WHO’S SORRY NOW? by Liam Nolan
WHO’S SORRY NOW? by Liam Nolan
Shakespeare got it absolutely right (as he so frequently did) when he gave one of his characters in “Julius Caesar” this line to speak: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
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On the evening of Sunday the 3rd of September 1939 the passenger liner Athenia was torpedoed without warning in calm seas northwest of Ireland. War had been declared only a matter of hours before. Outward bound from Liverpool for Montreal, the liner had 1,103 passengers on board (about 300 of them were American), and a crew of 305.
Many of the passengers were in the dining saloons, some were taking things easy on deck, mothers were putting their babies and older children to bed, a few adults were resting in their cabins, and a group of people were relaxing in the lounge, where the ship’s orchestra was playing. One of the orchestra’s most popular pieces was a 1923 Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby song which Glen Miller and his band and vocalist Ray Eberle had revived in August — “Who’s Sorry Now?”
The 13,581-ton ship was 60 miles south-southwest of Rockall, the 70-foot high mass of barnacle-encrusted granite that juts up out of the North Atlantic. Steaming without lights, she was an easy target for any submarine that might be in the area seeking ships to sink. What nobody on board the liner knew was that there was a submarine in the vicinity — a German U-boat, the U-30.
At around eleven o’clock on that Sunday morning one of the ship’s wireless officers had picked up the announcement that war had been declared. Shortly after the ship’s church services, a notice was pinned on the notice board outside the purser’s office saying that Britain and Germany were now at war. It caused a frisson of fear and a gale of gossip to sweep through passengers and crew. For many of the passengers, just the smell of the sea was frightening. Learning that war had been declared added a terrifying dimension.
The torpedo tore a huge hole in the Athenia’s port side just abaft midships. The explosion between the boiler room and the engine room shattered an oil tank and oil lines, and destroyed access stairs between the decks. The ship shuddered and lurched under the impact. The officer of the watch sounded eight short blasts and one long one on the ship’s siren. It signified “Action Stations!”
The liner began to list to port as the sea surged in, and it became obvious that she was going to sink in the wide sea empty of help. When the lights went out in the dining saloons and passageways people screamed in panic.
In the ship’s propeller tunnels two crewmen were blown to pieces, and in a galley two cooks were horribly burned and scalded by steam when a range exploded.
Passengers trapped in darkness in a stair lobby shrieked and screeched and struggled violently as cold seawater suddenly poured in and, with brutal suddenness, rose over their feet and up their legs and up past their chests, past their mouths and noses, and then over their heads. They couldn’t escape. They drowned where they were trapped.
Three Royal Navy destroyers and three merchantmen (the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson; an American freighter with a United States flag painted prominently on her sides, the City of Flint; and the 1,500-ton private motor yacht Southern Cross belonging to 52-year-old Axel Wenner Gren, the Swedish millionaire owner of the Electrolux vacuum cleaner company) picked up the calls.
The U-boat’s wireless operator, Funkmaat (radio-telegraphist) Georg Hogel, and Malin Head Wireless Station in North Donegal, also heard the signals.
The captains of the destroyers, the tanker, the freighter, and the private yacht all steered their ships towards the position Radio Officer Don had given in his SSS calls. A Marconigram handed in at Valentia Radio at 10 minutes past 10 that night said, “SOS from British steamer Athenia posn 56.42N 14.05W torpedoed — 1400 passengers some still aboard sinking fast.”
The U-boat’s captain knew perfectly well what he had done. When he surfaced his U-boat, he was able to see the lifeboats, and bodies in the water, and hear the screams and moans of the terrified people. He left them where they were, turned his U-boat away and stole off like a thief into the night.
On board the Athenia Captain Cook, gave the order: “Abandon ship!” The liner had 26 lifeboats (more than enough to accommodate all the passengers and crew), and 21 life rafts. The crew found difficulty in launching some of the starboard (right-hand) lifeboats, because the ship was listing to port. The starboard boats bumped and scraped against the rivet heads protruding from the ship’s side. One lifeboat upended, its stern suddenly falling free from the davit so that it suddenly hung vertically, dumping its occupants into the sea.
It was a moonlit night, the moon occasionally shut from view by scudding clouds. And then it rained, and a cold whipping wind came in gusts that added to the misery of the people in the open boats. The sea got up and became choppy, and in a few of the boats water sloshed around the legs of the scantily clad survivors, some of who became hysterical and fear-crazed. So much seawater was coming in through the damage-holes and splintered planking that women continuously baled out, using shoes and purses to scoop up the water and throw it overboard.
Before dawn on the following morning the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson, Captain Karl Johan Anderssen, arrived. The big silver-grey ship was in ballast and very high out of the water. Captain Anderssen had seen the lifeboats’ red flares long before he reached the spot where the lopsided Athenia lay dead in the water sinking, settling lower and lower by the stern. Now he could see the scattered lifeboats around the liner.
To arrest the speed of his approach, he rang SLOW AHEAD on the engine room telegraph, then DEAD DLOW, and finally STOP.
