German Supply Ship Altmark and an Unlikely Meeting

This story begins shortly after the outbreak of World War II. On the 22nd October1939 the 5299 ton cargo vessel MV Trevanion of the Hain Steamship Company London, was en route from Freemantle in Australia, to Swansea UK, with a cargo of concentrates. Her Captain was J. Edwards of St Ives. She had a crew of thirty three. The cook on board was Llanelli man, Gwyilym Howells from the Council Houses Llwynhendy. The ship was off South West Africa when lookouts aboard the Trevanion sighted a ship steaming towards them. The vessel was later identified as a warship. Initial concern faded when the French Tricolour was seen flying from the ship's mast. They received a signal from the warship by signal lamp, to heave to and make no radio signals. Capt. Edwards ordered the wireless operator to send a distress signal. With that, the French Tricolor was lowered and the German Ensign run up. The German ship opened fire. The Captain just had time to dump the ship's confidential papers overboard before a German boarding party of twenty arrived. The crew were removed and the ship was scuttled.

Six days later the crew of the Trevanion was transferred to a Norwegion vessel, the Søgne. She was in fact the Graf Spee's supply ship Altmark. Conditions aboard the Altmark were atrocious. On the 14th of December after an engagement with British Cruisers, the Graf Spee entered Montivideo harbour. On the 18th December 1939 the Graf Spee was scuttled by her crew off Montevideo. With no further reason to remain in the South Atlantic the Altmark with 299 prisoners in her holds began the perilous return voyage to Germany. The British Admiralty alerted several destroyer groups to find Altmark these included Capt. Lord Louis Mountbatten in the destroyer Kelly and Capt. Vian in the Cossack.

On February 14th 1940 the Altmark entered Norwegian territorial waters and was "inspected" by a Norwegian torpedo boat which found no prisoners aboard and permitted the Altmark to proceed.

On February 15th 100 miles north of Bergen she was stopped again. Her Captain refused to allow any inspection.

On February 16th the Altmark was close to the southernmost tip of Norway and was sighted by an aircraft from Coastal command and two other aircraft. The Admiralty was immediately informed and the Cossack was one of the ships ordered to intercept. Many of her crew were suffering from flu and draftees from other destroyers had been put on board. Amongst those transferred from HMS Ghurkha was Llanelli man Dai Rees of the Union Inn Felinfoel. He was to be included in the boarding party.

In an attempt to evade the British vessels, the Altmark entered Jøssingfjord. HMS Ivanhoe and two Norwegian gunboats which had escorted the Altmark were already there. The Admiralty requested that the Altmark be escorted to Bergen where she would be thoroughly searched. The Norwegians refused stating that the Altmark was an unarmed vessel without any prisoners aboard. The British destroyers withdrew.

Shortly after 20:00 hours, on the direct orders of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Cossack entered the Jøssingfjord, steamed past the Norwegian warships (which had orders not to fire on the British ships) and made for the Altmark, which ran aground trying to evade the British. Eventually the British ship was close enough and grappling irons were used to secure the two ships. After giving the order "Away boarders" the men of the Cossack leapt aboard the Altmark shouting out "The Navy's here!". Prisoners were freed, casualties on the British side was one severely wounded seaman J. J. F. Smith. German casualties were higher, two dead, one missing, several wounded.

Thus it was that two Llanelli men met aboard the Altmark, a meeting that neither had expected to make.



Altmark Incident Wikipedia
Thanks to Peter Stubbs of Edin Photo for his permission to use the photograph of HMS Cossack arriving at Imperial Dock Basin, Leith Docks