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S.S. Athenia – the first ship torpedoed in World War II

The SS Athenia was was west of Ireland, en route to Canada when she was torpedoed at 1945 on 3rd September 1939. Oberleutnant Lemp, commander of U-30, appears to have mistaken her for an armed merchantman or a troop ship. In fact she was an ordinary passenger ship and 28 out of the 112 who died were United States citizens. Lemp realised his mistake and kept his actions secret until he returned to base. Meanwhile Nazi propaganda sought to make out that the British had themselves sunk the ship as part of a scheme to bring America into the war.

The Athenia sinking after being torpedoed by U-30

The following account of the attack on the Athenia was given by Adolf Schmidt to the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal after the war. Schmidt was wounded in a subsequent action during the same patrol and put ashore in then neutral Iceland. He spent the rest of the war as an internee and then as a prisoner of war.

I, Adolf Schmidt, Official Number N 1043-33T, do solemnly declare that: I am now confined to Camp No. 133, Lethbridge, Alberta.

On the first day of war, 3rd September, 1939, a ship of approximately 10,000 tons was torpedoed in the late hours of the evening by the U-30. After the ship was torpedoed and we surfaced again, approximately half an hour after the explosion, the Commandant called me to the tower in order to show me the torpedoed ship. I saw the ship with my very eyes, but I do not think that the ship could see our U-boat at that time on account of the position of the moon. Only a few members of the crew had an opportunity to go to the tower in order to see the torpedoed ship. Apart from myself, Oberleutnant Hinsch was in the tower when I saw the steamer after the attack.

I observed that the ship was listing. No warning shot was fired before the torpedo was launched. I myself observed much commotion on board the torpedoed ship. I believe that the ship had only one smoke stack. In the attack on this steamer one or two torpedoes were fired which did not explode, but I myself heard the explosion of the torpedo which hit the steamer.
Oberleutnant Lemp waited until darkness before surfacing.

I was severely wounded by aircraft 14th September, 1939.

Oberleutnant Lemp shortly before my disembarkation in Reykjavik, 19th September, 1939, visited me in the forenoon in the petty officers’ quarters where I was lying severely wounded. Oberleutnant Lemp then had the petty officers’ quarters cleared in order to be alone with me. Oberleutnant Lemp then showed me a declaration under oath according to which I had to bind myself to mention nothing concerning the incidents of 3rd September, 1939, on board the U-30. This declaration under oath had approximately the following wording: ‘I, the undersigned, swear hereby that I shall keep secret all happenings of 3rd September, 1939, on board the U-30, from either foe or friend, and that I shall erase from my memory all happenings of this day.’ I signed this declaration under oath, which was drawn up by the Commandant in his own handwriting, very illegibly with my left hand.

Later on in Iceland when I heard about the sinking of the Athenia, the idea came into my mind that the U-30 on the 3rd September, 1939, might have sunk the Athenia, especially since the Captain caused me to sign the above mentioned declaration.

Up to today I have never spoken to anyone concerning these events. Due to the termination of the war I consider myself freed from my oath.”

There is a very thorough article of the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Athenia on Maritime Quest, including an account of how Goebbels sought to use the episode for propaganda purposes.