In October of 1939, the Nazi party’s official newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter broke the story that England had intentionally sunken the cruise ship Athenia in order to blame Germany and draw the U.S. into the war as an ally. It was a shocking revelation that England—for political reasons—had sunk a passenger ship with over 1,100 passengers on it, mostly women and children. There were also 311 Americans.
Germany’s accusation against Britain was not just a vague reference in a side bar of the Voelkischer Beobachter; it was specific. It singled out Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and accused him of masterminding the diabolical plot.
In America, US Senator Robert Rice Reynolds, among others, claimed that Britain may have wanted to “infuriate the American people”, which is why they sunk a ship with hundreds of Americans on board.
The Athenia’s passengers, of course, had not been worried about Churchill sinking a British ship. Nobody would have thought that he would do such a thing.
The Athenia had departed from Glasgow on Friday, September 1, 1939—destination Montreal, Canada. England had just declared war on Germany hours before, and many Americans—at the encouragement of the British government—secured their tickets on the Athenia to return to America and flee the war. Ironically, they were about to become its first victims.
Most people who boarded the ship expected a safe trip. After all, they were heading away from Europe where trouble was brewing. They were heading towards safety. The ship itself was a peaceful place, a wonderful place to be. In many respects it was just another cruise; however, the travelers did notice a few disturbing signs. For one, the windows were all painted black to hide any light; in addition, smoking was prohibited on deck. Nobody was allowed to even light a match on deck. Third, the ship sailed a zigzag course to foil any submarine attack—presumably by German U-boats.
Other than these minor details, it was life as usual on the Athenia. Although one crewman was convinced he would never live to see America, this was not the general sentiment. It was a happy, social time, a time of meeting people in dining rooms, of relaxing and reading good books. In some respects, life didn’t get any better than this. They had caught the only ship out, and they were safe! Children walked happily on deck, enjoying the novel experience. Games were played. Church services were held.
The sense of relief and excitement didn’t last long, however. In less than 24 hours, a massive explosion rocked the boat; it ripped through the engine room and blasted the cargo hatch high into the air including people that were sitting on it. These people landed on deck blackened and lifeless. Mrs. James Orr, along with her one-year-old daughter, were blasted against the railing; they survived but with injuries. Crude oil sprayed out of broken pipes.
In the kitchen, two huge vats of boiling oil spilled onto two cooks, burning them severely. Out in the dining area, one woman had just dipped her spoon into her bowl of soup, but that’s as far as her hand ever got.
In the accommodations area, half-dressed people filled smoky passageways that smelled of cordite. In the darkness, they felt the water level rising up their legs. Their knees bumped into floating debris. A stairwell had been eviscerated, leaving some people to climb from edge-to-edge to work their way up to the main deck.
The ship began to list, causing the lifeboats to hang at awkward angles. Nevertheless, people who had survived the blast and made it outside gathered around the lifeboats. They had been through the emergency drill, so there was some sense of order, but there were also outbreaks of panic.
Women and children were supposed to board lifeboats first, but at one lifeboat station, a number of men feared there would be no space left for them. They shoved aside the women and children and tried to claim their seats by force. The crewman manning that lifeboat fought them back by wielding an ax.
As one of the lifeboats was lowered, a rope broke. Mrs. Orr and her daughter, who’d just been blasted against the railing, now barely survived another traumatic event as the lifeboat crashed down into the water. Now, despite her cracked ribs, Ms. Orr began bailing with their shoes, a chore that would continue on through a long, dark and very cold night.
Not everyone stayed active. Many of the people in the lifeboats were miserable. They were sick from the gas that was released in the explosion and seasick from the rocky ocean. Many were only half dressed. One woman was dressed in nothing but a satin nightgown. Hypothermia set in for those who had been forced to jump in the ocean or who had been thrown out of their lifeboat during the rough launchings.
“Look!” a woman said, pointing. “A submarine.”
A German U-boat opened fire on the ship’s wireless antennas. It then approached the scattered lifeboats. The boats were spread out around the sinking ship, spread out for just this reason—in case a submarine showed up and tried to machine gun the survivors.
The U-boat approached long enough for the captain to get a good look at the ship. Then it turned tail and stole away into the night.
