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.

Jan Kucharczuk, the family’s oldest son, went missing when the rest of the family boarded their lifeboat. Photo credit: Family passport photo

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 3

In the last week of August, 1939, the seven members of the Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck) family made their way from eastern Poland to Liverpool, part of a growing tide of immigrants seeking to escape Nazi Germany’s expansion and the threat of war it posed. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 2;” Feb. 1, 2016.)

There is no information about how the family traveled to England or how they spent their three days in Liverpool before boarding Athenia Saturday afternoon, Sept. 2, along with 539 other passengers. Accompanying the family’s patriarch, 41-year-old Spirydon, was his wife Ewdokia, age 40; son Jan, 20; daughter Neonela, 18; son Stefan, 15; daughter Aleksandra, 8, and son Jakeb, 2.

A little more than 24 hours later, at 7:39 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 3, all of Spirydon’s careful planning to move his family to Canada came crashing down when a German submarine torpedoed Athenia. With the signal to abandon ship, Jan somehow was separated from the rest of the family and did not appear at their lifeboat muster station.

Despite the protocol that required women and children to be taken off the ship first, the Kucharczuks managed to leave Athenia together, but without Jan. They apparently boarded Lifeboat 5A, launched on the starboard side of the ship and spent five or six hours in the boat before they were able to approach the large Norwegian cargo ship, Knute Nelson, the first rescue ship to arrive on the scene.

The Nelson had been on its way to Central America to pick up a cargo and was empty except for the ballast she carried to aid the ship’s stability. As a result she was riding high in the water, a factor that would have a tragic consequence during rescue operations.

When Lifeboat 5A approached the ship, likely sometime around 3 a.m., Sept. 4, three or four boats were lined up along the cargo ship’s hull, waiting for the chance to disembark their passengers at the base of a gangway deployed up the side Nelson’s hull. The ship’s sailors at first seemed reluctant for Boat 5A to fall into place behind the others, but eventually threw down a line to be tied off at the lifeboat’s bow. Boat 5A was the last in line and closest to Nelson’s stern. With rescue now at hand, everyone in the lifeboat relaxed.

Moments later the big ship unexpectedly started forward. The line to Boat 5A snapped and the boat was drawn into the vortex of the ship’s propellers churning inches below the water’s surface. The starboard propeller ripped through the bottom of the lifeboat, shattering its wooden hull and throwing its passengers into the ocean.

Spirydon fought his way to the surface of the water and called for his wife and children, his cries blending with the screams of others in the water. Almost immediately he found his oldest daughter, Neonela, who seemed injured and disoriented. They clung to a small piece of wreckage from the lifeboat. He called again and again to his wife and other children but there was no response. When other survivors tried to join Spirydon and Neonela, he feared their makeshift raft would be swamped and he made the painful decision to push free of the panicked swimmers.

After several minutes of supreme effort, they escaped the others, but Spirydon and Neonela had drifted a long way from the lights of the rescue operations and were alone in the wide, dark ocean with little prospect of being rescued. More about that in our next blog.

Passport photo of Spirydon Kucharczuk survived Athenia sinking with some water damage. Photo credit: Family collection

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 2

During the summer of 1939, Nazi Germany’s continued expansionist efforts led many people in Eastern Europe, especially Jews, to seek refuge in Western Europe and North America. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer in eastern Poland, was typical of these emigres. Though the Kucharczuks were not Jewish, Spirydon was certain Germany would invade Poland and was eager to move his family beyond the reach of war. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1;” Jan. 15, 2016.)

The Kucharczuks secured visas to immigrate to Canada, where they had relatives. But according to family stories, Spirydon’s wife, Ewdokia, hesitated to go because she feared their family had been cursed. She suspected her oldest sister, Titianna, had arranged the curse, possibly over a dispute regarding the disposition of their family’s land.

In his will, Ewdokia’s father omitted his two older daughters, Titianna and Julianna, and left the land to Ewdokia. The sisters took Ewdokia to court and were awarded a piece of the property, which Ewdokia bought back from them. Julianna and her husband immigrated to Canada in 1938, but Titianna and her husband continued to live a few miles from the Kucharczuks. The relationship between the sisters seemingly continued to smolder.

To satisfy Ewdokia, Spirydon visited a fortune teller in the nearby town of Trosteniec to seek advice. Family sources say the fortune teller told Spirydon not all of his family would arrive in Canada.

As he considered this unsettling prediction, Spirydon decided it involved his oldest son, 20-year-old Jan, who lately had become involved with one of the many ethnic splinter groups in the area. He believed Jan would choose to stay behind in Poland to support his political friends, rather than travel with the family to Canada.

The explanation must have satisfied Ewdokia because the family’s travel plans moved forward. When the day to leave Poland finally came in late August, 1939, Spirydon and Ewdokia must have been overjoyed because Jan had decided to go with them, keeping the family together.

No one knows if they gave any further thought to the fortune teller’s prediction.

The Kucharczuks’ journey continues in our next blog.

