Ships 2


Ships 3

SS Athenia

Commander Lemp

The Peculiar Decision To Torpedo The Athenia

By James Donahue

The British liner Athenia held the distinction of being the first British ship sunk by German U-boats in World War II. Of the 1,103 souls aboard the vessel, 98 passengers and 19 crew members were killed.

The burning questions that prevailed from the day the Athenia was torpedoed off the Irish coast on September 3, 1939, was not only why the liner was destroyed, but who did it.

England and France had just declared war against Nazi Germany so most people believed the Germans were responsible. But the Germans denied any involvement and blamed the British, saying it was a propaganda measure designed to draw the United States and Canada into the war against Germany.

Indeed, during those early days of the war, even though France and Great Britain had just declared war on Germany, Hitler was attempting to find a diplomatic way to keep these countries and the other Western powers out of the conflict. He issued strict orders to U-boat commanders to follow the Prize Regulations, which prevent attacks against passenger liners.

The regulations also demanded that merchant vessels to stopped and searched, and only sunk if they were carrying material to aid in the war effort. If the ship was to be sunk, the rules were to give the crews time to escape in the life boats before the vessel was sunk.

This is why Germany’s accusation that the sinking of a liner filled with non-military passengers, was a plot by the English to draw American forces into the war seemed plausible. After all, it was suspected that Winston Churchill pulled the same stunt when he left the liner Lusitania unguarded and in the sights of a U-boat skipper. That disaster helped draw the US into the First World War.

It was not until the Nuremberg Trials after the war that the truth of the matter was revealed. During the trial, a statement was read by Admiral Karl Donitz, who had commanded the submarine fleet, the revealed the Atheria was torpedoed by U-30. The statement said the attack was an error and that the German high command made every effort to cover it up.

So how did a mistake like that happen?

Mistakes were made by the skippers of both the Atheria and U-30. As the facts became known, it seems that Captain James Cook, master of the Atheria, was just signaled that England had declared war with Germany. He ordered the ship to run at night without lights. He also chose to steer a zig-zag course used by ships attempting to avoid being seen by enemy U-boats or hit by torpedos.

The German submarine, commanded by Oberieutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, came upon the darkened ship and because it was running without lights and taking a zig-zag course, mistook it to be either a troopship, an armed merchant cruiser or a decoy or Q-ship, and he attacked.

 Of the three torpedoes fired, only one hit the liner. It exploded amidships, tearing open the bulkhead between the engine room and boiler room and stopped the big liner dead in the water. Although the Atheria began settling by the stern, Lemp was not sure he had struck a fatal blow and crept closer to attempt another shot. But when he got close enough and could identify the vessel, he was horrified to discover that he had torpedoed a British liner filled with passengers on their way to Canada.

The casualty list of the incident was reduced to 112 with 28 of them Americans. This was because Lemp chose not to fire that final torpedo but crept off into the night. Also the weather was calm, and it took 14 hours for the liner to sink. This gave time for a fleet of merchant vessels and destroyers to come alongside, sweep the area in defense against further attack, and pick up survivors.

The first fatalities were among crew members working in the engine room and people caught in the area  of the ship where the torpedo exploded. About 50 people were killed when the No. 12 lifeboat accidentally got caught up in the propeller Krute Nelson. And 10 others died when the No. 8 lifeboat capsized below the stern of the yacht Southern Cross during rescue efforts.

Other fatalities were caused by people who fell or jumped overboard from the Athenia, or from exposure and injuries.

The German High Command went to great lengths to deny that a German U-boat was responsible for the Athenia sinking. For his part, Lemp remained silent, but went on during the same patrol to sink two additional ships, destroy two British aircraft and then rescue the pilots from the sea and take them to Iceland for medical care, survive a severe depth charge attack and successfully bring his damaged boat home.

With that kind of record, and because the incident was already denied, Admiral Donitz decided to overlook the error, sweep the incident under the carpet, and ordered Lemp to falsify his War Diary by rewriting any reference to the sinking.

Lemp went on to enjoy a brief career as an ace submarine commander, sinking another 16 vessels before he was killed in action when commanding a new vessel, the U-110 in 1941.