“Help us!” a woman cried out. “We’ll die out here!”
The U-boat did not stick around to save a single person. Her German commander, with his submarine now safely beneath the surface, was in shock. He had thought that the ship he had attacked was an armed merchant cruiser. After dealing the fatal blow, he’d approached to identify the ship for his log entry. When he checked the ship against the Lloyd’s Register, he was sickened to realize that he’d just sunk an unarmed cruise ship. This was against all prize rules of warfare, for both Britain and Germany. Commander Lemp realized he had made a horrible mistake.
As Lemp stole away in his U-boat, he was in a state of disbelief. He’d been sure of his conclusion. The ship had been acting like a warship. It had been blacked out and was following a zigzag course. Plus, it was following an unusual course for a passenger ship. He began to sweat profusely. He feared he could face a court marshal back in Germany. He feared what would happen when Admiral Donitz learned of this. Lemp decided then and there that he must hide his fatal error. He forced his crew to take an oath of secrecy and never speak of what had occurred. As for his log entry, he never made it. The event never officially happened.
Up on the surface, the people in the lifeboats were miserable and shaking in the cold because of what had happened, and they were the lucky ones. Many had been killed in the explosion. For the survivors, it was a night of suffering.
One woman, Mrs. Rhonda Thomas or Rochester, New York, had been well dressed because she’d been out on deck. A naked baby was handed to her to keep under her coat. The baby had no relatives in the boat. Mrs. Thomas and another woman shared duties, alternately rowing and sheltering the infant.
Unidentified bodies floated by in the water. It was enough to plunge a person into deep depression and despair, the sort that weakened the individual’s propensity for survival. People dealt with their grief in different ways. Some women and children cried. Others endured the pain of serious injuries. A cook was not expected to live from his burns. He was in a miserable state. People did what they had to do to adjust and keep their morale up. Some prayed while others sung hymns. Women bailed with their shoes and found that keeping busy kept their mind off their fate. By morning, some of the people had died.
Then ships began to arrive on the scene. The Sweedish yacht Southern Cross, the US cargo ship City of Flint, the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson, and the US destroyers Electra and Escort all showed up to rescue survivors. Rope ladders were thrown over the sides of ships. Those who could climb did so. Others were raised by rope. Many lives were saved, but there were also accidents. Some of the ‘survivors’ fell and were crushed to death between their lifeboat and rescue ship when the waves lifted and lunged the smaller boats against the bigger ones. Fifty people died when one of the lifeboats was crushed under the propeller of the tanker Knute Nelson. While there was sadness, there was also relief. Together, the rescue ships saved 981 lives while the US destroyer Fame did an anti-submarine sweep during the rescue operations.
In Germany, Admiral Donitz learned of the sinking from the BBC. Hitler was furious, but he decided to cover it up. Lemp’s war diary was falsified. Hitler denied Germany’s role and used the incident as propaganda, blaming England to hopefully drive a wedge between England and America.
Commander Lemp went on to sink twenty more ships. Finally, he was killed when his German U-boat was severely damaged by depth charges. He surfaced, and before destroying classified materials, he ordered his men to abandon the sinking ship. The sub was boarded by sailors of the HMS Bulldog. They did a quick search and found an infamous German encryption device—a find that soon helped America win the Atlantic war. Lemp’s fate is matter of confusion. He was either shot in the water or chose to drown rather than be taken prisoner.
Either way, Lemp played a key role in World War Two history—as the man whose crucial mistake launched the Battle of the Atlantic—and as the man who caused the beginning of the end of that battle, when, thinking his ship was doomed, he failed to destroy sensitive equipment.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest unbroken military campaign of World War Two. It raged on from 1939 through 1945. During that time, 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk against 783 sunken U-boats.
For the actions of one rogue, one Commander Lemp, to have had such a profound impact on the beginning and the end of the Battle of the Atlantic is truly astonishing.
After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy took place on a cold and dark night during WWII. I was so fascinated about the circumstances surrounding this shipwreck that I wove it into my novel FATAL RETURN.
Download Fatal Return here: FATAL RETURN
Roger Weston writes action-packed thrillers with a maritime twist.
You can find all of his books at: Roger Weston's Amazon Author Page