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.
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.