Rhoda’s Story – Part 5: The Rescue!

The Steam yacht Southern Cross rescued Rhoda and 375 other survivors. Credit: Yachting Magazine

In Part 4 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother climbed down a rope ladder into a lifeboat after her passenger ship, Athenia, was torpedoed by a German submarine on the evening of Sept.3, 1939, while sailing to Canada. Once in the lifeboat, Rhoda held a baby under her warm coat to keep the child out of the cold wind and misty rains. Her story continues: 

We saw a light way off in the distance. It seemed to come close and we believed it to be a rescue ship, so we tried to pull closer; as we did so, we were able to discern other lifeboats close to it. There were a number of lifeboats trying as we were to pull toward that ship but [they] couldn’t seem to make it. I guess the tide was against us.

Then in the moonlight, I saw one of the boats capsize and all its occupants thrown into the [rescue ship’s] propeller. It was awful; they were crying for help and struggling for their lives, and little children screaming….Our boat was crowded and we just had to row away as they would have pulled us over, and so many in our boat had no lifebelts on. I seemed to go all to pieces then; the sight of those poor people in the water completely unnerved me.

We were all about to give up, when suddenly a bright light appeared. It was a searchlight from another ship and they were flashing it right on us. We heard shouts of “ahoy there” and they were coming toward us. We lit more flares and the ship came closer. As we drew up alongside, the sailors threw ropes and one by one we were pulled up out of the lifeboat. By that time I was half fainting, but I heard a voice saying, “You are safe on a private yacht.” When they laid me down I could see people all around me and knew then that they had already rescued a good number. There, too, I saw the baby I had held under my coat. It wasn’t long before a frantic mother claimed it. She had been taken off on another boat.

It was breaking daylight then, almost 4 o’clock, but they kept on pulling the people in, and then brought hot soup and milk around. The sight of some of those poor [survivors] was awful. Some had been in the water and were covered with black oil, some were in nightgowns, some were cut and bruised and half-crazy with fright, and many children and babies were naked, frightened and crying. Some children were separated from their parents. One little girl about three years [old] was crying for her mother, but she wasn’t there.

As time passed we discovered we were on a Swedish yacht, the Southern Cross, owned by a millionaire named Wenner-Gren. They had picked up about 400, and we learned that a Norwegian vessel had rescued quite a lot more and some were picked up by a British destroyer. Later on that morning, we heard that an American freighter, The City of Flint, was on her way to give aid and to pick up the Americans and Canadians who wanted to continue [on] to America….

It was good news to me. All I could think of was home and family, and I would have been willing to travel on a cattle boat as long as it was headed for the U.S.A. I should like to say here how wonderful the passengers and crew of Southern Cross were to us. They couldn’t seem to do enough for those who were without clothes. They donated all kinds of wearing apparel: shoes, socks, sweaters, coats, pants, blankets, shirts, pajamas, etc. The women and children seemed to need them the most and they were glad to get them.

In my next blog, Rhoda experiences life aboard The City of Flint.

Such a honor to tell my grandmother’s story!

Go to www.thomascsanger.com to read previous posts.

“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!


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.

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

The torpedo firing lever on the bridge of U-995 is located on the right hand side of the boat’s aiming column. Special binoculars were attached to the column for U-boat surface attacks. A similar lever is located in the combat center just below the bridge for submerged attacks. Photo Credit: Torpedo Vorhaltrechner Project

The Writing Life: How to Fire a Torpedo

When I revised my historical novel, Without Warning, I decided to start the book with the moment when a German submarine launches a torpedo at the British passenger liner Athenia. It is a short, critical scene on which the story will pivot and cause a life-and-death crisis for all the principal characters. I wanted to highlight this moment by showing the simple physical action taken by the submarine’s commander that creates the subsequent chaos.

