Russell Park & the SS Athenia Part 6…

Painting of the SS Athenia Sinking by W.J. Burgess

Painting of the SS Athenia Sinking by W.J. Burgess

Sunday, 8:15 – 9:10 p.m., September 3, 1939

One after another, Russell watched several lifeboats depart from Athenia’s Boat deck.  Each time a boat descended, he moved to another station. He promised his father he would go once the boats were ready, even if his father and mother had not yet returned, but he couldn’t bear the thought of getting into a lifeboat without his parents. Russell was certain they would return at any moment, so he hung back in the crowd.

Once while moving to a new station he saw two men in the water swimming to a lifeboat that had already been launched. He noticed they were wearing lifejackets and realized with a start that he didn’t have one. Even though he couldn’t swim, Russell didn’t want to search for a lifejacket for fear he might miss his parents. With the crowd thinning, however, he was becoming more conspicuous.

Something else also was becoming conspicuous. Athenia’s deck leaned more and more down toward the port side of the ship. If it kept up, everyone would slide off the deck into the ocean. It had been an hour since his father left. Where could they be?

Finally, there was only one lifeboat left – number 7A on the starboard side. The lifeboat tilted slightly inwards and would not come off its blocks, despite the efforts of several crewmen pulling on the ropes to lift its bow and stern. They tried to rock the boat by leaning on its gunwales, but it didn’t budge. The delay in launching the stubborn boat gave Russell hope his parents would arrive in time to leave with him.

He watched three crewmen place a long piece of lumber under the boat and over the railing that separated the lifeboat from the rest of the deck. They tried to lever the heavy lifeboat with several men on the long end of the wooden beam but succeeded only in breaking the metal railing. In a final act of desperation, a few men grabbed fire axes and began chopping away at the blocks under the boat. After several minutes it seemed to come free, settling on its keel with a gentle rocking motion. As the men with the axes stood back in triumph, Russell was the only one on deck not cheering their accomplishment.

He watched the now familiar routine as the crewmen hauled on ropes at either end of the boat to raise it off the deck, crank the davits to swing it out over the side of the ship, and lower it level for loading. The surge of passengers carried Russell forward. He turned to search frantically for any glimpse of his parents, but they were nowhere in sight. To keep from being trampled, he stepped into the boat and found a seat on the far side behind the last cross-bench. Everything was happening too fast.

The Boat deck disappeared above him as 7A began descending, scraping down the side of Athenia’s hull because of the way the ship leaned to port. Three feet from the water, the boat came to an abrupt stop. Russell wondered if the ropes were too short, when suddenly the boat dropped into the ocean with a loud splash, accompanied by shouts from the people up on deck.

“Good luck.”

“Well done.”

“See you in the morning.”

Russell wondered if his father and mother were among the people shouting. Maybe they came up on deck just as the lifeboat was launched. But this was the last boat and he felt guilty to be leaving his parents aboard, along with several members of Athenia’s crew.

“What about them?” Russell cried, pointing to people shouting and waving on the Boat deck.

“Don’t worry about them, laddie,” a man in a white coat sitting in the stern responded. “There are two motor launches to take them off.” The casual note in the man’s voice as much as the words themselves gave Russell hope that he would be back with his parents soon.

But as the lifeboat pulled away from Athenia, he began to have second thoughts about leaving the ship. First, the people in the lifeboat found only a few of the oarlocks needed to hold the oars for rowing, nor could they find the tiller that moved the rudder to steer the boat. Worst of all the boat was leaking because the wooden plug for the drain in the bottom had been dislodged when they hit the water.

Earlier in the afternoon, Russell had imagined commanding the sturdy little wooden boat on the high seas. Now it didn’t seem like such a good idea. The cold, dark night closed down around him and the boat didn’t feel so sturdy, leaking and bobbing up and down on big rolling waves. Athenia’s steel deck seemed much more substantial, no matter how awkwardly it was tilted. From a distance the big ship looked safe to him, with its emergency lights providing a haven in the darkness. How he wished now he could be back on board with his parents.

In our next blog: Russell’s quick action saves an oar and earns praise from his shipmates.

For all the blogs about Russell Park in this series, please visit www.thomascsanger.com  

 

Russell Park & the SS Athenia, Part 5

atheniasink

Sunday, Early Evening, September 3:  Russell Park and his father, Alexander, returned from the first dinner seating in the Tourist dining saloon and knocked softly on the cabin door where Russell and his mother were staying with two other women on B deck. Rebecca had decided to skip the evening meal because of her upset stomach.

“Come in,” she called. They entered to find her alone, looking pale and still in bed.

“Do you want to see the doctor?” Alexander asked.

“Let’s wait until morning.” She smiled. “I’m afraid I’m not very good company right now. You two should go for a walk before it’s dark. I’ll probably be asleep by the time you bring Russell back.”

“Are you sure you’ll be all right for now?” Alexander put the back of his hand on his wife’s forehead. “You don’t feel like you have a temperature.”

“No, I think it’s the ship’s motion. I’m just going to have to get used to it.”

“I hope you feel better, mom.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”

Russell and his father took a brief turn on the aft end of the Promenade deck and watched  the last of the orange sunset fade to gray in the clouds overhead. Then they went inside to the Tourist lounge, where his father suggested Russell could check out a book from the ship’s library. Russell chose an oversized book about trains from the children’s shelf, and followed his father to two comfy looking chairs by a large glass-topped table.

