far apart for jumping, but the
men who had leaped were not left alone on the Altmark for
long. Before the Cossack had slid past the tanker her forward
drift had been checked and Vian was manoeuvring his ship
"Stop both engines."
"Half speed ahead starboard."
With a dozen crisp orders Vian drew near the tanker, which
towered above his ship, her upper deck ablaze with light.
The boarding party began to jump, some from a standing
position, others taking a little run before they launched them-
selves across the gap.
Lieutenant Craven took no chance. He did not wish to
end his war in the cold, ice-flecked water that was lapping
and foaming between the two ships. He climbed nimbly up
the Cossack's torpedo davit, which brought him on a level with
the Altmark's deck. Just as he prepared to jump, the ships met
and the impact tore away parts of the destroyer. The davit
was crunched but Craven did not care. A second before, he
had jumped and had landed safely on the Altmark's deck.
Schmidt, the Altmurk third officer, stormed up to the bridge
where Dau, well out of sight of the officers on the destroyer,
kept watch. He could not see the boarding party from where
he was standing but shouts were audible, in English and Ger-
man. Schmidt was breathless with excitement. "They have
boarded," he gasped. Dau carefully looked out and saw three
men in steel helmets, with rifles in their hands, running across
the catwalks which spanned the after deck.
"Take care of those men," he ordered Schmidt. Dau was
still convinced that no more than a handful of British sailors
had managed to reach his tanker. " We'll soon finish them off,"
Turning round, his eye caught several of his own men
about to launch a boat on the Altmark's port side. "Hey,
you . . . Stender, Path, Bremer . . ." he roared angrily.
The men paid no attention to Dau, who now saw more
British leaping from the destroyer, shouting and fixing bayonets.
Anger surged within him. He realized with dismay that his
tactics had failed and he was dealing with a strong boarding
party against whom resistance was useless. He jumped, as above
the shouting the sharp crack of shots rang out One of the
frantic Altmark sailors who was trying to escape had fired a
shot at the boarders. Two of the Spee guards had their rifles to
A hail of bullets from the boarding party answered the Ger-
man firing. The mountains threw back the echoes and every
light on the hillside went out, as if controlled by a master
Stender, the steward, screamed in agony as a bullet hit
him. As he stumbled, another steward, Bremer, collapsed. He
too, had been hit. Near them Path, the stoker, was bleeding
profusely from a wound in the leg. Groups of men were scuffling,
cursing, lunging all over the catwalks and the fo'castle.
Leaning out from the bridge Dau could see some of his men
desperately grabbing at ropes as the boat that held them
crashed on to the ice below. A stray British shot had severed one
of the ropes and the men lay in the bottom nursing their
broken limbs. The Cossack searchlight was scouring the ice
between the Altmark and the shore as other Germans who had
slithered in turn down the ship's side were making towards
the bank, some sliding, some running, some on hands and
knees, firing as they went
Shots pursued them over the ice. Stoker Rothe, his thumb
shot off, still scrambled on. He was the first to reach land and
to disappear in the darkness. Stoker Schuller gave a guttural
whoop of joy as he reached the road running along the fjord's
bank. It was the last sound he ever made. The next moment
a shot fired from the deck of his own ship hit and killed
Dau's favourite mess orderly, Steffen, had fallen into the
water and was holding on to the ice. Trying to evade the
fusillade he lost his grip and sank. The raid had been in progress
just on a quarter of an hour.
Tall and powerfully built, Able Seaman James Harper, one
of Cossack** electricians, had jumped with the second wave
of the boarding party and the shooting had begun almost at
Disregarding the shots which whistled round him, he passed
along the port catwalk where Altmark men were already face
to face with solid British rifle butts. Vigorously, he pushed his
way through the mfitee. Although the Cossack's searchlight was
shining, it was too dark to distinguish friend from foe and he
kicked out at both indiscriminately.
Harper was plodding on, gritting his teeth, yet a smile
lit up his face: "Nice birthday, this!" he said to himself as
he ran along. He was thirty that day.
His specific task allotted by Lieut-Commander Turner was
to find the main switch and prevent the Nazi crew from
plunging the ship into darkness. Expertly he found a hatch;
unafraid, he dived down.
The ladder led to the steering compartment and he was
forced to retrace his steps. He was putting his foot over the
coaming of the hatchway when a bullet tore into the deck a
few inches away. His excitement was so intense that he did
not notice that a splinter had slightly wounded him.
I NORWEGIAN TORPEDO BOAT l'
c. COSSACK ;
F. FIRERN :
Cossack following the Altmark into Jossing Fjord
NORWEGIAN TORPEDO BOAT
Cossack's course in Jossing Fjord after Captain Vian had
given the order to board the Altmark
A German was rushing at him. From the corner of his eye
he saw three of his own shipmates under cover to escape the
bullets which came from the boat deck.
He aimed with his own revolver but the hammer fell on
an empty chamber. The German was on him and there was
nothing for it but to hit him with the butt of the revolver.
The German groaned and went down with a thud and the
wooden handle of the revolver fell in a hundred splinters on
Harper's foot hurt, but as he stood up the wounded German
had come to and was asking for water.
"Hey you!" he called out One of the German sailors
was rushing by. Harper addressed him, speaking English very
slowly. "One of your men is asking for water," he said.
The German shrugged his shoulders: "It's not in my hands
now, I can do nothing. It's in the hands of your people!"
Harper did not linger. The Altmark lights were still on
and he went to find and guard the main switch.
"Brad" Turner, as leader of the boarders, had set himself
the most important objective on the German ship: the bridge.
He had detailed a small party, under "Barney" Barnes, to
go with him in case the Altmark's captain showed fight. But
when he saw that the boarders must be split into two groups
Turner did not wait for the others. As soon as he had hoisted
Atkins on to the deck he ran forward along the catwalk
towards the superstructure with Barnes close on his heels.
They reached a water-tight steel door barring the way to
the bridge and saw that it was fastened by eight steel clips.
"Get them off," he said to Barnes, who struck at them
with his rifle butt. Turner knocked off several with his revolver
The door swung open. " Come on," said Turner.
Barnes refixed his bayonet and prepared to follow. But as
he looked up he saw a German above him taking aim from
the wing of the bridge. He had just time to lunge upwards
with his bayonet. There was a strangled scream and the
By this time Turner had jumped through the door as if he
had springs in his heels and disappeared down an alleyway
towards the accommodation ladder to the bridge. Barnes was
about to go after him when another German barred his way
with a revolver in his hand. The sight of Barnes's determined
face and his bayonet quickly changed his mind.
"Get in that corner," Barnes shouted, passing through the
door. The German threw his revolver down. His voice brought
three more Germans from their cabins in the superstructure.