The tanker eased in among the lifeboats and life rafts and Knute Nelson’s crew draped ladders and ropes over the side to help get the survivors on board. As the lifeboats came alongside, they reached down to draw the shivering people out of the boats, and out of the sea itself, and up the towering steel side of the ship.
Many of the survivors, on the point of collapse, were unable to help themselves. Some of them were wearing just nightdresses or thin cotton pajamas; many were in their underclothes. All of them were distressed and numb with cold.
Some were seriously injured — broken bones, burns, flesh wounds, jagged lacerations. Those who had fallen or dived overboard from the liner, or had been in boats that had capsized, were in acute danger of dying from hypothermia.
There were bodies in the sea, and later there would be even more bodies — from the Athenia lifeboat that drifted under the Knute Nelson’s counter. Captain Anderssen, not knowing the boat was there, rang his engine room for SLOW AHEAD. The boat was drawn in towards the revolving propellers, and there was nothing anyone in the boat could do except scream or shout, “For God’s sake Jump! We’re going to die!”
The blades cut the boat to pieces. Of the 52 women and three seamen in it, only eight survived, clinging to the bits that remained afloat.
The American freighter SS City of Flint, the motor yacht Southern Cross, and the three Royal Navy destroyers, rescued as many survivors as they possibly could. But there were accidents, other awful happenings — like people falling from rescue ropes or ladders, and being crushed between their lifeboat and the side of the ship; a lifeboat capsizing when the counter stern of the Southern Cross came down on top of it in the Atlantic swell; babies floating away and drowning; a couple of suicides.
The Southern Cross picked up a total of 376 people and eventually transferred them to the destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Escort and HMS Fame.
The City of Flint’s master decided to take the 223 survivors he had on board across the Atlantic to Halifax, and the destroyers set course for Greenock in Scotland. At around 9 o’clock on the Monday morning Captain Karl Johan Anderssen of the Knute Nelson decided to head for Galway, the nearest port. Among the survivors he had on board was Captain Cook.
Out on the ocean the Athenia seemed reluctant to give up the ghost. But finally, at around a quarter to eleven on that day, fourteen hours after being torpedoed, she sank, sliding stern first to the floor of the Atlantic.
Galway had been alerted. Mayor of Galway at the time was Joe Costello, and the then Bishop of Galway was Dr Michael Browne. In charge of the Defence Forces 1st Infantry Battalion was Commandant Padraig O’Duinnin, and the Garda Superintendent was Tomas O’Coileain.
Doctors and nurses, Central Hospital on the Newcastle Road, hotels, guesthouses, the Garda Siochana, ambulances and stretchers, and the Army Medical Corps — all were on standby. The city was ready.
Very early on the morning of the 5th of September 1939, the tanker edged into Galway Bay, piloted from Black Head into the offshore anchorage by Captain Meskill, the port’s senior pilot.
The tender that normally serviced passenger liners, went out to the Knute Nelson carrying a doctor, some nurses, and men from the Army Medical Corps. Going alongside the tanker, the tender rose and fell on the swell, the old protective tyres hanging over her side and along the rubbing strake screeching as they were squeezed against the big ship’s hull. Ashore, the City of the Tribes was waiting to receive and succour the survivors.
Eventually these first casualties of the sea war landed at the docks, the townspeople looking on silently and sympathetically as the pathetic women, children and men came ashore. Some of the survivors were maimed and bandaged. The ten stretcher cases were carried with difficulty and care down the steeply sloping gangway.
Among those who walked down it were bare-footed, frightened kids wrapped in blankets. A few were elderly women, hair wildly askew, puzzlement and shock etched into the lines on their faces.
One skeletal and haunted-looking man (one of the ship’s cooks) who had been badly burned on board the Athenia, was naked under a blanket, his spindly legs uncovered, his feet protected from the cold by socks only. He had to be guided and supported by army medics and gardai.
Other army men came down the gangway with children and babies in their arms, and still they came, these deeply traumatised survivors disembarking from the tender.
Galway was not found wanting.
The American ambassador to Ireland, John Cudahy, would say later, “I cannot praise too highly the efficient handling of the situation by Galway and the Irish government, and their splendid human spirit.”
Comments of a different nature were made in the British Parliament. Hansard of the 13th of September reported a Mr Robert Gibson asking the Secretary of State for Scotland, Captain John McEwen, “Can the honourable and gallant Gentleman say anything about the survivors who were landed at Galway, Eire?”
Captain McEwen: “No, I am afraid we have no information on that.”
Miss Rathbone: “Is the honourable and gallant Gentleman aware that the arrangements at Galway were very unsatisfactory, and that British people from the ‘Athenia’ were landed, many of them penniless and in scanty raiment, and that no provision was made for advancing them money?”
Captain McEwen: “I have already said that we have no information.”
In all, 112 people died in the U-boat attack. Among the dead passengers were 16 children and 69 women. Twenty-eight of the dead were American citizens. Nineteen members of the liner’s crew also died.
Hitler’s U-boat war had begun.