“Why don’t we sit here for a few minutes,” his father suggested. “You can look at your trains and I’ll read this magazine.” Alexander picked up a copy of Time lying on the table, while Russell settled into the chair next to him. The train book was so big its pages reached across Russell’s lap to both sides of the chair. He stared at a dramatic illustration with a dangerous looking gray sky hanging over a long dark shape surrounded by several swooping splashes of white. It took him a moment to work out the picture of a steam locomotive plowing through a snowstorm.

After a few pages, Russell had trouble keeping his eyes open. His head had just begun to nod when a deafening roar filled the room and everything went black.

“Something’s happened.  Something’s happened,” a voice shouted in the darkness. Russell lay pinned to the floor by a weight resting on top of him. The air smelled like burned paint. Sounds of shattering glass and splintering wood gave way to the screams of men and women.

“Something’s happened.” Russell heard the voice again. It was his voice, except that it sounded ragged and loud. He was screaming.

“Russell. Russell, where are you?” He recognized his father’s voice.

“I’m here Dad,” he shouted. A moment later he felt the weight come away from his chest and his father helped him stand up.

“Are you oaky?”

“I think so.” Russell felt dizzy. He wanted everything to slow down so he could understand what was happening. Just enough light shone through the room’s tattered blackout curtains for Russell to see an expression he had never seen before in his father’s face—fear.

He followed his father out of the shattered Tourist lounge into bright glow of an emergency light atop the ship’s stern mast. Above them, on the Promenade deck, Russell recognized the muster station where he and his mother were supposed to go in an emergency.

“Dad, that’s our lifeboat up there,” he said.

“Let’s see if your mother is already there.”

Rebecca was not on the Promenade deck, and there were no sailors at Russell’s muster station. Alexander said they should go up to the Boat deck where more lifeboats would be available. Heading for the stairs, Russell was surprised to see the cover missing from the hatch where he had relaxed that afternoon. They walked by the open cargo hold and he saw its exposed interior sides were blackened, as if there had been a fire earlier. Maybe all the water in the hold was used to put it out, he thought. Trying to make sense of it all, another strange sight startled him.

A charred bundle of rags lay in a pile near the base of the stairs, but after taking a few steps closer, he saw the bundle was the badly burned body of a man. A woman mounting the stairs accidentally bumped the man with her foot and he moaned, but no one paid him any attention. Russell wasn’t sure what to do and he slowed, but he felt his father’s grip tighten on his arm and hustle him past the burned man and up onto the stairs.

“Ladies and gents, we are putting the lifeboats in position for lowering,” said a large steward who blocked the top of the stairway. “As soon as they are ready, I will let you up. It’ll be women and children first, so please maintain your order. And don’t worry. We’ve plenty of room for everyone.”

Russell’s father turned him around on the stairs to face him and put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. The thick glasses magnified the intensity of his father’s eyes.

“Listen to me, son. I want you to wait here. I’m going down to your cabin to find mother and bring her back up.”

“I want to come with you.” Russell felt panicky at the thought of being left alone.

“No, son, it’s too dark and crowded. I might lose you.” Russell heard the firmness in his father’s voice and knew the decision was final.

“Now, this is important. If the lifeboats are ready before I get back, I want you to go ahead and get in. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Daddy.” Russell wondered what had happened to change his life so suddenly. He wished he could go back to this afternoon when he happily explored the ship. Maybe he could have made things turn out differently.

He watched his father push his way back down the stairs and disappear into the crowd. Standing on the stairway surrounded by dozens of people, Russell Park had never felt more alone in his life.

In our next blog: Will Russell be able to leave Athenia with his parents?

Image of SS Athenia courtesy http://www.39-45war.com/athenia/

Read the whole story!  Visit my website and read the past blog posts.

Russell Park’s SS Athenia Adventure Part 4: Russell Explores a Lifeboat!

The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder's model of the ship...

The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder’s model of the ship*

Sunday Afternoon, September 3, 1939

Dressed in an old, olive-drab sweater, short brown trousers and sneakers, Russell climbed the stairs to the open Tourist class area at the stern of the Promenade deck. He had spent more than an hour walking the cramped Third class cabin passageways, wandering the busy lounge and empty dining saloons on C deck, and poking into the barber shop, beauty salon, and ship’s printing facility. His hands and knees were grimy with the oily dust of the spare anchors he had found and explored on B deck in a chain locker near Athenia’s stern.

Some people stood at the Promenade deck’s railing gazing at heavy, round-shouldered clouds scudding toward the expansive blue horizon. Others sat in chairs napping or reading in the shade of the wide covered galleries that ran along each side of the deck’s central structure. Mothers sat on blankets on the deck and watched their children play. Russell thought all the activity would distract the adults from his explorations. He saw the canvas covers had been removed from the set of lifeboats near the stairs and noted the top lifeboat had been lifted high enough on its davits to allow access to the lower boat, which sat on the deck.

Russell strolled over to the boat for a closer look at its white clapboard hull and the looping rope grab lines that hung in small semi-circles from its polished brown gunwales. He climbed through the railing that separated the passenger space from the lifeboats and peered over the side of the lower boat. A bench ran all the way around the inside of the lifeboat’s hull. Across the central opening there were four wide cross-benches where he knew the oarsmen would sit. After a casual glance over his shoulder, he boosted himself up, put his foot on a grab line loop, and climbed over the gunwale into the boat.

