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  

 

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.

 

A Famous American’s Brush With Death: Edward G. Robinson

robinson-edward-gThis tough-guy actor, Edward G. Robinson,  and his family were traveling in Europe in 1939 when word came that the German army was preparing to invade Poland—an act that signaled beginning of World War II. Like many other Americans, they decided to get packing.

As Robinson tells the story in his 1958 autobiography, My Father, My Son, the ship they had in mind was the British ocean liner Athenia. “But something went wrong, the boat was crowded or left early,” he wrote. “Anyway, I remember the best we could do was to get a single cabin on an American ship, the S.S. Washington.”

Their accommodations on the Washington may have been cramped, but the Robinsons would have been even less comfortable on the Athenia.

On September 3, 1939, it was stuck by a torpedo from a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland, becoming the first British ship sunk by the Germans in World War II. Of the roughly 1,400 passengers and crew on board, a reported 112 died, including 28 Americans. The rest were rescued, in part because the ship took 14 hours to sink. Fearful that the incident would mobilize the then-neutral U.S., Nazi propagandists denied any involvement and tried to blame it on the British.

The S.S. Washington arrived safely in New York with a passenger list that not only included the Robinson family but Sara Delano Roosevelt, mother of the president, and one of his sons, James. Robinson went on to make some of his best movies, including Double Indemnity, Key Largo, and The Stranger. He died in 1973 at the age of 79.

This blog first appeared on www.Smithsonian.com

Her Career Started with A Bang: Star Reporter Claire Hollingworth 1/15

Claire HollingsworthClare Hollingworth, a British journalist whose career as a war correspondent spanned more than four decades, died earlier this month in Hong Kong at age 105. She covered conflicts from Europe to the Mideast to Vietnam, but it was her reporting during her first week on the job that became the touchstone of her career and the reason for this blog’s interest in her.

The child of well-to-do parents, Hollingworth was drawn to writing at an early age. She eschewed the life of a housewife to pursue a career in journalism, scandalizing her mother. In the 1930’s, her freelance articles began appearing in the New Statesman, a British political and cultural magazine.

After Hitler annexed the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the 26-year-old Hollingworth went to Warsaw to work with Czechoslovak refugees. From March to July 1939, she helped thousands of people escape German occupation by securing visas for them to cross into Poland. Her experience in Eastern Europe led the editor of The Daily Telegraph in London to hire Hollingworth as a reporter in August 1939 to cover the growing tensions in Poland.

On the job less than a week, she somehow convinced the British Consul-General in Katowice, Poland, to loan her his car so she could drive over the border into Germany, thanks to the vehicle’s Consular plates. While touring German roads just over the border on August 28, she observed a massive German build-up of troops, tanks and armored cars. Back in Poland, she telephoned her bureau chief in Warsaw and told him what she had seen. The front page story in the Telegraph the next day scooped the world’s news media.

Three days later in Katowice, the rumble of airplanes woke Hollingworth at 5 a.m. She ran to her window and saw planes approaching and bursts of anti-aircraft fire. What appeared to be incendiary bombs began falling in a nearby park.

“It’s the beginning of war,” she shouted into the phone to her bureau chief at the other end of the line.

“Are you sure, old girl?” he asked her. In response, Hollingworth held the phone receiver out the window so he could hear the explosions.

On the way to the British Consul-General’s office in Katowice, she began having second thoughts. Had she witnessed a military exercise and not the start of war? If so, her promising career as a journalist would be short-lived.

At the Consulate she received news confirming the German invasion. The date was Friday, Sept. 1, 1939, and the Telegraph’s “cub” reporter had again scooped her colleagues with an eyewitness account of the start of World War 2.

 

 

Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log: To “All Who Went Down to the Sea in Ships,” World War 2

Royal Australian Navy veteran Mackenzie J. Gregory created “Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log” more than 30 years ago on the Internet. He dedicated the site to all “Who went down to the sea in ships” in World War 2, and especially to the 84 officers and men who died on H.M.A.S. Canberra at the Battle of Savo Island, August 9, 1942. Over the years, Mac’s website has become an invaluable source of information, much of it first-hand, regarding naval exploits from the war. 

Mac joined the Royal Australian Naval College as a 13-year-old Cadet Midshipman in 1936.  He went to sea as a young naval officer in August 1939 as the clouds of war gathered over Europe.

macat17

October 12 1939: Mac was just 17 years old on board H.M.A.S. ‘Australia.’

