Mysterious Lights: The Russell Park Story, Part 9

escort

Monday Dawn, September 4

Even though he was tired, eleven-year-old Russell Park had not slept since his lifeboat’s near miss with the rescue ship Knute Nelson. Splashing oars, constant efforts to bail out the boat, and spray from the white-capped waves kept sleep at bay. At least the misty rains had stopped and the half-moon, now in the western sky, was a more constant companion, only occasionally ducking behind fast running clouds.

Driven by the rising wind, the ocean’s swells had steadily grown. Each time their boat started up another wave, Russell worried that the wall of water might throw them over backwards. Yet somehow they always gained the crest without anyone falling out. He would feel the boat come level briefly before sliding down the back of the wave at such a steep angle the bow seemed to fall away below his feet. In the trough between waves, passengers resumed their efforts at bailing or working the oars to align themselves for the next wave.

Over and over the routine repeated itself until Russell forgot his fears and began to watch the distant rescue operations with greater interest. Each time the boat topped a wave, he looked to the west for the Nelson’s lights and to the southeast where a second, brightly lighted ship sat like a large white seabird on the ocean. Once when they came to the crest of a wave, he noticed a distant red light in the east that he hadn’t seen before. It was still there when they rose on the next swell. Two waves later a second red light appeared on the water. Soon he could make out two dark shapes moving with the lights.

“Are those rescue ships?” he asked the steward, who was the only Athenia crew member in their lifeboat.

“Could be.”

“Why are they so dark?”

“Maybe they’re worried about German subs.”

“But the ships with the lights aren’t worried.”

“No they ain’t. That big ship we slipped by, that’s from Norway. Norway’s a neutral country. She’s not at war with Germany, so she’s not worried about being sunk. The other one with the bright lights is probably a neutral, too. So I’m guessing those dark ships way over there are our navy. Of course, they could be German raiders.”

“Really?”

The steward gave Russell a long look and smiled.

“Nah, more ‘n likely they’re Royal Navy. At least I hope so, for our sakes, laddie.”

The man gave Russell the task of tracking the movements of the dark ships with the red lights on their sterns and reporting to him if one of them veered in their direction. For an hour, he dutifully watched the ships, and noted they were making a large circle around the rescue operations. When a third dark ship arrived, he reported one of the ships entered the circle and was using its spotlight to find lifeboats and pick up passengers.

“Now we’re getting somewhere, laddie,” the steward said. “Let me know if she keeps coming closer.”

Russell had been so intent on following the ships he hadn’t noticed the clouds in the eastern sky brightening to a pearl gray. When he realized dawn was about to break, his fears began to retreat with the night. In the morning light the boy thought the rescue ships would have a better chance of seeing their disabled lifeboat.

“They have to come for us now, don’t they?” he asked the waiter.

“Aye, it’ll be our turn soon enough.”

Russell waited for the next swell to resume his lookout duties, but when they rose to the top of the wave he was surprised to see a third large rescue ship that he hadn’t seen come up in the night.

“Where did that ship come from?”

“That’s Athenia, laddie.”

“But I thought it sank last night.”

“And so did I. Probably her generators shut down and all the lights went out so we couldn’t see her anymore. But she’s still there.”

If Athenia didn’t sink then Mom and Dad had time to get off the ship. I could be with them later today.  

“I’ll tell ya something else,” the steward said. “Those ships with the red lights you been watching? They’re definitely Royal Navy destroyers.”

Realizing he was about to be rescued and reunited with his parents, Russell’s outlook brightened with the eastern sky. His spirits lifted even more when one of the destroyers methodically made its way toward them, picking up survivors from two other boats before finally coming alongside.

Sailors aboard H.M.S. Escort threw down a line to secure the lifeboat’s bow along their ship’s hull. Next came a rope ladder and several safety lines. Someone put the loop of a safety line under Russell’s arms and helped him onto the ladder, where he was practically lifted aboard the destroyer. Standing on Escort’s deck, he felt heavy and unsteady, unexpectedly overcome by the weight of the sleep that eluded him for most of the night. He wanted to search for his parents, but when a sailor asked if he was tired, all Russell could do was respond with a nod. The sailor took him forward below decks, to a narrow room where several hammocks swayed lazily with the motion of the ship. He helped Russell into one of the hammocks where the boy quickly fell asleep, unaware of the snoring presence of other Athenia survivors.

In our next blog: Russell searches the ship for his parents.