Crouched on the lattice decking in the bottom of the lifeboat, he listened for footsteps that might indicate he had been seen. When he heard no worrisome noises he began to look around. In the bottom of the boat he found six sets of oars, each oar twice as long as he was tall. Russell thought at least two men would be needed to handle such a big oar. He found several coiled ropes, bottles of water, a box marked “Condensed Milk” and a curious looking bucket with a handle on one side. Best of all, however, was a latched box marked “Flares.” Inside the box he found several eight-inch long red cylinders that he knew, when ignited, burned bright enough to illuminate the night. But he easily imagined they could be sticks of dynamite and saw himself commanding this little vessel, sneaking up on a large sailing ship and forcing its surrender by threatening to toss one of his lighted dynamite sticks aboard.

“What’s down there?” a voice asked.

Russell looked up to see a boy’s blue eyes peering at him from under a mop of red hair. He had no idea how long the boy had been watching him, but he was certain to attract some adult’s attention at any moment.

“There’s some really good stuff here,” he said. “Climb in.”

The boy responded without hesitation, throwing a leg over the gunwale and rolling quickly into the boat. He appeared to be a year or two younger than Russell and said his name was Billy.

“Did anyone see you?”

“I don’t think so,” Billy said.

“Good.” Russell directed Billy’s attention to the flares, handing one of the cylinders to the boy, who hefted its weight with both hands.

“It’s a stick of dynamite,” Russell said. Billy’s eyes grew wide and he thrust the cylinder back toward Russell.

“No, no. I’m kidding.  It’s really just a flare.”

“What’s a flare?” The boy still appeared apprehensive about the object in his hand.

Russell was about to explain how a flare worked when he heard a woman’s voice call out in a peevish tone.

“Billy, what are you doing in there?”

“Nothing, Mum,” Billy said, rolling his eyes skyward.

“Come out of there this instant.”

Russell quickly replaced the flare in its box, and the two boys climbed out of the lifeboat. After introducing himself to Billy’s mother, Russell suggested he and his new friend might walk partway up the starboard gallery and look for other ships at sea. Minutes later the boys stood in the covered gallery where the sign on a rope across the walkway indicated the space beyond was reserved for Cabin class passengers. They stopped to look out at the broad expanse of ocean, but there was no sign of another ship.

“I bet we could see more from the top deck,” Russell said.

“But we can’t go up there.”

“Sure we can. They won’t mind.” Russell slipped under the rope and continued forward a few paces before he realized Billy wasn’t with him. “Come on,” he said, “we’ll only be up there a few minutes and we’ll come right back.” With a quick glance over his shoulder, Billy bent under the rope and caught up with Russell. They walked past several seated adults who paid no attention to them. At the end of the gallery, they climbed the outside stairway to the Boat deck.

Adults talked or dozed in their deck chairs, taking no notice of the two boys. The view between the lifeboats presented a wide horizon in all directions. A bright afternoon sun slipped in and out of the clouds, while a stiff breeze tousled Russell’s brown hair as he squinted out across the rolling ocean. Looming above the boys was the black tower of Athenia’s lone smoke funnel wrapped in its single white stripe. The breeze carried the dark diesel exhaust over the portside and trailed it away in a long black ribbon.

Walking toward the ship’s stern, Russell spotted an unattended bowl of fresh fruit. He casually picked up an apple, took a big bite, and savored its firm, juicy flesh.

“Stop staring, Billy. The trick is to look like you belong.” Russell held the apple out to his friend. “Do you want a bite?” Billy shook his head. “Suit yourself, but it’s a really good apple.” They walked a few more steps before hearing an adult voice hail them.

“Are you boys supposed to be up here?” A white-coated steward carrying an armful of blankets walked toward them. Russell smiled at the man.

“We’re looking for other ships.”

“And what’s your stateroom number, laddie?” the steward asked.

“B-one seven five,” Russell answered innocently.

“You boys belong in Tourist class. This deck is for Cabin passengers only,” the steward said, his voice taking on a gruff edge. “Run along, now.”

“Thank you. Can we go that way?” Russell pointed toward the stern.

“Go on with ya,” the steward barked.

The boys walked quickly toward the stern of the Boat deck. Russell disposed of his half-eaten apple in a trash bin before they hurried down the external stair to the Tourist haven on the Promenade deck.

“Are we in trouble?” Billy looked worried, and Russell felt a pang of pity for his companion who seemed so ready for adventure but unsure how to handle it.

“No, that man won’t do anything. We left when he told us to, didn’t we? Besides, I’m not staying in B-one seven five.” Russell couldn’t tell if Billy’s expression was one of disbelief or admiration.

“I better go find my mum,” he said, backing away from Russell.

“We had fun, didn’t we?”

Billy nodded and a smile grew across his freckled cheeks before he turned to leave.

“See you tomorrow,” Russell called, but Billy had disappeared into the crowd.

A few minutes later, Russell found space on the Number 5 hatch cover where several people were sunning themselves. He stretched out with his hands behind his head. It had been a fine, adventurous afternoon, he thought. Russell hadn’t found the five-million-dollar strong box, but a sense of accomplishment enveloped him as he watched the clouds blow across the bright blue sky.

