Warship Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021: The Navy’s Here

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021: The Navy’s Here

Imperial War Museum Photo FL 1657

Here we see the Royal Navy Tribal (Afridi)-class destroyer HMS Cossack (L03, F03 & G03) underway just after her completion in the summer of 1938. Today is the 80th anniversary of the vessel’s loss, but she had the heart of a lion and got in some good licks against the Axis in her short WWII career.

Background on the Tribals

The Afridi‘s were a new type of destroyer designed for the Royal Navy in the late 1920s off experience both in the Great War and to match the large, modern escorts on the drawing boards of contemporary naval rivals of the time.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Huron (G24), in dazzle camouflage, sailing out to sea during the Second World War during one of her countless trans-Atlantic escorting runs. The Tribal-class destroyer, commissioned on July 28,1943, also served in the Pacific theatre during the Korean War under the new pennant number 216.

These 378-foot vessels could make 36+ knots on a pair of geared steam turbines and a trio of Admiralty three-drum boilers while an impressive battery of up to eight 4.7″/45 (12 cm) QF Mark XII guns in four twin CPXIX mountings gave them the same firepower as early WWI light cruisers (though typically just three turrets were mounted).

Gun crew on Tribal-class destroyer HMCS Algonquin cleaning up their 4.7″/45 (12 cm) Mark XII guns after firing at the Normandy Beaches on 7 June 1944. Note that the crewman kneeling in the rear is holding a 4.7″ (12 cm) projectile. Library and Archives Canada Photograph MIKAN no. 3223884

Some 32 Afridi‘s were planned in eight-ship flights: 16 for the RN (named after tribal warriors: HMS Eskimo, HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu, et. al), eight for the Royal Australian Navy, and eight for the Canadians. Of the Canadian ships, four were to be built by Vickers in the UK and the other four by Halifax shipyards in Nova Scotia. All the Canadian ships were to be named after First Nations tribes (Iroquois, Athabaskan, Huron, Haida, Micmac, Nootka, Cayuga, etc.)

An unidentified Tribal class destroyer in profile

Meet Cossack

The subject of our tale, HMS Cossack, was laid down at Vickers- Armstrong 9 March 1936– the week Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland– and commissioned 7 June 1938, some three months after his Anschluss annexation of Austria. She was the sixth RN warship to carry the name, which had been introduced in 1806 when the 6th-Rate sloop Pandour was renamed. As such, she carried two previous Battle Honours forward (“Baltic 1835” and “Dover Patrol 1914-19.” Still, as the Royal Navy had fought the Bolsheviks on several fronts during the Russian Civil War only a generation prior, it was an odd choice of name.

Assigned the pennant L03, she became part of the 1st Tribal Destroyer Flotilla in the Mediterranean where she pitched in on the international patrols during the Spanish Civil War in between Fleet exercises.

In April 1939, the Tribal Flotilla was reflagged as the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, resulting in a change of her pennant to F03.

When WWII broke out, she was with the battleship HMS Warspite at Istanbul and was soon part of convoys escorting French colonial troops from North Africa to Marseilles. By October 1939, she and her flotilla were ordered to the British Isles for Home Fleet duties in the North Sea, primarily enforcing the blockade of Germany to prevent that nation’s huge fleet of merchant ships left at sea around the world from returning home with their precious cargo.

This leads us to…

Troßschiff Altmark

One of the five Dithmarschen-class of 20,000-ton specialized tanker/supply ships built at Kiel for naval service between 1937 and 1939, Altmark could carry 7,933 tons of fuel, 972 tons of munitions, 790 tons of supplies, and 100 tons of spare parts for German surface raiders. The class was also well-armed and considered capable of being auxiliary cruisers, carrying three 150mm L48s as well as a variety of 37mm and 20mm flak guns.