"Stand over there." Barnes motioned to them with his
bayonet "Hands up!"
More and more Germans crept from their cabins.
He ordered each one briskly to join the group of Germans
in the corner who stood meekly with their hands raised high.
There were more than a dozen of them.
Barnes heard the shooting on the deck but was unconcerned.
The rest of the party must now have boarded and could look
after themselves. The Germans were in a shaky state.
"Can we smoke?" one of them asked.
"Shut up. Keep your hands above your heads or else * . ."
The threat in his voice was unmistakable, yet one of the
Germans moved forward.
"Get back or I fire," Barnes shouted.
He was steady and sure of himself, though for all he knew
any of the Germans might have a revolver. If they had
rushed him he could have shot one and clubbed another,
but they could easily have overwhelmed him. Yet looking
at the dejected enemy he realized that they had no fight left
Above him he could hear Commander Turner's voice and
hoped that his leader was all right. He dare not leave the
Germans he had captured until someone relieved him. He
heard voices on the bridge but no shots the shooting, he was
sure, came from other parts of the ship.
No one barred Turner's way as he climbed the slightly moist
shiny steel ladder to the bridge. The boarding operation had
gone almost according to plan, and though he was alone Turner
knew that thirty stout British sailors were on board to back
him up. There was no guard at the head of the ladder and the
first person he saw on the bridge was a little man in a shabby
"Egaad," said the little man.
It sounded Norwegian to the commander and momentarily
it surprised him. If he and his men were to hold up Norwegians
at the point of a gun in a Norwegian fjord, the international
balloon would really go up.
"Egaad," said the man again it was the Norwegian cus-
toms officer whose name was Egaad.
Turner was relieved when the frightened officer scampered
down the ladder without any further attempt to complete a
formal introduction* The other men on the bridge who now
glowered at him looked square-headed enough, but as he
glanced round Turner wondered whether any were Nor-
Outside, somewhere on deck, Turner heard a loud crash.
He was tempted to turn and see what had caused it, but until
the Germans ran to look he did not do so. When he edged
to the port side Turner could just make out some of the Altmark
sailors running off over the ice.
Six against one. Turner, with such odds against* him, gave
the Germans his whole attention. But were they Germans?
Or were they Norwegians? He faced them but they did not say
a word. They stared, open-mouthed, waiting for Turner to
"Hands up," he ordered, swivelling his revolver.
As they raised their hands reluctantly Turner heard solid
footsteps. Graven appeared, followed by a rating with a bayonet
fixed to his rifle.
"Thank God you've come," said Turner, still covering the
six men. "I'm not sure whether these chaps are German or
Norwegians. Ask them, will you? Let's get them sorted out."
Craven sized up the situation at once. "Any Norwegian
officers please step to this side of the bridge," he said.
Nobody moved. Paulsen, who had left the bridge when the
shooting had begun, returned and was ordered at revolver
point to join the others. A bullet had whistled through his hair,
but he was uninjured.
"There are no Norwegians here," he said in a quavering
voice. "We are all Germans."
Schmidt, the Altmark's third officer, was standing near the
telegraph, almost hiding it from the British officer. Roughly,
Turner pushed him on one side, seized the handle and heaved
the pointer to Stop with his left hand.
He stepped back. Insolently, Schmidt used his elbow to
return the lever.
"Do that again and I'll . . ." With his free hand Turner
caught hold of the German's coat and thrust him away.
"Over there and hands up."
Dau, one among seven, was making himself as unobtrusive
as possible, though his years and air of authority made him
stand out from the rest. "Are you the pilot?" Turner asked
"Yes, I am," Dau lied.
"The pilot?" Craven was not sure. Something was wrong.
"Are you the Norwegian pilot?" he asked in German.
"No," Dau answered slowly. He pushed his chin forward
and tried to look dignified. "I am the German pilot. I am the
captain of this ship."
"Keep your hands up," Craven shouted at him as Dau
stepped forward, protesting. He was a captain, he said and
an officer, he added after a pause. A captain was never re-
quired to put his hands up. It was an outrage.
Craven thought he was an old man who should be at home
tending his garden instead of being on the bridge of a ship.
He softened. "All right," he said, "as a concession you may
rest your hands on your head. But the rest of you keep your
There was a sharp bump which made Craven and the
Germans stagger, though it was not severe enough to throw
them off balance. The Altmark shook slightly once or twice as
if seeking a firm resting place. She had run aground on rocks
at the opposite end of the fjord.
"We'd better stop the engines," Dau said, with a super-
Turner was angry at the delays. "Keep them under control,"
he told Craven.
He turned to Dau: "Where are the prisoners?" he asked.
Dau stepped forward to conduct Turner from the bridge.
He noticed Weichert standing in the line with this hands in the
air. "Your permission to take this officer along? " he requested.
Turner nodded and motioned the two Germans to show him
Craven settled down to wait, his Smith and Wesson -45
pointing at the remaining men. At his side a young Cossack
rating stood rigidly with his bayonet in the "on guard"
position. Except for sporadic shots, the fighting had died down
everywhere and Craven was relieved to hear that all the
shouts and orders were given in one language English.
"Keep your hands well up," said Craven.
"But," said one of his prisoners with an anguished look,
"we tire ... it is so long."
Craven saw their point They had been standing with hands
up for nearly ten minutes. If the Altmark was under over-all
British control he could relax a little, though he must still
take care. He ordered the rating to frisk the Germans and
found two automatics, but obviously they had no other
"All right," he said, "you can put your hands down now."
But with their hands down, the Germans still seemed
nervous. The face of one of them twitched continuously and
another could not control his tremors. "Aren't you taking
us off?" he burst out.
Craven looked at him curiously. What was the hurry to be
taken prisoner? To leave the safe neutrality of a Norwegian
fjord? Unless . . Craven cursed himself for not asking the
question before the routine question he had always put when-
ever he had boarded a ship on the Northern Patrol. "Is this
ship fitted with scuttling charges?" he demanded.
The spokesman bit his lip. For all his nervousness, he did
not seem prepared to give anything away. "How should we
know?" he said. "It is a matter for the captain. We are only
"Well," said Craven, speaking slowly in German, "if
she blows up we shall all go down together." It was exactly
Once the boarding party were safely on the Altmark the
destroyer stood off three or four ship's lengths from the tanker,
ready to deal with the Norwegian gunboats if they tried to
interfere. On the Cossack's bridge the officers could hear the
shots and shouts of the boarders and the Altmark sailors. They
peered anxiously at the small black figures picked out by the
searchlight as they swarmed along the catwalks.
