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Family Attractions: New Acquisition for The National Museum of the Royal Navy


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Seventy years ago on 16th February 1940, HMS Cossack released 299 British prisoners from the German Altmark, in what has become subsequently known as "The Altmark Incident." To mark this significant anniversary, a commemorative sign has been donated by HMS Cossack Association to the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

The Altmark was the supply ship to the German pocket battleship the Graf Spee and also acted as a prison ship picking up survivors from ships sunk by the Graf Spee. 

Following the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939 during which the Graf Spee was sunk, the Altmark slowly made her way home. She reached Norwegian waters in February 1940.

The cruiser Arethusa and five destroyers including HMS Cossack set sail from Scotland, officially to carry out ice reconnaissance, but accompanied by a strong rumour they were searching for the German prison ship. The Naval Attaché at the British Embassy in Oslo learned that Altmark was steaming two miles off the Norwegian coast and signalled the Admiralty. Captain Vian the “ice reconnaissance” flotilla commander was informed and began the search for Altmark. After stopping several vessels Altmark was finally found by the Royal Navy and chased to Jossingfjord.

After attempts to negotiate with the Norwegians to force Altmark from the fjord failed, HMS Cossack came alongside and a boarding party boarded the Altmark. A hold was opened up and a sailor shouted down “Are there any Englishmen down there”. When the reply was a resounding yes the now famous words “then come up. The Navy’s here” were shouted down.

Four Germans were killed and five wounded in the short action but only one of the RN boarding party was injured. 299 captives were released. 

Following the German occupation of Norway, a commemorative sign was erected in German, saying: “Here on 16th Feb. 1940 the Altmark was set upon by a British sea-pirate”.

The sign was double sided and when liberated by British airborne forces in 1944, one side was given to Admiral Vian and the other side retained by the airborne forces. The side given to Admiral Vian has now been donated through HMS Cossack Association to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth where it will go on public display (dates TBC). 

Visitors to Heritage Open Days will be able to see the sign on Saturday 11 & Sunday 12 September at 11am, 1pm & 3pm on a ‘Behind The Scenes Tour Of The National Museum Of The Royal Navy’. This is a chance to see the collections which cannot always be in the public exhibitions, as well as discovering the history of the Museum’s magnificent ‘present use storehouse’ built in 1763. 

FREE – Only 15 spaces per tour & must be booked in advance, please contact 023 9272 8060 to reserve a place.

Photos From Top: 
Altmark sign donated by HMS Cossack assoc wartime German photo in situ
Altmark sign donated by HMS cossack Assoc

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