* Sunday morning, two full days after the German Army invaded Poland, England declared war on Germany (see blog post March 30, 2017). Though not unexpected, the news stunned many Athenia’s passengers, including young Russell Park’s mother. By early afternoon, however, consensus began to form that the ship had sailed beyond the reach of the new war, and Russell’s father agreed to let him explore the ship on his own.

* * *

In our next blog: Russell’s world turns upside down.

www.thomascsanger.com

*Builder’s model is located in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, Scotland

 

The Story of Russell Park and the SS Athenia Continues* Part 3

war-headline2

Sunday Morning, September 3, 1939

With the conclusion of Father Joseph O’Connor’s Holy Mass for several dozen Catholics aboard Athenia, Russell was on his feet. The morning service had seemed interminable as he sat with his mother, Rebecca, and the other worshipers in the ornately domed Tourist class smoking lounge on the Promenade deck. The combination of the ship’s motion and the room’s warm, still air made his stomach feel funny, and he did not want to be sick. His mother, Rebecca, finally relented after he had pleaded his case for nearly twenty-four hours. Russell would be able to explore the ship after lunch.

“Don’t go running off yet, young man,” Rebecca said. “We’re meeting your father for lunch.”

“I know.” Russell managed a smile and imagined he felt better now he was moving.

On their way down to the Tourist class dining saloon, Russell saw a group of people in the passageway on A deck looking at something on the wood-paneled wall. A low, anxious murmur filled the hall as a few individuals ran to join the group, while others walked away looking worried and unhappy.

“What is it?” Rebecca asked an older woman coming away from the growing crowd.

“England’s at war with Germany. The prime minister announced it this morning,” she said. Russell saw tears in the woman’s eyes.

“Oh no,” Rebecca said. She squeezed Russell’s hand, but did not start down the stairs.

“What do we do now?” Russell asked. His mother didn’t answer. She seemed rooted to the carpet.

“Mom?” Rebecca stared straight ahead. She looked worried and that concerned Russell. “Mom!”

“What?” she said, finally looking at him.

“Do we have to go back to England?”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure. Let’s find your father, he’ll probably know more.”

* * *

The Tourist Dining Saloon was not crowded for the midday meal; several tables sat unoccupied, their crisp, snowy linens and gleaming place settings abandoned. The Parks occupied three seats at the end of a rectangular table for eight. An older woman at the opposite end was the only other diner at their table. Russell sensed a somber mood in the room’s subdued conversations, and he feared it would make his parents even more cautious than usual.

He knew his mother and father were older than the parents of other boys his age, and he sometimes wondered if that was the reason for their caution. His father never joined in when other dads played ball with their sons on the street in front of their house. While Russell didn’t care much for sports, he often wished that he and his father shared an activity the other boys would admire, like big game hunting or stunt flying. His mother always kept a close eye on him and constantly warned Russell to be careful, even when he wasn’t doing anything dangerous. He thought her caution resulted from what his father called “her delicate health,” which could keep her bedridden for weeks at a time.

As they waited for their lunches, Russell’s father, Alexander, admitted he didn’t know much more about the morning’s announcement, although he seemed confident Athenia would continue on to Canada rather than sail back to England. When lunch arrived, Russell’s mother picked lightly at her food, saying she didn’t feel hungry. Russell hoped to counter the mood by cleaning his plate in a show of vitality he hoped would convince his parents to let him explore the ship as promised. But when Rebecca raised the subject with her husband, Russell realized she was wavering. He adopted his most fervent tone in hopes of saving his afternoon exploration.

“But mom, if they’re not going to turn the ship around they must not be worried. I’ll be real careful.”

“I’m not worried about you being careful,” she said. “I’m worried about something happening to the ship and not knowing where you are.”

“Okay, I know where our room is. I can come back right away to meet you if anything happens. Please…”  He knew if he had enough time, he could wear his mother down, but that could take the rest of the day and he was eager to get started.

“I don’t think there’s much danger of anything happening, dear,” Alexander said. “It’s broad daylight and we are obviously a passenger ship, not a wartime target. Besides, a state of war has only just been declared. The Germans probably aren’t even in a position to attack at this point.”

Rebecca looked tired, and when she spoke, Russell heard a note of resignation in her voice that meant he’d won his case.

“Before I would let you go anywhere on this ship, you’re coming with me back to the cabin to change into your oldest clothes.”

Russell nodded enthusiastically.

“And you would have to promise me two things. First, that you won’t bother any other passengers. And second, that you won’t go anywhere you are not permitted.”

“I promise.” He certainly didn’t plan to bother anyone, and he had no intention of breaking his promise. But going where he wasn’t permitted ran counter to what explorers did.

* * *

war-headline

 

*While Athenia sat at anchor Saturday, Sept. 2, 1939, in Liverpool’s Mersey River (see blog post March 15, 2017), 546 passengers boarded the ship before she sailed for Canada late that afternoon. The German army had marched into Poland Sept. 1, but despite an Anglo-French agreement to come to Poland’s defense, neither country had taken any action by early Sunday morning.

In our next blog: Russell makes a new friend.

 

Russell Park on the SS Athenia: Part 2

 

WW2 Barrage Balloons

WW2 Barrage Balloons

Saturday Morning, September 2, 1939

A gray overcast held off the early morning sun as Athenia made her way slowly up the Mersey River into Liverpool. Russell and his father, Alexander, leaned on the portside railing where they anticipated having a good view of the action when the liner tied up at the Albert Docks. Russell’s mother, Rebecca, had decided to remain in bed to nurse an upset stomach.