There was, however, one big problem. I had no idea what the World War 2 commander of a U-boat did to fire a torpedo. Did he pull a lanyard? Push a button? Flip a switch? Did he even fire the torpedo, or did his command to “fire” tell another crew member to take some action that launched the torpedo? If I didn’t get this detail right, U-boat aficionados would raise concerns about the novel’s overall veracity. Read More

When Warning Was Required

A little more than eight hours after England and Germany declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, a German submarine attacked and sank the British passenger ship Athenia. In the days and weeks that followed the sinking, British politicians, diplomats and newspaper editorials made much of the fact that the German attack came “without warning.” (Without Warning is the title of my forthcoming historical novel that tells the story of this little-known event.)

The phrase seems oddly quaint today, especially considering the terrible carnage suffered by civilian populations during World War 2 and many wars since, much of it delivered with little or no warning from the attackers. In 1939, however, the requirement for warships to follow certain international “prize rules” was widely understood to be a standard of civilized warfare.

For much of World War 1 Germany ignored the prize rules and waged unrestricted warfare against all enemy ships, including unarmed merchant vessels. Germany’s submarines, known as U-boats, were particularly effective instruments of unrestricted warfare because, unlike other ships, they could attack from underwater without revealing their presence. Read More

The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder’s model of the ship at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

At Sea in a Lifeboat

Few passengers on a cruise ship nowadays ever give much thought to escaping the ship in lifeboats if an emergency occurs. This also was the case 75 years ago when passengers aboard the British liner Athenia suddenly had to abandon their ship at dusk after it was torpedoed by a German submarine (the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning).

Then, as now, ships were required to carry lifeboats and life rafts that exceeded the total number of passengers and crew aboard. Modern lifeboats, however, have several advantages over those carried by Athenia.

The newer lifeboats can be launched by emergency power systems or by gravity if the power fails, and they can do so even if the ship is listing to one side by as much as 20 degrees. Such boats are enclosed to protect passengers against the elements, are self-powered, and have communications equipment or radio beacons that transmit signals to help rescue vessels locate them. Read More

Meet the Character: Barnet Mackenzie Copland, A Modest Hero, Part 1

One of the most widely recognized heroes of the attack on Athenia was the ship’s Chief Officer Barnet Copland, a 32-year-old merchant mariner who had spent more than half his life at sea. Copland was born in 1907 and grew up in Stepps, a northeastern suburb of Glasgow, Scotland. His father, Peter, was a railway clerk and his mother, Elizabeth Mackenzie Copland, was a housewife already raising two older children. While Peter eventually became a station agent for the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway service, young “Barney” was more interested in the sea. Glasgow, a major port and shipbuilding center, must have been a powerful attraction. After leaving Glasgow’s Royal Technical College at age 15, he went to sea as an apprentice with the Donaldson Line, one of the city’s oldest merchant shipping companies. Copland proved to be capable and a quick study. By the age of 19 he had secured his Masters and Mates certificate as a second mate.

Fond of the outdoors, he often enjoyed walks in the rugged Scottish Highlands, which helped him maintain an athletic build on his 5’9” frame. By all accounts, Copland was Read More

The U-30 Attack on Athenia: A Question of Torpedoes

We will never know exactly why the commander of U-30, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, decided to attack an unarmed British passenger ship on the first day of World War II — the central event in my book, Without Warning. Lemp’s motivation, however, isn’t the only element of this event that is shrouded in mystery. In keeping with the “fog of war” that tends to cloud witness perceptions, descriptions of U-30’s attack on Athenia come in many versions and in varying degrees of detail. This presented a challenge for me to write a vivid and credible description of the attack. Read More

SS Athenia Torpedoed: When Eyewitness Accounts Collide

I am sure every major historic event since the advent of printing and mass communications has been accompanied by a record of conflicting eyewitness accounts. People see and hear things differently, their perceptions often being colored by the rush of events, past experiences, or prejudices. So it’s not surprising that the sinking of the British passenger ship Athenia with more than 1,400 people on board — the events depicted in my novel Without Warning — resulted in conflicting descriptions of what happened. Read More