The raid had not been in progress for many minutes before
the signals officer brought serious news to Vian. "They're
using their wireless, sir," he said. "They're calling Germany
asking for ships and aircraft to be sent. They say they're being
fired on and that their sailors are being murdered. It looks,"
said the officer, with a grin "it looks as if our boys are doing
their stuff, sir."
The news worried Vian, but it was not his only problem.
In the short time the ships had been grappled together for
the boarders to get over there had been no time to find out
exactly what armament the Altrnark carried. Pom-poms had
been seen, and they could do plenty of damage fired point
blank. But if the tanker carried six-inch guns, as the Admiralty
believed, and if they were fired without warning, the Cossack
would be blown out of the water.
While Vian watched and wondered a lamp on the Altmark
began to flash a message. Among the boarding party was a
young signalman named Donald Davies, lent for the raid
by H.M.S. Afridi. Davies had fitted up his lamp and had already
signalled that the operation was going well. But now he had
a serious, frightening message. "Altmark captured and now in
our charge," the officers on Cossack's bridge read from the
flashes. "Reported due to blow up at midnight."
The officers looked at each other with dismay. The message
bore the hall-mark of truth. "Just the sort of thing Jerry
would do," said Hector MacLean. "And if he blows her up,
trust him to do it precisely at midnight."
It was clear to Vian that the whole action must be speeded
up. Even without a hitch, it was doubtful whether the boarding
party could liberate the prisoners by midnight, but they would
have to try. He looked around at the Norwegian gunboats,
but he could see no sign of activity. Of the ships in the fjord,
only they were quiet. It was improbable that they would
interfere now that the boarding had taken place. Vian gave
the order: "Back to the Altmark."
The tanker loomed large and black against the white snowy
background and Vian was almost alongside when a shout
' Man overboard."
"Who on earth is it?" demanded Vian. Now that every
minute counted, a mishap of this sort could jeopardize his
own ship and all the prisoners.
"Man from 14 Mess, sir," a petty officer called back.
"How can you tell that?" snapped Vian.
"Officers have recognized him, sir."
"Get him with grappling irons!" Vian shouted instantly.
"Nobody is to go over the side after him."
His order was too late. Already Tony Ormsby, lieutenant-
commander and anti-submarine officer, and Lieutenant
Burkett, had dived into the icy water and were swimming
strongly towards the unfortunate seaman. Each took a hold
on the man and propelled him back towards the Cossack.
Ratings threw down lines and hauled the three men up; the
sailor was unconscious, the officers shivering.
"Blimey," a petty officer called out as he bent over the
rescued man. He examined his identity disc which said:
A. Berndsen, Altmark. "This isn't one of our blokes. It's one
of theirs." It was a German sailor who had jumped overboard
from the German ship. Berndsen was dead.
The prisoners in the holds had sunk into deep apathy. So
much had been happening for more than twenty-four hours
and it had made no difference to their plight. But now a low,
ominous scraping sound almost sent the trunkway look-out
headlong down the ladder; it brought the inert prisoners to
their feet* The noise came from the after end of the ship.
"She's run aground," said Smith above the confused mut-
terings. "If she holes we've had it down here. We'll die like
The Newton Beech engineer's words roused the prisoners and
everybody began talking hysterically. The ship had stopped
but her bottom was grinding over either rocks or gravel and
she was bucking slightly, as if unwilling to settle without
several fathoms of comforting water below her.
"She's in trouble," said someone, in a nervous, high-
"She?" came a reply. "You mean us. We're in trouble."
There was no panic, though men crowded instinctively
towards the door. King pushed his way through to the entrance*
"Keep your heads, lads," King shouted. "Let's hear what's
In the silence the prisoners could hear confused voices on
the deck. "They're opening the hatch," reported King,
exultantly. "Now don't panic. Remember the routine. Bottom
flat first. Follow me."
His foot \vas already on the ladder to lead the prisoners to
freedom if this was the moment for freedom. He was looking
up but the light from the flat behind him was dim, and above
it was too dark to make out the shape of the faces that peered
down. The hatch had now been removed completely and the
prisoners could hear shouting and the crackle of shots.
King was half-way up the trunkway when a strong, clear
English voice, uninhibited by weeks of imprisonment, rang out
For as long as they lived, not one of the men battened down
below would forget the words they heard.
"Any Englishmen down there?"
Three hundred voices swelled into a mighty chorus. "Yes
we're all English down here." '
"Come up, then," the man at the head of the trunkway
called out. "Come up ... THE NAVY'S HERE."
The Navy's here! The words echoed through the holds and
were repeated at first with disbelief, then reverently, joyfully,
with glorious abandon.
"Hurrah! God bless the good old Navy." An earthquake
of sound rumbled up the narrow trunkway.
Strong British arms grasped King as he reached the top.
Quietly, hardly daring to trust himself to speak, he shook
Turner's hand. "Am I glad to see you," he managed to stam-
mer, as other prisoners pressed behind him.
Beyond Turner, standing by the hatch-cover, were Dau
and Weichert. King slapped Weichert on the back. He was
breathing in the good cool air in great gulps. He was so happy
that he wanted to shake hands with everybody in sight. He
did not even mind when he found Captain Dau holding him
by the hand and shaking it
"I am sorry," Dau said. "I had to keep you below on bread
and water but you will understand."
In the press of prisoners, tumbling out of the hatch,
King was swept away. He was not listening to the German
Hard on each other's heels, not caring that their fingers
were bruised by misplaced feet, the prisoners poured out ...
Bammant squeezing through the hatch with difficulty . . .
Goss, lean and long-legged . . . Cudbertson trying hard not
to shout with joy . . . Paterson, wiry and agile . . . Flatten
rubbing his head . . . young Wall . . .
Smith, the steward, shivering in trousers, singlet and pull-
over, caught sight of Dau standing in the shadow. "Well,
Captain," he said ironically. "So you didn't get me to Ger-
many, after all.'*
"Hurry up ... hurry to the gangplank . . . quick as you
can." As fast as the prisoners climbed the ladder, ratings
directed them towards the Cossack's brow which was already
in position between the two ships. The stream of prisoners
King was still standing by the hatch cover, hilarious in his
first few moments of freedom, when, among the Germans lined
up nearby, he saw the guard "Not-so-Much".
"I promised this would be the first thing I would do when
I got out of here," he said, more to himself than the men
around. Then his fist shot out and he caught "Not-so-Much"
on the chin. "That's settled one score," he said, as the German
"Well, we're free," said Smith, fat Newton Beech engineer. Still
the prisoners spilled out, lurching uncertainly against a Cossack
"But how do we get away from here?" someone said.
"Don't worry, chum," was the reply, "there's a whole
bloody battleship to take you off."
