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

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.

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.

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.

British liner Athenia rides low in the water 14 hours after being torpedoed by U-30. She sank shortly after this photo was taken. Photo credit: ww2today.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 3

Having torpedoed the first British ship of World War 2, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp brought his submarine, U-30, to the surface after nightfall, Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, to take a closer look at his victim. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 2,” June 1, 2016.) He saw the ship in distress, dead in the water, its stern riding low and listing six degrees to port. On deck, its crew busily lowered lifeboats into the water.

At some point during his observations, Lemp decided the ship was not sinking fast enough and ordered another torpedo to finish the job. At the same time, he received a note from U-30’s radio operator that a ship identified as Athenia had begun sending a distress signal that she had been torpedoed and was sinking fast.

The third torpedo proved to be a misfire and it is possible Lemp called out the gun crew to sink the ship with the U-boat’s 88mm. deck gun. (Details of Lemp’s attack were lost when his war log was altered.) Assuming Athenia was the name of his victim, he left the bridge to consult his copy of the Lloyds Register of Ships and determine her tonnage. At that moment, Lemp supposedly discovered he had torpedoed a passenger ship, an act forbidden by the international treaty Germany had signed in 1936.

Today, the question remains whether Lemp knew he was attacking a passenger ship when he fired that first torpedo. By all accounts, he was a capable commander, courageous and cool under pressure, but he also had a reputation for pushing the envelope. With such scant details of his personality, it’s possible to attribute his behavior to a variety of motivations.

Perhaps Lemp thought he was doing the unspoken bidding of his U-boat fleet commander, Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz, who considered the international treaty governing submarine warfare to be unworkable because it required submarines to warn merchant ships before they attacked.

Striking ships without warning maximized the U-boat’s effectiveness and could help neutralize the Royal Navy’s significant superiority over Germany on the high seas. Sinking a passenger ship would show just how implacable an enemy Nazi Germany intended to be.

On the other hand, Lemp, who was one of the younger U-boat captains, may have been eager to prove himself in the eyes of the fleet’s more experienced commanders and, thus, took the ill-advised shot. U-30 crew members who survived the war claimed that Lemp was shocked when he learned he had struck a passenger liner. He apparently ceased his attack with the deck gun and left the scene without reporting his actions to U-boat headquarters or revealing his presence by offering to aid survivors.

While the evidence is circumstantial it seems to point to Lemp’s having made a mistake when he attacked Athenia, most likely thinking he was firing on an armed merchant cruiser.

The war with England was only nine hours old and this young U-boat commander had committed a colossal blunder. But his war patrol would last another three weeks, time enough for Lemp to redeem himself, as we will see in our next blog.

Pre-war photo of U-30, commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp. Photo credit: u-historia.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 2

On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 3, 1939, the German submarine U-30 sailed into its combat patrol area in the northernmost reaches of the sea lanes leading into and out of the British Isles. U-30 was commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, a young but well-respected U-boat captain (see blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 1,” May 14, 2016).

Two hours earlier Lemp had learned of the declaration of war between Germany and England. He understood from his commanders he was not to attack Royal Navy ships in order to avoid embarrassing the British at the outset of hostilities when there still might be a chance to reach a peace agreement. Lemp’s principal targets were to be cargo ships.

Attacks on merchant shipping were governed by complicated “prize rules” established by international treaties. If Lemp discovered a British merchantman sailing without naval escort, he had to surface to give warning before attacking. Once the ship stopped he was required to board the vessel to determine if she carried any war material. If contraband was found, the rules allowed him to sink the ship, but only after its crewmen were safely away in lifeboats. Passenger ships could not be attacked under any circumstance.

The rules were further complicated by the British practice of outfitting some merchant ships with naval guns. These “armed merchant cruisers” would assist Royal Navy warships in patrolling Britain’s shipping lanes. A few cargo ships were turned into so-called “Q-ships,” merchantmen with their guns hidden from view. Any unsuspecting U-boat that came to the surface to give warning with intent to board such a ship would quickly become the prey instead of the hunter.

Shortly after entering his combat zone that Sunday afternoon Lemp spotted a large freighter and gave chase. He broke off the chase, however, when he discovered the ship was from Norway, a neutral country, and thus immune from attack. After several hours of fruitless searching U-30’s lookouts spotted a large ship on the northeastern horizon, sailing alone and heading west. Lemp put his boat on a course to intersect the mystery ship and the two slowly converged over the next three hours.