The Athenia casualties were the first deaths in the Battle of the Atlantic, and an anonymous writer in Britain’s Ministry of Information would write five years later that the sinking was “the signal that the enemy would fight at sea without law and without mercy.”
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The U-boat that torpedoed the passenger ship, the U-30, had left Wilhelmshaven on the 22nd of August under the command of 26-year-old Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp. He had taken her out into the Atlantic to a position west of Ireland, and waited. Eventually, on the day that war was declared, the Athenia had come along.
Lemp tracked the liner for three hours until, just after 7.30 in the evening, he fired four torpedoes at her. The first two missed completely; the third ran straight and true, hit, and mortally damaged the passenger ship. The fourth stuck fast in the tube.
Lemp was duty bound to contact U-boat headquarters immediately by wireless to report the sinking. He didn’t. Instead he swore his officers and crew to secrecy, and maintained total radio silence until the 14th of September. In the message he transmitted on that day, he made no mention of having sunk the liner.
Germany’s Supreme Naval Command, and the staff of U-boat Command, were said to have disbelieved the report of the sinking when they heard it first on a BBC bulletin. It was inconceivable, they said, that a U-boat captain would have willfully carried out such an act.
The Naval Staff advised Hitler to deny any German responsibility for the sinking. Hitler, afraid that the sinking of a passenger liner might draw the USA into the war — a development he wanted to avoid at all costs — acted on the advice. The Germans said that the Athenia must have been sunk by a British mine, or by a British submarine!
Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, said later during a hysterical radio broadcast, that Britain’s Admiralty, directed by the First Lord (Winston Churchill), had arranged the sinking of the liner, with the object of fomenting atrocity stories implicating Germany. Addressing his remarks to Churchill, he said, “We have already proved that you yourself sank the Athenia by shooting her down [sic] with three British destroyers. Your criminal plan was to bring you as a dowry America’s entrance into the war.
“That is why you carefully prepared the explosion in advance. But apparently the explosion was as stupidly arranged as everything you do, and that is why the Athenia remained 14 hours above the water after the explosion had taken place.
“After 14 hours waiting in vain, you had to sink the ship in order to obliterate the traces of your crime...” !
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By the time U-30 returned to her home base on the 27th of September, Lemp had sunk a further two ships — the SS Blairlogie on the 11th of September, 200 miles west of Ireland, and the SS Fanad Head on the 14th of September, 280 miles west-northwest of Malin Head.
Germany’s U-boat chief, Commodore Karl Dönitz, was waiting for Lemp on the quayside when U-30 came in from the sea. Lemp admitted to Dönitz that he was responsible for having sunk the Athenia. But he claimed that he had identified the ship only after hearing a BBC broadcast reporting that she had been sunk.
Dönitz, ordering a veil of secrecy to be drawn over the whole affair, had Lemp flown to Berlin immediately to report to Naval Headquarters. There the U-boat captain managed to convince the Naval High Command — they accepted his claim that he had acted in good faith — and decided that a court martial would not be necessary. But they ordered that the affair was to be kept secret.
Lemp had perpetrated a flagrant disregard of the humane codes of maritime law. But no disciplinary action was taken against him, or against any of his officers and crew. It was decided to falsify U-30’s logbook, with the aim of keeping hidden the submarine’s sinking of the liner.
In the short time left to him in this life, Lemp went on to become one of the German Navy’s U-boat aces. He sank 20 ships, a total of 96,314 tons. But on the 9th of May 1941 the British destroyer HMS Bulldog captured the U-boat Lemp was then commanding — U-110. It happened near Iceland.
The severely battered (by depth charges) U-boat was forced to the surface where she came under fire from the escort ships of the convoy Lemp had been attacking. Believing that U-110 was about to sink quickly and permanently, Lemp ordered the crew to abandon ship. They jumped into the water, pushed by Lemp, who then followed them.
A boarding party from HMS Bulldog under Sub-Lieutenant David Balme went on board the crippled U-boat. They found it deserted.
Balme went down the vertical ladder from the conning tower into the interior of U-110, expecting the seacocks to have been opened, and scuttling charges to go off at any moment. No charges went off, and the seacocks hadn’t been opened.
Not only that, but all the codebooks and charts, as well as a precious Enigma encryption machine, were there for the taking. Balme and his party took them, and in so doing turned the tide of the war against Germany.
It was never definitely established whether Lemp was — as claimed by the Germans — shot in the water by the boarding party as he swam back to the U-boat to destroy the Enigma device, or had intentionally allowed himself to drown rather than be taken alive.
Lemp and 14 other members of his crew died. But unlike Lemp, who had turned away from the sinking Athenia, leaving its survivors to sink or swim, the Bulldog’s crew stayed around and rescued 34 survivors from the U-boat and brought them to safety.
The U-boat’s bow came up high out of the water and, for a moment, pointed towards the sky. Then she sank stern first in a swirl of freezing oily water.
As for Lemp — there is no evading the irony that the man who had fired the first torpedo of the war, resulting in the first casualties in the Battle of the Atlantic, was also the man whose U-boat delivered up to the British the encryption device whose capture marked the turning point in the sea war.