Smith saw Turner, guessed he was a British officer, and
grinned. "Got any fags, sir?" he asked. After he had filled
his lungs with air it was the most important thing he could
"You English?" Turner asked incredulously. Smith, with
his beard and trench-coat over his overalls, looked more like
a tramp than a Merchant Navy officer. Smith was indignant.
"What the bloody hell do you think? And where have you
been all this time?" Smith laughed. Turner laughed too and
gave him a packet of cigarettes.
They were tumbling over each other, clogging the doorway
and the catwalks. "Hurry, chaps," one of the prisoners was
told by a Cossack rating. "Go quickly. They've laid charges.
They're going to blow her up."
Still the British seamen danced across the deck, fooled with
each other, shouted, sang and cheered. They came up in all
sorts of dress, but those who lacked warm clothes were not bare-
backed for long. One sailor had emerged in a singlet only.
Now he came from an Altmark cabin in a fine brown suit and
wearing a feathered homburg.
A tall Australian, whilst he queued to go aboard Cossack,
suddenly noticed Dau, who had been moved on to the fo'castle.
He ran to a British officer. "Lend us your revolver," he
demanded, excitedly. "I want to shoot this bloody captain.
He's a bastard and a Nazi."
Ratings crowded round him, hustled him off to the gang-
plank. "Leave him to us, mate. Hurry along. There's not a
moment to lose."
Barnes was too preoccupied with his prisoners under the
superstructure to pay much attention to what was happening
on deck. He heard the sound of running footsteps and shots;
he heard curses in German and English; he heard screams
and the sharp smacks of fist-fighting. Men came and went
through the superstructure door and some looked in and
vanished without venturing any further.
Presently, he became aware that someone had tottered to
the door and was standing there, breathing heavily. Barnes
let his attention wander for an instant. Mr. Smith, the Cossack's
commissioned gunner, in duffle coat and white polo jeisey,
was being held up by a rating. "I'm afraid I've been hit,
Barnes," he said weakly.
Barnes left his post and called to another rating, who was
standing outside. "Take charge of this lot," he said.
He opened Smith's duffle coat and put his hand under
Smith's right arm, where his jersey was stained red with
One of the Germans, ignoring the rating's bayonet, stepped
forward. "I am the ship's doctor," he said. "I have treated
your prisoners on the voyage."
Smith slumped down against the bulkhead and Barnes,
looking at his own hand, red with the wounded officer's con-
gealed blood, was violently sick. "Sorry, sir," he apologized.
He could not hide his embarrassment. "Give him fim aid,"
he ordered Dr. Tyrolt
Between them they lifted Mr. Smith into Tyrolt's nearby
cabin. He had lost consciousness when Tyrolt examined him.
"Shot through the arm. An artery has been severed," the
doctor diagnosed. Already he had applied a tourniquet and
was bandaging his patient.
"Hurry up," someone shouted into the cabin. "We've got
to get out."
"But it's dangerous to move him," Tyrolt protested.
"It may be more dangerous to leave him here," a Cossack
petty officer said. He had arrived with a stretcher and ordered
the bearers to take Smith back to the Cossack.
Barnes returned to his uneasy prisoners and told a rating
to march them to the fo'castle. On the way he noticed that
more German sailors were frantically lowering another boat
on the port side. They had nearly succeeded and five or six
of them were holding on to the lifelines to steady the boat as
it hit the ice. Barnes decided it would complicate the operation
if more Germans escaped to land. He leaned over the side and
put his rifle to his shoulder.
"Kamerad, Kamerad" German voices trembling with fear
came up from the water.
He fired twice into the bottom of the boat and saw water
beginning to seep through the holes made by the bullets.
From Cossack's bridge Vian saw the prisoners crossing to
his ship in a steady stream. Well over half had left the Altmark
but many stood in a bunch near the gangplank, waiting their
turn to step to freedom.
"Hurry up, everybody," he urged. His shout was taken up
by the officers on the bridge. Quarter of an hour to safety.
The German crew had been rounded up on the fo'castle
head. Some of the British prisoners detached themselves from
the crowd and made for the superstructure. For more than
three months they had been held on the ship and had seen
nothing except their holds, their exercise space, the catwalks
and the galley. Their only wish had been to get off. Now it
seemed as if they could not tear themselves away. In a few
moments the last chance to look her over would be gone for
Prowling round the cabins, Tom Foley saw Dr. Tyrolt
and waved to him. The doctor had always treated the prisoners
well and Foley bore him no ill wilL
"Goodbye, Doctor," he said.
"Auf Wiedersehen," said the doctor, sadly.
On the Altmark's bridge, isolated and insulated from the
noise and turmoil, Craven and his rating still kept guard
over the prisoners. Time had passed slowly. Craven was
without ne\vs and he dare not let the seaman go below to find
out what had happened. But he did not worry, he was sure
that the British merchant seamen must have been released.
Suddenly, a loud-hailer's distorted message reached him on
the bridge. The boarding party would rejoin Cossack at once.
The order did not mention prisoners, but Craven made his
own decision. "We'll take them along with us,'* he said to his
Britons and Germans climbed down from the bridge, the
seaman leading and Craven shepherding the prisoners from
above. When they had reached the deck, one of the prisoners
made a request: "A new overcoat I have in my cabin," he
muttered. "May I get it?"
"Sure," said Craven. "Go and get it quickly." As he waited
patiently for the German to return, Captain Dau passed on
the way to his cabin. Behind him stalked a rating with his
"Captain," said Craven, addressing Dau in German, "I
thought you said the Norwegians had examined your ship;
curious they did not find any prisoners, wasn't it?"
"Mein Scfdjf is besucht warden nicht unter$zr&," Dau said.
He was explaining that the Altmark had been visited, not
The German officer returned with his new coat and the
young sub-lieutenant marched his prisoners in single file
towards the fo'castle to join the rest of the German crew. But
a loud shout made him change his mind. Vian's roving eye
had caught sight of the strange cavalcade.
"Craven, you fool!" he said. "Leave those chaps behind
and come back at once. Leave all the Germans behind. I
don't want them."
Craven was more than glad to obey. He waved the prisoners
towards the rest of the Germans on the fo'castle and stood in
the dwindling queue behind two ratings carrying an Indian
wrapped in a blanket
"What's the matter with him?"
"He's sick, sir. Leprosy, they say," was the answer.
"Hurry up, everybody," an officer ordered on the loud-
hailer. "Step lively, now."
It was ten minutes to midnight when Captain Dau was
marched the length of his own ship under an armed guard to
find and surrender his ship's confidential papers to a boarding
"May I get my own things, too? " he asked as they entered
his cabin. Dau assumed that the order to the boarding party
to return to the Cossack meant that he would go with them
as a prisoner of war.
