“The Writing Life” – My 2016 Journey…

 

the writing life journeyThe end of the year typically is a time to reflect on the twelve months just passed.

For me, 2016 has been a very significant year, and not just because of the endless drama that accompanied the presidential election. It was a year that saw my historical novel, Without Warning, draw closer to publication, and I thought it might be interesting to share the ups and downs of this journey with you.

After three years of research, interviews and writing, I completed the first draft of my manuscript by the end of January, 2014, and considered it accomplished enough to begin querying agents. Agents are gatekeepers. No major publishing house will consider a manuscript unless it is represented by an agent.

What followed was two years of rejection notices from agents, manuscript revisions, attendance at writing workshops, more revisions, more rejections, and intermittent soul-searching about the viability of my skills.

As this year dawned, I had completed six drafts of Without Warning, but something wasn’t working. While I had written for most of my life, nearly all of my output was non-fiction. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between fiction and non-fiction.

After attending a workshop on creating fictional characters, reading a book about narrative voice, and recharging my batteries at a local writers conference, I did a seventh draft. I clearly delineated the story’s protagonist, gave him a character arc, and added a new ending. Eager for more constructive feedback than the form-letter rejection notices from agents, I recruited five readers to critique this latest draft.

By early April, I received their feedback. They were kind, but their comments followed a pattern: not enough drama, most of the characters sounded like me, and the book took too long to get started.

Gut check time.

Was it worth all the work I was putting into this book to collect more rejection letters from agents and body blows to my ego? After a brief hiatus I returned to this question and realized my answer was, “yes.” The manuscript had improved from the first through the seventh draft. I still wanted to tell this story and believed that fiction would be the most compelling format for readers. Besides, the novel’s characters now seemed like old friends and I didn’t want to strand them in the middle of their voyage.

From late spring through early fall, I went through two more re-writes, differentiating characters’ insights, making their efforts to escape Europe ahead of the war more dramatic, heightening their fears as they faced their mortality after the torpedo strikes Athenia, and giving more detail and color to the book’s final chapter.

Beginning in October I polished my query letter to agents and sent out a dozen more. When these efforts failed to produce any interest, I decided to try the smaller publishers that accept queries directly from authors.

Within weeks I received an encouraging note. A publisher in Texas was interested in my book. They plan to get back to me in a few more weeks with a detailed evaluation of my manuscript and the work needed to bring the strongest possible book to market.

My long journey isn’t over, but at least the destination is in sight!

 

My Personal Ties to Mac’s Web Log…

 

My grandmother, Rhoda ThomasI spent several days exploring the fascinating SS Athenia pages on Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log.

My interest in this site, dedicated to “All who went down to the sea in ships” in World War 2, was a personal one.

 

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a survivor of the Athenia’s torpedoing by a German U-boat, and she left our family with a detailed account of her experiences that evening and beyond.

Rhoda Thomas was born in England, but immigrated to the United States with her husband and small family in 1914.

She had returned to England in August, 1939, to visit with friends and relatives but was advised by the American consulate toward the end of the month to return home as soon as possible.

Grandma boarded the Athenia in Liverpool. When the ship was attacked Sept. 3, 1939, she was on deck and, fortunately for her, wearing a heavy coat against the evening chill.

The lifeboat she entered was crowded and she had to stand for a good portion of the night. During this time, she was handed a baby to hold under her coat to keep warm. How I would love to know that child’s identity and what became of him or her!

Also in the lifeboat with by grandmother were Margaret Hayworth, a child who eventually died of wounds she received in the submarine attack, and her mother.

They were rescued by the Southern Cross and later transferred to the City of Flint and landed at Halifax.

While on the City of Flint, my grandmother met another survivor — a young man named John Garland.  They struck up an acquaintance because they were both from Rochester, New York.

Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, a passenger ship torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War I, but hardly anyone had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack more than two years before Pearl Harbor. My fascination with this ship, my Grandmother’s personal account and a collection of newspaper articles encouraged me to write my debut historical novel, Without Warning.  

In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and I was able to speak to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother, became a personal effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers, whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.

 

Early 1900’s Transatlantic Travel…What Was It Like?

 

mauretania

For most of the first half of the 20th Century, nearly everyone traveling between America and Europe made the trip by sea.

The journey on these vessels was as important as the destination.  First class passengers experienced glamor and style with meals, entertaining, sightseeing, and socializing.

However, passengers in steerage were housed in the hold of the ship…and the journey was truly miserable.  “Before the United States closed its borders in the 1920s, immigrants to America would sleep packed together like cattle, eating a common meal that was described as frequently almost inedible.”

The Mauritania was one of the best-known passenger ships of this era.   It held the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing for 20 years (ending in 1929).

Greater speeds were achieved by new ships built in the 1930’s.  Two German ships, the Bremen and the Europa challenged the Mauritania‘s dominance. The elegance and speed created fierce competition, and several of the largest companies (including White Star, owner of the ill-fated Titanic) actually operated at a loss for the first half of the decade.

During World War I the Mauritania worked as a transport and hospital ship. During its long career the ship made 269 round-trip crossings of the Atlantic, exclusive of war work. Its last crossing was made in 1934. She was sold for scrap in 1935.

A second ocean liner with the name Mauritania was launched in 1938 by the Cunard White Star Line. It made its maiden voyage the following year and, like its predecessor, was noted for its luxury and service. With the outbreak of World War II, the Mauretania became a transport ship but resumed its passenger service in 1947. In the late 1950s the ship’s popularity began to wane, and the Mauretania was scrapped in 1965.