Instead of heading for the docks, the liner came to a stop and dropped anchor a few minutes past seven a.m. in the middle of the river. Russell hardly noticed the unexpected anchoring. He was intrigued by something he had never seen before. Floating on long tethers high above the city were dozens of floppy silver balloons the size of school buses, with two fins on either side of a tapered tail. To Russell, it looked as if the circus had come to town.

“They’re barrage balloons,” his father explained.

“Can people go up in them?”

“Oh no, Russ, they’re to protect the city from bombers, in case England goes to war with Germany.”

“Do the bombs bounce off of them?” Russell thought that might be an interesting sight.

“Nope. If the enemy planes come in low to drop their bombs they’ll be tangled up in the balloon cables and crash. That means they have to fly higher, where the English anti-aircraft gunners can shoot them down.”

“Wow, the German bombers don’t stand a chance, do they?”

“There you are.” A familiar voice interrupted Alexander’s response.

Russell and his dad turned to see Father O’Connor strolling toward them, a white clerical collar visible above the leather buttons of his dark cardigan sweater. They exchanged greetings and learned the priest and his father were staying in a Third class cabin on D deck, four decks below, sharing a small cabin with two other men who were German refugees and spoke no English.

“Dad’s sound asleep, so I decided to see if I could find you,” O’Connor said. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” The priest nodded in the direction of the large balloons.

“A sad one, I’m afraid, Father,” Alexander said. “Now Hitler’s marched into Poland, war seems unavoidable.” Russell turned his attention back to the balloons, but kept an ear cocked to the adults’ conversation.

“Such a tragedy,” O’Connor agreed. “I can’t understand how Hitler can be so blind to his own ambition that he’s willing to plunge Europe into another war.”

“I just hope we can stay out of it.”

“I agree. When you look at what happened in Spain, I’m afraid there’ll be little distinction between soldiers and civilians in the next war.”

“Maybe we should change the subject, Father.”

With a pause in the conversation, Russell shifted his attention to the hazy Liverpool skyline and the big gray building on the shore directly across from the ship. Two reddish stone towers, one facing the river and one at the opposite end of the building, rose above the rest of the structure. A large, greenish-gray statue of a bird with its wings outstretched topped each tower. Apparently Father O’Connor noticed them as well.

“You see the two birds on the building over there?” O’Connor asked Russell’s father. “Do you know how to tell if they are male or female?”

“Can’t say as I do, but I have a feeling you know.” Russell could almost hear a smile in his father’s voice.

“As a matter of fact, I do. The one facing us, looking out to the river, that’s a female. She’s looking to see if her boyfriend is coming in on the next ship. The bird looking away from us, toward Liverpool?  He’s a male.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because he’s looking to see if the pubs are open yet.”

“Sounds like a very sensible bird,” Alexander chuckled.

“There’s another local legend about those birds, but it’s not appropriate for young ears.”

Russell kept his gaze on the building and the balloons, hoping for further discussion of the subject in spite of his young ears. But after a moment of silence, his father introduced a new subject, one that didn’t involve the legend of the birds.

“I heard last night that we’re carrying five million pounds sterling in gold bars. A fellow in the lounge told me he saw the steel boxes come aboard under guard in Glasgow. I asked him how he knew what was in the boxes, but he claimed it was common knowledge on board.”

“Well, I heard something last night, too, but I have some trouble believing it,” O’Connor said. “A couple of people told me the crew has never been to sea before. They said the regular crew had all been mobilized by the Royal Navy.”

“That doesn’t make much sense, Alexander said. “A ship this size isn’t going anywhere without experienced seamen aboard.”  After a brief pause, Russell heard his dad speak again.

“I’m afraid we have to go, Father, before we miss our breakfast. You’re welcome to join us if you think your collar will let you into the Tourist dining saloon.”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll head back downstairs and check on dad. Give my regards to Rebecca.”  With a wink and a wave, the priest headed for the stairway.

“Are we really carrying five million dollars of gold?” Russell asked.

“Not dollars, son. They’re British pounds, and I don’t know. But if I were you, I wouldn’t go looking for it.” His father’s comment raised Russell’s hopes that he still might be allowed to explore the ship on his own, and it started him thinking: How big would steel boxes have to be to hold five million dollars in gold bars?

*In Part 1 of Russell Park’s story (see blog post Feb. 28, 2017), 11-year-old Russell and his parents boarded the British passenger liner Athenia in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the evening of Sept, 1, 1939. Overnight, Athenia sailed back across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, England, her last port of call before sailing for Canada.

In our next blog: Events threaten Russell’s plans to explore Athenia.  

11 Year Old Russell Park Boards the SS Athenia: Pt 1

Russel Park and Parents

After researching and writing my forthcoming World War 2 historical novel, Without Warning, I made several manuscript revisions to sharpen its focus and pacing. The book is fiction but based on actual people and events related to the sinking of the British passenger ship, Athenia, at the start of the war. Revising a manuscript can involve painful decisions regarding what to delete. The most difficult part of this process for me was deciding to cut Russell Park, one of the book’s characters, from the final draft. Happily, Russell doesn’t have to be lost, thanks to this blog. What follows is the first of a 13-part series featuring my fictional account of Russell’s experiences as he lived through the first hours and weeks of World War 2.

