“Athenia Torpedoed: The U-boat Attack That Ignited The Battle of the Atlantic,” by Francis M. Carroll, Naval Institute Press, 2012, 256 pages, $29.95
On September 3, 1939, World War II began. Hours later, the liner Athenia was torpedoed, killing 112 passengers aboard. Athenia left port prior war’s declaration, filled with civilians, many of them neutral United States citizens, prudently departing an expected war zone.
“Athenia Torpedoed: The U-boat Attack That Ignited The Battle of the Atlantic,” by Francis M. Carroll is a newly published history of the sinking.
The sinking had a major impact on World War II. Hitler was seeking a limited war — preferably restricted to Poland and a negotiated settlement afterward. An attack on a civilian liner within hours of the war’s opening cemented opinions on both sides of the Atlantic that Nazi Germany was pursuing total war.
Carroll shows that the sinking was an error, not an intention. The U-boat that sank Athenia, pre-positioned before the war, had orders against attacking civilian passenger vessels. Oberlieutenant Fritz-Julius Lemp, commanding U-30, thought his target was an armed merchant cruiser when he attacked.
This is just one fascinating revelation from “Athenia Torpedoed.” Carroll takes readers from Athenia’s departure from its home port of Glasgow, through its attack and sinking, and then follows the journeys of its surviving passengers afterward. He also details the events aboard the U-30, before and after the sinking, and the efforts of ships that rescued the survivors.
Carroll takes readers into the lives of the passengers that voyaged to North America in Athenia, showing their motivations for taking the trip, and tracing the impact the sinking had on their subsequent lives.
Equally intriguing are the ships that rushed to the rescue. The Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the American cargo ship City of Flint, the British destroyer Electra and the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson all detoured to the sinking site.
Southern Cross was owned by a pro-German industrialist. Within a year City of Flint would later be captured by pocket battleship Deutchland, and freed off Norway. Its captain, Joseph A. Gainard became one of the first United States naval heroes of the war. Knute Nelson was torpedoed off Norway in 1940. Electra would eventually be sunk at the Battle of Java Sea.
Also briefly appearing is John F. Kennedy. In his first public role, he represented his ambassador father to American survivors of the sinking, stranded in Ireland.
Largely forgotten today, Athenia’s sinking set in train major events. “Athenia Torpedoed” focuses fresh light on its importance for today’s audience.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.