The sinking of the Titanic is the most popular maritime disaster, an endless source of fascination and metaphor. Yet it tells us less about our times than the fate of the Athenia.
Depending on the time of year, the SS Athenia of the Donaldson Atlantic Line regularly plied the route from Glasgow to Montreal or Halifax carrying passengers and emigrants. This time she was headed to Montreal. After a stop at Liverpool, she made her way around the Irish coast and headed northwest setting a course to take her between Rockall and Inishtrahull, well off her usual track. This was because it was September 1939 and all merchant ships had been ordered off their usual routes since 22 August. Though Captain James Cooke and all aboard knew that war had just been declared between Britain and Germany, the trip was deemed safe because as a passenger ship the Athenia was protected by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which Germany had not ratified but had agreed to abide by its terms. Under those terms, passengers and crew of merchant ships and passenger liners were first to be put in places of safety before their vessel was sunk.
Oberleutant Frist-Julius Lemp was in command of U-30 based out of Wilhelmshaven on patrol in the North Atlantic since 27 August. He spotted the Athenia in the late afternoon and followed her for three hours. It was by all accounts a beautiful evening with a sky shimmering with moonlight and stars, though a heavy swell surged. As passengers finished the first dinner sitting, they had no idea that their lives depended on what one man would do in an iron vessel in the sea beneath them.
We do not know what went through this young man’s head (he was twenty-six at the time). All we can say is that Lemp claimed that the zigzag course and its unusual location indicated to him that the ship in his sights was an armed merchant cruiser. He ordered a torpedo attack. On board the ship, Quartermaster Bowman saw the silhouette of a submarine against the moonlight. Some passengers heard a hissing sound as if something passed under the hull. Then a second torpedo found its mark near the engine room, killing many there, in the nearby main stairwell, and on the deck nearby. It was Sunday evening, at 8:50pm, and the second sitting for dinner had just begun when the explosion occurred. The lights went out and the passengers rushed in panic onto the decks. The ship was doomed, and the lives of its remaining passengers from its complement of 1,103 passengers, including some 500 Jewish refugees, and 315 crew were in serious jeopardy.
Captain Cooke and his crew were calm and professional. A distress signal was sent. They restored calm and the evacuation was orderly. Mercifully the safety systems on board contained the damage and the ship stayed afloat for hours, though listing. This certainly avoided a far higher if not almost complete loss of life. In heavy seas, lifeboats were readied. Witnesses spotted the submarine on the surface and reported that it fired one or two shells at the stricken vessel, blowing off a mast. A lifeboat already loaded with passengers broke from its davits causing more fatalities. Passengers jumped into the sea. The heavy swells meant that lifeboats had to be rowed and bailed; women grabbed oars and used their shoes to bail. Exposure was likely as passengers lacked overcoats and were soaked; some were over ten hours on the open sea.
The destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Fame, and HMS Escort, a Swedish yacht called the Southern Cross, a US cargo ship City of Flint, and a Norwegian tanker the MS Knute Nelson arrived at the scene within hours. HMS Fame was dispatched to find the U-boat. Lifeboats were by then spread out, lit by flares, and while calling for help made their way to the ships nearest them. One lifeboat tied up only metres from the exposed propeller of the MS Knute Nelson and in the confusion the ship started up her engines. The great thrashing propeller sucked in the lifeboat, pulverising it and killing fifty. Some hours later another lifeboat capsized behind the Southern Cross, with ten fatalities. A Jewish-Russian couple saw their two sons drown. A young woman was pulled from the water into another life boat but screamed “my baby” and leapt back into the sea. At one point a great school of whales “plunged around the boats”. Others died in the transfers to the destroyers as the sea jostled the lifeboats against the towering hulls. At 10 am the following morning, the Athenia’s bow reared up and ship sank vertically beneath the waves. In all, 98 passengers and 19 crew died. 28 of the fatalities were U.S. citizens.