Altmark’s sister ship, USS Conecuh (AOR-110), photographed in 1953-1956. She was originally the German navy replenishment oiler KMS Dithmarschen, built in 1938, and turned over as a war prize in 1946. She was stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1960. NARA 80-G-678091

On the outbreak of war, Altmark was at sea in the Atlantic and met with the commerce-raiding “pocket battleship” KMS Graf Spee on 1 September to transfer vital fuel stores. Over the next four months, under the control of her skipper, 66-year-old Capt. Heinrich Dau, she would meet Spee nine times at sea and trade supplies for prisoners that the raider had captured under gentlemanly “cruiser rules,” meeting Spee on 6 December for the final time.

After Spee was scuttled in Uruguay on 17 December after being run to ground by a trio of fearless cruisers, Altmark was left alone at sea with 299 captured Commonwealth merchant seamen aboard. Rather than blow her cover and parole them in a neutral port, the huge tanker somehow eluded the Royal Navy and made it back to Northern Europe, threading the needle to appear in the territorial waters of neutral Norway by mid-February 1940.

As Altmark had ditched her larger guns and changed her topside appearance several times, the mystery ship, passing herself at first as the French tanker Chirqueue, was granted grudging Norwegian permission to pass from Trondheim, where she first arrived. Soon the call went out and, after being directed by RAF Hudsons of 220 Squadron that had spotted the German, the British made a move.

Altmark, hiding out in Norway

On 16 February, Cossack– with a task force consisting of the cruiser HMS Arethusa and the destroyers Intrepid, Sikh, Nubian, and Ivanhoe— intercepted Altmark in an attempt to force her out of Norwegian territorial waters, firing a shot across her bow. However, the tanker instead slipped into a narrow inlet in Jossingfiord, effectively trapped.

Meanwhile, the neutral Norwegians only raised protests but did not actively defend Altmark, although the armed torpedo boats HNoMS Skarv and Kjell were on hand.

Following several hours of negotiations with the Norwegians to (kind of) allow a single ship to inspect Altmark and Cossack, under Capt. Philip Louis Vian, was sent in. Creeping close and according to some reports, getting lost in the fjord at night, Cossack drew close to the German tanker and LCDR B.T. Turner led the 32-man (4 officers and 28 ratings) boarding force aboard, armed with rifles and bayonets and at least one cutlass, purportedly the last combat use of that weapon in Royal Navy history.

Wilkinson, Norman; HMS ‘Cossack’ and the Prison Ship ‘Altmark’, 16 February 1940; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hms-cossack-and-the-prison-ship-altmark-16-february-1940-176104

Altmark tried to fight back, with Capt. Dau ordering spotlights to blind the Cossack’s bridge and engines astern to ram the oncoming destroyer. In a confused action that saw the boarding party leap across the gap between the two ships, and several Germans killed and wounded (reports vary, with the better ones citing from 8 killed and 5 wounded in exchange for no British losses), the tanker was seized and grounded.

A hatch was opened and a call– attributed to Warrant Officer John James Frederick Smith, who won the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on 16 February-– was made; “Are there any Englishmen down there?”

Following a loud response, the prisoners were told; “Then come up. The Navy’s here.”

In all, from empty shell rooms, fuel tanks, and storerooms, some 297 British mariners were found while two merchant captains (Brown and Starr) were located in a double cabin aft. The men had been on a bread and water diet and came from at least seven ships. Elsewhere on the ship, “timebombs” were found set to explode as were two concealed “pom-poms,” three 6-inch guns, and four machine guns, none of which were brought into action.

While Cossack suffered slight damage to her bows in closing with the prison ship and her port propeller cracked, Altmark was hard aground and could not be seized as a prize for return to Britain. Instead, her prisoners were liberated, and the German was left in place.

The next day, the released prisoners were landed at Leith with substantial press coverage, a delightful distraction from the “Phony War” then going on in France.

HMS Cossack returns to Leith on 17 February 1940 after rescuing the British prisoners held in Graf Spees’s supply ship Altmark. IWM

Vain earned a DSO, issued 12th April 1940: 
 
Captain Philip Louis Vian, Royal Navy, H.M.S. Cossack;
 
for outstanding ability, determination and resource in the preliminary dispositions which led to the rescue of 300 English prisoners from the German Armed Auxiliary Altmark, and for daring, leadership and masterly handling of his ship in narrow waters so as to bring her alongside and board the enemy, who tried to blind him with the glare of a searchlight, worked his engine full ahead and full astern, tried to ram him and drive him ashore and so threatened the grounding and loss of Cossack

While the Norwegians lodged toothless official protests with London, the Germans later used the Altmark incident as part of their excuse to invade that Scandinavian neutral, saying the Allies had no intent to recognize said neutrality and the country needed some extra Teutonic protection.

