HL Deb 20 February 1940 vol 115 cc576-80

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask whether His Majesty's Government have a statement to make concerning the German ship "Altmark."


My Lords, this admirably conducted operation resulted, as your Lordships are by now well aware, in the rescue of 299 officers and men belonging to a number of British merchant vessels sunk by the German armoured ship "Graf Spee." These prisoners had been closely confined on the German naval supply ship "Altmark" for periods up to more than three months. His Majesty's Government are at present awaiting full reports from the naval officers concerned in this very gallant affair, but I am sure that your Lordships will join His Majesty's Government in the satisfaction they feel at the release of the officers and crews of the vessels sunk by the German raider after their long ordeal, and that you will desire also to congratulate the Royal Navy most heartily upon, this notable addition to its annals.

Apart from the original protest, which was handed to my noble friend the Secretary of State on Saturday last, we have received no official communication from the Norwegian Government, but your Lordships have no doubt seen an account in the Press of the full statement made by the Norwegian. Foreign Minister in the Storting last night, and His Majesty's Government desire to make certain comments upon it at once. This account makes the action, or rather inaction, of the Norwegian Government even more difficult to understand than we had previously supposed. We had imagined that the Norwegian authorities had conducted some examination of the "Altmark," and our complaint was that this examination had been so perfunctory that it did not reveal the presence of the British prisoners on board. It now appears, however, that the Norwegian authorities conducted no examination of the ship at all. According to Professor Koht's statement, the "Altmark" was stopped a little south of Trondheim Fjord by a Norwegian torpedo-boat, whose commander made a request to inspect the ship. It appears that, according to the Norwegian view, as the "Altmark" was regarded as a warship and carried the German State flag, the Norwegian officer could not make a request to search the ship. He examined her papers, which were found in order, and apparently on this allowed her to proceed. It appears, however, that the chief naval commander in Bergen was not quite satisfied and, on February 15, the "Altmark," when about 100 miles from Bergen, was stopped by a Norwegian guard ship demanding to inspect the ship. The "Altmark's" Captain refused to submit to inspection and the request was dropped. Even the fact that the Norwegian authorities discovered that the "Altmark" had used her wireless in Norwegian territorial waters, in violation of the Norwegian regulations, did not lead the Norwegian authorities to take any action beyond making a complaint and accepting an apology based on the statement that the Captain of the "Altmark" was unacquainted with the Norwegian prohibition. All that I have just said is taken from a statement made by Professor Koht, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, to which I have already referred.

Moreover, before His Majesty's ships took any action against the "Altmark," the commanding officer, acting on the instructions of His Majesty's Government, proposed to the Norwegian naval officer on the spot that the "Altmark" should be taken to Bergen under joint British and Norwegian guard in order that the matter might be properly investigated there by the Norwegian authorities. This offer was refused. The British commanding officer then invited the Norwegian officer to accompany the British boarding party on board the "Altmark," but he declined to do so. It will be seen, therefore, that on not one occasion but on three or four, the Norwegian authorities failed to carry out a proper investigation of the case. It was not until after these refusals that His Majesty's ships took action against the "Altmark," and it is plain that if they had not done so the ship would have been allowed to complete her voyage to Germany without let or hindrance and without any inquiry into the circumstances. I observe also that Professor Koht stated that the Norwegian authorities did not know that British prisoners were on board the "Altmark." Considering that this fact was prominently reported weeks ago in the Press of the world, this is indeed a most surprising statement.

It is difficult in these circumstances to resist the conclusion that the Norwegian authorities have displayed complete indifference as to the use which might be made of their territorial waters by the German Fleet. Even if such indifference was due to German pressure it is nevertheless, in the view of His Majesty's Government, inconsistent with the active and impartial exercise of the duty of a neutral towards ourselves as belligerents. According to the views expressed by Professor Koht, the Norwegian Government see no objection to the use of Norwegian territorial waters for hundreds of miles by a German warship for the purpose of escaping capture on the high seas and of conveying British prisoners to a German prison camp. Such a doctrine is at variance with International Law as His Majesty's Government understand it. It would in their view legalise the abuse by German warships of neutral waters and create a position which His Majesty's Government could in no circumstances accept.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Snell was good enough to ask me to make any comment that appears to be necessary on the answer to his question. I should like first of all to associate my noble friends with the expressions of admiration for the good seamanship, gallantry and enterprise of the Royal Navy in rescuing these 300 British officers and seamen in the circumstances. I also venture to say that, whatever may have been the negligence of certain Norwegian officials, we do feel great sympathy with the Norwegian people, and especially with the Norwegian merchant seamen, who are being murdered on the high seas without any excuse whatsoever by Nazi piracy—I use the word employed by the former Lord Chancellor, Viscount Maugham, for these crimes.

This is not the time to go into the legalities of the whole affair, but I have not noticed any reference to the fact that every one of these 299 merchant seamen was illegally captured in the first place by the "Graf Spee." The right to sink captured merchant ships on the high seas is hedged around by International Law, established for generations, with very strict rules. None of these rules was observed by the "Graf Spee." Every one of those ships sunk on the high seas was illegally sunk; they should have been taken before a Prize Court, and every one of those seaman was therefore illegally a prisoner. It is certainly not in any case for Germany to complain, whatever the Norwegians may say. Also apart from this the Germans have put themselves right out of court, for, from the beginning of the war, their warships and aeroplanes have committed vile crimes on the high seas and have continually, from the very beginning, broken their own pledged treaty by the illegal use of submarines to sink, without any warning, Allied and neutral merchant ships, and to murder their crews and the helpless passengers they carried.

As a sort of rider to that, I cannot refrain from remarking that one of the most extraordinary features of this affair was that, though it was known for days by the German naval authorities that this prison ship was proceeding down the Norwegian coast, making use of territorial waters to escape, and although it was almost at Germany's naval backdoor, apparently no attempt was made by the regular warships of the German Fleet or by the German aeroplanes to make any sort of diversion in an effort to prevent the capture of the "Altmark" or to attempt its recapture. Germany must have had some local strength quite close to the scene of the capture—our ships of war cannot be everywhere—and I should have thought that an enemy that was not demoralised by its own crimes would have come out and made a fight for it.


My Lords, I think we shall be holding the Royal Commission without any further delay, and therefore we will just wait until the Commission is ready.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.