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Daring Altmark raid remembered by HMS Dauntless and Raleigh

18 February 2020
Sailors past and present commemorated one of the most stirring episodes in World War 2 – 80 years after the action made worldwide news.

Services were held in Worthing and at HMS Raleigh in Torpoint to remember 33 men from HMS Cossack, armed with rifles, bayonets and even a cutlass, who stormed a Nazi tanker in a Norwegian fjord and released 299 merchant sailors held prisoner for months.

The boarding – known to history as the Altmark Incident, named after the tanker – was one of the few highlights of the Phoney War.

The man who gave the rallying cry during the action – and was also the sole British casualty – was the focal point for the main act of remembrance in Durrington Cemetery, Worthing.

The West Sussex graveyard is the last resting place of gunner Warrant Officer John James Frederick Smith, who won the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on February 17 1940.

The 35-year-old, who was on loan to Cossack from cruiser HMS Aurora, famously shouted: “The Navy’s here” when the prisoners in the bowels of the tanker asked what was the cause of the commotion aboard.

WO Smith was wounded in the shoulder by a booby trap but survived; the Altmark’s surgeon treated his injury.

The Briton’s daughter Sheila Sandford, just six at the time, was guest of honour as sailors from Portsmouth-based destroyer HMS Dauntless joined local naval and military veterans and representatives from the Norwegian Embassy at the former senior rating’s graveside.

John Smith died in 1973 having never told his family about his role in the incident – so the memorial ceremony came as a surprise.

“My father was ‘typically naval’ – upright and reserved. Today it really come home to me how terribly important it was,” she said.

The action also inspires today’s dedicated Royal Navy and Royal Marine boarding teams who train at HMS Raleigh in Cornwall – the headquarters of board-and-search operations is the Cossack Building.

We thought it fitting to hold a service of Remembrance here at Raleigh, it has helped improve and strengthen our relationship with the Cossack Association and is a real privilege to be a part of

Captain Anthony Swan

Royal British Legion veterans joined personnel from 47 Commando Royal Marines – who teach 21st-Century boarding tactics to hundreds of sailors and marines every year.

“We thought it fitting to hold a service of Remembrance here at Raleigh,” said Captain Anthony Swan, Royal Marines, Officer-in-Charge of the Board and Search School

“It has helped improve and strengthen our relationship with the Cossack Association and is a real privilege to be a part of.”

Back in 1940, the Altmark incident was a cause of celebration in the Allied media. The prisoners had been held for several months aboard the tanker after being captured during the raiding spree carried out by Hitler’s ‘pocket battleship’ Graf Spee.

The warship was cornered off South America in December 1939 and subsequently scuttled off Montevideo, but her supporting tanker evaded the Royal Navy vessels patrolling the Atlantic. Altmark made it as far as the Norwegian coast before RAF reconnaissance located her.

That prompted the Royal Navy’s dramatic action, sending destroyer HMS Cossack into Altmark’s hiding place, Jøssingfjord, near the southwestern tip of Norway.

Eight Germans were killed in the ensuing boarding which served as the spark to the Scandinavian powder keg, prompting Hitler to invade Norway two months later.

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