First incident of WW-II, sinking the S.S. Athenia
The first incident of the U-boat war occurred just hours after the declaration of hostilities between Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939, when Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, commanding U-30, a German Type VII boat, attacked and sank what he took to be an armored cruiser. His target was, in fact, the S.S. Athenia, a 13,500 ton passenger liner carrying 1,103 civilians, including more than 300 Americans hurrying home ahead of the clouds of war. This case of mistaken identity set in motion a large-scale cover-up on the part of the Reich
On the afternoon war was declared, radio messages were sent to all Kriegsmarine vessels indicating that a state of war was in force, that attacks on enemy shipping were to commence in accordance with the Prize Rules, and that vessels should feel free to begin hostilities without awaiting provocation. U-30 at that time was patrolling the area north-west of Ireland. Having spotted a ship on the horizon, heading away from Britain in a north-westerly direction U-30 submerged to periscope depth, took a look at the ship, and observed that the vessel was blacked out and zigzagging, and appeared to carry guns on her deck, all indications that she was an armed merchant or auxiliary cruiser, and therefore a legitimate target.
Dispensing with the shot across the bow specified in the Prize Rules, Lemp fired two torpedoes, one of which struck squarely, and one which misfired. U-30 dived to avoid the danger that the defective torpedo might circle back toward the U-boat. Surfacing once more and observing that the ship did not seem to be sinking, he fired a third torpedo, but this too missed, close enough now to note its silhouette, Lemp compared it with his Lloyd`s Register and discovered his mistake..
Knowing full well the magnitude of his blunder, he maintains radio silence. Eleven days after the sinking of Athenia, he broke radio silence to report damage received in a confrontation with two destroyers following the sinking of British freighter Fanad Head. He still did not mention the Athenia.
Berlin learned of the sinking from British news broadcasts. The rude surprise of hearing of it in such a way was compounded by despair; the years of effort to erase the world`s memory of the unrestricted submarine warfare of World War I were cancelled out in an instant, in the first hours of the new conflict.
By comparing the location of the sinking with the U-boat deployment charts, it was clear that only one boat could have been responsible. Seeing the phantom of the Lusitania rising again, Hitler decreed that accusations would be confronted with categorical denial. To throw the British off the track still further, the Propaganda Ministry under Göbbels spread the story that the British had torpedoed the liner themselves in a scurrilous attempt to bring the United States into the war.
Arriving in Wilhelmshaven on September 27, Lemp immediately reported to Donitz that he had sunk the Athenia, and was sent to Berlin for a full debriefing.
In spite of initial fears in Berlin, the Athenia did not become another Lusitania; it was not as great a public relations disaster as it first had seemed. However, the very first U-boat success of the war did have far-reaching ramifications.
The next day, September 4, Hitler ordered that under no circumstances were attacks to be made on passenger ships, even in convoy, regardless of nation. This caused confusion as to what sort of vessel it was now permissible to attack. Freighters sometimes carried passengers; passenger ships sometimes carried troops. Were these legitimate targets?
Lemp was not court-martialed for his error, but neither was he promoted from the field as were many of his contemporaries.
Of the Athenia`s passengers and crew, 112 were killed (93 of them passengers) in the initial explosion or died later as a result of the sinking.