The Sinking of SS Athenia

aszu September 27, 2014 0
The Sinking of SS Athenia

It was Sunday, 3rd September 1939. 11.00. Great Britain had declared war on Nazi Germany. It was 12.00 on mainland Europe. German counter-declaration came at 12.59. No one on board the german submarine, Unterseeboot U-30, wanted this.There was a tension and curiosity but no one felt any enthusiasm.

In the next few hours, U-30 is going to make a ghastly mistake!

The tragic story of U-30 starts on 22nd of August 1939, when this German submarine went to sea. U-Boat left it`s base in Wilhelmshaven, but it`s active service began 12 days later, on 3 September 1939. U-30 was commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp. He was a Kapitänleutnant – that`s the third lowest officer’s rank in the German Navy and an equivalent to the rank of lieutenant.  On this picture, we see him wearing his Kriegsmarine`s white cap and talking with Admiral Karl Donitz. In 1939 Lemp was 26 years old and he was in charge of U-30 for almost a year. He was respected and liked by his crew and they had a cofidence in his judgement. There was no time for hesitation under water.

At 14.00 „Führer der U-Boote ” – Leader Of The U-Boats – Karl Donitz sent another message. He reminded all commanders of strict orders to operate within Prize Rules. That meant passenger ships musn`t be sunk. Crews of merchant ships must be placed safely in lifeboats before sinking the vessel. What`s most important, only ships that are a threat to the attacker may be sunk without warning. Hilter believed that France, the weaker of the Allies, was easier to dissuade from war and forbade attacks against French Ships, unless in self-defence. All the messages were received by the crew of U-30.

At 16.30, the bridge watch sights a large ship on the horizon. Lemp decides to close the distance. Looking throught the periscope, he observes, that the ship is blacked out and is zigzagging on a defensive course.Taking into account it`s unusual route, through Rockall Bank, Kapitänleutnant Lemp concludes it must be a British Armed Merchant, a ship armed with guns. No warning is necessary under the Prize Regulations.

At 19.40 U-30 is still submerged and Lemp gives the order to fire torpedoes. The first one malfunctions, but the second one finds it`s target. Lemp decides to dive to avoid danger, from the first unexploded torpedo, which could pose a threat to his submarine. When he surfaces, he observes that ship does not seem to be sinking. He orders  a third torpedo. This one misses too, but it is probably responsible for the claims of some of the  survivors, that the surfaced U-Boat fired shells from it`s cannon.

U-30 intercepted Athenia`s distress call – „SSS” – Attacked by the Submarine. Lemp asked for Lloyds Register of Ships. He was shocked when he realized, what he had done. This attack was a terrible mistake. Athenia was an ocean liner with 1418 people on board. Many were women and children.

U-30`s radio operator, Georg Högel later said, they couldn`t give them any help and were unable to take any people on board. This doesn`t change the fact, that Lemp had disobeyed all orders. He failed to offer any help and he decided not to report what he`d done. He had choosen to remain silent. He must have known of the possible consequences, his actions would have on Germany. It was the first day of the war with Great Britain and he had broken all the rules.

Within 24 hours this German act of total war against civilians had been reported worldwide. Lemp`s attack was a propaganda gift to the British.  Hitler`s first step was to deny a responsibility. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels issued a statement claiming, it was a British torpedo that sunk Athenia and Churchill had planned this, hoping, that he could bring the USA into the war. German Grand Admiral Raeder was told that no U-Boat was nearer than 120 km to the location of Athenia. He then informed, in good faith, the American chargé d’affaires, that the German Navy was not responsible for the sinkinng Athenia.

The whole crew of U-30 had promised to keep what had happened a secret. However, when the submarine sailed back to the base in Wilhelmshaven, the crew were waving a pennant with the figure 14,000, which was tonnage of Athenia. Lemp had informed Karl Donitz that he had sunk Athenia. He was then sent to Berlin, to speak with Grand Admiral Raeder. Erich Raeder informed Hitler what had actually happened to Athenia. Fuhrer decided to keep the incident secret, for political reasons. The log of U-30 had been altered and it`s crew sworn to keep the secret.

At the Nuremberg trial, Admiral Karl Donitz admitted for the first time, that Athenia had been torpedoed by U-30 and the Germans had done everything they could possibly, do to cover it up. Of the 1418 people on board the Athenia, 98 passengers and 19 crew members were killed.
Fritz-Julius Lemp, whilst Commander of U-110, died on 9th May 1941, trying to destroy secret materials on board his vessel. He failed and the Allies retrieved top secret documents and the Enigma machine…

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Featured image: Author :Johnston, C.M. (Part of the Clifford M. Johnston collection). Public Domain.

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