To avoid detection, U-30 submerged shortly before sunset at 7 p.m. Although Lemp hadn’t been able to determine the ship’s nationality, he may have suspected she was a merchant cruiser. The ship was sailing well north of the merchant shipping lanes, proceeding in an evasive zigzag pattern and was blacked out to avoid detection at night.

With darkness falling and the big ship now only about 1,500 yards away, Lemp decided to attack and likely fired at least two torpedoes. His first shot was the only one to hit home, but it proved to be fatal. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Lemp had become a footnote of history – the man who commanded the first successful U-boat attack on a British ship in World War 2.

Unfortunately the ship he had struck was the passenger liner TSS Athenia, exactly the type of ship he was forbidden to attack under international law.

Lemp’s story continues in our next blog.

Fritz-Julius Lemp, commander of U-30. Photo credit: alchetron.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 1

Of all the characters I researched for my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning, Fritz-Julius Lemp was the most enigmatic. Lemp commanded the German submarine that sank the first ship in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War 2. His attack on the British passenger liner Athenia is the central event of the novel, which is told through the experiences of eight characters, including Lemp.

Who was he, and why did he loose the fatal torpedo when he had strict orders not to attack unescorted passenger ships?

Trying to answer these questions proved largely futile, although I gained tantalizing glimpses through the accounts of a few sailors who served with him and from histories of the German U-boat war.

Lemp was born Feb. 19, 1913, in Tsingtau, China. The port city was the administrative center of a 200-square-mile concession Germany leased from China in 1898. His father was a junior ranking Army officer, who returned to Germany with his wife and young son before Tsingtau fell to the Japanese at the start of World War 1 in 1914.

There is little record of Lemp during his formative years in Germany, although he would have grown up during a time of great social unrest and economic hyper-inflation. At age 18 he carried on what may have been a family military tradition by joining the German Navy as an officer trainee.

In 1935 he became a full-fledged naval officer (Leutnant zur See), and a year later volunteered for U-boat service. At the time, the Unterseeboot Fleet was made up entirely of volunteers, a condition established by the fleet commander, Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz, in an effort to create an elite force. Lemp attended submarine school and served a tour of duty as a watch officer aboard U-28, before undergoing further schooling to qualify for command of a U-boat.

At the relatively young age of 25, Lemp, now holding the rank of Oberleutnant, was given command of U-30 in November, 1938. Some months later, he experienced a defining moment in his young career when U-30 collided with another submarine during submerged maneuvers. His quick thinking and cool execution of emergency procedures were credited with saving his boat and the 42 men aboard. It is not clear exactly what happened or who, if anyone, might have been a fault. But from that day forward, Lemp enjoyed the complete confidence of the officers and men sailing with him.

When the German Army invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, nearly all of Germany’s ocean-going U-boats were poised for attack in designated waiting zones beyond the shipping lanes into and out of Great Britain. Three times the previous year the U-boat fleet had been similarly deployed in anticipation of possible hostilities with England, but each time conflict was avoided and the fleet had been recalled.

In the early afternoon of Sept. 3, word was flashed to all German armed forces that England and Germany were at war once again, 21 years after the end of World War 1. It would prove to be the first day of the brief, but momentous combat career of Fritz-Julius Lemp.

His story continues in our next blog.

Spirydon Kucharczuk’s wife and three youngest children were aboard the lifeboat accidentally sunk during rescue operations. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 5

Like many other families, the Kucharczuks suffered an agonizing wait to discover the fate of loved ones aboard the British passenger liner Athenia after it was torpedoed by a German submarine, Sept. 3, 1939. Five different ships were involved in the rescue operations and survivors were taken to three different ports. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4;” March 1, 2016.)

Because more than 90 percent of the passenger and crew survived the attack, reports of tearful reunions filled newspapers in Britain, Canada and America for nearly two weeks as loved ones were reunited. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), who had saved his oldest daughter and was reunited with his oldest son in Glasgow, Scotland, waited several more days for word of the rest on his family. The news, when it came, was devastating. His wife Ewdokia, 40, sons Stefan, 15, and Jakeb, 2, and daughter Aleksandra, 8, did not survive a lifeboat accident. They were listed among the 112 people who died as a result of the U-boat attack.