 

Even Prime Minister Winston Churchill  enjoyed the lavish surroundings of the Cunard cruise liners.26d7e20b00000578-3000444-image-a-47_1426871954430

Photos courtesy Dailymail.co.uk

Would love you to share your experiences on these vessels.

 

Where was the British Royal Family throughout World War II?

he King, the Queen, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to greet the cheering crowds. Where was the British Royal Family throughout World War II?

And how did George VI unexpectedly become  King in 1936? 

When King George V died in January 1936, Edward, the eldest son, became King.

Edward created a scandal less than a year later when he gave up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.   Thus, his younger brother, Albert, became George VI, monarch of the United Kingdom, a duty he never expected would fall to him.

The film “The King’s Speech” depicted George VI and his broadcast to the British people after Britain’s Declaration of War against Germany on September 3, 1939. George VI was in the third year of his reign as King.

The King and Queen remained at Buckingham Palace throughout the War.

Their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (the present Queen of England) and Margaret, were sent to Windsor Castle, about 30 miles from London, for safety. They lived there until the end of the war in 1945…visited by their parents on weekends.

All valuables in Buckingham Palace were removed or protected. The horses and carriages from The Royal Mews also were moved to Windsor and the horses were put to work on the farm.

Like all other girls her age, in 1942 Princess Elizabeth (aged 16), registered at a labor exchange. She wanted to volunteer as a nurse in bombed-out areas of London, but the King thought it was too dangerous.

In 1945, (aged 18) she was permitted to join the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). She learned to drive and repair heavy vehicles.

King George and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (he had married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923) did not remain hidden in the Palace during the War.  They displayed real care and concern for the people of London by visiting many areas that suffered heavy bombing.  The King even went abroad to visit his troops in France and North Africa. The British people felt that their Royal Family shared their suffering and were united with the people.

Buckingham Palace actually suffered nine direct hits by German bombs during the “blitz.”

As the Nazis advanced through Europe, Britain offered refuge to European heads of state including King Haakon of Norway, King Peter of Yugoslavia and Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands.

The George Medal and George Cross were created by King George VI to honor “many acts of heroism performed both by male and female persons especially during the present war.”  The George Cross is one of the nation’s highest award for extreme bravery. (The Victoria Crosses the highest symbol of bravery in battle.)

The George Cross was awarded directly to 155 people, 84 posthumously.

On V.E. Day (May 8, 1945) the King, the Queen, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and Winston Churchill appeared together on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to greet the cheering crowds.  Police officers escorted the Princesses as they mingled in the crowds to celebrate the end of the War.

Here is an excerpt from The King’s Speech:

“It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home, and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial.

The task will be hard.  There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God.  If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then with God’s help, we shall prevail.”

Why was Food Rationed in Britain in World War II?

Candy rationing ended in Britain in 1953!

Candy rationing ended in Britain in 1953!

Before food was rationed, and prior to World War II, Britain imported about 55 million tons of food a year from other countries.

The British government was forced to limit imported food after the war began in 1939, because German submarines attacked British supply ships. As a precautionary measure, the British government introduced a rationing system to alleviate shortages of food supplies available..

Rationing ensured that the citizens received equal amounts of food every week. Would prices rise as food became scarcer?  Would the poor be able to afford to eat?  Would some people hoard food?

So rationing was a necessary consequence of the shortages, making them more bearable for the entire population.

How did food rationing work? 

Each person in Britain received a ration book after registering, and was assigned to buy their food from chosen shops. Since there weren’t any supermarkets,  people visited several different shops for meat, vegetables, bread,…

After items were purchased they were crossed off the buyer’s ration book by the shopkeeper.

The first items to be rationed on January 8, 1940, were bacon, butter and sugar.

And, everyone received 16 points per month for whatever food items they desired (Potatoes, fruit and fish were not rationed).

Indicative of the devastation the war had on Britain, food rationing lasted 14 years!

It began in 1940 and ended July 4, 1954.

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Rhoda Thomas Photo credit: Family photo

The Writing Life: Origins of a Book, Part 1

As some of you may know, Without Warning is in its final revision stages as I attempt to make my manuscript read more like a novel. With luck I’ll finish this part of the process by the end of September, when my search for an agent and/or publisher will resume.

At this juncture, I thought it might be interesting to tell how I came to this project and what I hope to accomplish with my book. Without Warning tells the story of the British passenger ship Athenia, which was torpedoed by a German submarine Sept. 3, 1939, only hours after the two countries declared war.

Despite Athenia’s place in history as the first British ship sunk in World War 2, few in the British Isles and even fewer in America have ever heard her name. My attachment to this tragedy is personal. My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger on Athenia’s last voyage. She survived the sinking and returned home to Rochester, NY, as a minor celebrity. She gave her eye-witness account of these events to several newspapers and completed an affidavit for the U.S. State Department, which asked all 281 surviving American passengers to describe what they saw.

At some point, Rhoda sat down and wrote a vivid 14-page memoir for family members about her experiences before, during and after the torpedo attack. Reading her account many years after her death was like hearing her voice again. Her honesty and the immediacy of her descriptions inspired me to try to bring this long-ago incident back to life. It was late fall of 2010, and I had no idea this effort would take me six years, more than 100,000 words, and several thousand miles of travel to complete.

That journey begins in my next blog. 

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

lempsig
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.