The light was on in his cabin when Dau turned the handle.
A prisoner was rummaging through Dau's desk, looking for a
souvenir. He held up Dau's big paper weight which was
decorated with a swastika. "May I take this?" he asked, with
"Take it," Dau said angrily. The prisoner put it in his
pocket and left the cabin. "Bandits! Thieves! Criminals!"
Dau shouted after him.
Prisoners were darting in and out of all the cabins under the
superstructure. One emerged from Paulsen's cabin trium-
phantly swinging a swastika-decorated dagger in the air. "I
could run this right through these swine," he shouted.
Dr. Tyrolt returned to his cabin to find an engineer removing
the badge from his spare cap. The man was determined to have
a small memento of his unforgettable experience in the prison-
"Ah, you want a souvenir?" said Tyrolt. The engineer put
cap and badge down. He was embarrassed and went off.
The stragglers were joining the thinning queue at the gang-
plank and King and Creer were making a last check to see
that no one had been left behind. The shouting had become
no more than loud talking and already some of the prisoners
who had been first on board the Cossack were down in the
mess-dfccks ready to eat their first good meal for weeks.
Grouped on the fo'castle, not daring to move though the
Cossack guard had left them, the Altmark crew looked bewildered.
They did not know whether to hope they would be taken off
as prisoners or fear they would be left behind to blow up
with their ship if the Altmark was to blow up.
Vian took a last look round from Cossack's bridge. The
Altmark's deck, which a few minutes before had been alive
with movement and noise, was still. The searchlight swung
the length of the tanker for the last time.
"Is everybody aboard?" Vian shouted.
A petty officer cupped his hands. "All prisoners and boarding
party aboard, sir," he replied.
"Right. Cast off."
It wanted five minutes to midnight when willing hands
pulled up the gangplanks and Cossack moved slowly out of
Jossing Fjord to carry the liberated prisoners of the Altmark
towards the open sea on their voyage home.
THUS THE "DASHING rescue", as The Times triumphantly
reported two days later, "a story 'of a kind to delight the
authors of Treasure Island and Westward Ho/" 9 was accom-
Vian signalled a report of what had occurred, uncertain
whether his brief and brilliant intervention had met the re-
quirements of the First Lord* Should he have taken the Altmark
crew prisoners; should he, as commander, have tried to bring
the Altmark home; if not, should he have left the Altmark without
making sure that she would blow up? Churchill, already pre-
occupied with the diplomatic consequences of the dramatic
naval action, responded by congratulating the Royal Navy
on the double achievement of rescuing a German sailor from
drowning and liberating the British seamen from their floating
prison. (The rescued German seaman had, of course, died
almost as soon as he was pulled from the icy water.)
The Altmark affair constituted a heartening relief from the
disappointments of the "phoney war"; it was a glorious climax
to the victory in the Battle of the River Plate. But it turned
out to be something more. It marked one of the first turning-
points of the war. It ended stagnation on several fronts.
The few shots which rang round Jossing Fjord that night
became the signal for Hitler's all-out assault on the West.
Guns were soon to flash louder and longer, but the diplomatic
incident, which resulted from the double violation of Norway's
territorial waters by Germany and Britain, threw a dark
shadow, which was to linger for many years on Anglo-
We know now that Hitler had decided on the invasion of
Norway already on December 14, 1939, and had given orders
for the necessary naval and air preparations, but the liberation
of the British seamen by a strong British naval force convinced
him rightly or wrongly that Britain had taken off the gloves;
that there was now no more hope of a negotiated peace; and
that, moreover, he would have to attack and conquer Norway
forthwith or Britain "prepared to ride rough-shod over
neutral rights to rescue a few miserable seamen" would
anticipate him and secure the invaluable Norwegian coastline
On February 17, at his Fuehrer Field H.Q., Hitler received
Grand Admiral Raeder in the presence of Commander
Putkammer, his naval liaison officer, and ordered him to pro-
ceed with " Weseruebung" the code-word for staff plans for the
German attack on Norway.
From Jossing Fjord the Cossack, with the destroyers Nubian,
Sikh> Intrepid and Ivanhoe, steamed west to take the released
British sailors to Leith, where a joyfully tumultuous welcome
awaited them. The physical condition of the prisoners was
better than had been expected and the ambulances which
had been sent to receive them were needed only for the leper
and to carry away one middle-aged officer, who was unwell
and overcome by the excitement of the occasion. When the
prisoners stepped on land, however, the diplomatic wires
were already humming and the Altmark affair had grown to be
a major incident.
Norway was apprehensive. It was easy to guess what Hitler's
reaction would be. Norway's only hope lay in an attempt to
put all blame on Britain. The Storting met in a nervous
atmosphere to listen to Foreign Minister Professor Halvdan
Koht reporting about the events in Jossing Fjord and Nor-
wegian naval activity preceding them. The Norwegian
Minister in London, M. Eric Colban, was instructed to go to
the Foreign Office and hand to Lord Halifax, Britain's Foreign
Secretary, a protest at "this grave violation of Norwegian
neutrality", which, said Golban, had caused "strong in-
dignation". He quoted a Norwegian Royal Proclamation on
September 3, 1939, that during the war Norway would
maintain complete neutrality; and he demanded that Britain
should "hand over the prisoners and make due compensation
But, though the Norwegian government would be aware of
the emptiness of this request, they continued strenuously to
justify the position they had taken up. Once more Colban
was ordered to call at the British Foreign Office to propose
arbitration to settle which interpretation of international law
was right. Admitting that they could "understand British
feelings", the Norwegians stressed that "a neutral state cannot
interfere between belligerent powers or in their disputes".
In the House of Commons Prime Minister Neville Chamber-
lain said that the rescue of the prisoners, an admirably con-
ducted operation, represented a notable addition to the Royal
In a pugnacious mood in the House of Lords, Lord Strabolgi,
a retired naval commander, compared unfavourably Nazi
piracy, the murder of sailors on the high sea, the vile crimes
committed by German warships and aeroplanes with the rescue
of the British merchant seamen, every one of whom, he said,
had been illegally captured in the first place by the GrafSpee.
Strabolgi said each of the nine British ships should have been
taken before a prize court; every seaman was, therefore, illegally
a prisoner. Whatever the Norwegians might say, this was
certainly not a case for Germany to complain.
A week later, on March 15, Lord Halifax finally rejected all
Norwegian protests in a note in which he established Britain's
legal position and refuted Norway's assertion that nothing was
known of the presence of prisoners on board the Altmark.
His stern epistle was tempered with an understanding for
Norway's difficult position "made worse by the shameless
mendacity on the part of the German officer concerned"
Captain Heinrich Dau.
