On February 16, 1940, the destroyer Cossack, acting on Churchill's personal orders, steamed headlong into neutral Norwegian territorial waters in defiance of international law, boarded the German freighter Altmark and freed 299 captive British merchant seamen.
Legend held that the first the prisoners knew of their deliverance was a shout down a hatchway from a sailor on deck: 'The Navy's here!' The episode passed into folklore, exemplifying the Royal Navy's centuries-old tradition of triumphant boldness.
On October 28, 2009, the armed Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Wave Knight met Somali pirates transferring the British couple Paul and Rachel Chandler from their yacht Lynn Rival to a hijacked Singaporean container vessel.
When warning shots from Wave Knight failed to deter the pirates, its 100-strong crew stood by and did . . . absolutely nothing.
We know of this sorry incident only because a British sailor leaked the truth. The Ministry of Defence's original statement declared, evasively and deceitfully, that Wave Knight had encountered the yacht unmanned. Nothing was said about the British ship witnessing the hostages' removal.
Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, has since asserted apologetically: 'The security of the Chandlers was the most important thing.'
The Wave Knight and its crew 'did the best they could'. Yet it is a reliable principle, that when officials lie about the course of events, as at first they did in this case, there is something to be ashamed of.
The outcome is that the British couple today languish at a pirate lair ashore, where a £4million ransom is demanded for their release. It seems a long, sorry voyage from the glories of the Cossack's Norwegian adventure to humiliation in the Indian Ocean.