The man who sank the SS Athenia

Week III

In happier times: Fritz-Julius Lemp in discussion with Karl Donitz (apologies for poor photograph quality).

In happier times: Fritz-Julius Lemp in discussion with Karl Donitz (apologies for poor photograph quality).

While Galway was caring for some of the survivors of the SS Athenia, torpedoed off the Donegal coast on September 3 1939, America, Britain and Canada unleashed a vitriolic attack on Germany for sinking a passenger ship. Included among her 1,418 passengers and crew were more than 300 Americans. A total of 117 people were killed, some unfortunately as they were being lifted from the sea by the rescue boats including the Knute Nelson (which had brought 430 survivors into Galway ), and three British warships, the HMS Electra, HMS Fame and the HMS Escort, which had rushed to the scene. Among the dead were 28 American citizens.

Hitler was caught off guard. He did not want an argument with America on the opening days of the war. Even though both Britain and France had declared war on Germany the morning of September 3, just hours before the Athenia was sunk, he still hoped for a diplomatic solution. He wanted a softly softly approach to the war on its opening phase. He believed that even at this late stage, he might yet be able to persuade the Western Powers to accept German sovereignty in Europe, just as the British had established colonies in Asia. If he was successful, and he was a master at persuasion, then his invasion of Poland would have been gained at a low price. To that end he had issued strict orders that only enemy warships could be attacked. Merchant ships had to be stopped and searched, the crew put safely in lifeboats before the ship could be fired upon. And under no circumstances could passenger ships be sunk.

The sinking of the Athenia was a blow to his schemes. He immediately demanded an explanation from his naval staff. Grand Admiral Raeder first denied that any German submarine was in the vicinity of the Athenia, for the simple reason that Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp, the commander of the U30 who fired the torpedoes, had realised his mistake, and had quietly slunk away. Lemp, although a humane man, as we will see in a moment, offered no help to the stricken survivors. Lemp later claimed that he had mistaken the Athenia for an armed merchant cruiser. He claimed that she was following a zig-zag course, a tactic used by war ships. He omitted to record the event in the submarine’s log, and swore the crew to secrecy.

It was only some days later that the German high command heard the truth. In the meantime, German propaganda had ludicrously blamed the sinking of the Athenia on the British. It was described as a ‘British atrocity’ in a bid to turn neutral opinion against Nazi Germany, and to bring America into the War.*

The ‘wrong message’

When the U30 finally sailed into port on September 27 1939, word had it that its commander was in serious trouble. Berlin was still denying the sinking, but the entire U-boat fleet now knew that Lemp was responsible. It was feared that for his error of judgment, and the fact that Hitler was directly involved in the controversy, he could face a court martial, or, at the very least, be relieved from his duties. However, his supreme commander, Karl Donitz, took note of Lemp’s successes on his first war-time patrol. After the Athenia incident, Lemp and his crew were not idle. He had sunk a further two ships, destroyed two British aircraft, demonstrated commendable humanity by fishing the two British pilots from the sea, and taking them to Iceland for medical care, and had demonstrated competency and absolute control under a punishing depth charge attack. He brought his boat home in spite severe damage. To punish a young U-boat commander for his mistake would send a wrong message to the men of the U-boat force, who were to play such a deadly role in the merciless Battle of the Atlantic. Donitz decided not to proceed with disciplinary action against Lemp. Instead he congratulated him on a successful mission during which lessons had been learned**.

‘Stopped in midwater’

The next mention of Fritz-Julius Lemp I came across is in May 1941. Lemp was now a successful submarine warrior, a recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross (awarded for extreme battle field bravery, and successful military leadership ), and in charge of a new submarine-type, the U-110. He had completed two successful missions sinking three ships, and damaged two others. On May 9, accompanied by U-201, he was attacking a convoy in the North Atlantic, south of Iceland. At this stage the British had improved their anti-submarine tactics significantly. Sonar detection could quickly locate enemy submarines. During this attack a torpedo fault distracted Lemp. Perhaps he was exhausted, but that moment when he was off guard was to cost him his life. The U-110 was quickly located by an escorting corvette, HMS Aubretia. The U-110 was subjected to an intense depth charge attack. Severely damaged Lemp ordered his submarine to surface, and announced “Last stop. Everybody out” meaning ‘abandon ship’. As the crew emerged and ran along the U-boat’s deck, two approaching destroyers, HMS Bulldog and Hunt, believing that the Germans were about to open fire from their deck gun, strafed the deck with gunfire. When the British realised that the submarine was surrendering they ceased fire. The surviving German sailors dived into the sea and began swimming towards the British ships. Lemp had opened the boat’s vents, which allowed the water to rush in, which should have sunk the ship in minutes. He ordered radio operator Heinz Wilde to leave the codebooks and Enigma machine behind , and to quickly get out. He is reported to have said ‘the U-boat is sinking’.

Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell of the Bulldog, had initially planned to ram the submarine, but realising that he had a chance to capture it, and its precious enigma machine, pulled and hove to, waiting for the swimmers to be taken on board. Lemp (and Lemp would have been instantly recognised by the number on his submarine ), came on deck and dived into the sea. He was being watched intently from the bridges of both ships, and from HMS Broadway, which had come upon the drama.

However, while halfway between his submarine and rescue, Lemp stopped in midwater. He obviously realised that the U-110 was not going to sink. He had left the top secret Enigma machine and code books behind in the radio room. He started to swim back, but disappeared under the waves. Fifteen men were killed in that action, and 32 were injured. One of the German prisoners testified that Lemp was shot in the water. The British denied this, saying that Lemp, realising that his submarine was not sinking, and that he had left her secret documents and code machine on board, committed suicide.

Readers can judge for themselves what happened that fateful afternoon. Would the British have let Lemp swim back to his submarine, when they knew they had a chance to capture it? Whatever happened, Fritz Julius Lemp died in the icy waters of the North Atlantic May 9 1941. He was 28 years old.***

NOTES: *German propaganda at this stage was often very effective. There will always be some idiots who believe the ludicrous. In a Gallup poll, 60 per cent of Americans believed that Germany was responsible, yet nine per cent believed that Britain was to blame. Even Herbert Hoover, head of the FBI, thought that Churchill could have been behind it. Nevertheless America described the outrage as a ‘criminal act’.

The Canadian people were equally unimpressed with the German explanation. Ten years old Margaret Hayworth was among the Canadian causalities. Her death gripped Canada, and deeply moved its people. Thousands met the train which brought her body back to Hamilton, Ontario. She was given a state funeral.

** The truth about the Athenia only emerged during a case against Grand Admiral Raeder, at the Nuremberg trials in January 1946. A statement was read by Admiral Donitz (who had succeeded Raeder in 1943 ), in which he admitted that the Athenia had been torpedoed by the U-30, and that every effort had been made to cover it up.

*** Bulldog’s crew, led by sub-lieutenant David Balme, and former radio signalman William Stewart Pollock, boarded U-110 and stripped it of everything including her secret documents and Enigma machine. It was an astonishing prize. Germany’s armed forces believed their Enigma-encrypted signals and orders were impenetrable to the Allies. The documents captured from U-110 famously helped codebrakers, based in wooden huts at Britain’s Bletchly Park, to listen in on German communications. Such information is credited with shortening the war by two years. The late Lady Michael Killanin, formerly Shiela Cathcart Dunlop from Oughterard, Co Galway, worked in the code breaking section at Bletchly Park.

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