* * *

Friday Evening, September 1, 1939

A cold, wet evening breeze swirled around the broad-beamed tender ferrying more than a hundred passengers to the ocean liner Athenia, laying at anchor in the wide bay east of Belfast Harbor. Eleven-year-old Russell Park stood at a crowded window in the tender’s lounge, looking past the droplets of mist on the glass for his first glimpse of the big ship they soon would board.

Russell and his parents, Alexander and Rebecca Park, had spent three weeks visiting relatives in Ireland. Like many other Americans vacationing in the British Isles, their plans were altered by the growing threat of war on the Continent. Russell understood war concerns had something to do with changing the ship they would sail back to America. The new ship would take them to Canada instead of New York City, and from there they would take a train home to Philadelphia. His father wasn’t happy with the change because it would cost him a few extra days away from his job at the Navy Yard, but Russell thought it all sounded like a great adventure.

“See anything yet, Russ?” his father asked.

“Nothing.”

“Come here a minute.” Russell turned to see his father patting an empty seat next to him. The boy sighed in anticipation of another lecture about not bothering people, one his mother had delivered an hour earlier when his father was checking their luggage onto the passenger tender. Nevertheless, he dutifully took the seat next to his father.

“We’re going to be on a very crowded ship when we sail for home tomorrow,” Alexander said. Russell nodded to show he was paying attention. “I want you to promise me that you won’t go running off on one of your explorations before checking with me or your mother. I’m not worried about you getting lost. I’m worried about you being a nuisance. A lot of people are concerned about what’s happening on the Continent right now and they won’t have much patience with a boy poking around where he doesn’t belong, even a boy with your innocent round face.”

Russell allowed himself a brief smile.

“I mean it, Russell.” Alexander was not a big man, but he wore very thick glasses that magnified his eyes, and when those eyes narrowed, as they were now, Russell knew a smart remark or sideways glance would deny him one of his favorite activities, to explore a new location on his own.

“Yes sir,” he said with all the sincerity he could muster.

“Okay.” His father’s baleful gaze eased and his voice moderated. “I want you to stay close to us tonight. We need to sort out our accommodations and see what’s happening.  Tomorrow there will be hundreds more passengers coming aboard and a lot of confusion. But maybe Sunday, when things have settled down, we’ll see if you can have some time to explore.”

“Thank you, daddy.”

“All right, young man, back to your lookout post.”

When he reclaimed his place at the window, Russell spotted a long gray cloud hanging above the water in the distance. The cloud gradually formed itself into the superstructure of a ship. He could barely distinguish the ship’s big black hull against the dark headland beyond. It had to be the Athenia, but something about its appearance disturbed Russell.

A few minutes later, standing on the deck of the tender with his parents, Russell realized he could not see any light from Athenia’s portholes.

“Dad, there are no lights on. Is something wrong?”

“I don’t think so, Russ.” Alexander said. “The ship’s probably blacked out. I’m sure the lights are on inside.”

“Why is it blacked out?”

“It’s probably just a precaution. Don’t worry about it, son.”

He wanted to ask if the precaution had anything to do with the war, but his father didn’t sound eager to discuss it. Holding his mother’s hand at her insistence, Russell crossed from the bobbing tender to a platform attached to Athenia’s hull. As they climbed a stairway up the side of the ship to an opening in its hull, Russell peered into the nearby portholes but saw no trace of light.

When they entered the side of the ship through heavy curtains, however, Russell found himself in a brightly lit passageway. A man in an official-looking blue jacket checked their embarkation card and began talking with his father.

“Hello there, young man.” Russell looked up at the sound of a familiar voice to see the smiling face of a youthful priest in a black suit and shirt with a white clerical collar.

“Father O’Connor,” Russell cried. “Are you on this ship?”

“I certainly am.” The Parks had become friends with Father Joseph O’Connor when they met on the ship sailing from America to Ireland a few weeks earlier and realized they shared a Philadelphia connection. Russell turned to tap his father’s arm.

“Dad, its Father O’Connor.”

Alexander greeted the young priest with an enthusiastic handshake and they began a discussing their mutual travels in Ireland. Russell wanted to look around the ship and see how it was blacked out, but he knew he needed to stay with his parents.

“Dear, the steward is waiting to direct us to our cabins,” Rebecca said, interrupting her husband and the priest. They ended their discussion with a promise to meet tomorrow.

On the way to their cabin, Russell learned he and his mother would be in a different cabin from his father. Alexander explained the shipping company wanted to fit more people aboard, so four passengers were being assigned to every cabin.

“Is this because of the war?”

“I’m afraid so, son. It looks like everything is going to be more unsettled than we thought.” With a stern glance, his father added, “Just remember what I told you about staying close.”

As he lay in his bunk that evening, Russell worried the crowded conditions and concerns about war would cause his parents to be even more cautious than usual. Maybe the crossing to Canada would not be the grand adventure he had expected.

In our next blog: An amazing sight greets Russell in Liverpool.

This is the U-30 submarine commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp that attacked the SS Athenia
H.M.S. Bulldog (right) prepares a party to board U-110 before the submarine sinks. Photo credit: wwii-pows.mooseroots.com

Meet the Character: Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 7

What happened to Fritz-Julius Lemp?

On April 15, 1941, Kapitänleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp left the German submarine base in Lorient, France, in command of U-110. It was Lemp’s second patrol in his new boat (see blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 6,” Aug. 1, 2016). His first patrol had ended two weeks earlier without sinking a single ship.

