Maritime Tales – Secret Victory

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A WREN at work

Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

I think this story illustrates how timing and quick-thinking can create major shifts in events.

In wartime things move very quickly and often with momentous consequences. I have often wondered what would have happened if war leaders had made different decisions. So often the individual plays a key part in the drama.

The controversial sinking of a British liner just hours after start of the Second World War and the foundering of a German U-boat submarine are strangely linked.

Secrets revealed by a machine captured before the U-boat sank resulted in remarkable discoveries that boosted British intelligence and helped win the war.

One man was a key player in both these incidents.

The passenger liner Athenia was sunk on 3 September 1939 only eight hours after Britain declared war on Germany. Ninety-three passengers and 19 crew died.

The U-30 attacked the unarmed passenger ship without warning, contrary to both international law and the strict instructions of U-boat command.

The commander – Kapitanleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp - had wrongly assumed he was attacking an armed auxiliary cruiser. His death less than two years later coincided with a great breakthrough in the Allied war effort – the breaking of the Enigma codes.

It was Royal Navy escort ships that captured the machine, achieving a crucial victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

The skilful attack off Greenland on 8 May 1941 cost Lemp his life and the destruction of submarine U-110. The rush to escape the sinking craft allowed a boarding party from HMS Bulldog to capture her code books and Enigma encoding machine.

This gave British code breakers at Bletchley Park their first chance to break the complicated U-boat codes. The Royal Navy gained vital information regarding U-boat positions and tactics by using the U-110 Enigma machine to read German naval messages,

Lemp initially left the submarine with the rest of the crew after setting scuttling charges. One account says he swam back when he realised the charges were not exploding.

He may have drowned or been shot by the boarding party. The official British explanation is that he drowned himself after realising his failure. Perhaps he realised too late that he should have thrown the Enigma machine and code books overboard before leaving.

There are displays at Merseyside Maritime Museum about the Athenia and the U-110. An oil painting by K W Radcliffe shows the submarine’s dramatic capture.

Commander Roger Winn is pictured - he and his staff used information gleaned by code breakers at the Admiralty’s Submarine Tracking Room in London.

A WREN (Women’s Royal Naval Service) wireless telegraphist is seen in training (pictured).

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 and bookshops.