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15 October 2014
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The Last Boarding Action of the Royal Navy

by WatTyler

Contributed by 
WatTyler
People in story: 
George Earnest Jewitt
Location of story: 
Norweigan Waters
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A1979553
Contributed on: 
06 November 2003

My grandfather, George Earnest Jewitt, took place in the last true boarding action of the Royal Navy.

During World War II, the Royal Navy fought a deadly game of cat and mouse with their German counterparts. Pocket battleships such as the Bismarck and the Graff Spee were sent out into the oceans to create havoc among our merchant shipping, all with the aim of cutting or damaging our supply lines from the Empire, the Dominions and the United States.

The speed and skill of those on board the Graff Spee resulted in the sinking of nine ships whose 300 surviving crew were taken prisoner and transferred to the secret supply ship 'Altmark'.

But by Mid December, as a result of the Battle of the River Plate, the Graff Spee had been scuttled in Montevideo harbour, so Altmark was left alone with her holds packed with British prisoners, unable to make for Germany due to engine trouble. On top of this there was a shortage of food, and her prisoners no longer a secret.

It was January before she could sail North.

On reaching Norway the crew of the Altmark felt they had escaped the ambushes and of the Royal Navy, and they were with days of the protection of Norwegian neutrality. The prisoners felt that they were to become long term guests of Germany.

But early in February, Naval intelligence became aware of the ship, and a flotilla of five destroyers and a cruiser were sent to try and intercept.

On 16th of February, at 08.25 hours, a battle flight of Lockhead Hudson aircraft, led by 'K' and crewed by Pilot Officer McNeil and Pilot Lawrie, L.A.C. Sheekey and Cpl.Hugill pinpointed the Altmark, took photographs, and passed information on Altmarks position and direction.

My Grandfather was on board H.M.S. Cossack when it intercepted the signal and Captain Vian immediately gave pursuit.

The Admiralty had signalled interception should be made in neutral waters but sent in his destroyers, but Altmark ignored orders to stop. In addition two Norwegian torpedo boats began shepherding the German ship toward Josing Fiord and safety.

Reaching the Fiord the Norwegians closed in and blocked off the channel.

As darkness fell Cossack arrived. The situation was tense... if there were no prisoners on board the German ship, then the Norwegians had acted quite correctly.

In Cossack, R.N.V.R Officer Lieutenant Craven invited the Senior Norweigan Captain aboard and informed him that there were in fact British prisoners in Altmark. Craven demanded the right to visit and search the German ship.

The Noweigan replied that Altmark had been searched three times since she entered Norwegian waters, and no prisoners had been discovered, he added his orders were to resist any entry by force, and, as we could see, his torpedo tubes were at that time trained on Cossack.

Deadlock - It took Vian three hours to elicit a response for instructions from the Admiralty. These read:

"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 Altmark, liberate the prisoners and take possession of 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 cease fire when she desists.

These orders certainly placed Captain Vian in a terrible position. When is an attack 'serious'?

The Norwegian officer was not moved by this argument, but Cossack was now in a position to use her pom-poms on the Norwegian decks, whilst her torpedo tubes did not menace the British detroyer. Craven 'bit the bullet' and said the Royal Navy were going to board and search Altmark, whether we had to fight the Norwegians or not.

At this stage the Captain of Kjell, decided he could withdraw with honour, and did so.

Altmark came into view as Cossack steamed round a bend, her bows pointing inshore and covered in ice, against the snow covered mountains her stark black bulk made a striking contrast. The Captain of Altmark was not giving up easily, he came charging astern through the channel his passage through the ice had made, his searchlight trained on the destroyer's bridge to blind the personnel there. Disaster from collision was only avoided by some fancy manoeuvering by Maclean, Cossack's navigator.

The leader of the boarding party, Lieutenant Bradwell Turner, in anticipation of Cossack going alongside Altmark, leapt across the gap between the two ships, this feat after the event became quite famous. Petty Officer Atkins was not so adept and fell short, hanging by his arms until Turner hoisted him on board.

A hawser was secured the two ships, and the rest of the boarding party, including my grandfather armed with a pick axe handle, stormed on board.

On Altmark's bridge, Turner found the engine telegraphs ordering full speed, trying to run Cossack up on the shoreline, and he rang stop. The German bridge officers generally surrendered, except for their Third Officer who tried to change the telegraphs once more, despite this Turner refrained from shooting him.

Altmark was now grounded by her stern. Cossack cast off, just avoided a similar fate.

With the German Captain giving up, Turner anticipated the release of any prisoners would be a routine affair, not so, an armed guard who was on board from Graf Spee, shot Gunner Smith from the boarding party in one of the ship's passageways, this armed guard took off fleeing across the ice, whence they sniped at the boarding party. This was soon prevented

With six German dead, another six badly wounded, Gunner Smith the only British casualty, and his wounds were not fatal.

Under locked hatches in the holds when these were broken open, groups of men were found, Turner shouted out " Any British down there?" The response a tremendous roar of:

" Yes! We are all British!"

From Turner came his famous reply:

"COME ON UP THEN, THE NAVY"S HERE!"

---

I am proud of my grandfather. He was not a glory seeker; he was not brave in the hero sense - he was just an ordinary stoker and a gunner - an ordinary man of both good points and bad. But through such ordinary men and women is our freedom bought.

My grandfather paid for his part. For sixty years he was nerves were bad. He would flinch at loud bangs. He had nightmares about the time a shell came through and exploded in his section killing all around him - forcing himself to carry on supplying shells to the gun turrets; about chipping ice off the deck of his ship in the freezing Arctic, so it wouldn't role over during the supply convoys to Russia.

My Grandfather died in 2001. I think his small part in history deserves to be remembered.

I hope it will be.

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