Three years later he was serving as Officer of the Watch aboard the cruiser Canberra in the Solomon Islands northwest of Australia when the Battle of Savo Island began August 8, 1942.  The ‘Canberra’ did not survive the battle.

After the war, Mac completed the first combined Torpedo Anti-Submarine (TAS) Specialist Long course in UK Naval Schools from 1947 – 1948.

Other assignments followed, including aide de camp to Australia’s Governor General in the capital of Canberra, and as Fleet TAS Officer on the staff of the Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet aboard the carrier Vengeance. 

july23finalv4Several years after retiring from the navy, Mac started “Ahoy,” helping to preserve the memories of both service men and women and civilians caught in the whirlwind of war.

His long held dream to erect a bronze commemorative statue of a World War 2 sailor “Answering the Call” was unveiled by Royal Australian Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett in November 2015.

Although Mac passed away Aug. 27, 2014, before he could see his dream realized, his website had already become a fitting monument of his devotion to preserving history.

You’ll discover that Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log is filled with interesting articles, features, guest stories, and a forum. 

Lieut Cdr NICOLAS BRACEGIRDLE MBE RN (BATH, UK) writes: His erudite website has been a magnificent example to all naval historians and shipmates. RAN history is made all the more accessible by this wonderful gentleman and even in our sorrow, we hope that his family are strengthened by the many tributes from all over the globe.

Visit http://www.ahoy.tk-jk.net/index.html for more.

 

 

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.”

U-BOATS: Their Contributions to Germany’s Success

Launching of U-218 at Kiel, Germany, in 1941. From J.P. Mallmann Showell, U-Boats under the Swastika (1987)

Launching of U-218 at Kiel, Germany, in 1941.
From J.P. Mallmann Showell, U-Boats under the Swastika (1987)

Did you know that U-boat (in German: U-boot) is an abbreviation of  Unterseeboot, (“undersea boat”, a German submarine)?

The destruction of enemy ships by German U-boats was a huge part of  World Wars I and II.

Germany was the first country to employ submarines in war as substitutes for surface commerce raiders.

At the outset of World War I, German U-boats, though numbering only 38, achieved notable successes.

The Armistice terms of 1918 required Germany to surrender all its U-boats, and the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany to possess them in the future.

But in 1935  Hitler’s Germany renounced the treaty and forcefully negotiated the right to build  U-boats.

So, Britain was ill-prepared in 1939 for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and during the early months of World War II the U-boats, which at that time numbered only 57, again achieved great successes.

Throughout WW II, The German U-boats began to operate in groups (called wolf packs by the British). One U-boat would shadow a convoy and summon others by radio, and then the group would attack, usually on the surface at night.

However, by 1943 the Allies improved their ability to detect and attack submarines under water and developed tactics to force them to the surface where they could more easily be destroyed. Over the last two years of World War II, the U-boat’s effectiveness never approached the level of success enjoyed in the first four years of the war, primarily because of these technological and tactical developments.

In World War II Germany built 1,162 U-boats: 785 were destroyed and the remainder surrendered.

Of the 632 U-boats sunk at sea, Allied surface ships and shore-based aircraft accounted for the great majority.

 

Source:  https://www.britannica.com/technology/U-boat

U-boat successes like the sinking of HMS Courageous on Sept. 17, 1939, masked basic problems with German torpedoes at the start of the war. Photo credit: theatlantic.com

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 3

German submarines sank 114 ships (more than 420,000 tons of cargo) in the first few months of World War 2, September through December, 1939. Despite these widely publicized successes – including sinking the Royal Navy aircraft carrier Courageous and battleship Royal Oak – German Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz was angered by a large number of torpedo misfires reported by his captains. (See blog post “The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 2,” April 15, 2016.)

By the end of the year, complaints from the commander of the U-boat fleet led the navy to replace the head of the Torpedo Directorate, the department responsible for the design and development of torpedoes. The new chief soon reported the fleet’s torpedoes were defective in many ways, and he set about finding solutions. Yet every time the Directorate fixed one defect a new one cropped up.

Many of the problems centered on the torpedo’s detonator, or pistol, the device that exploded the warhead when the torpedo reached its target. The standard pistol for all torpedoes allowed U-boat captains to choose between a contact and magnetic detonation. A contact setting caused the torpedo to explode when it struck a ship’s hull, while a magnetic setting exploded the torpedo when it detected the magnetic field of a ship’s hull, ideally right beneath its keel.

