Decision To Torpedo The Athenia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
did a mistake like that happen?
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.
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.
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
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.
fatalities were caused by people who fell or jumped overboard from the Athenia, or from exposure and injuries.
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.
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.
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.