Russell Park & the SS Athenia Part 6…

Painting of the SS Athenia Sinking by W.J. Burgess

Painting of the SS Athenia Sinking by W.J. Burgess

Sunday, 8:15 – 9:10 p.m., September 3, 1939

One after another, Russell watched several lifeboats depart from Athenia’s Boat deck.  Each time a boat descended, he moved to another station. He promised his father he would go once the boats were ready, even if his father and mother had not yet returned, but he couldn’t bear the thought of getting into a lifeboat without his parents. Russell was certain they would return at any moment, so he hung back in the crowd.

Once while moving to a new station he saw two men in the water swimming to a lifeboat that had already been launched. He noticed they were wearing lifejackets and realized with a start that he didn’t have one. Even though he couldn’t swim, Russell didn’t want to search for a lifejacket for fear he might miss his parents. With the crowd thinning, however, he was becoming more conspicuous.

Something else also was becoming conspicuous. Athenia’s deck leaned more and more down toward the port side of the ship. If it kept up, everyone would slide off the deck into the ocean. It had been an hour since his father left. Where could they be?

Finally, there was only one lifeboat left – number 7A on the starboard side. The lifeboat tilted slightly inwards and would not come off its blocks, despite the efforts of several crewmen pulling on the ropes to lift its bow and stern. They tried to rock the boat by leaning on its gunwales, but it didn’t budge. The delay in launching the stubborn boat gave Russell hope his parents would arrive in time to leave with him.

He watched three crewmen place a long piece of lumber under the boat and over the railing that separated the lifeboat from the rest of the deck. They tried to lever the heavy lifeboat with several men on the long end of the wooden beam but succeeded only in breaking the metal railing. In a final act of desperation, a few men grabbed fire axes and began chopping away at the blocks under the boat. After several minutes it seemed to come free, settling on its keel with a gentle rocking motion. As the men with the axes stood back in triumph, Russell was the only one on deck not cheering their accomplishment.

He watched the now familiar routine as the crewmen hauled on ropes at either end of the boat to raise it off the deck, crank the davits to swing it out over the side of the ship, and lower it level for loading. The surge of passengers carried Russell forward. He turned to search frantically for any glimpse of his parents, but they were nowhere in sight. To keep from being trampled, he stepped into the boat and found a seat on the far side behind the last cross-bench. Everything was happening too fast.

The Boat deck disappeared above him as 7A began descending, scraping down the side of Athenia’s hull because of the way the ship leaned to port. Three feet from the water, the boat came to an abrupt stop. Russell wondered if the ropes were too short, when suddenly the boat dropped into the ocean with a loud splash, accompanied by shouts from the people up on deck.

“Good luck.”

“Well done.”

“See you in the morning.”

Russell wondered if his father and mother were among the people shouting. Maybe they came up on deck just as the lifeboat was launched. But this was the last boat and he felt guilty to be leaving his parents aboard, along with several members of Athenia’s crew.

“What about them?” Russell cried, pointing to people shouting and waving on the Boat deck.

“Don’t worry about them, laddie,” a man in a white coat sitting in the stern responded. “There are two motor launches to take them off.” The casual note in the man’s voice as much as the words themselves gave Russell hope that he would be back with his parents soon.

But as the lifeboat pulled away from Athenia, he began to have second thoughts about leaving the ship. First, the people in the lifeboat found only a few of the oarlocks needed to hold the oars for rowing, nor could they find the tiller that moved the rudder to steer the boat. Worst of all the boat was leaking because the wooden plug for the drain in the bottom had been dislodged when they hit the water.

Earlier in the afternoon, Russell had imagined commanding the sturdy little wooden boat on the high seas. Now it didn’t seem like such a good idea. The cold, dark night closed down around him and the boat didn’t feel so sturdy, leaking and bobbing up and down on big rolling waves. Athenia’s steel deck seemed much more substantial, no matter how awkwardly it was tilted. From a distance the big ship looked safe to him, with its emergency lights providing a haven in the darkness. How he wished now he could be back on board with his parents.

In our next blog: Russell’s quick action saves an oar and earns praise from his shipmates.

For all the blogs about Russell Park in this series, please visit www.thomascsanger.com  

 

Russell Park on the SS Athenia: Part 2

 

WW2 Barrage Balloons

WW2 Barrage Balloons

Saturday Morning, September 2, 1939

A gray overcast held off the early morning sun as Athenia made her way slowly up the Mersey River into Liverpool. Russell and his father, Alexander, leaned on the portside railing where they anticipated having a good view of the action when the liner tied up at the Albert Docks. Russell’s mother, Rebecca, had decided to remain in bed to nurse an upset stomach.

Instead of heading for the docks, the liner came to a stop and dropped anchor a few minutes past seven a.m. in the middle of the river. Russell hardly noticed the unexpected anchoring. He was intrigued by something he had never seen before. Floating on long tethers high above the city were dozens of floppy silver balloons the size of school buses, with two fins on either side of a tapered tail. To Russell, it looked as if the circus had come to town.

“They’re barrage balloons,” his father explained.

“Can people go up in them?”

