Athenia Found?

 

        

After decades of obscurity, British science correspondent, Jonathan Amos, earlier this month published a story on the BBC’s website about the possible identification of Athenia‘s wreck on the sea floor of the Rockall Bank. The wreck is very near the location given repeatedly by Athenia‘s radio officer, David Don, after the ship was torpedoed Sept. 3, 1939.

Follow this link to read the BBC story:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41503664

www.ThomasCSanger.com

Tom speaks about why he wrote his historical novel “Without Warning:”

“I first became interested in writing about Athenia, a British passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat, because my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was aboard the ship. Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a U-boat during World War I, but few had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack, more than two years before Pearl Harbor. In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and spoke to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother has become for me an effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.”

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

Russell Park Part 7: On The Lifeboat!

At Sea In a Lifeboat : After the Sinking of the SS Athenia

At Sea In a Lifeboat : After the Sinking of the SS Athenia

Sunday, 9:10 – 11:00 a.m., September 3

Everything on board Lifeboat 7A seemed chaotic and worrisome to Russell. Seated on the starboard side behind the last cross-bench, he discovered he could reach over the gunwale and put his hand in the cold ocean. He thought it was dangerous for the boat to be riding so low in the water and worried about how he would survive without a lifejacket if they sank.

Russell’s biggest concern was the water inside the boat. In addition to the missing plug for the rainwater drain, there were several other leaks in the wooden hull. As passengers discovered the leaks, they tore off bits of clothing to wedge into the cracks, but still the water seeped in. The bailing bucket wasn’t enough, so a few of the men used their shoes to dump out water, while some women bailed water with their purses. It was exhausting work and after fifteen minutes or so, people began to slow down or take a breather, at which point the water level slowly began to rise and the frantic activity started all over.

The only Athenia crewman aboard was an older man who worked as a waiter in the Tourist dining saloon, someone had said. Russell wondered if his lack of experience was the reason why he struggled to guide the boat and direct the people at the oars. The passengers in the boat had only been able to find three of its eight oarlocks, leaving the port side of the boat underpowered. Without a tiller, the steward used one of the extra oars to try to steer the boat, but Russell didn’t think it had much effect.

On the cross-bench ahead of him, he watched two women struggle to work one of the oars. Coordinating their actions in response to the steward’s directions looked difficult and they were often out of synch with the starboard oar of the people ahead of them.

“Starboard side stop rowing,” the steward at the back of the boat called out. “You ladies on the right side of the boat stop for a moment and let the portside come around.” They stopped rowing, but Russell could see the confusion in their faces. One woman let go of the oar altogether while the second one turned around to look at the bow. At that moment, a wave swept the oar out of the oarlock and it fell overboard as the first women screamed in surprise.

Russell quickly reached over the gunwale and got a hand on the heavy oar, keeping it from drifting away from the boat.

“Don’t let go, sonny,” someone shouted. Several passengers seated near him reached out to pull the oar back into the boat and secure it the oarlock, where the two women once again took possession of it.

“Good work, laddie,” the steward called out.

“Well done.”

“Quick thinking, son.” Several people offered congratulations and a few clapped him on the shoulder with their thanks. Even though there were other unused oars in the boat, Russell felt genuinely appreciated by the adults. A sense of belonging began to replace the loneliness that had accompanied him into the lifeboat.

In our next blog: A rescue ship appears in the night.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.