A map of Poland between WW1 and WW2 illustrates how the country was re-established following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Map source: www.siberianexiles.org

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1

When the British passenger ship Athenia sailed from Liverpool, England, on Sept. 2, 1939, she carried 1,102 passengers, 200 more than normal. The crowded conditions on board responded to public demand to leave Great Britain before war erupted on the Continent. Most of the passengers were Canadian and American citizens returning home, or British and Irish citizens planning lengthy stays with relatives. But 150 passengers were Europeans, mostly refugees seeking to escape Nazis tyranny.

Among the latter was the family of Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer from eastern Poland, traveling with his wife and five children and planning to start a new life in Canada. Though he lived on a small farm near the town of Trosteniec in Eastern Poland, Spirydon followed events in the local newspaper and had grown increasingly wary of Germany’s demands for Polish territory. He became convinced the Nazis would invade Poland sooner or later and he was determined to leave the country before that happened.

For centuries the Polish state had grown and shrunk according to the fortunes of war. After being integrated into Imperial Russia for most of a century, Poland had only been reconstituted 20 years earlier following the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War 1. As a result, the new Poland included large groups of ethnic Germans, Lithuanians and Russians. The country was a stew of political groups and underground militias aligned with the new state or with one of its major or minor ethnic groups. Given the circumstances, it was understandable that Spirydon (who spoke and wrote Ukrainian) might fear a German invasion, particularly having witnessed the Nazi takeovers of Austria and Czechoslovakia to reunite German-speaking peoples.

But Spirydon had a problem. Before he could arrange for his family to immigrate to Canada, his wife, Ewdokia, insisted on finding out if their family was cursed. Her fears would cause Spirydon to visit a fortuneteller and receive an unsettling prediction. More about that in our next blog.

During the war, David Jennings (second from right at table) served in the Canadian Royal Navy. Here he enjoys liberty with fellow officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, four days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo credit: Jennings family photo.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 4

The survivors of the German submarine attack on the British passenger ship Athenia returned to the British Isles, Canada, and the United States to heroes’ welcomes in the waning days of summer 1939. But the headlines quickly faded, superseded by news of German conquests on the Continent, the British Army’s retreat from Dunkirk, and the London blitz.

Athenia survivor David Jennings returned home to begin his senior year at the University of Toronto, albeit a few days later than planned. (See blog post: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3, Aug. 16, 2015.) While Canadians answered the call of their government to serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen, Jennings completed his engineering degree and in the summer of 1940 and went to work at a local de Havilland Aircraft Company plant. Read More

Survivors (from left) John Woods, David Jennings and Tony Cassels return home Sept. 23, 1939 to Toronto after being rescued from the torpedoed passenger ship Athenia.
Photo credit: The Evening Telegram, Toronto, Canada.
Survivors (from left) John Woods, David Jennings and Tony Cassels return home Sept. 23, 1939 to Toronto after being rescued from the torpedoed passenger ship Athenia. Photo credit: The Evening Telegram, Toronto, Canada.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3

The Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson was the first ship to respond to distress signals from the British passenger liner Athenia after she was torpedoed in the North Atlantic on the first day of World War 2. David Jennings, a University of Toronto senior, and his friend and fellow student, Tony Cassels, watched from one of the 26 lifeboats arrayed around the sinking ship as the freighter approached shortly after midnight, came to a stop and began rescue operations.

Working at their oars for nearly two hours, Jennings and Cassels helped bring their boat alongside the big Norwegian ship. As he waited to climb aboard the Nelson, Jennings heard a shout from the deck above and was surprised to see his friend and fellow student John Woods, who had been separated from Jennings and Cassels a few hours earlier. Read More

David Jennings enjoys his pipe in an undated photo taken after WW2. Photo credit: Family photo

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 2

The longest continuous military conflict of World War 2 – The Battle of the Atlantic –began at 7:39 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, when a German torpedo loaded with 600 pounds of high explosives slammed into the port side of the British passenger ship Athenia.

At that precise moment onboard Athenia, David Jennings was preparing to leave his Third class cabin near the ship’s bow to attend the third seating for dinner. A University of Toronto student returning home for his senior year, Jennings was accompanied by two university friends, Tony Cassels and John Woods, with whom he had vacationed in the British Isles the previous month. (See blog post July 16, 2015: “David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man.”) Read More

David Jennings, University of Toronto, 1940.  Photo credit: Jennings family photo.
David Jennings, University of Toronto, 1940. Photo credit: Jennings family photo.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man

The late summer of 1939 had been a very enjoyable time for David Jennings. A senior at Canada’s University of Toronto, he had spent August traveling with two friends up and down the British Isles, visiting relatives, seeing the sights and sampling some of Britain’s finer eating establishments. Though conscious of the threat of war on the Continent, Jennings had no idea he was enjoying the last few idyllic days the world would know for the next six years.

Davidson Cumming Jennings was the youngest of four brothers born to a prominent Toronto family. His father, John, was a very successful lawyer for Guinness Brewing Co. in Canada. Young Jennings grew up in what might be termed “well-to-do” circumstances. Every evening in the family’s large home, the butler laid out dinner clothes for David and his three older brothers, who were expected to dress for dinner. David was a serious young man and a dedicated student (studying engineering at the university), who also possessed a very dry sense of humor. He enjoyed socializing and loved to sing a variety of Irish songs at parties and family gatherings. Read More