“Oh no, Russ, they’re to protect the city from bombers, in case England goes to war with Germany.”

“Do the bombs bounce off of them?” Russell thought that might be an interesting sight.

“Nope. If the enemy planes come in low to drop their bombs they’ll be tangled up in the balloon cables and crash. That means they have to fly higher, where the English anti-aircraft gunners can shoot them down.”

“Wow, the German bombers don’t stand a chance, do they?”

“There you are.” A familiar voice interrupted Alexander’s response.

Russell and his dad turned to see Father O’Connor strolling toward them, a white clerical collar visible above the leather buttons of his dark cardigan sweater. They exchanged greetings and learned the priest and his father were staying in a Third class cabin on D deck, four decks below, sharing a small cabin with two other men who were German refugees and spoke no English.

“Dad’s sound asleep, so I decided to see if I could find you,” O’Connor said. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” The priest nodded in the direction of the large balloons.

“A sad one, I’m afraid, Father,” Alexander said. “Now Hitler’s marched into Poland, war seems unavoidable.” Russell turned his attention back to the balloons, but kept an ear cocked to the adults’ conversation.

“Such a tragedy,” O’Connor agreed. “I can’t understand how Hitler can be so blind to his own ambition that he’s willing to plunge Europe into another war.”

“I just hope we can stay out of it.”

“I agree. When you look at what happened in Spain, I’m afraid there’ll be little distinction between soldiers and civilians in the next war.”

“Maybe we should change the subject, Father.”

With a pause in the conversation, Russell shifted his attention to the hazy Liverpool skyline and the big gray building on the shore directly across from the ship. Two reddish stone towers, one facing the river and one at the opposite end of the building, rose above the rest of the structure. A large, greenish-gray statue of a bird with its wings outstretched topped each tower. Apparently Father O’Connor noticed them as well.

“You see the two birds on the building over there?” O’Connor asked Russell’s father. “Do you know how to tell if they are male or female?”

“Can’t say as I do, but I have a feeling you know.” Russell could almost hear a smile in his father’s voice.

“As a matter of fact, I do. The one facing us, looking out to the river, that’s a female. She’s looking to see if her boyfriend is coming in on the next ship. The bird looking away from us, toward Liverpool?  He’s a male.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because he’s looking to see if the pubs are open yet.”

“Sounds like a very sensible bird,” Alexander chuckled.

“There’s another local legend about those birds, but it’s not appropriate for young ears.”

Russell kept his gaze on the building and the balloons, hoping for further discussion of the subject in spite of his young ears. But after a moment of silence, his father introduced a new subject, one that didn’t involve the legend of the birds.

“I heard last night that we’re carrying five million pounds sterling in gold bars. A fellow in the lounge told me he saw the steel boxes come aboard under guard in Glasgow. I asked him how he knew what was in the boxes, but he claimed it was common knowledge on board.”

“Well, I heard something last night, too, but I have some trouble believing it,” O’Connor said. “A couple of people told me the crew has never been to sea before. They said the regular crew had all been mobilized by the Royal Navy.”

“That doesn’t make much sense, Alexander said. “A ship this size isn’t going anywhere without experienced seamen aboard.”  After a brief pause, Russell heard his dad speak again.

“I’m afraid we have to go, Father, before we miss our breakfast. You’re welcome to join us if you think your collar will let you into the Tourist dining saloon.”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll head back downstairs and check on dad. Give my regards to Rebecca.”  With a wink and a wave, the priest headed for the stairway.

“Are we really carrying five million dollars of gold?” Russell asked.

“Not dollars, son. They’re British pounds, and I don’t know. But if I were you, I wouldn’t go looking for it.” His father’s comment raised Russell’s hopes that he still might be allowed to explore the ship on his own, and it started him thinking: How big would steel boxes have to be to hold five million dollars in gold bars?

*In Part 1 of Russell Park’s story (see blog post Feb. 28, 2017), 11-year-old Russell and his parents boarded the British passenger liner Athenia in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the evening of Sept, 1, 1939. Overnight, Athenia sailed back across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, England, her last port of call before sailing for Canada.

In our next blog: Events threaten Russell’s plans to explore Athenia.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“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!

 

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

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

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

macat17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

U-BOATS: Their Contributions to Germany’s Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The SS Athenia: A Different Way to Write About this Tragedy.

 

Thomas C. Sanger - Author of Without Warning - photo

The S S Athenia: I chose a different way to write about this tragedy.

When I decided in 2010 to write about the Athenia tragedy (see blog post “Origins of a Book, Part 1, Sept. 1, 2016), my first step was to find out what had been published on the subject.

There were two non-fiction books written about the sinking: Tomorrow Never Came, by Max Caulfield, published in the U.S. in 1959, and Three Days in September: The Last Voyage of the Athenia, by Cay Rademacher, published in Germany in 2009. The older book was no longer in print (though copies were for sale on the Internet) and there were no plans to publish the German book in English.

And so the journey for a new book on the Athenia began.

To differentiate my effort from the previous books, I determined to write a historical novel about the sinking. I thought fiction would be the best way to make the emotional connection with readers that I sought.

