In the days of sail, attempting to capture an enemy ship by boarding, while not common, was accepted maritime warfare doctrine. The practice involved maneuvering one’s ship into a position that would allow grapples to be tossed, literally locking the two ships in mortal combat until one succumbed.
Adm. Horatio Nelson took part in such a boarding during the battle of Cape St. Vincent in February 1797, when he led crewmen from his ship, HMS Captain, aboard the Spanish 80-gun San Nicolas. Nelson’s approach to this episode, characteristically unconventional, exemplified his style of leading from the front.
Typically, a boarding only occurred when the beleaguered vessel was perceived to be on the defensive. In this battle, however, Nelson’s own ship, having suffered heavy damage to spars and steering gear, rammed rather than grappled the opponent. Nelson, with sailors and soldiers of the 69th Welsh Regiment, boarded and took not only San Nicolas, but another Spanish man-of-war, the 112-gun San Josef, which had come to its companion’s aid.
Tools of the boarder’s trade included such weapons as the devastatingly effective sea-service blunderbuss. This early shotgun, made of bronze with a flintlock firing mechanism, would often be loaded with lead pellets, gravel, nails or whatever else was at hand. Reloading in the midst of a boarding was impractical, and thus, the firearm would often be turned into a club or cast aside by those wielding it, in favor of multiuse weapons such as the cutlass, an effective edged weapon whose blunt end or pommel could also be used to brain one’s enemy. The cutlass was considered such an effective fighting tool by the Royal Navy that its presence aboard was not discontinued until the 1920s.
Typically, a boarding action would be preceded by firing depressed cannon into the enemy’s gun deck and hull. Spar-deck guns, loaded with grapeshot and howitzers filled with canister, would be used to “sweep” the enemy’s decks, giving the boarders a fighting chance.
Interestingly, the final issuance of the order, “Prepare to board the enemy,” occurred aboard a Royal Naval vessel long after the days of sail power and timber hulls. In December of 1939, the battle-damaged German pocket-battleship Admiral Graf von Spee ended its highly successful commerce-raiding career in the River Plate, off the city of Montevideo, scuttled by its captain and crew rather than suffer internment or destruction by a trio of waiting British warships. The underway replenishment ship, Altmark, however, slipped away in the commotion, making a course for its home port of Hamburg, requiring the ship to run the gauntlet of British warships in the North Sea. In February 1940, Altmark, having successfully transited the North Atlantic, found itself taking refuge from British patrols along the then-neutral Norwegian coast.
Word of the tanker’s presence among the remote fjords and islands of this region, however, made its way back to Britain, where First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, directed the Royal Navy to, “find her, edge her into the open sea, board her and liberate her prisoners.” Altmark, as events would later confirm, was suspected of holding nearly 300 British merchant sailors in its hold, the result of the late Graf Spee’s South Atlantic conquests. Britain was in dire need of every experienced sailor it could keep, and as a result, the thought of 300 of these valuable merchant mariners heading to a prison camp was abhorrent.
The Royal Navy warships Sikh, Nubian, Ivanhoe, Intrepid and Cossack descended upon the Norwegian coast, under the cover of reporting on ice conditions. Their true mission was to find Altmark and its valuable cargo. After some time, and several false alarms, HMS Cossack located its quarry in Jossingfjord. The tanker, knowing it had been discovered, boldly made an escape attempt. Switching on the search lights in an attempt to blind Cossack’s bridge crew, the tanker aimed to ram its foe. Cossack adroitly avoided the collision and put a boarding party of 33 aboard the German ship. A brief battle and Altmark was taken. The boarding party called down into its hold, “Are there any Englishmen down there?” The response was uproarious, and Cossack’s boarding crew replied, “Then come up. The Navy’s here.”
Because of the vagaries of Norwegian neutrality, both Altmark, now grounded in the fjord, and its crew, having suffered four casualties, were left behind. Cossack sailed, with all 299 British merchant mariners safe aboard, into history as the last Royal Navy warship to field a boarding party in wartime.