For the series of blogs please visit www.thomascsanger.com

The Russell Park Story: Where are my Parents? Part 8

The KNUTE NELSON passenger ship

The KNUTE NELSON:  Cargo Ship

Monday 1:00 – 3:00 a.m., September 4

Misty rains came and went throughout the night and into the early morning hours, leaving eleven-year-old Russell Park and his fellow passenger in Lifeboat 7A feeling cold and wet. The combination of leaks in the boat, splashing oars, and salt spray from the cold wind and rising waves kept him huddled down on his side bench. He had begun to notice debris floating in the water – life rings, papers, pieces of wooden deck furniture, and boxes with writing on them. When he spotted sparkling red lights bobbing on the ocean, Russell thought they were rescue ships until the steward in charge of their lifeboat told him they were flares from other lifeboats. No one could find the flares in Russell’s boat. Someone asked the steward what had happened to the Athenia, but he said he didn’t know.

The boat continued to drift. The people at the oars responded to the steward’s orders as he sought to keep their bow pointed toward the approaching waves while staying in sight of Athenia. Russell closed his eyes and lost track of the time.

“She’s gone,” someone said.

He sat up and looked around, wondering who had gone? Did one of the passengers fall out of the boat? When he scanned the horizon he realized Athenia’s lights were nowhere in sight. The ship must have finally sunk and with it, his hopes for his parents. Did they get off in time? Loneliness enveloped him once again. He crouched further down on his bench, closed his eyes and let the tears roll down his cheeks, trying to cry as quietly as possible.

* * *

Voices in the air around him droned, words became distant and indistinct. He found himself sitting in a rowboat with his mom and dad. They had managed to get off the ship! They were on a lake and the sun was shining down, warming his neck and shoulders. His parents were talking to him about the big book sitting on his lap with pictures of trains.

“When we get home, we’ll make sure you get to ride with the engineer,” his father said.

“And blow the whistle,” his mother added. “That would be fun, wouldn’t it?”

Russell noticed water – rain drops – falling on his book and he tried to protect the pictures. He looked up to see the sky had grown dark. The sun was a bright light on the horizon.

“It’s a ship.”

The voice did not belong to his mom or dad.

“It’s coming this way,” another voice said. Russell struggled to understand and saw people in his rowboat talking and pointing to the horizon. Where were his parents? As voices around him began to rise, he realized he was still in the lifeboat. His disappointment quickly gave way to the excitement in people’s voices. Away on the southwest horizon he saw two bright points of light on the water. When the steward in charge said the lights probably belonged to a rescue ship, Russell caught his breath. Maybe his parents were on the ship.

“I think it’s stopped.” A woman sitting near the bow made the initial observation, and in a few more minutes it became apparent that the ship wasn’t coming any closer. Several people in the lifeboat groaned. Russell realized they would need to somehow get themselves to the ship if they were going to be rescued.

“I can help row,” he said to the steward.

“Thanks, laddie, but it’s too far,” the man responded. “Besides the wind is blowing us in the right direction so we can save our strength for now.”

Boat 7A drifted slowly toward the rescue ship, whose silver-gray hull rode high on the water. After half an hour they approached close enough for Russell to count its three masts and single smoke funnel. The ship’s bright lights illuminated figures moving around the deck, throwing lines to other lifeboats pulling up alongside.

“Now,” the steward called to his rowers. “Everyone put your backs into in. Pull for all you’re worth.”

The oars splashed into the sea, but the boat responded sluggishly. The steward attempted steer a course using his surplus oar. Despite everyone’s desperate efforts, Russell saw clearly the current and the wind that had brought them so far were now pushing them beyond their rescue opportunity. He and his fellow passengers began shouting to the sailors on the rescue ship. They were close enough for Russell to see a big red flag with a blue cross and to read the name “KNUTE NELSON” across the ship’s stern.

But no one on the big ship’s deck seemed to hear their calls or see their lifeboat as they slowly drifted past the big ship and into the night.

In our next blog: Russell spies mysterious red lights on the horizon.

Read the whole story:  www.thomascsanger.com

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

Pre-war photo of U-30, commanded by Fritz-Julius Lemp. Photo credit: u-historia.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 2

On Sunday afternoon, Sept. 3, 1939, the German submarine U-30 sailed into its combat patrol area in the northernmost reaches of the sea lanes leading into and out of the British Isles. U-30 was commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, a young but well-respected U-boat captain (see blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 1,” May 14, 2016).

Two hours earlier Lemp had learned of the declaration of war between Germany and England. He understood from his commanders he was not to attack Royal Navy ships in order to avoid embarrassing the British at the outset of hostilities when there still might be a chance to reach a peace agreement. Lemp’s principal targets were to be cargo ships.

Attacks on merchant shipping were governed by complicated “prize rules” established by international treaties. If Lemp discovered a British merchantman sailing without naval escort, he had to surface to give warning before attacking. Once the ship stopped he was required to board the vessel to determine if she carried any war material. If contraband was found, the rules allowed him to sink the ship, but only after its crewmen were safely away in lifeboats. Passenger ships could not be attacked under any circumstance.