I began by reading the Caulfield book. Then I scoured the Internet, where I found a great deal of material, including many first-hand accounts of Athenia’s sinking.

Rather than invent my characters, I decided to fictionalize the experiences of real people, imagining their thoughts and conversations as they experienced events before, during and after the torpedoing by a German submarine. Following 18 months of research I settled on ten people – eight passengers, the Athenia’s second-in-command and the submarine commander – whose experiences would allow me to tell the most complete story of Athenia’s last voyage.

With two years invested in my project, my heart sank late in 2012 when I opened a catalogue and found a new Athenia book had just been published: Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic, by Francis M. Carroll! I ordered a copy and discovered an up-to-date, concise, thoroughly researched and well-written non-fiction account of the attack on Athenia and its aftermath.

Had I chosen to write a non-fiction book on the subject, like the Athena, I would have been sunk!

Thankfully, my idea for a historical novel remained afloat. All I had to do was write it….

Without Warning by author Thomas C. Sanger - book cover image

IMG_5095
Rhoda Thomas Photo credit: Family photo

The Writing Life: Origins of a Book, Part 1

As some of you may know, Without Warning is in its final revision stages as I attempt to make my manuscript read more like a novel. With luck I’ll finish this part of the process by the end of September, when my search for an agent and/or publisher will resume.

At this juncture, I thought it might be interesting to tell how I came to this project and what I hope to accomplish with my book. Without Warning tells the story of the British passenger ship Athenia, which was torpedoed by a German submarine Sept. 3, 1939, only hours after the two countries declared war.

Despite Athenia’s place in history as the first British ship sunk in World War 2, few in the British Isles and even fewer in America have ever heard her name. My attachment to this tragedy is personal. My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger on Athenia’s last voyage. She survived the sinking and returned home to Rochester, NY, as a minor celebrity. She gave her eye-witness account of these events to several newspapers and completed an affidavit for the U.S. State Department, which asked all 281 surviving American passengers to describe what they saw.

At some point, Rhoda sat down and wrote a vivid 14-page memoir for family members about her experiences before, during and after the torpedo attack. Reading her account many years after her death was like hearing her voice again. Her honesty and the immediacy of her descriptions inspired me to try to bring this long-ago incident back to life. It was late fall of 2010, and I had no idea this effort would take me six years, more than 100,000 words, and several thousand miles of travel to complete.

That journey begins in my next blog. 

lempsig
Photo caption: An autographed photo of U-boat “ace” Fritz-Julius Lemp wearing his Knight’s Cross medal for valor. Photo credit: gmic.co.uk

Meet the Character: Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 6

Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, the man who sank the British passenger liner Athenia, met with representatives of the German Naval High Command in Berlin during the final days of September, 1939. (See blog post “Fritz-Julius Lemp, Part 5,” July 15, 2016.) He had been ordered to explain his actions, which violated international law.

At 26 years old, Lemp was among the youngest commanders of the German submarine fleet, but he had a well-earned reputation for courage in battle. Some of that pluck must have accompanied his presentation to the High Command. The senior officers recommended against putting Lemp on trial, apparently accepting his explanation that he thought he was attacking a British armed merchant cruiser, a ship that would be a legitimate target.

A separate factor in Lemp’s favor may have been the German government’s month-long denial of any responsibility for sinking Athenia. Taking disciplinary action against the young U-boat captain might have risked revealing the truth and embarrassing the government. At the same time, it also could discourage bold action by other U-boat captains.

U-boat fleet commander Kommodore Karl Dӧnitz may have been pleased that his young captain had not suffered a humiliating punishment. After all, on his first war patrol Lemp had sunk two British cargo ships, rescued two British pilots, survived a punishing depth-charge attack and navigated his badly damaged ship more than 1,000 nautical miles back to its home port in Wilhelmshaven. Nevertheless, Dӧnitz ordered Lemp to be confined to quarters for several days because he had failed to properly identify Athenia as a passenger ship.

During this period, Dӧnitz apparently ordered that U-30’s daily log be altered to show the submarine was many miles away when Athenia was attacked Sept. 3, 1939. It would not be until the Nuremberg trials in 1947 that Dӧnitz would admit U-30’s responsibility for the attack. (See blog post “Nazi Denials,” July 1, 2014.)

Despite his initial setback, Lemp soon returned to active duty and began to carve out a distinguished naval career. He received a promotion to Kapitänleutnant Oct. 1, 1939, and sailed seven more war patrols in U-30, eventually sinking 17 ships and damaging two others.

The German Navy celebrated Lemp by publicizing his exploits as one of its “U-boat Aces,” rallying support for the war effort and glamorizing its “gallant” submarine commanders. At age 27 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest medal for valor, while on his final patrol in U-30.

In March 1941 Lemp, now 28, took command of U-110, a somewhat larger submarine than the Type VIIA U-boat he had commanded thus far in the war. U-110 was a faster boat and could sail twice as far as U-30 before having to refuel. As he contemplated his new command, Kapitänleutnant Lemp could not have known he had less than five weeks to live.

His story concludes in our next blog.

geraldine_mary
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.