Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Uncivilized Warfare: The Sinking of the Athenia

    Summer, 1939. War loomed in Europe as Germany occupied the Rhineland, gobbled up Austria and the Sudetenland, and threatened Poland. Americans aboard were urged to return home.
    They faced a problem. Many passenger ships had been requisitioned for conversion to troopships. Bookings were cancelled. For stranded passengers in late August, the TSS (Twin-Screw Ship) Athenia appeared to be a godsend. Built in 1922-23, the Donaldson Atlantic Line ship served the transatlantic route between Britain and Canada.

    Late in the afternoon of September 2, 1939, the Athenia weighed anchor in Liverpool and began its journey to Quebec City. The next day, England and France declared war on Germany after their ultimatum to Germany to withdraw their troops from Poland was ignored.
    The German navy was ready for war. Two weeks earlier, their submarines had taken up station in the Atlantic and in the waters around Great Britain. Naval headquarters sent coded radio messages instructing U-boats to make war on merchant shipping in accordance with operations orders, the rules and conditions in which they could attack, and to open hostilities against England immediately.

    Among the submarines was U-30, commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp. Until midafternoon that Sunday, he'd seen only the Norwegian freighter SS Knute Nelson. Then he spotted a large ship well north of the usual shipping lanes, moving fast in a zigzag, antisubmarine pattern. As light waned, he determined it was running without lights. He therefore decided the ship was a British armed merchant cruiser. He fired the first shot of the war in the west.
    Jubilant at sinking the first Allied ship in the new war, he watched the slowly sinking vessel through his periscope. The ship was now lit up and people were boarding lifeboats. Lemp checked the Lloyds Register of Ships and discovered his error. He'd attacked and sunk a civilian passenger liner against Hitler's order and international law.
    Because the Athenia sank slowly--it did not go down until about eleven o'clock Monday morning, September 4--most passengers got off into lifeboats. Out of 1,418 souls on board, only 112 died. Many were killed in the torpedo explosion, others in lifeboat mishaps. Nearby ships answered the Athenia's distress calls, and the Knute Nelson, the American freighter City of Flint, and the private Swedish yacht Southern Cross rushed to the scene.
    Lemp turned away from his disaster, rending no assistance or provisions to the survivors. Neither did he report his misdeed to German High Command during the next two and a half weeks of his patrol.

Irish soldiers carry wounded Athenia passengers off the Knute Nelson in Galway, Ireland.

    Submarines were a controversial weapon. Before the First World War, international law had insisted on search and seizure: merchant ships were boarded and searched for contraband by naval officers from surface ships. Such procedures were dangerous to vulnerable submarines, and Germany began using unrestricted submarine warfare, sinking ships on sight, without warning. Their ruthlessness in sinking ships with no provision for civilian crews and passengers horrified the American public, and the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917, after American ships were sunk.
      Disarmament conferences struggled with the legality and morality of submarines. One side believed sinking unarmed merchant ships, and of course, passenger liners, was piracy and the submarine ought to be abolished. Others felt it was just another naval weapon that only needed its use defined and controlled. Its legality was accepted, but under such conditions making it nearly impossible for a submarine to engage in warfare because of its delicate vulnerability.
    The German High Command learned of the sinking of the Athenia from British radio. They immediately denied any involvement, suggesting a mechanical failure or perhaps the British sank it themselves to get America into the war. Nevertheless, a new order was sent to the U-boats: "By order of the F├╝hrer. Passenger-ships until further notice shall not be attacked even if escorted."
    Hitler knew of the role submarines had played in bringing the United States into World War I. He wanted the US neutral in the present crisis. The American and British public saw only that the Germans had picked up right where they'd left off in 1918. It was either an authorized attack, suggesting madness in Germany, or an unauthorized attack, suggesting an undisciplined German navy.

    Lemp behaved himself for the rest of his patrol, sinking freighters after allowing the crews to abandon ship. When two British dive bombers crashed into the sea, he picked up the badly wounded pilots and dropped them off in neutral Iceland for medical treatment. Back in Germany, he received a slap on the wrist for not taking sufficient care over his choice of target in the Athenia affair, and his first Iron Cross.
    In recent weeks, I have seen portions of King Arthur and Gladiator, films in which armies fought hand to hand, hacking each other apart, shooting flaming arrows, and doing as much gruesome damage as possible. Apparently it was civilized warfare because women and children were not present. In today's world of terrorism, the outcry over submarines seems almost quaint. Has slaughtering the enemy ever been civilized?


  1. A sad time in history and to think there was no assistance by Lemp or admitting his error.

  2. This account of Lemp's grave mistake and his failure to help or to admit his mistake makes me wonder if he was ever remorseful? Such a terrible weight to carry!!
    Thanks for this informative post.

  3. War can never be civilized. Such a sad tale! It is no consolation, but at least Lemp behaved the rest of the war.

  4. Wow! Thank you for sharing. Uncivilized for sure.

  5. Very interesting....war is brutal on both sides, how can it ever be civilized?

  6. How sad, terrible memories all around!