The Directorate quickly resolved problems with the contact mode, but solutions for the magnetic mode proved more difficult because of its sensitivity. The magnetic field of a target varied with a ship’s size and was also affected by the Earth’s magnetic field. In addition, the depth setting for the torpedo was critical because if it passed too far beneath a ship it didn’t detect a magnetic field and failed to detonate.

Slowly, one by one, problems came to light involving the pistol’s magnetic detonation setting. As early as October 1939, Admiral Dӧnitz ordered his captains to use only the contact detonation setting. When the Directorate announced the design had been corrected, Dӧnitz approved using the magnetic setting again. Almost immediately misfires increased and he reinstated the magnetic detonator ban.

Even though this cycle continued with maddening regularity, German torpedoes proved effective enough in the Battle of the Atlantic to sink 1,900 ships and 10.2 million tons of cargo from 1940 through 1942. But for the flawed torpedoes, U-boats might have wreaked far more devastation during these early years, particularly because Allied anti-submarine weapons and tactics experienced their own developmental problems.

In early 1943, the Torpedo Directorate introduced a new, more dependable detonator, but the golden opportunity had been lost. While Germany was perfecting its torpedo design, the Allies had been making improvements in underwater detection technology, airborne radar, depth charge weaponry and surface tactics. U-boat captains found it increasingly difficult get into position to launch their improved torpedoes or to escape destruction once they were discovered by Allied navy hunter-killer groups.

In May, 1943, Allied navies sank 41 German U-boats, nearly three times the total of the previous month. It proved to be a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic as the U-boats’ successes steadily declined for the remainder of the war.

A magnetic detonator was designed to explode a torpedo beneath a ship and break its keel with a single blow. Photo credit: uboat.net

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 2

In the opening months of World War 2, German submarine captains reported numerous torpedo failures. Time and again they watched their shots miss completely, fail to detonate once they reached their targets or detonate prematurely. U-boat fleet commander, Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz, estimated at least 30 percent of the torpedoes launched by his captains were duds. (See blog post “The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 1,” April 1, 2016.)

One problem landed on Dӧnitz’s desk two weeks after the start of the war in early September, 1939. It involved the torpedo’s guidance systems that kept it on a pre-set course and depth once it left the submarine. These parameters were dialed into the torpedo before it was fired. After leaving its tube, the torpedo changed its course and depth as necessary in order to run true to its target.

The torpedoes delivered to the fleet at the start of the war were equipped with the course changing guidance system, but by mistake they had been fitted with stationary fins that did not allow them to be steered. When this egregious mistake was corrected, however, the success rate did not significantly improve.

Admiral Dӧnitz suspected most misfires were caused by the detonator, or pistol, the device that caused the torpedo’s warhead to explode once it reached its target. A sophisticated detonator, which could be set to explode the warhead either when it stuck a ship’s hull or detected the hull’s magnetic field, was adopted at the end of September 1939 as the standard for all torpedoes.

A contact detonation resulted when a torpedo struck its target several feet below the waterline and usually breached the ship’s hull. However, the explosion wasted much of its energy in the form of a large plume of water that erupted alongside the hull. As a result, one or two more torpedoes might be needed to sink a large ship.

By contrast, a magnetic detonation was designed to explode the warhead beneath a ship, where its energy would be more efficiently concentrated on the ship’s keel. The explosion usually broke the keel, breached the hull and sank the ship within minutes. Because such damage could be inflicted by a single torpedo, U-boat captains preferred the magnetic setting.

Magnetic detonation required the torpedo to pass close enough beneath the ship to detect its magnetic field. Maintaining the torpedo’s proper depth was critical to its success. In addition, the detonator had to be set at the proper calibration for the strength of the target’s magnetic field, which varied with the size of the ship. U-boat captains also needed to account for the Earth’s magnetic field, which changed depending on the U-boat’s distance from the magnetic north pole.

When the complaints began to pile up, the Torpedo Directorate, the German navy department charged with Torpedo design and development, questioned whether U-boat captains were accurately estimating the data used to calibrate the magnetic detonator.

Admiral Dӧnitz’s frequent complaints prompted the Naval High Command to establish a Torpedo Inspectorate to study the growing misfire reports. But if Dӧnitz thought his fleet’s torpedo problems were about to be resolved, he would be sorely disappointed, as we will see in out next blog.