The MS Knute Nelson made for Galway with 441 passengers and 90 crew on board. It arrived at 9:30 am on Tuesday 5 September. Ten were stretchered off the tender City of Galway, four seriously injured. The survivors were greeted by a warm reception from hundreds of well-wishers along the dockside. Nurses from Central Hospital Galway and the Army Medical Corps were on hand and a local committee had prepared food and accommodation in local hotels and guest houses. VIPs included Dr. Browne, the Bishop of Galway, the Mayors of Galway and Limerick, and the U.S. Minister to Ireland, John D. Cudahy. Cudahy comforted J.D. Wilkes who broke down, having lost his wife and two children. The Irish Times reported: “It was a motley and somewhat hysterical crowd that trooped down the gangway to the tender…. Men, women and children were in almost every stage of undress, having lost their clothes and belongings. Seven women were attired in men’s dungarees and trousers lent them by the crew of the Knute Nelson.”
Passengers arriving in Glasgow told similar stories; of the explosion, seeing the submarine, of the shelling, of the desperate rescue and the heaving seas. Some spoke avidly, some were too traumatised to say anything. Some smiled at the memory of the whales. All were sure that is was a torpedo, not a mine or an aircraft.
In London, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was already swamped trying to organise the evacuation of U.S. citizens from wartime Britain when news arrived of the sinking of the Athenia. It hugely complicated the effort to get Americans home from Europe. Since he could not leave London to help the survivors landing at Glasgow, he dispatched his second son. John F. Kennedy toured the hotels to visit the survivors, get first-hand accounts and assure them that America was there to protect their interests. With cameras filming, he met with 150 survivors in a hotel and assured them that a liner had been dispatched from America to bring them home. They would be safe under an American flag. They protested, not surprisingly, that they would only travel home in a convoy. JFK’s assurances were to little avail initially. As reported by The Irish Times: ‘“We definitely refuse to go until we have a convoy,” declared the American college girls among the rescued. “You have seen what they will do to us.”’ Another pointedly referred to Amilia Earhart saying “a year ago the whole Pacific fleet was sent out for one woman flier.” Kennedy said he would inform his father.
Eventually most of the survivors were convinced to travel on board the Orizaba though only after its sides were painted with the Stars and Stripes and it was flood lit during the night. They landed at New York on Wednesday 27 September, met by a large crowd some of whom hoped that their loved ones were not in fact lost, that some good news might be discovered. American Express doled out cash and the Red Cross was on hand to help the survivors who had arrived without luggage or passports.
The news of the sinking quickly headlined around the world. Details of the attack and the fate of the survivors were followed closely. The attack was condemned as barbarous and contrary to the laws of war. The news created a sensation in the United States and Canada. The finger of blame pointed firmly at Germany but Germany claimed that it did not have a submarine in the area. Grand Admiral Raeder appeared to believe this in the absence of any confirmation from a U-Boat. Germany issued a statement pointing to the likelihood of a mine. The New York Times editorialised; “Now it is real. In the first twenty four hours of general hostilities….we saw the pattern set…. Part of the ordeal will be waiting for the truth behind conflicting claims, confused reports and veils of military secrecy.” It noted Churchill’s announcement of German culpability but also Germany’s written assurance that the ship must have struck a mine: “It would indeed have been crass stupidity for Germany on the first day of the war to engage a great neutral Power by torpedoing a ship carrying Americans, and it is equally hard to believe that a British liner under naval escort, in waters presumably well charted, should run into a British-laid mine.”
On board U-boat 30, Lemp appeared to have realised his mistake almost immediately. He did not enter the action in the log and swore his crew to secrecy. Escaping the anti-submarine searches, he continued his raiding. On 11 September he torpedoed and sunk the cargo ship Blairlogie. All thirty crew survived. On 14 September Lemp spotted the Belfast built and registered Fanad Head. He gave chase and seized the ship after putting a shot across its bows. With the crew and passengers safely dispatched on life boats, Lemp took a risky course of action by pulling alongside and sending a prize crew aboard. British destroyers and aircraft arrived and in desperate hours of attacks and evasions, crashing aircraft and blasting depth charges, U-30 finally sunk Fanad Head and escaped, heavily damaged and with two RAF crew members on board captured after they had ditched.
