The sinking of the passenger liner SS Athenia on the evening of September 3 1939, off the Rockall Bank, prompted immediate outrage among the Allied and neutral nations. The ship, belonging to the Donaldson line, left Glasgow for Montreal, Canada, via Liverpool and Belfast on September 1. On board were more than 1,100 passengers, including women and children and 311 Americans, fleeing the inevitable war coming in Europe. One hundred and twenty eight passengers and crew were killed, 28 of whom were US citizens. Due to relatively calm seas, the survivors were picked up by passing ships, and brought to various ports including Galway, which I have mentioned recently.
The fear was that despite rules governing submarine warfare, unconditionally accepted by Germany in 1935, Germany was pursuing an unrestricted submarine campaign against all Allied shipping on sight and without warning.
Yet surprisingly, furious as the Allied nations were, Germany was equally appalled. At least initially. Even at that late hour, September 3, Hitler still believed he could persuade Britain and France to keep out of his land grab in eastern Europe. He particularly did not want to antagonise America. He issued specific instructions to all submarine commanders not to attack passenger ships; and that only merchant shipping could be sunk ‘if after a search it was found that they contained war material’. Of course all these grandiose ideas were quickly ignored in the months that followed, but in those early war days Hitler believed he could control events.
The first shots of the Battle of the Atlantic were fired by Fritz-Julius Lemp, commander of the U-30, while on patrol in the northwestern sector of Ireland. He later claimed that he did not recognise that it was a passenger ship; but once he realised his mistake, he silently went away, without reporting what he had done. However it was quickly recognised by the German naval command that the only submarine in the area was Lemp’s.
Hitler was furious. He chose to categorically deny the sinking. Berlin launched a vicious propaganda campaign which blamed the sinking on Great Britain. It took particular delight in goading Winston Churchill, appointed First Lord of the Admiralty on September 3, a fateful day.* Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, accused Churchill of intentionally sinking the Athenia in a plot to discredit Germany, and to encourage the United States to join the war.
Goebbels insisted that no German U-boats were in that location during the incident, and that no U-boats could have possibly torpedoed the Athenia. Berlin claimed that the Athenia was sunk by a British submarine or mine and blamed it as a “British Atrocity” (See London Times report ‘On Mr Churchill - The Athenia Again, on this page ). German naval command went to as far as to falsify the log of U-30 to conceal the incident.**
When Lemp finally sailed into port on September 27 1939, word had it that he was in hot soup. Berlin was still denying the sinking, but the entire U-boat fleet had already known that Lemp was responsible for the sinking. For his error in judgment, Lemp could be relieved from his duties or possibly face court martial. However, naval command took note of his outstanding first patrol. He had sunk three ships (including the Athenia ), destroyed two British aircraft, demonstrated commendable humanity by fishing the two British pilots from the sea and taking them to Iceland for medical care, demonstrated competency and absolute control under a punishing depth charge attack, and brought his boat home in spite of severe battle damage.
To punish a gallant U-boat commander for his mistake would send a wrong message to the men of the U-boat force. Naval command decided the best recourse was to sweep the incident under the carpet and forget about it.***
Next week: I return to calmer waters: Another visit to Merlin Park
NOTES: *Churchill was also First Lord of the Admiralty for a period in World War I. He became prime minister May 10 1940.
**Germany finally took responsibility for the sinking of the Athenia during the Nuremburg trials in January 1946.
***Lemp drowned in the north Atlantic on May 9 1941. His submarine, the U-110, was severely damaged by depth charges and surrounded by three British naval destroyers, the HMS Bulldog, HMS Broadway, and the HMS Aubretia. He had ordered his crew to scuttle the submarine, and to abandon ship. As he swam to the British ships he realised the submarine had not sunk. He tried to swim back, but never made it. The British navy captured the submarine with its Enigma codes intact. A veritable treasure trove in the ruthless Atlantic war.