The Story of Russell Park and the SS Athenia Continues* Part 3

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Sunday Morning, September 3, 1939

With the conclusion of Father Joseph O’Connor’s Holy Mass for several dozen Catholics aboard Athenia, Russell was on his feet. The morning service had seemed interminable as he sat with his mother, Rebecca, and the other worshipers in the ornately domed Tourist class smoking lounge on the Promenade deck. The combination of the ship’s motion and the room’s warm, still air made his stomach feel funny, and he did not want to be sick. His mother, Rebecca, finally relented after he had pleaded his case for nearly twenty-four hours. Russell would be able to explore the ship after lunch.

“Don’t go running off yet, young man,” Rebecca said. “We’re meeting your father for lunch.”

“I know.” Russell managed a smile and imagined he felt better now he was moving.

On their way down to the Tourist class dining saloon, Russell saw a group of people in the passageway on A deck looking at something on the wood-paneled wall. A low, anxious murmur filled the hall as a few individuals ran to join the group, while others walked away looking worried and unhappy.

“What is it?” Rebecca asked an older woman coming away from the growing crowd.

“England’s at war with Germany. The prime minister announced it this morning,” she said. Russell saw tears in the woman’s eyes.

“Oh no,” Rebecca said. She squeezed Russell’s hand, but did not start down the stairs.

“What do we do now?” Russell asked. His mother didn’t answer. She seemed rooted to the carpet.

“Mom?” Rebecca stared straight ahead. She looked worried and that concerned Russell. “Mom!”

“What?” she said, finally looking at him.

“Do we have to go back to England?”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure. Let’s find your father, he’ll probably know more.”

* * *

The Tourist Dining Saloon was not crowded for the midday meal; several tables sat unoccupied, their crisp, snowy linens and gleaming place settings abandoned. The Parks occupied three seats at the end of a rectangular table for eight. An older woman at the opposite end was the only other diner at their table. Russell sensed a somber mood in the room’s subdued conversations, and he feared it would make his parents even more cautious than usual.

He knew his mother and father were older than the parents of other boys his age, and he sometimes wondered if that was the reason for their caution. His father never joined in when other dads played ball with their sons on the street in front of their house. While Russell didn’t care much for sports, he often wished that he and his father shared an activity the other boys would admire, like big game hunting or stunt flying. His mother always kept a close eye on him and constantly warned Russell to be careful, even when he wasn’t doing anything dangerous. He thought her caution resulted from what his father called “her delicate health,” which could keep her bedridden for weeks at a time.

As they waited for their lunches, Russell’s father, Alexander, admitted he didn’t know much more about the morning’s announcement, although he seemed confident Athenia would continue on to Canada rather than sail back to England. When lunch arrived, Russell’s mother picked lightly at her food, saying she didn’t feel hungry. Russell hoped to counter the mood by cleaning his plate in a show of vitality he hoped would convince his parents to let him explore the ship as promised. But when Rebecca raised the subject with her husband, Russell realized she was wavering. He adopted his most fervent tone in hopes of saving his afternoon exploration.

“But mom, if they’re not going to turn the ship around they must not be worried. I’ll be real careful.”

“I’m not worried about you being careful,” she said. “I’m worried about something happening to the ship and not knowing where you are.”

“Okay, I know where our room is. I can come back right away to meet you if anything happens. Please…”  He knew if he had enough time, he could wear his mother down, but that could take the rest of the day and he was eager to get started.

“I don’t think there’s much danger of anything happening, dear,” Alexander said. “It’s broad daylight and we are obviously a passenger ship, not a wartime target. Besides, a state of war has only just been declared. The Germans probably aren’t even in a position to attack at this point.”

Rebecca looked tired, and when she spoke, Russell heard a note of resignation in her voice that meant he’d won his case.

“Before I would let you go anywhere on this ship, you’re coming with me back to the cabin to change into your oldest clothes.”

Russell nodded enthusiastically.

“And you would have to promise me two things. First, that you won’t bother any other passengers. And second, that you won’t go anywhere you are not permitted.”