After a stop at Reykjavik, Lemp arrived back at Wilhemshaven on 27 September. He confessed his unwelcome news to Admiral Doenitz. He had sunk the Athenia, claiming that he thought it was an armed merchant ship. Doenitz knew he had a problem and that admission of Germany’s responsibility might have the gravest of consequences. He sent Lemp to Berlin to explain himself to Raeder. Raeder then briefed Hitler. In the propaganda war for world opinion in which Germany sought to paint Britain as an antagonist and to ensure that America stayed neutral, it was best to cloud culpability in confusion. Hitler decided to continue the denial. The log was altered and Lemp escaped a court-martial.
It hard to know what to make of Lemp’s claim. The Kreigsmarine were well aware that shipping out of Britain had been ordered to avoid established routes. He had followed the Athenia for three hours. He had ample time to identify the nature of the craft he was tracking. Other U-boat captains were well aware of the rules of war under which they operated and they were in many instances commended for their gallantry is ensuring that the crews of merchant ships were seen to safety. Lemp’s behaviour in ensuring the safety of the crews of the other ships he attacked in the following weeks observed the norms of ensuring the crews’ safety. Perhaps he had genuinely made a mistake and only realised it when he approached the Athenia after the torpedo attack. Then why shell it as witnesses reported? Lemp did not survive the war to tell his version or face justice. His death was shrouded in some mystery with claims that he was shot by a boarding party or that he committed suicide by going down with his scuttled vessel, U-110, in May 1941.
In the following weeks, Germany conquered Poland and signed the Pact of Steel with Russia. Hitler turned his eyes to the unwelcome western front and the British Expeditionary Force in France. If he was to expand the Third Reich eastward, he had to safeguard his rear. British forces had to be expelled from continental Europe before he turned the full might of the Wehrmacht against the Slavs. Yet he feared antagonising the U.S. to the point that it might abandon its neutrality. Like the Lusitania before it, it was feared that the sinking of the SS Athenia might tilt the balance of American opinion. Yet like the Lusitania, it was hoped that it might not. For weeks Germany maintained its innocence, contrary to all the eye-witness evidence.
With plans afoot for a major offensive on the Western front, Hitler and Goebbels conferred; it was time for the big lie. In a national radio broadcast on 22 October, Goebbels presented himself as the prosecuting attorney, in the description of The New York Times. He declared that the British had sunk the Athenia on Churchill’s orders and that his silence would be his shame. Goebbels gave a detailed account of how it was done. A bomb on board was exploded on a radio signal from Churchill. But it was botched and Royal Navy ships were sent to sink it. He declared that Churchill stood condemned in the court of public opinion and that he answer the charges that Britain had been responsible, that Royal Navy destroyers had not come to the rescue of the Athenia but had fired on it and sunk it. Goebbels asserted that German passengers had been refused boarding in Liverpool as part of the conspiracy to ensure that blame affixed to Germany. Smoking had been banned to avoid setting off the bomb prematurely. Churchill’s conspiracy, he explained, was designed as part of its war with Germany, to turn opinion against it and induce the U.S. to join Britain and France as an ally. Germany, he declared, would not let the matter rest until Churchill confessed. “Stand rascal, and answer us!” They knew it would take time: Churchill, he asserted, “belongs to that type of man who has to have his wisdom teeth knocked from his head before he will give up lying.” The broadcast was repeated on radio wavelengths, disseminated widely in a number of languages, and the ‘account’ published in Germany.
The fake news had its effect in sowing doubts. Maybe it was a Russian submarine, some speculated. As Germany claimed credit for sinking further merchant ships and tankers and as U-boat commanders who sunk the HMS Courageous and HMS Royal Oak (with combined fatalities in excess of 1,300) were treated as celebrity war heroes on return to Germany, the significance of the denial about the Athenia was lost.
