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.