Athenia outrage

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porttrait painting of a large liner

The Athenia

There’s a lot to be said for having old heads on young shoulders but I think the terrible tragedy of the Athenia underlines the error of giving major responsibilities to inexperienced individuals.

Scores of innocent people died when a young U-boat submarine captain sent a passenger ship to the bottom. The Second World War was just eight hours old when 26-year-old Kapitauleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp sank the 13,581-ton liner Athenia with the loss of 112 lives.

Outrage was caused on both sides of the Atlantic by the sinking. The Athenia, operated by the Donaldson Atlantic Line, sailed from Liverpool for Montreal on 2 September 1939. She was torpedoed, without warning, by the U-30 at 7.39 pm the following day about 250 miles north west of Ireland. Of her 1,103 passengers and 315 crew, 93 passengers – including 22 Americans – and 19 crew members were lost.

Britain had declared war on Germany just eight hours earlier and the Battle of the Atlantic had begun (our main site has more on the campaign).

Lemp wrongly assumed from the Athenia’s lone, zig-zag course that she was an armed auxiliary cruiser. He then attacked and sank her, an unarmed passenger ship, contrary to both international law and the strict instructions of U-boat Command. Lemp also broke a pre-war international agreement by not offering help to survivors. When the U-30 arrived back in Germany, Lemp and his crew were sworn to absolute secrecy.

However, the sub arrived in port with victory pennants flying on her conning tower - one showed 14,000 tons, representing the Athenia. Lemp was ordered to falsify his war diary, re-writing two complete pages so there was no mention of the Athenia sinking.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a display of illustrations about the Athenia including photographs of survivors of the tragedy. News cuttings from the time reflect the horror caused by the sinking. One headline screams: “The Monster Strikes Again!”, referring to the Lusitania sinking by a U-boat in 1915 (more on the Lusitania on our main site).

In 1939 the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) was not strong enough to risk a major battle with the Royal Navy, still the largest navy in the world. Instead, Germany aimed to defeat Britain by ruthlessly attacking her merchant ships and those of other countries that supported her. This long and bitter campaign was fought worldwide but was at its most relentless in the north Atlantic. The Germans used submarines, mines, surface warships, armed merchant ships and aircraft. Winston Churchill later wrote: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).