The rules were further complicated by the British practice of outfitting some merchant ships with naval guns. These “armed merchant cruisers” would assist Royal Navy warships in patrolling Britain’s shipping lanes. A few cargo ships were turned into so-called “Q-ships,” merchantmen with their guns hidden from view. Any unsuspecting U-boat that came to the surface to give warning with intent to board such a ship would quickly become the prey instead of the hunter.

Shortly after entering his combat zone that Sunday afternoon Lemp spotted a large freighter and gave chase. He broke off the chase, however, when he discovered the ship was from Norway, a neutral country, and thus immune from attack. After several hours of fruitless searching U-30’s lookouts spotted a large ship on the northeastern horizon, sailing alone and heading west. Lemp put his boat on a course to intersect the mystery ship and the two slowly converged over the next three hours.

To avoid detection, U-30 submerged shortly before sunset at 7 p.m. Although Lemp hadn’t been able to determine the ship’s nationality, he may have suspected she was a merchant cruiser. The ship was sailing well north of the merchant shipping lanes, proceeding in an evasive zigzag pattern and was blacked out to avoid detection at night.

With darkness falling and the big ship now only about 1,500 yards away, Lemp decided to attack and likely fired at least two torpedoes. His first shot was the only one to hit home, but it proved to be fatal. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Lemp had become a footnote of history – the man who commanded the first successful U-boat attack on a British ship in World War 2.

Unfortunately the ship he had struck was the passenger liner TSS Athenia, exactly the type of ship he was forbidden to attack under international law.

Lemp’s story continues in our next blog.

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.

American freighter City of Flint Photo credit: www.snipview.com

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1

With the threat of war hanging over Europe at the end of August 1939, passenger space on ships leaving England for North America was in great demand. For one ship in particular, the U.S. freighter City of Flint, that demand would unexpectedly swell its passenger manifest from zero to more than 250 in a most unexpected fashion.

When City of Flint’s captain, a crusty New Englander named Joseph Gainard, brought his ship into Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 31, he was told by the ship’s agents ashore that the U.S. Maritime Commission in London wanted to talk to him. Unable to get through to the commission, Gainard phoned the U.S. Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had once helped him resolve a difficult situation with a crew on another ship when Kennedy was chairman of the Maritime Commission. Read More

The luxury yacht Southern Cross, owned by Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, rescued 376 survivors, including my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas. Photo credit: www.latecruisenews.com

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 3

It took the Second World War only a few hours to find Rhoda Thomas and her fellow passengers aboard the British liner Athenia when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939 (see blog post May 15, 2015). The ship had been on its way to Canada and was 250 miles northwest of Ireland when the U-boat attacked as night had begun falling in the North Atlantic.

With the cries of women and children all around her, Rhoda stood on the deck, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of her home and family in Rochester, NY, wondering if she would ever see them again.

“Yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm,” she later recalled, expressing an equanimity felt by many other passengers. After helping one distressed woman into a lifeboat, my 54-year-old grandmother managed to climb some 20 feet down a rope ladder and drop off the end into a lifeboat riding on the ocean’s six-foot swells. The night was cold, the boat leaked, and a drizzling rain added to the discomforts for the survivors. Rhoda was grateful she had worn a warm coat on deck before the torpedo attack. Read More

The Curious Case of SS Athenia Passenger Gustav Anderson

Thirty Americans died when the British passenger liner Athenia was torpedoed on Sept. 3, 1939. Charges and counter-charges flew back and forth between England and Germany regarding responsibility for the sinking. The British said a German U-boat had attacked the defenseless ship without warning. Germany denied responsibility and accused Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, of planting a bomb on board the ship to kill Americans and bring the United States into the war.

While the German claim sounded preposterous, the U.S. had declared its neutrality and the strength of popular isolationist sentiment made American officials hesitant to jump to conclusions. In an effort to sort out the cause of the sinking, the U.S. State Department asked surviving American passengers to submit their observations in the form of affidavits explaining exactly what they saw. Read More

Nazi Denials of the U-30 Attack on the SS Athenia

In 1946, as prosecutors prepared for the war crimes trials at Nuremberg following World War II, they discovered discrepancies in the war diary (logbook) of U-30, the German submarine whose combat patrol zone was closest to the location where the British passenger ship Athenia had been torpedoed on the first day of the war. The first two pages were a different quality paper than the rest of the book. On these pages, the months were recorded in Arabic numerals, while Roman numerals were used for the months in the rest of the book. Also, the signature of the boat’s commander, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, was an obvious forgery. The new pages showed U-30 nearly 100 miles from the spot where Athenia was attacked on Sept. 3, 1939. The alteration was part of an elaborate, if clumsy, subterfuge started within 24 hours of Athenia’s sinking to convince the world that Germany wasn’t at fault. 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