Goebbels also launched an over-the-top propaganda broadside over the “Crime against the Altmark,” painting the British tars of the Cossack as bloodthirsty pirates murdering honest and defenseless German mariners with dum-dum bullets while flouting Norwegian sovereignty, all while leaving out the tanker’s own role as a prison ship for a notorious commerce raider.

The German propaganda booklet surpassed a half-million copies in print.

The rest of Cossack’s War

Sent back to Norway in April to blunt the German invasion of that country, Cossack was damaged at the Second Battle of Narvik, running around and suffering serious damage that required two weeks of local repair under enemy pressure. In that destroyer-on-destroyer clash, she suffered 11 killed and 23 of the ship’s company wounded but got licks in on the KMS Eric Giese (Z12) and KMS Diether von Roeder (Z17).

She received eight direct hits and one near miss from German 5-inch guns, keeping afloat due to skilled damage control.

HMS Cossack damage control lessons learned poster after Narvik

On 5 May, while under repair, her pennant shifted to G03.

Rejoining the 4th Flotilla in June 1940 after more permanent repairs that included installing a Type 286 gunnery radar, she stood by for the expected invasion of Britain following the Fall of France.

Once that threat dissipated, Cossack was sent towards Norway again in October with classmates HMS Ashanti, HMS Sikh, and HMS Maori to harass German maritime traffic and received a shell hole in her while attacking a convoy off Egersund.

On Board the Destroyer HMS Cossack during Torpedo and Anti-submarine Exercises. 1940. Captain Vian (in the center) of Altmark fame, on the bridge during exercises. Note the Lewis gun. Photo by Beadell, S J (Lt). IWM A 1595

Pluto the dog, the mascot of HMS Cossack stood on the lap of one of the ship’s company as a group of them pose during torpedo and anti-submarine exercises Photo by Beadell, S J (Lt). IWM A 1598

A view from the other side of the above

Further operations were more mundane until, in late May, she and the rest of the 4th Flotilla were dispatched to join the urgent “Hunt for the Bismarck,” which had its endgame on the 27th when she, along with HMS Maori and Zulu, carried out close torpedo attacks on the feared German battlewagon.

Painting made in 1942 by artist Walter Zeeden depicting Captain Vian’s destroyer, Cossack, engaged by the Bismarck during the night of 26-27 May 1941. Via KBismarck

Supposedly, in a great sea story, her crew managed to recover a black and white cat found afloat in the Bismarck’s wreckage. Unaware of what the stray name of said Katze had been on Bismarck, the crew of Cossack termed their new mascot “Oscar” after the term for the dummy used in man overboard drills.

Then came coastal convoy protection from German E-boats operating from occupied France and, in October 1941, an assignment with her flotilla sisters to join Operation Substance, the reinforcement of Malta’s embattled garrison.

While just out of Gibraltar as part of convoy HG 075 on 23 October, Cossack was hit by a torpedo from the Type VIIC U-boat U-563 (Oblt. Klaus Bargsten), which was operating with Wolfpack Breslau. With massive flooding and the loss of 158 men, the destroyer was abandoned. However, the battered tin can remained afloat and, reoccupied by a 27-strong salvage crew, she was taken under tow by HM Tug Thames under escort from the corvette Jonquil.

Sadly, the damage proved too much and four days later, still short of Gibraltar, she foundered in rough weather. While her salvage crew was taken off safely, Cossack went to the bottom at 1043 on 27 October in position 35.12N 08.17W.

Her death was avenged in May 1943 when U-563 was sent to the bottom with all hands by RAF and RAAF Halifax and Sutherland aircraft off Spain. 

Epilogue

Cossack is remembered primarily for her role in the Altmark incident, an engagement that has been retold in maritime art several times.