Twelve days into his patrol, Lemp sank a small British freighter and received word a few days later of an allied convoy bound for Canada. No doubt thinking his luck had changed for the better, he rendezvoused with a second submarine the morning of May 9, ahead of the oncoming ships.

A full moon made the usual U-boat tactic of a nighttime surface attack more risky, and delaying the attack for more favorable conditions risked losing contact with the convoy. The two commanders agreed to make a submerged attack as soon as possible. As senior officer, the aggressive Lemp chose to attack first.

He was surprised to see an unusually large number of escorts accompanying the convoy but decided to attack anyway. After the escorts passed and the convoy was directly above, he came up to periscope depth, picked out his targets and fired four torpedoes. Two shots hit and sank two British cargo ships. The third torpedo damaged but didn’t sink its target and the fourth misfired.

Lemp’s crew readjusted the misfire, which had never left its tube, and he coolly prepared to attack his fourth target again. But U-110 had stayed at periscope depth too long. Three of the escorts, including the group flagship, H.M.S. Bulldog, detected the submarine and attacked.

The escorts’ depth-charges knocked out U-110’s electric motors and rudder. The boat’s stern took on water and started to sink. Leaks in the forward battery compartment began to generate chlorine gas. Amazingly, the submarine somehow surfaced on its own, possibly because a high-pressure air line had been ruptured and filled U-110’s tanks with air.

From the bridge atop the boat’s conning tower Lemp saw Bulldog and two other ships bearing down on him, intending to ram his boat. He ordered everyone to abandon ship immediately. With no time to set demolition charges, Lemp called for all vents to be opened to scuttle the boat.

Once in the water with his crew, Lemp realized U-110 wasn’t sinking. Coming to the same realization, the escort group commander aboard Bulldog called off the attack in favor of capturing the abandoned U-boat. If the British boarded his boat, Lemp knew they would recover the secret Enigma communications device and its code books, left behind on the sub in the crew’s haste to escape.

With an armed boarding party from Bulldog on its way to U-110, Lemp was seen attempting to swim back to the boat, apparently intending to open the valves. But before he could reach the submarine, Lemp mysteriously disappeared. Some German crewmen claimed he was shot by the boarding party as he swam for the submarine, a claim the British denied. Other crew members said they saw Lemp throw up his arms and sink below the surface, an apparent suicide.

It was an uncertain end to a storied naval career bookended by two monumental mistakes: sinking the passenger ship Athenia and allowing the Royal Navy to capture the Enigma machine, a major intelligence coup for the British.

Read more about Lemp Part 6

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Photo caption: An autographed photo of U-boat “ace” Fritz-Julius Lemp wearing his Knight’s Cross medal for valor. Photo credit: gmic.co.uk

Meet the Character: Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 6

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, the man who sank the British passenger liner Athenia, met with representatives of the German Naval High Command in Berlin during the final days of September, 1939. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 5,” July 15, 2016.) He had been ordered to explain his actions, which violated international law.

At 26 years old, Lemp was among the youngest commanders of the German submarine fleet, but he had a well-earned reputation for courage in battle. Some of that pluck must have accompanied his presentation to the High Command. The senior officers recommended against putting Lemp on trial, apparently accepting his explanation that he thought he was attacking a British armed merchant cruiser, a ship that would be a legitimate target.

A separate factor in Lemp’s favor may have been the German government’s month-long denial of any responsibility for sinking Athenia. Taking disciplinary action against the young U-boat captain might have risked revealing the truth and embarrassing the government. At the same time, it also could discourage bold action by other U-boat captains.

U-boat fleet commander Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz may have been pleased that his young captain had not suffered a humiliating punishment. After all, on his first war patrol Lemp had sunk two British cargo ships, rescued two British pilots, survived a punishing depth-charge attack and navigated his badly damaged ship more than 1,000 nautical miles back to its home port in Wilhelmshaven. Nevertheless, Dӧnitz ordered Lemp to be confined to quarters for several days because he had failed to properly identify Athenia as a passenger ship.

During this period, Dӧnitz apparently ordered that U-30’s daily log be altered to show the submarine was many miles away when Athenia was attacked Sept. 3, 1939. It would not be until the Nuremberg trials in 1947 that Dӧnitz would admit U-30’s responsibility for the attack. (See blog post “Nazi Denials,” July 1, 2014.)

Despite his initial setback, Lemp soon returned to active duty and began to carve out a distinguished naval career. He received a promotion to Kapitänleutnant Oct. 1, 1939, and sailed seven more war patrols in U-30, eventually sinking 17 ships and damaging two others.

The German Navy celebrated Lemp by publicizing his exploits as one of its “U-boat Aces,” rallying support for the war effort and glamorizing its “gallant” submarine commanders. At age 27 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest medal for valor, while on his final patrol in U-30.

In March 1941 Lemp, now 28, took command of U-110, a somewhat larger submarine than the Type VIIA U-boat he had commanded thus far in the war. U-110 was a faster boat and could sail twice as far as U-30 before having to refuel. As he contemplated his new command, Kapitänleutnant Lemp could not have known he had less than five weeks to live.

His story concludes in our next blog.