After absorbing this unspeakable shock, Spirydon decided to continue with his original plan and immigrate to Canada. He obtained new travel documents and arrived in Canada in October, 1939, with his son Jan, 20, and daughter Neonela, 18. They spent the winter with Ewdokia’s sister and brother-in-law. In their newly adopted country they changed the spelling of their last name to Kucharchuk, dropping the “z,” and anglicized their first names: Spirydon to Steve, Jan to John, and Neonela to Nina.

The next year, Steve traveled west to Alberta Province to stay with his step-brother and look for suitable land for a farm. With loans from relatives and generous terms from the seller, he bought a parcel of land that had been homesteaded in 1912. Slowly over several years, they began to make the farm pay, but life wasn’t easy. Money was always tight and the Kucharchuks had to adjust to a new climate, new crops, new culture and a new language.

Nina married in 1941 and had two children over the next few years. But tragedy struck their family again in 1946 when Nina’s husband was killed in a truck accident. In January, 1948, Nina married Walter Chwedoruk and their marriage lasted until his death in 1998.

John Kucharchuk worked the family’s farm until 1946, when he purchased a sawmill that became the foundation of his successful business. When logging played out in one area, John moved the mill to another center of logging activity. In 1953, John married and moved to Edmonton, where the couple had two children.

Steve also married in 1953, sold his farm and moved to Edmonton. He loved visiting his grandchildren and often helped out on Nina and Walter’s farm. After his wife died in 1975, Steve lived alone until he became ill with cancer. Nina took him to her house, where he passed away in 1977. John died in 2008 and Nina died two years later.

Neonela Kucharczuk was rescued by her father after their lifeboat sank. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4

Few experienced sailors have ever found themselves in the predicament that Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck) faced in the hours before dawn on the morning of Sept. 4, 1939. A Polish farmer immigrating to Canada with his family, Spirydon floated with his daughter on a piece of wreckage alone in the north Atlantic, 250 northwest of Ireland. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 3;” Feb. 15, 2016.)

The prospects for their rescue could not have appeared encouraging in those dark hours.

Spirydon, his wife and five children had been aboard the passenger ship Athenia when it was torpedoed by a German submarine shortly after sunset the previous evening. Although the oldest son had gone missing, the remaining six family members were able to leave the ship in the same lifeboat. Six hours later, as they waited to be taken aboard the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson during rescue operations, their lifeboat was accidentally caught in the big ship’s propellers and chopped to pieces.

Amid the chaos of thrashing bodies in the water, Spirydon somehow found his oldest daughter, Neonela, but could not locate any other family members. Father and daughter struggled onto a small piece of wreckage from the lifeboat, but when other panicked survivors in the water threatened to swamp them, Spirydon managed to push himself and his daughter far beyond their reach, but also well beyond any chance of rescue.

Alone in the dark, cold ocean, worried about the fate of his wife and three youngest children, and with no means to signal for help, it’s hard to imagine what Spirydon must have been thinking.

The Kucharczuk family stories don’t include any comments from Spirydon or Neonela describing these events. As a result, there are no details of their miraculous rescue, most likely by one of the Royal Navy destroyers, Escort or Electra, which conducted a thorough search of the area after sunrise on the morning of Sept. 4.

In any case, they were returned to Glasgow, Scotland, and Neonela was hospitalized for several days while she recovered from her exposure to the elements. During this period, Spirydon was reunited with his son, Jan, who had been rescued by the Knute Nelson and taken to Galway, Ireland.

Jan later explained that he had seen a newspaper article in Galway that listed survivors taken to Glasgow, and it included the names “N. Kucharczuk” and “S. Kucharczuk.” He assumed S. Kucharczuk was his brother Stefan, who was a very good swimmer, and was surprised to learn that it was his father.

With a small Kucharczuk family nucleus thus reunited, Spirydon and his two oldest children anxiously awaited word of the rest of the family. Unfortunately, wartime communications restrictions and the fact that 236 survivors were bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, caused agonizing delays in efforts to compile a definitive survivors list.

The story concludes in our next blog.