HMS Cossack, by Anthony Cowland.

HMS Cossack comic by Jim Watson. Battle Picture Weekly and Valiant cover, dated 13 August 1977.

Cossack at Narvik April 1940 by Rudenko

She has also been reproduced in model format off and on over the past several decades.

Her skipper during the Altmark incident also survived the war, later rising to become the commander in charge of air operations of the British Pacific Fleet in the final push against Japan, and went on to become Fifth Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Philip Louis Vian GCB, KBE, DSO & Two Bars. Among the foreign decorations held by the “Fighting Admiral” was St. Olav’s Medal With Oak Branch, given to him by the Norwegians after the war to show there were no hard feelings. He died in 1968 on dry land at his home in Berkshire, aged 73.

Sir Philip Louis Vian by Walter Stoneman, bromide print, December 1942. NPG x76877

Speaking of Altmark, she was renamed Uckermark and returned to Kriegsmarine service including supporting Operation Berlin, the early 1941 anti-shipping sortie of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and being assigned twice (unsuccessfully) to back up Graf Spee’s sistership, the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. Sent to the Far East with “Raider H,” the auxiliary cruiser HSK Michel— the last operative German raider of World War II– Altmark/Uckermark ended in a column of smoke in an unexplained explosion in Yokohama in November 1942.

During her Indo-Pacific deployment in November 2021, an honor guard from the German frigate Bayern went ashore at Yokohama to lay a wreath and flag at the memorial for the Uckermark’s lost crew, killed in the 1942 explosion.

Another famed German survivor, the seasick cat Oscar was supposedly rescued when Cossack was initially abandoned off Gibraltar and picked up on a Carley Float with a handful of her crew by the L-class destroyer HMS Legion and all were later transferred to the carrier HMS Ark Royal. Amazingly, Ark Royal was sunk just two weeks later off Malta but Oscar, renamed “Unsinkable Sam,” somehow escaped meeting Davy Jones for the third time and was retired to shoreside service in Gibraltar and, postwar, to the old sailor’s home in Belfast where he reportedly passed in 1955, a German cat with lots of tales to tell, no doubt.

Oscar/Sam’s legend, which is likely more sea yarn than anything else, nonetheless resulted in a portrait that is now hung at Greenwich for the believe it or not crowd.

Oscar, the Bismarck’s Cat by Georgina Shaw-Baker National Maritime Museum in Greenwich

Greenwich also sells prints of Cossack’s plans. 

The Royal Navy used Cossack’s name for a sixth time, issuing it to a C-class destroyer (D57) that became leader of the 8th Destroyer Squadron in 1945, fought in close actions in Korea, and was broken up in 1961 after a career in the Far East.

For more details on Cossack, visit the HMS Cossack Association, which has a range of information about the famous ships that have carried the name.

As for our Cossack’s Tribal-class sisters, no less than 12 of the 16 Tribals in British service were lost during WWII and the remaining quartet were all paid off by 1949. All the Tribals in Canadian service were sold to the breakers by 1969. The three Australian ships that were completed (five were canceled) likewise were turned to razor blades.

The only Tribal that remains afloat is HMCS Haida which was preserved and opened as a museum ship in 1965. Please visit her if you get a chance.

Haida (Parks Canada)

Specs


Displacement:
1,891 long tons (1,921 t) (standard)
2,519 long tons (2,559 t) (deep load)
Length: 377 ft (114.9 m) (o/a)
Beam: 36 ft 6 in (11.13 m)
Draught: 11 ft 3 in (3.43 m)
Installed power:
3 × Admiralty 3-drum boilers
44,000 shp (33,000 kW)
Propulsion 2 × shafts; 2 × geared steam turbines
Speed 36 knots
Range 5,700 nmi at 15 knots
Complement: 190
Sensors: (1941) ASDIC, Type 268M radar
Armament:
4 × twin 4.7 in (120 mm) guns
1 × quadruple 2-pdr AA guns
2 × quadruple .50 cal Vickers anti-aircraft machineguns
1 × quadruple 21-inch torpedo tubes
20-50 depth charges, 1 × rack, 2 × throwers


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