“I promise.” He certainly didn’t plan to bother anyone, and he had no intention of breaking his promise. But going where he wasn’t permitted ran counter to what explorers did.

* * *

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*While Athenia sat at anchor Saturday, Sept. 2, 1939, in Liverpool’s Mersey River (see blog post March 15, 2017), 546 passengers boarded the ship before she sailed for Canada late that afternoon. The German army had marched into Poland Sept. 1, but despite an Anglo-French agreement to come to Poland’s defense, neither country had taken any action by early Sunday morning.

In our next blog: Russell makes a new friend.

 

The Famous and Future Famous Sailed on Athenia’s Last Voyage!

Ernst Lubitsch and baby Nicola

Baby Nicola with her parents, Ernst Lubitsch and Vivian Gaye

Movie star Edward G. Robinson missed his chance to board the ill-fated British liner Athenia at the start of World War 2 (see blog post, Jan. 30, 2017), but Athenia’s passenger manifest already included a few famous names when she sailed from Liverpool, England, Sept. 2, 1939.

One of the most recognizable names was “Lubitsch.” Famed movie director Ernst Lubitsch was not a passenger, but his      10-month-old daughter, Nicola, was aboard, accompanied by her nurse Carlina Strohmayer.

Lubitsch’s wife, the British actress Vivian Gaye, lived in London at the time with their daughter and the nursemaid. Heavy demand for passage to North America to escape the threat of war meant Vivian only could acquire two tickets for Athenia’s crossing to Canada. To keep her daughter safe, Gaye sent Nicola and her nurse off on the ship to join her husband, Ernst, in Hollywood, where he was directing the film “Ninotchka,” starring Greta Garbo.

Athenia never made it to Canada. A German submarine torpedoed the ship the evening of Sept. 3rd. Strohmayer and the baby made it into a lifeboat, but during rescue operations the boat capsized and they were thrown into the sea. For nearly an hour the nurse held little Nicola on her shoulders while treading water to stay afloat. They were picked up by the crew of a luxury yacht and eventually arrived safely in Hollywood nearly two weeks later.  

Also aboard the ship was Andrew Allan, a gifted and prolific writer, returning to Canada after more than a year of producing radio programming in London. He became the head of radio drama for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and would be credited with helping develop a Canadian “voice” in North American drama.

Traveling with Allan was his father, the Rev. William Allan, who had gained a significant following throughout Canada with a series of radio sermons produced by his son. Also with the younger Allan was his one-time fiancée, Canadian actress Judith Evelyn, who went on to win plaudits for two starring roles on the Broadway stage in the 1940s. She moved on to Hollywood and enjoyed a steady career of character roles in movies and television.

Evelyn and Allan were among the few survivors of a tragedy that destroyed a second lifeboat during rescue operations. That accident killed Allan’s father and left them clinging to a fragment of their lifeboat for several hours before being rescued at dawn on Sept. 4.

Some of Athenia’s passengers were unknown to the public at the time, but would go on to earn fame in their chosen fields.

Music teacher Barbara Cass-Beggs and her husband were separated from their three-year-old daughter while escaping Athenia and did not know for nearly three weeks that their little girl survived until they arrived in Canada. Later in life, Barbara enjoyed a distinguished international career in early childhood education using music as a teaching tool.

Prof. John H. Lawrence, returning to his Berkley, California, home from a London Conference, would later be hailed as the father of nuclear medicine.

Finally, Harold Etherington, a talented engineer returning home to Milwaukee with his wife and son after visiting relatives in England, would go on to help design the engine that powered the U.S.S. Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine. He later would be recognized as one of the fathers of nuclear power.

 

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

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Photo caption: Problems in the design and production of German torpedoes led to many misfires by U-boats early in World War 2. Photo credit: www.navweaps.com.

War History The Trouble with Torpedoes, Part 1

We may never know for certain the details of the German submarine U-30’s attack on the British passenger ship Athenia. The U-boat’s log book was altered to allow the German navy to deny responsibility for the attack by showing the sub was many miles away when Athenia was torpedoed, Sept. 3, 1939. (See blog post “Nazi Denials of the U-30 Attack on the SS Athenia;” July 1, 2014.)

