SS Athenia, First Casualty of the U-Boat War on the 3rd. of September 1939

See "Find crew / staff lists for SS Athenia?" "See "Martha Goddard died on the Athenia in Sept 1939" for a list of civilian casualties.

On the 3rd. of September 1939, war between Britain and Germany had barely begun when Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp in command of U-30 attacked, and subsequently sank SS Athenia, mistaking her for an Armed Merchant Cruiser.

We have already made the acquaintance of Lemp earlier when he was in command of U-110, which was captured by HMS Bulldog, when they also grabbed the U-Boat's Enigma Coding machine. Lemp had died in that action.

This 13,500 ton passenger ship had on board, 1,103 civilian passengers, including 300 US citizens hoping to escape the war which had just descended upon Europe.

SS Athenia, First Casualty of the U-Boat War on the 3rd. of September 1939

SS Athenia, First Casualty of the U-Boat War on the 3rd. of September 1939

German radio had alerted all the Kriegsmarine ships at sea, that war was in force between Germany and Britain, and that they could begin hostilities without waiting to be provoked, but keeping in mind the Prize Rules. Lemp's boat was on patrol North West of Ireland. Athenia had been sighted outward bound from England, and Lemp dived his boat, and through the periscope noted this ship was blacked out, was zigzagging, and appeared to have guns on deck. His assessment was that he had found a legitimate target, an Armed Merchant Cruiser, although the Prize Rules stated a shot across the bows should be made, Lemp fired off two torpedoes.

German U-Boat, U-30 on the surface

German U-Boat, U-30 on the surface

One hit, one missfired, he took his boat down to avoid the possibility of the defective torpedo coming back to bite him. He soon surfaced, as his target was not sinking immediately, he set off a third torpedo, which missed. Lemp was now able to compare the silhouette of his victim with his Lloyd's Register, only to find out his mistaken identity, he had fired on a passenger vessel, not an Armed Merchant Cruiser at all.

Lemp now intercepted a plain text message from the stricken vessel, identifying herself as Athenia. He  decided not to report to base about this sinking and his mistake, and slipped away, although the Prize Rules made it quite clear he should be offering aid to his victim. Three merchant ships in the vicinity came to Athenia's rescue, as did three Royal Navy destroyers, these were: Knut Nelson, City of Flint, and Southern Cross, the destroyers, Electra, Escort and Fame.

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp in command of U-30 when SS Athenia was sunk just after the declaration of war on the 3rd. of September 1939

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp in command of U-30
when SS Athenia was sunk just after the declaration
of war on the 3rd. of September 1939

Berlin found out about this attack from news reports, and knowing that U-30 was the only Boat in that area, were soon able to pin this error on her. Hitler now wanted a cover up. He did not wish to have another event like the Lusitania affair from WW1 coming back to haunt him, plus Donitz, and his U-Boat arm. Goebells spread the word that it was the British that had themselves torpedoed Athenia, in their attempt to bring the United States quickly into WW2 against Germany.

Grossadmiral Karl Donitz gave evidence at Nuremberg about orders given to Lemp

Grossadmiral Karl Donitz gave evidence at
Nuremberg about orders given to Lemp

After the Athenia affair, U-30 had been damaged as a result of a brawl with two British destroyers after the sinking of the freighter Fanad Head, Lemp limped back to Wilhelmshaven with his command, arriving there on the 27th. of September. He now took off for Berlin to report to Donitz and own up to his mistake. The Germans went to great lengths to cover up this event, even to falsifying Lemp's war diary, and removing the page that reported his action against Athenia.

At the Nuremberg Trial, Donitz had to face accusations about hushing up this attack, which in fact killed 118 passengers and crew members.

This was a sorry affair in the annals of the U-Boat war, committed in the first few hours on the very first day of WW2, on the 3rd. of September 1939.


Thanks to Billy McGee http://www.british-merchant-navy.co.uk for this information 16 October 2004

This is the names of the 19 crewmembers lost from the Athenia sinking. The first 18 are on the Tower Hill Memorial. The last one is Canadian and is commemorated in Halifax Nova, Scotia.

CARLIN , Assistant Steward, JAMES, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 56. Panel 12.

DONNELLY , Assistant Steward, IAN, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 26. Panel 12.

DONNELLY , Assistant Steward, JOHN, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 23. Panel 12.

ELDER , Donkeyman, JAMES, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 45. Husband of Mary Elder, of Cambuslang, Lanarkshire. Panel 12.

FORDYCE , Watchman, CHARLES, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 65. Son of George and Jessie Fordyce; husband of Mary Penelope Fordyce. Panel 12.

GALLAGHER , Greaser, HUGH, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 23. Son of Thomas Gallagher, and of Isabel Gallagher, of Glasgow. Panel 12.

HARROWER , Stewardess, ALISON, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 41. Daughter of William and Hannah Foster Denny Harrower. Panel 12.

HOGG , Assistant Steward, JOHN, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 51. Husband of Sarah A. Hogg, of Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Panel 12.

JOHNSTON , Stewardess, MARGARET, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 41. Daughter of James and Christina Johnston, of Glasgow. Panel 12.

KENT , Assistant Steward, JOHN, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 50. Husband of Jessie Darroch Kent, of Bridgeton, Glasgow. Panel 12.

LAWLER , Stewardess, JESSIE, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 60. Wife of Patrick Lawler, of Sholing, Southampton. Panel 12.

MARSHALL , Bellboy, JAMES, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 15. Panel 12.

MORRISON , Steward, DAVID, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 32. Panel 12.

McDERMOTT , Assistant Steward, MICHAEL J., S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 33. Panel 12.

McJARROW , Printer, JOHN, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 39. Panel 12.

McKEOWN , Steward, JOHN, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 47. Husband of M. E. McKeown, of Dunoon, Argyllshire. Panel 12.

PROVAN, Barber, DAVID, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 65. Son of Alec and Margaret Provan; husband of Martha Provan, of Glasgow. Panel 12.

THOMSON , Assistant Steward, SAMUEL, S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939. Age 45. Husband of Julia McCafferty Thomson. of Glasgow. Panel 12.

BAIRD , Stewardess, HANNAH S.S. Athenia (Glasgow). Merchant Navy. 3rd - 4th September 1939 Canadian Merchant Navy HALIFAX MEMORIAL Nova Scotia, Canada Panel 17.

Registers and Indexes of Birth, Marriages & Deaths of Passengers & Seamen at Sea.

The records are held in what is known as BT files and are very impotant you remember the file No. The file you need to access is "BT334" This will give you the following information:

Name of ship, official No. port of registry, date of death, place of death, name of deceased, sex, age, rating/rank, nationality and birthplace, last place of abode, cause of death and remarks.

Outward Bound Passenger Lists 1890-1960 are held in BT27 an gives information on p
assenger lists of people leaving the United Kingdom by sea kept by the Board of Trade's Commercial and Statistical Department and its successors. There is also BT32 covering 1906-1951 Registers of passenger lists kept by the Board of Trade's Commercial, Labour and Statistical Department and its successors.

Please note the PRO will not search their files for you, if you are unable to attend in person, they will give the names of independent researchers who will do it for an hourly fee(very expensive).

Public Records Office,
Kew,
Richmond,
Surrey,
TW9 4DU,
Tel. 020 8876 3444.

Rgds Billy McGee http://www.british-merchant-navy.co.uk


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