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

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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.

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British liner Athenia rides low in the water 14 hours after being torpedoed by U-30. She sank shortly after this photo was taken. Photo credit: ww2today.com

Meet the Character Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 3

Having torpedoed the first British ship of World War 2, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp brought his submarine, U-30, to the surface after nightfall, Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, to take a closer look at his victim. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 2,” June 1, 2016.) He saw the ship in distress, dead in the water, its stern riding low and listing six degrees to port. On deck, its crew busily lowered lifeboats into the water.

At some point during his observations, Lemp decided the ship was not sinking fast enough and ordered another torpedo to finish the job. At the same time, he received a note from U-30’s radio operator that a ship identified as Athenia had begun sending a distress signal that she had been torpedoed and was sinking fast.

The third torpedo proved to be a misfire and it is possible Lemp called out the gun crew to sink the ship with the U-boat’s 88mm. deck gun. (Details of Lemp’s attack were lost when his war log was altered.) Assuming Athenia was the name of his victim, he left the bridge to consult his copy of the Lloyds Register of Ships and determine her tonnage. At that moment, Lemp supposedly discovered he had torpedoed a passenger ship, an act forbidden by the international treaty Germany had signed in 1936.

Today, the question remains whether Lemp knew he was attacking a passenger ship when he fired that first torpedo. By all accounts, he was a capable commander, courageous and cool under pressure, but he also had a reputation for pushing the envelope. With such scant details of his personality, it’s possible to attribute his behavior to a variety of motivations.

Perhaps Lemp thought he was doing the unspoken bidding of his U-boat fleet commander, Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz, who considered the international treaty governing submarine warfare to be unworkable because it required submarines to warn merchant ships before they attacked.

Striking ships without warning maximized the U-boat’s effectiveness and could help neutralize the Royal Navy’s significant superiority over Germany on the high seas. Sinking a passenger ship would show just how implacable an enemy Nazi Germany intended to be.

On the other hand, Lemp, who was one of the younger U-boat captains, may have been eager to prove himself in the eyes of the fleet’s more experienced commanders and, thus, took the ill-advised shot. U-30 crew members who survived the war claimed that Lemp was shocked when he learned he had struck a passenger liner. He apparently ceased his attack with the deck gun and left the scene without reporting his actions to U-boat headquarters or revealing his presence by offering to aid survivors.

While the evidence is circumstantial it seems to point to Lemp’s having made a mistake when he attacked Athenia, most likely thinking he was firing on an armed merchant cruiser.

The war with England was only nine hours old and this young U-boat commander had committed a colossal blunder. But his war patrol would last another three weeks, time enough for Lemp to redeem himself, as we will see in our next blog.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man

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

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

The luxury yacht Southern Cross, owned by Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, rescued 376 survivors, including my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas.
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