We know, however, that the commander of the submarine, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, experienced a frustration common to many of his fellow captains at the start of the war – torpedo misfires. While Lemp’s first shot hit home and eventually sank the passenger ship, two subsequent torpedoes failed.

In his initial attack, Lemp fired at least two (some say four) torpedoes, according to accounts from U-30 crew members. The U-boat’s radio man, Georg Hӧgel, reported the second torpedo became stuck in the submarine’s torpedo tube and when finally launched, it exploded prematurely. In other accounts, the second shot ran out of control, forcing U-30 to dive to avoid being struck by its own torpedo. Even in versions that describe a salvo of four torpedoes being fired, only the first shot hit its target. (The attack on Athenia is the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning.)

Lemp later surfaced in the dark of night to assess the damage he had done. He decided the ship was sinking too slowly and might even stay afloat long enough to be towed to port and salvaged. With a stationary target and favorable attack angle, U-30 fired another torpedo to finish off the crippled ship, but it failed to strike home. Shortly after this last shot, Lemp discovered he had mistakenly attacked a passenger ship – an action forbidden by submarine warfare protocols in affect at that time – and he left the scene without taking any further action.

Three weeks later, U-30 returned to its home base in Wilhelmshaven, Germany. Lemp apparently launched only two other torpedoes during the remainder of his combat patrol – both fired at stationary targets – and both detonated as designed. Once in port, he admitted sinking Athenia and was ordered to explain his actions to the German Naval High Command in Berlin. Faced with justifying his attack on a passenger ship and possibly having to save his naval career, Lemp is unlikely to have spent much time reporting his torpedo misfires.

Nevertheless, over the next several months the misfires became a high priority for the man in charge of Germany’s U-boat fleet, Rear Admiral Karl Dӧnitz. Despite the admiral’s complaints, U-boat successes during these early months apparently led Naval High Command to discount reports of torpedo failures.

But as we will see in our next blog, the misfires pointed to larger and more systemic problems, and the failure of top naval commanders to correct them in a timely manner undermined the U-boat fleet’s contribution to the Nazi war effort.

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Rhoda Thomas saw many scenes like this one of school children being evacuated from large cities and factory towns in anticipation of the war. Photo Credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 2

Like many other vacationers in Great Britain in September of 1939, Rhoda Thomas scrambled to make last-minute arrangements to return home ahead of a war with Germany that now seemed certain. She had arranged a ticket for the passenger ship Athenia, leaving Liverpool Sept. 2, and managed to catch an express train in southwestern England to take her to the port city the day before departure (see blog post May 1, 2015).

It was a grim journey. My grandmother later recalled the train trip as being “crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm.” Many were British citizens and they seemed to Rhoda to be “unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and give up all their country demanded.”

In anticipation of war, the British government had begun a voluntary evacuation of school children from cities and factory towns all over England that Friday, Sept. 1. Rhoda saw the first group of evacuated children as her train passed through Gloucester, a sight she said she would never Read More

When Warning Was Required

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

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

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

Meet the Character: Ruth Etherington, An Unlikely Hero

Ruth Etherington and her family checked into their Liverpool hotel the evening of Sept. 1, 1939, concluding a five-week holiday with relatives in Great Britain and preparing to depart the next day for Canada aboard Athenia. Germany’s invasion of Poland that same morning brought a sense of urgency to their voyage home as war between the British and Germans now seemed imminent. Ruth had no way of knowing she was about to become one of the first targets of that war and one of its first heroes (as featured in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning).

Born 35 years earlier to a Scottish mother and Welsh father, Elesa Ruth Ashton grew up in England’s West Midlands. At the University of Wales, she studied mathematics, chemistry, and botany on the way to earning a degree in education. A petite and energetic beauty, Ruth also enjoyed playing romantic and comedy roles in student theater productions. She graduated “magna cum laude” in 1925 and took a teaching job in northern Wales before meeting Harold Etherington, a brilliant mechanical engineer who was nearly four years her senior. They married in early 1928 and their son, Geoffrey, was born that December. Read More

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

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

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

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