This week in the War, 12–18 February 1940: The Navy’s Here

The Navy’s Here was a popular song written early in the war by British songwriters, Ross Parker and Hugh Charles. They wrote it to commemorate the so-called Altmark Incident which took place in Jossingfjord, Norway, on the night of 16 February 1940. The war at sea had been going badly for Britain, with the sinking of the battleship Royal Oak and the aircraft carrier Courageous, and heavy shipping losses caused by mines and U-boats. To make matters worse, the German pocket battleship Graf Spee (scuttled on 17 November 1939) had caused further losses to Britain’s merchant fleet. The Graf Spee had passed its prisoners—all British merchant marine officers taken from ships about to be sunk—to the German supply ship, Altmark. Almost three hundred such prisoners were incarcerated aboard the Altmark as she steamed back towards Germany. After successfully dodging the Royal Navy, she was finally tracked down and forced to take refuge in Jossingfjord in neutral Norway. The British government demanded that the Norwegians free the Altmark prisoners, in accordance with international law. The Norwegians, fearful of jeopardizing Norwegian-German relations, refused to acknowledge that the prisoners even existed. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, made the decision to violate the neutrality of Norwegian waters by sending the destroyer, HMS Cossack, into Jossingfjord. Officers and crew of the Cossack, some carrying cutlasses, boarded the Altmark and a sharp hand-to-hand fight ensued. [See Chapter 20 of The Second World War, Abridged one-volume edition, by Winston S. Churchill (Cassell, London, 1959)]. After suffering some casualties, the Germans were overpowered and the Cossack‘s boarding party opened the hatches to search below decks. The joyful cry “The Navy’s Here!” came from prisoners who had spent weeks locked below under terrible conditions.

The Altmark Incident, with the rescue of the prisoners and their triumphant return to Britain on board the Cossack provided the British with a reason for celebration and a much needed boost in morale. The incident convinced Hitler that he needed to accelerate his plans to invade Norway.

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