Before Professor Koht had time to reply to Lord Halifax's
note, Germany showed her hand by invading Norway, which
the Wehrmacht subdued in spite of heroic resistance.
The "German officer concerned" had been left on the
Altmark, raving and on the verge of despair. He counted seven
dead including Berndsen six gravely injured and five slightly
wounded members of his crew. Goebbels instructed him to go
to the microphone to describe for the benefit of German lis-
teners, the "act of British piracy" which caused him to lose
his prisoners. He was followed by his third officer, who accused
the Cossack boarding party ludicrously of having fired dum-dum
bullets, which mutilated the German seamen in a horrible
Stoker Hugo Horst, of the Altmark, whose thumb had been
severed by a shot, was photographed and his picture circulated
throughout the German press. The funeral of the Altmark dead
at the tiny cemetery of Sogndal, above the fjord, with coffins
draped with swastika flags, was turned into a spectacular
Dau supervised repairs to the Altmark, which was refloated
and, with the help of three tugs, reached the open sea. The
Altmark returned to Kiel Harbour on March 28. The reception
which Nazi Germany gave the defeated Dau provided no com-
fort for him. He was relieved of his command and uncere-
moniously retired. The Altmark, of evil memory, was renamed
Uckermark, placed under new command and sailed the seas
several more times as a supply ship.
On November 30, 1942, she was in Yokohama Harbour,
made fast by the side of the German auxiliary cruiser Thor,
which she had been sent to supply with munitions, fuel and
food stores, when a terrific explosion shook both ships. The
Altmark was in the process of being cleaned with chemicals
at the time and the suggestion was made that gas fumes
might have caused the explosion. The German Naval Com-
mand on the other hand, suspected sabotage by "Japanese in
the pay of the Russians'*. But, apart from a short exchange of
discreet notes between the two partners of the Berlin-Tokyo
Axis, the incident was hushed up. Fifty-three of the Uckermark
crew were killed the majority of them had shared the Alt-
mark's notorious cruise and almost as many were gravely
wounded. The evil star of the Altmark-Uckermark had fallen.
But bitterness in Germany and Norway over the Altmark
affair has lingered. Captain Dau took his life on the day of
Germany's defeat in May 1945. His three sons, one of whom,
like his father in his youth, is employed by Germany's major
shipping line, and another an instructor at the merchant
seamen training school in Travemunde, regard Winston
Churchill as a war criminal, who caused Grand Admiral Raeder
to be imprisoned at Spandau as an act of revenge "because he
anticipated Churchill's sinister plans against Norway" of
which the attack on the Altmark was symbolic. "Contrary to
the position in Germany," Rudolf Dau wrote, "the people of
England have not gained the distance with the events of the
last war . . . The time has not yet come when it is possible to
publish a really objective report about the cruise of the
Altmark" objective, that is, from Captain Dau's point of view.
Surviving officers of the Admiral Graf Spec still smart under
the memory of her defeat. First Officer (Reserve Captain)
Kay regards Heinrich Dau as one of Germany's outstanding
sailors, but, like most men associated with the Graf Spee, is
silent about Captain Langsdorff and the part he played in the
Battle of the River Plate. One of the GrafSpee officers, Captain
Meusemann, is actively concerned with the reconstruction of
the new West German Navy. He is an officer of the Blank
Organization in Bonn.
The British Admiralty has not yet released Captain Vian's
despatches about the Altmark incident and many British sailors
engaged in the action have proved worthy members of the
Silent Service. It has nevertheless been possible to build up a
complete picture as a result of over thirty interviews in Ger-
many and Britain, with members of the Spee, 'Altmark, and
Cossack companies and, mainly, with the merchant seamen
prisoners, some of whom kept diaries of their experiences, of
which the authors have been able to make use.
The prisoners of the Altmark were luckier than many merchant
seamen in those first years of the war. Not a single man from
the nine ships sunk by the Graf Spee died as a result of their
encounter with the German pocket-battleship.
But after the shortest of leaves many took less than a
month most of the prisoners returned to the sea and the toll
was heavy, especially among the brave young men who had
been undaunted in the Altmark's darkest hours. Bob Goss,
second officer of the Ashlea, was lost the next time he went to
sea again in June 1940. John Bammant, the Harwich harbour-
master's son, was blown to bits when the ammunition ship
ZealaruKc was attacked and sunk. Quintin Bell, chief engineer
of the Newton Beech, was torpedoed in 1941, picked up; but lost
his life when the ship that picked him up was torpedoed, soon
Some of the prisoners had not seen the last of the Germans
when they were rescued by the Cossack. In a German prison
camp, Albert Creer, second engineer of the Huntsman, and one
of the leaders of the Altmark men, met O. S. Walker, the Tairoa's
chief engineer, who said wryly to him: "So I wasn't the only
fool to go to sea again." Another German raider caught
Walker's ship on his next voyage while Creer's ship was sunk
off Crete and he was taken prisoner when the island fell to
There were few men who did not see action again. Ronald
Cudbertson, now a mate, still sailing from his home port of
Hull, spent two years in an ammunition ship at Gibraltar.
Fred Wall, a waterworks engineer near Great Yarmouth, was
sunk in a Malta convoy and spent the rest of the war dan-
gerously in tankers. T. W. MaUinson, of the Streonshalh, now
Lloyd's agent in Whitby, was bombed and wounded at sea
with his old captain, J. J. Robinson, who is still a master.
Captain J. N. Edwards, of the Trevanion, now works on the
fringes of the sea as chief salvage officer of the Port of London
Authority. Captain Patrick Dove, of the Africa Shell, has
retired to Cardiff. But most of the other masters are dead.
Some of the officers have ships of their own and others have
moved up in rank, including William Platten, a captain,
with a home a couple of miles from Fred Wall, just outside
Great Yarmouth; A. H. Thompson, master of the Biographer ;
and George King, chief relieving engineer of the Blue Star
The sea continues to call many of the old prisoners. Fred
Edwards is still a chief engineer, Cyril Smith a chief steward
and Ron Curtis a senior engineer; but some have settled
down to a shore life. "Pat" Paterson, Doric Star mate, has
become an optician in Liverpool. Albert Creer has left the
sea, but he is still of it as his old company's engineering super-
intendent in Liverpool.
The men of the Cossack lived to play an important part in
the war, though the gallant ship herself was torpedoed and
sunk with sad loss of life and injury in the Atlantic in 1941.
Captain Vian, who received the Distinguished Service Order
for his daring leadership in the Cossack, fought the Bismarck,
ran Malta convoys, commanded British ships on D-Day and
ended his war in command of the British Pacific Fleet aircraft
carrier squadron. He was Cfommander-in-Chie Home Fleet,
when he retired in 1952 to become a banker.
