The Athenia was bound for Quebec carrying civilians fleeing the situation in Europe. It was the first ship to be sunk in the war. Survivors were picked up by the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson and brought to Galway.
Under the command of Captain James Cook, the SS Athenia had begun her voyage in Glasgow on 1 September, picking up passengers at Liverpool and Belfast before heading out into the North Atlantic. War had been brewing during the summer of 1939, so there were a lot of people trying to get out of Europe before hostilities started.
Aboard the liner were 1,103 passengers and 315 crew members. Almost half the passengers were Jews fleeing what they knew was to come in Hitler’s Germany. The rest of the complement was made up of Canadians (469), Americans (311), 72 British citizens, and a tiny number of other nationalities. They were predominantly women and children.
Aware that war had been declared, Capt. Cook was sailing a zigzag pattern, a typical anti-submarine strategy. Cook told a passenger on the afternoon of 3 September that he felt his vessel was far enough into the Atlantic to be out of any danger zone.
Under the command of Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, U-30 was on patrol about 400 km northwest of the coast of Ireland. At about 4:30 pm, Lemp saw the Athenia. and began stalking the ship. After three hours of following the passenger liner, Lemp fired two torpedoes at her.
Oberleutnant Lemp closed in on the stricken ship and fired a third torpedo to finish her off; this too malfunctioned. Lemp surfaced and through his binoculars was able to make out the silhouette of the Athenia and not the troopship he later claimed he thought he had attacked. He said the zigzag pattern suggested to him the vessel was a warship.
Under the niceties of the Prize Regulations, to which Germany was a signatory, troop ships were fair game, passenger vessels were not. Realizing the horrible mistake he had made, Lemp sailed away from the area and did not report the engagement to the Kriegsmarine. No entry was made in the ship’s log and the crew was sworn to secrecy.
Aboard the SS Athenia, passengers were sitting down to dinner when a massive explosion occurred. One of the two torpedoes had hit the engine room, immediately plunging the ship into darkness; the other torpedo malfunctioned. The Athenia began listing to port and settling at her stern.
All 26 of the vessel’s lifeboats were safely launched as distress signals were sent out. Fortunately, there were other ships in the area and they rushed to render assistance.
Several ships, including the E class destroyer HMS Electra, responded to Athenia‘s distress signal. Electra‘s commander, Lt. Cdr. Sammy A. Buss, was senior officer present and took charge. He sent the F-class destroyer HMS Fame on an anti-submarine sweep of the area, while Electra, another E-class destroyer, HMS Escort, the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the 5,749 GRT Norwegian dry cargo ship MS Knute Nelson, and the US cargo ship City of Flint, rescued survivors. Between them they rescued about 981 passengers and crew. The German liner SS Bremen, en route from New York to Murmansk, also received Athenia‘s distress signal, but ignored it as it was trying to evade capture by the British as a prize of war. City of Flint took 223 survivors to Pier 21 at Halifax, and Knute Nelson landed 450 at Galway.
One lifeboat was crushed by the propellers of the Knute Nelson, killing about 50 people. Another lifeboat capsized with the loss of around 10 lives, and three passengers were killed while being transferred to a Royal Navy destroyer. However, a quite remarkable 1,306 were saved, with 112 people killed. The Athenia remained afloat for 14 hours, finally sliding under the waves stern first.
The German high command learned of the attack from BBC radio and were horrified. There was concern in Berlin that if there were American casualties, and there were, the United States might be drawn into the war.
So, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels started pumping out what later come to be called alternative facts. The British had sunk the Athenia, he said, in an effort to smear the reputation of the glorious Third Reich.
When Lemp returned to port in late September he would have expected to be relieved of his command and perhaps face a court martial.
Instead, Admiral Erich Raeder decided to sweep the incident under the waves. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge U-30’s involvement, something that was strenuously denied by Goebbels and Hitler.
The cover-up was successful until the truth came out at the Nuremberg trials when Admiral Karl Dönitz read a statement admitting to the attack on an unarmed civilian vessel.
Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp continued in command of U-boats until 9 May 1941, when his vessel, U-110 was caught by Royal Navy ships south of Iceland. Depth charges forced Lemp to bring his submarine to the surface and he ordered his crew to abandon ship. Allied vessels rescued 34 men, but Lemp was not among them. It’s thought he drowned in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.