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The Sinking of the SS Athenia

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

On September 2, 1939, the SS Athenia left Liverpool, England bound for Canada. The following morning at 11:30 am, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a radio broadcast announcing that a state of war existed between Germany and the United Kingdom.

SS Athenia.

SS Athenia.

The Athenia's Last Voyage

Under the command of Captain James Cook, the SS Athenia had begun her voyage in Glasgow on September 1, picking up passengers at Liverpool and Belfast before heading out into the North Atlantic. War had been brewing during the summer of 1939, so there were a lot of people trying to get out of Europe before hostilities started.

Aboard the liner were 1,103 passengers and 315 crew members. Almost half the passengers were Jews fleeing what they knew was to come in Hitler's Germany. The rest of the complement was made up of Canadians (469), Americans (311), 72 British citizens, and a tiny number of other nationalities. They were predominantly women and children.

Aware that war had been declared, Capt. Cook was sailing a zigzag pattern, a typical anti-submarine strategy. Cook told a passenger on the afternoon of September 3 that he felt his vessel was far enough into the Atlantic to be out of any danger zone.

Attack of U-30

Germany was well prepared for the coming conflict. A couple of weeks before the declaration of war, 19 U-boats had left Germany to take up stations around Britain. Shortly before noon an encoded message from the Kriegsmarine was sent to all its warships: “Hostilities with England effective immediately.”

The German warships were to follow what were called Prize Regulations. These dictated that passenger vessels were not to be attacked under any circumstances.

Under the command of Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, U-30 was on patrol about 400 km northwest of the coast of Ireland. At about 4:30 pm, Lemp saw the Athenia. and began stalking the ship. After three hours of following the passenger liner, Lemp fired two torpedoes at her.

Oberleutnant Lemp closed in on the stricken ship and fired a third torpedo to finish her off; this too malfunctioned. Lemp surfaced and through his binoculars was able to make out the silhouette of the Athenia and not the troopship he later claimed he thought he had attacked. He said the zigzag pattern suggested to him the vessel was a warship.

Under the niceties of the Prize Regulations, to which Germany was a signatory, troop ships were fair game, passenger vessels were not. Realizing the horrible mistake he had made, Lemp sailed away from the area and did not report the engagement to the Kriegsmarine. No entry was made in the ship's log and the crew was sworn to secrecy.

The Athenia is sinking by her stern.

The Athenia is sinking by her stern.

Disaster and Rescue

Aboard the SS Athenia, passengers were sitting down to dinner when a massive explosion occurred. One of the two torpedoes had hit the engine room, immediately plunging the ship into darkness; the other torpedo malfunctioned. The Athenia began listing to port and settling at her stern.

All 26 of the vessel's lifeboats were safely launched as distress signals were sent out. Fortunately, there were other ships in the area and they rushed to render assistance.

At about midnight, MS Knute Nelson, a Norwegian freighter arrived and was soon followed by a Swedish steam yacht, the Southern Cross. The American cargo steamship City of Flint also joined the rescue effort.

Several Royal Navy destroyers arrived to help with the rescue but also to try to find and engage the submarine.

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The ships began taking survivors from lifeboats, but the rescues did not always go well.

One lifeboat was crushed by the propellers of the Knute Nelson, killing about 50 people. Another lifeboat capsized with the loss of around 10 lives, and three passengers were killed while being transferred to a Royal Navy destroyer. However, a quite remarkable 1,306 were saved, with 112 people killed.

The Athenia remained afloat for 14 hours, finally sliding under the waves stern first.

Athenia survivors are taken aboard the City of Flint.

Athenia survivors are taken aboard the City of Flint.

Aftermath of the Sinking of the Athenia

The German high command learned of the attack from BBC radio and were horrified. There was concern in Berlin that if there were American casualties, and there were, the United States might be drawn into the war.

So, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels started pumping out what later come to be called alternative facts. The British had sunk the Athenia, he said, in an effort to smear the reputation of the glorious Third Reich.

When Lemp returned to port in late September he would have expected to be relieved of his command and perhaps face a court martial.

Instead, Admiral Erich Raeder decided to sweep the incident under the waves. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge U-30's involvement, something that was strenuously denied by Goebbels and Hitler.

The cover-up was successful until the truth came out at the Nuremberg trials when Admiral Karl Dönitz read a statement admitting to the attack on an unarmed civilian vessel.

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp continued in command of U-boats until May 9, 1941, when his vessel, U-110 was caught by Royal Navy ships south of Iceland. Depth charges forced Lemp to bring his submarine to the surface and he ordered his crew to abandon ship. Allied vessels rescued 34 men, but Lemp was not among them. It's thought he drowned in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Oberleutnant Lemp (left) with Admiral Karl Dönitz in August 1940. Lemp looks to have been recently decorated.

Oberleutnant Lemp (left) with Admiral Karl Dönitz in August 1940. Lemp looks to have been recently decorated.

Bonus Factoids

  • During World War II, Germany built more than 1,100 U-boats, but serving on them was hazardous. Of those who crewed the submarines, 68 percent (28,000 men) were killed. Also, the subs exacted a heavy toll on Allied shipping, sinking 2,603 vessels and causing the deaths of more than 30,000 merchant seamen.
  • On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the SS Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland. The Cunard Line passenger vessel sank within 20 minutes taking the lives of 1,198 people. Among the dead were 128 American citizens and the disaster led to the United States ending its neutrality in World War I, and, eventually to joining the conflict. Germany was concerned the sinking of the Athenia might cause a similar outcome. It didn't.
  • The sinking of the SS Athenia happened on the first day of World War II, just as the death of Oleksandr Shelipov happened on the first day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Mr. Shelipov, 62, an unarmed civilian, was shot in the head by Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin. At a war crimes trial, Shishimarin was sentenced to life in prison. It's likely that had he survived the war, Oberleutnant Lemp would have faced a war crimes trial for his unprovoked attack on a civilian vessel.

Sources

  • “The Sinking of SS Athenia.” Francis M. Carroll, Legion Magazine, August 30, 2019
  • “Sinking of SS Athenia.” uboataces.com, undated.
  • “Sinking of S.S. Athenia off the North-West of Ireland.” wartimeni.com, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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