Lieut-Commander Bradwell Turner also awarded the
D.S.O. the naval officer whose first incursion into Norwegian
waters was so rudely rebuffed by the Norwegians, is now made
welcome as the British naval attach^ in Oslo. Geoffrey Craven,
a pre-war bank clerk, was in Cossack when she was torpedoed,
and he was wounded again in H.M.S. Afridi. Like Gunner
Smith he was decorated with the D.S.C. Banking did not
appeal to him after the war and he now travels Europe as a
steel export manager. Hector MacLean followed his career
as a naval officer, and, a captain, he holds an important
Admiralty appointment Lieut. Burkett unhappily was killed
in a sloop later in the war and Tom Barnes, a time-expired
Regular, has settled down in "civvy street" as a telephone
official in Brighton.
They have all lost touch with each other, but the memory
of the glorious Altmark incident lives in a million stout British
NAMES OF PRISONERS TAKEN BY
ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE
Released at Montevideo from GrafSpee:].]. Robinson, mas-
ter; T. W. Mallinson, chief officer; W. W. Gatenby, second
officer; C. W. Stuart, third officer; N. G. MacDonald, radio
officer; F. H. Jeffries, chief engineer; R. G. Dunn, second
engineer; T. Sanderson, third engineer; A. M. Robertson,
apprentice; D. B. R. Roberts, apprentice; G. A. Barker,
fireman and trimmer; D. Blenkiron, o.s.; F. Brewster, fireman
and trimmer; S. Burton, steward; H. Dixon, sailor; J. E.
Dobson, sailor; J. Foulis, carpenter and A.B.; J. H. Gill, A.B.;
W. Idle, donkeyman; J. Laurenson, bosun; T. R. Leek,
fireman and trimmer; R. W. Locker, galley boy; W. Marshall,
fireman and trimmer; F. C. Netherton, sailor; J. Purvis, ship's
cook; J. Raine, deck boy; J. Richardson, fireman and trimmer;
W. J. Vasey, cabin boy; T. Verrill, fireman and trimmer; R.
Wale, fireman and trimmer; B. Wilson, mess-room boy;
G. J. Wrighton, A.B.
S.S. NEWTON BEECH
Released at Montevideo from GrafSpeeiJ. Robison, master;
J. L. Coutts, chief officer; M. Prior, radio officer; Q. B. Bell,
Released from Altmark: W. M. Woodman, second mate;
G. H. Byrne, third mate; H. Saville, second engineer; S. Smith,
third engineer; T. Northey, fourth engineer; T. W. Hunter,
apprentice; R. Atkinson, cadet; A. Abel^ donkeyman; E.
Angus, fireman and trimmer; G. Beattie, chief steward;
J. Bell, fireman and trimmer; W. Bowler, fireman and trim-
mer; W. Campbell, o.s.; W. Gilleard, fireman and trimmer;
P. Hanlon, A.B.; H. Holland, A.B.; G. Johnson, fireman and
trimmer; A. Martin, ship's cook; L. R. Miller, bosun; A.
Moody, A.B. ; D. Morrison, fireman and trimmer; M. O'Connor
cabin boy; C. M. S. Reay, deck boy; F. C. Smith, fireman and
trimmer; J. Swaby, A.B.; A. Wardell, fireman and trimmer;
A. W. White, sailor; G. S. Williams, carpenter; G. D. Worsey,
galley boy; L. F. A. Zerk, mess-room boy.
Released at Montevideo from Graf Spee: C. Pottinger,
master; A. Miller, chief officer; G. W. Strong, chief engineer;
W. M. Guthrie, radio officer.
Released from Altmark: R. Goss, second officer; R. K. Miller,
third officer; A. S. Jacks, second engineer; W. T. Hair, third
engineer; A. E. Walker, fourth engineer; P. M. J. Warren,
cadet; D. L. Aadahl, assistant steward; T. B. Benjamin, head
fireman and trimmer; N. Bevan, o.s.; E. A. Borge, donkey-
man; S. J. Campbell, fireman and trimmer; T. Davies, fire-
man and trimmer; G. Dixon, fireman and trimmer; W. L.
Dumble, A.B.; S. Earl, galley boy; T. A. Everitt, A.B.; J. K.
Francisco, fireman and trimmer; J. Guy, o.s.; T. Harris,
fireman and trimmer; L. B. Jusen, fireman and trimmer; M.
McAlinden, o.s.; J. T. McCaffrey, A.B.; D. McRitchie, A.B.;
C. Mangun, carpenter; J. B. Ocran, fireman and trimmer;
T. Old, ship's cook; R. Ritchie, cabin boy; G. Robinson,
sailor; J. W. Rockett, bosun; W. W. Talbot, mess-room boy;
C. Young, chief steward.
Released at Montevideo from Graf Spee: J. N. Edwards,
master; W. Venables, chief officer; N. Doye, chief engineer;
N. C. Martinson, radio officer.
Released from Altmark: W. H. Flatten, second officer; R.
Cudbertson, third officer; H. J. Burrows, second engineer;
E. C. Elcock, third engineer; J. C. Scott, fourth engineer;
G. C. Barrett, fifth engineer; E. Spiers, sixth engineer; P. W.
Filcek, apprentice; A. N. Smith, apprentice; R. Baker, cabin
boy; R. Bums, carpenter; W. Faland, A.B.; J. T. Flanagan,
A.B.; G. C. Howell, assistant cook; L. J. Hunt, donkeyman;
M. Kennedy, donkeyman; W. Lafferty, sailor; J. A. Leigh,
bosun; W. Lery, o.s.; J. Mannesson, A.B.; T. Morgan, general
servant; I. G. Palmer, ship's cook; \V. Riley, donkeyman; P.
Rogers, mess-room boy; WJ. F. Stewart, A.B.;T. Surtees, o.s.;
J. Q,. Symons, steward; F. Thomas, A.B.; T. D. Warwick. o.s.
S.S. DORIC STAR
Released at Montevideo from GrafSpee: W. Stubbs, master;
S. Ranson, chief officer; W. Comber, radio officer; W. Ray,
chief engineer; J. C. Hutton, chief refrigerating engineer.
Released from Altmark: A. E. Willis, second mate; W. M.
Evans, third mate; G. A. King, second engineer; R. A. Curtis,
third engineer; T. G. Leighton, assistant refrigerating and
junior third engineer; H. W. Jones, fourth engineer; P. J.