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A Royal Navy warship conducts a depth charge attack similar to the one endured by U-30 after attacking the British freighter Fanad Head. Photo credit: www.sfgate.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 5

The last thing a submarine commander wants to see in his periscope is the sight of two enemy destroyers bearing down on his position, but that is exactly what Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp saw immediately after sinking the British freighter Fanad Head, Sept. 14, 1939. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 4,” July 1, 2016.)

Lemp ordered a crash dive to 80 meters, but the first salvo of depth charges rocked U-30, causing leaks and damaging many of the boat’s instruments. Seeking to escape the deadly explosions, he eventually took his boat down to 144 meters (470 feet), close to its operating limit. U-30’s hull creaked ominously under the pressure and was constantly buffeted by the falling depth charges, but the boat held together. During this extended ordeal Lemp’s quiet self-control calmed his crew and further burnished his reputation for coolness under pressure.

Following the nine-and-a-half hour pounding and with U-30’s batteries running low, Lemp slowly brought his boat to the surface at 11 p.m. The submarine was battered and leaking water, but he managed to slip away under cover of darkness.

He had hoped to set a course for his base in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, but soon discovered the boat’s guidance controls had been damaged. He also realized his badly wounded crewman needed serious medical attention, so Lemp navigated by radio beacon to Reykjavik, Iceland. The neutral port allowed him a limited stay, but it was enough time to stop most of the leaks and make running repairs to assure the boat could submerge in an emergency.

Lemp also arranged for Machinist Mate Adolf Schmidt to enter a local hospital. Before doing so, however, he had Schmidt sign a statement under oath that he would not reveal to anyone the events of Sept. 3, 1939, the day U-30 fatally torpedoed the British passenger ship Athenia.

The next day, Sept. 20, U-30 left Reykjavik to begin a week-long journey home, navigating by the stars. Along the way, the U-boat dived several times to avoid detection whenever a plane or ship was spotted on the horizon. A few days into the journey one of the boat’s two diesel engines quit working. On his final approach, Lemp refused the offer of a tow from a German minesweeper and his boat limped into Wilhelmshaven under its own power the morning of Sept. 27. Waiting for him at dockside was U-boat fleet commander Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz. 

Lemp immediately told Dӧnitz he thought he sank Athenia. Accounts of the meeting ascribe various scathing remarks to the senior officer, but he likely suspected U-30’s involvement all along. Lemp explained the circumstances regarding the action and accepted that he had mistakenly identified the ship as an armed merchant cruiser. He also learned that for the past three weeks Germany had been denying responsibility for the attack because none of its ships reported any activity in the area where Athenia went down.

Dӧnitz ordered his young captain to go to Berlin and tell his story to the Naval High Command. As he boarded the plane the next day for the flight to Berlin, Lemp undoubtedly knew he faced a possible military trial for his actions. We will see the outcome in our next blog.

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View from the bridge of U-30 after the submarine stopped the British freighter Fanad Head, and before being attacked by Royal Navy aircraft. The figure in the white hat (center, back to camera) in most likely Fritz-Julius Lemp. Photo credit: dinger.byethost.com/fanad.htm.

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 4

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp caused an international uproar when he torpedoed and sank the British passenger ship Athenia, Sept. 3, 1939. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 3,” June 16, 2016.) Lemp’s action was forbidden by international treaty, and he did not report it to headquarters because he thought his radio transmission might give away his position to the enemy.

As a result, the German high command was caught by surprise the next day when word of the attack appeared the news. Absent any report of such action from its submarines in the North Atlantic, the German government immediately denied responsibility for the attack and blamed the sinking on the British, saying it was a ploy to rally world sentiment against Germany. The British, meanwhile, produced witnesses who had seen the submarine and accused Germany of ignoring the treaty and waging unrestricted submarine warfare.

The young German U-boat commander was unaware of this raging propaganda battle. There is no way to know what Lemp was thinking about his colossal mistake, but he dutifully observed the rules of submarine warfare for the remainder of U-30’s combat patrol.

A week after sinking Athenia, Lemp torpedoed and sank the British freighter Blairlogie while observing all the appropriate protocols, even staying with Blairlogie’s lifeboats until dawn, Sept. 11, when the crew was rescued by an American ship. 

Three days later, he chased down another British freighter, Fanad Head, and sent a boarding party to the ship as her crew got off in lifeboats. While the party was aboard the freighter, Lemp was surprised by two Royal Navy planes from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. Fanad Head had radioed its situation, giving the Royal Navy time to scramble the planes and send three destroyers racing to her location.

Temporarily abandoning his boarding party, Lemp quickly submerged to save his boat from the air attack. In their haste, the planes flew so close to the water when dropping their bombs debris from the explosions caused them to crash. The pilots survived and swam to the freighter, where the German boarding party pulled them from the water.

Concerned about further attacks from the sky but wanting to rescue his boarding party, Lemp surfaced U-30 next to Fanad Head and accidentally ran his bow into the freighter’s hull. In quick succession he learned that three Royal Navy destroyers were bearing down on them from the opposite side of the freighter, a member of his boarding party had been seriously wounded and his men had rescued two British pilots.

Lemp brought his crewmen and the British pilots aboard U-30 and submerged. Because of the damage to his bow, he launched a torpedo from his boat’s stern tube and sank Fanad Head with this single blow.

As the freighter disappeared, however, he saw the British destroyers closing in quickly and ordered U-30 down to a depth of 80 meters (260 feet). Waiting silently in the deep, Lemp and his crew had no idea what to expect from their first sustained depth charge attack.

More in our next blog.