It is an odd thing that getting caught out lying about a crime can be seen as a greater shame than an outright admission of a crime. The more elaborate the deception, the more determined the incentive to avoid exposure. For the Nazis, it seemed that to get caught out in one lie might lead logically to doubts about its whole ideology. The further removed belief is from reality, the more insistent the doctrine and the denial of inconvenient facts. Despite all of the atrocities committed by Germany during the war, including the Holocaust, there seemed to be a particular shame attached to the sinking of the Athenia, or perhaps more accurately about the lying about it. Germany maintained the lie even in defeat. It was only in 1946 during the Nuremburg trials that Doenitz, faced with the testimony of a U-30 crew member who was on board when the Athenia was attacked, finally admitted the obvious truth that Germany had in fact sunk the ship, that the accusations by Goebbels to the contrary were part of an audacious bid to disseminate what today we’d call fake news. By then of course, what constituted war crimes had taken on a whole new dimension.
At the time, the sinking of the Athenia convinced many that the war had started in earnest, that headlines about peace offerings in the weeks that followed were mere posturing. The reports in the Irish press from Galway, like those in media around the world, were detailed and graphic, well conveying the telling dishevelment and trauma of the disembarking survivors. War was a brutal affair not just for the military but for the innocent civilian, if anyone needed reminding. There were to be no safe hiding places beyond the jurisdiction of the neutral state. The rules of war did not necessarily apply and the headlines did not necessarily reflect the reality. In this, the U.S. and Ireland as neutral states shared a perspective. The U.S. clamped down on its citizens travelling to Europe. American liners increased fares to Europe by as much as a third. As more ships were attacked in the Atlantic in the autumn of 1939, and more survivors were rescued and landed at Irish harbours around the coast, the Irish public could not but be aware that they lived in proximity to a deadly struggle between European superpowers. Neutrality, fragile and all as it was, must have seemed like a good option.
The sinking of the SS Athenia is largely forgotten today. It has not entered the popular imagination. Maybe the fake news surrounding is a complicating factor or maybe the fact that the mystery of its fate was revealed in 1946. Even the Lusitania retains some public fascination. At almost 1,200 the fatalities were far higher. Compared to that ‘only’ 98 died on the Athenia. Questions hovered unresolved about whether in fact the Lusitania carried ammunition; unanswered questions have a long life.
Yet even the fate of the Lusitania pales beside the luminous light cast by the Titanic over the public imagination. The Titantic’s combination of fate, coincidence, and the morality of class deciding the preponderance of fatalities mesmerises us. We see in her a microcosm of a form of society that was doomed. The iceberg is the metaphor for all unbidden and unforeseen calamities in the face of human fecklessness. How fitting that her distress flares were thought to be celebrations. The random things that sank the Titanic churn in our heads – the ship’s speed, the calm waters, the lack of binoculars, and the attempt to wheel away that just magnified the damage to a fatal degree. Change one of these things and the ship might have stayed afloat. She was on her maiden voyage, the fresh paint still pungent. They said it was unsinkable. In the sinking of the Titanic, we detect the revenge of the gods.
None of this applies to the Athenia. Its story is human and venal. There is no fate, just bad luck. There are no gods, only one man with the power to sink a ship who opted to use that power. Some weird confluence of impulses compelled him to a great crime. An instinct for survival, for exculpation after the exhilaration of the act, led him to conspire with his crew to conceal it. Perhaps he too realised that the consequences for his country might be grave if responsibility was admitted. And while he was driven to admit what he did to his superiors, albeit he had little grounds to deny it, the system found common cause with him in maintaining the fiction. You can sense in Goebbels’s insistent accusation against Churchill the audacity, the glee of the big lie. And you can see too that other governments and the public hesitated to apportion blame in the face of the denials and the counter accusations, even in the face of overwhelming testimony. The power of the big lie is that it begs the question ‘what if…?’ And of course back then there was a widespread and deep faith in government.
From this perspective, the sinking of the Athenia is a more compelling tale for our times than the ineffable qualities of the Titanic. The Athenia, not the Titanic, is the true metaphor for our time.