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Photo of the SS Athenia by UNISON on Flickr

Sinking the SS Athenia

Evan Mawdsley

The SS Athenia was a substantial vessel, but not one of the great liners; a passenger ship of some 13,500 tons, with accommodation for 1,000 passengers, her speed was 15 knots: the white stripe on her single thin black funnel marked her as one of the ships of the Donaldson Atlantic Line. Completed in 1923, she regularly carried passengers – often emigrants – from the British Isles to Canada. In August 1939 there was a new urgency to get aboard, among those hurrying to escape the outbreak of another European war. The Athenia left Glasgow, bound for Montreal, on the evening of 1 September; that day, Germany had invaded Poland. After picking up passengers at Belfast and Liverpool, the liner sailed out into the open Atlantic on the 3rd. A few hours earlier the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had announced a state of war with Germany.

In the afternoon of the 3rd, south of Rockall, and about 200 miles out into the ocean, the Athenia was sighted by a U-boat cruising on the surface. The captain of the U 30 decided to attack and submerged his boat; no warning was given. At about 7.30 p.m. torpedoes were ordered to be launched. One struck home, and the passengers and most of the crew of the Athenia took to the lifeboats. Messages got through to the Admiralty with some delay via Malin Head in County Donegal. ‘Important Admiral Rosyth intercept 2207 Jamming near Athenia GFDM 1400 passengers some still aboard Sinking fast bearing 291 approx.’ HMS Electra arrived with two other destroyers to rescue survivors from the stricken ship: ‘Surrounded by wreckage and the inevitable oil slick, she lay at a drunken angle, with the falls of the lowered boats trailing in the water, and giving her an untidy, bedraggled, appearance, accentuating her air of helplessness.’ The liner took fourteen hours to go down, and most of the fatalities resulted from the initial torpedo explosion or from poor handling of the lifeboats. Altogether ninety-three passengers (eighty-five of them women and children) and nineteen crew members perished.

The U 30 was one of eighteen submarines that had been ordered to take position near British waters in late August 1939. One of the first Type VII (medium-sized) submarines commissioned into the new Kriegsmarine (Navy) of the Third Reich, the U 30 had been completed in the autumn of 1936. Her captain was Lieutenant Fritz-Julius Lemp, at twenty-six years old one of the youngest officers to command a U-boat. Like all other U-boat commanders, Lemp had been instructed to obey the German Navy’s prize rules, which followed international law. Merchant ships were supposed to be warned before attack, giving their crews the chance to make for a place of safety. The Nazi government in Berlin was keen – at this stage at least – to limit the scope of the war and to avoid upsetting powerful neutrals like the US. U-boat attacks on merchant ships had political implications; such events had been used in 1917 by the US to justify entry into World War I. In any event Lemp later claimed that he thought the rules did not apply in this case, because he had identified his target as a combatant. She had been acting suspiciously, and he believed she was an ‘armed merchant cruiser’ (AMC) – a fast merchant ship deployed by the Royal Navy as an ‘auxiliary cruiser’. Lemp only realised on listening in to the BBC that he had sunk a passenger ship performing her normal activities. He compounded his blunder by failing to report to base.

German naval headquarters must have guessed what had happened. On 4 September it put out a secret alert forbidding submarine attacks on passenger ships, even in convoy. Meanwhile the authorities in Berlin denied any involvement. When the U 30 eventually returned to Wilhelmshaven three weeks later, the senior officer, U-boats, a commodore named Karl Dönitz, stood on the quayside to meet her. Lemp requested a private word and admitted what had happened. The commodore immediately put him on a plane to Berlin to explain himself to higher authorities. Dönitz – according to a statement made at the 1946 Nuremberg trial – punished Lemp on his return by confining him to his quarters, but he did not authorise a court martial. His view was that the young captain had made a genuine mistake in the confusion of ‘battle’. He accepted the view of his superiors that open action against Lemp would be embarrassing. Dönitz’s staff entered a report in the war diary of the U-boat command which mentioned two other merchant ships sunk by the U 30 (in both cases in accordance with prize rules), but not the Athenia; a replacement page for 3 September was crudely inserted in the U 30’s logbook.

The captain of the U-boat thus escaped any real punishment. Not only was Lemp not court martialled for disobeying orders, but the Navy awarded him the Iron Cross (2nd Class) in late September, and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant commander (Kapitänleutnant). The U 30 carried out further patrols under his command; Lemp turned out to be just the sort of aggressive submarine commander the Kriegsmarine (and other navies) craved. In November 1939 he damaged the British battleship Barham north of Ireland with a torpedo; the following year he was awarded the Wehrmacht’s highest military medal, the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz).

The official German version was a lie. There is no evidence that the Athenia was zig-zagging or that she was blacked out – it was not yet dark as she approached the U 30. She may have been somewhat off the main shipping route; the captain of the Athenia refused to reveal his course to the British civilian inquiry, as he had been ‘under secret naval instructions’. While the Athenia was a plausible armed merchant cruiser (her Donaldson Atlantic Line sister ship, the SS Letitia, served in this role from November), at the start of September Britain did not yet have any AMCs in commission.

Lemp later took command of the new U 110. This submarine was attacked by British warships south of Iceland during her second patrol, in May 1941, and forced to surface. The crew failed to scuttle the badly damaged boat, and a British boarding party salvaged the Enigma cypher machine and confidential code papers; the capture greatly aided the later interception of German radio signals. Lieutenant Commander Lemp was drowned.

From The War for the Seas by Evan Mawdsley. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Evan Mawdsley was Professor of International History at Glasgow University. He is the author of December 1941, a Sunday Telegraph Book of the Year.


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