Bowie, assistant engineer; L. R. Vandome, assistant engineer;
F* Wall, assistant engineer; A. J. Walls, assistant engineer;
N. Watson, assistant engineer; A. C. Watt, assistant engineer;
J. Allen, donkeyman and greaser; E. J. Ashton, deck boy;
L. G. Baker, assistant steward; A. Bloom, assistant steward;
F. Bones, carpenter; A. Clerk, fireman; L. W. Clark, o.s.;
P. J. Craig, A.B., .(2.; W. Curtis, fireman; A. Dolphin, assistant
steward; J. Dykes, donkeyman and greaser; S. Ferguson, A.B.;
S. G. Flowers, refrigerating greaser; T. D. Foley, sailor;
H. E. Gandy, chief steward; C. Garwood, boatswain; P.
Grimes, assistant steward; E. Hall, fireman; R. Harris, second
cook and baker; J. Hood, donkeyman and greaser; T* K.
Hyde, refrigerating greaser; T. A. Jenkins, cleaner; J. Killross,
sailor; D. Kingston, galley boy; J. Lovely, A.B.; J. E. Lovely,
fireman; G. J. Lynch, A.B., G.L.; C. McGinley, greaser; A.
McKay, assistant cook; W. McManus, A.B. ; N. McSween, sailor ;
R. L. Marshman, deck boy; D. Miller, A.B.; J.H. Mitchell,
A.B.; K. Moffat, refrigerating greaser; A. Pilskala, lamps and
A.B.; C. Plummer, engine-room storekeeper; W. J. Roberts,
o.s.; H. V. Robinson, second steward; C. Soderblom, A.B.;
J. Softley, fireman; J. Turnbull, A.B.; A. F. Underwood,
ship's and chief cook; B. G. Ward, steward's boy; W. Wheeler,
A.B.,W.G.; J. Wilkinson, cleaner; J. Wright, fireman.
Released at Montevideo from GrafSpet: F. M. Murphy, chief
officer; O. S. Walker, chief engineer; E. J. M. Angell, chief
refrigerating engineer; P. J. Cummins, radio officer ; A. D. Dixon,
deck boy; J. E. Fanner, sailor; J. E. Leedale, deck boy.
Released from Altmark: W. B. S. Starr, master; R. A. Costa,
second mate; F. J. Paterson, third mate; J. R. Bammant,
fourth mate; F. L. Kean, supernumerary mate; J. L. Naylor,
second engineer; C. W. Taylor, third engineer; N. K. Brown,
fourth engineer; I. F. Hunter, fifth engineer; A. C. Ketley,
sixth engineer; T. W. Rowell, second refrigerating engineer;
W. F. Wells, seventh engineer; L. Adamson, fireman; D. W.
Arter, trimmer; J. Bannon, refrigerating greaser; G. Barker,
greaser; W. E. Blakeman, o.s.; J. Blithe, fireman; P. J. Con-
naughton, second steward; D. W. Cook, trimmer; J. A. Daly,
supernumerary deck hand; R. Downey, fireman; G. K. J,
Evans, trimmer; A. Gant, trimmer; J. Gordon, fireman; D.
Gosling, lamps; T. C. E. Grant, trimmer; N. F. Guthrie,
steward's boy; C. J. Hall, A.B.; J. W. R. Hansen, chief and
ship's cook; F. G. Hill, trimmer; M. J. Hoban, fireman; J.
Keating, fireman; E. Langhelt, bosun; H. Langley, A.B.; A.
lindberg, greaser; J. McCarthy, refrigerating greaser; T. C.
MacDonald, trimmer, D. McLeod, A.B.; D. McMillan, en-
gineers' steward; W. E. McMinn, fireman; S. McWhinney,
scullion; T. Matthews, greaser; W. G. Miller, refrigerating
greaser; J. Moran, fireman; A. Newton, fireman; D* W.
Nicholas, A.B.; J. E. Oakley, greaser; P. O'Brien, trimmer; F.
Olsson, greaser; M. O'Toole, trimmer; T. Payne, A.B.; S.
Pemberton, deck boy; V. R. Phelan, second cook and baker;
R. Pittam, trimmer; H. Poysden, fireman; N. J. G. Purvis,
engineer's steward; J. Quigley, greaser; J. Reynolds, fireman;
W. C. H. Robinson, trimmer; H. E. Rodgers, o.s.; S. J.
Rowsell, trimmer; H. Shorland, trimmer; J. C. Smith, chief
steward; L. C. Southeard, deck boy; F. C. Stark, trimmer; R.
H. Stone, sailor; J. Summers, fireman; H. T. Tanner, trimmer;
T. Tynrmouth, carpenter; J. G. Webb, trimmer; A. J. Whelan,
trimmer; T. Wightman, assistant steward; J. Wilkins, engine-
Released at Montevideo from Graf Spee: A. H. Thompson,
chief officer; F. Edwards, chief engineer; J. H. Beazley, assist-
ant engineer; B. C. McCorry, radio officer.
Released from Altmark: A. H. Broun, master; A. A. Johnson,
second officer; L. Frost, third officer; A. A. Creer, second en-
gineer; E. S. Hall, third engineer; F. Clooney, fourth engineer;
P. A. Lyons, assistant engineer; P. Appleby, chief steward;
J. McCallum, .M.; A. J. Goldstein, Q.M.; H. Hughes, carpen-
ter; G. Mclntyre, Q..M.; H. Wreight, q.M.
Indian members of the crew: Aledool Jolill, Mahdmeah,
Wasiur Rahman, Ana Meah, Ali Ahmad, Amir Ali, Sultan
Ahamode, Syed Ahmad, Umoor Meah, Munshi Mian, Abdul
Wahale, Sultan Ahamad, Reazuddin. Xcor Ahmad, Ali
Hussian, Badsha Mian, Sultan Ahmad. Kanai, Abdul Ahmad,
Sorafathali, Reazulla, Thacoordhone, Somodeali, Xuntazuran,
Jaburulla, Massimulla, Meadon, Zaulia Abdin, Monroozulia,
Komoreallee, Eusuphulla, Sumshireullah, Pasadullah, As-
manaJi, Tormoozullah, Forasatulla, Edrisulla, Luckmanullah,
KLhurshidali, Konaullah, Munsoorali, Ramjanali, AVoolfatulla,
Noimoolla, Yeasimullah, Reasutulla, Mansoorali, Untorali,
Arfanulla, Hashmatullah, Harisulla, Harishmeah, Mofizali,
Sekandar Mian, Sunaulla, Somodeulla, Gonoomirar, Sherazcol
Hawk, Shakuroollah, Asadulla, Kala Mian, Abdul Azis,
Sahebali, Mungli, Radiuzzaman, Hahd Essack, Sk. Edoo.
S.S. AFRICA SHELL
Released at Montevideo from Graf Spee: P. Dove, master.