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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > April 2019 > Surface Tension

Surface Tension

Gavin Mortimer delivers an explosive tale of how the British ignored the German U-boat threat in the early days of WWII – and why that nearly cost them the war
The US cutter Spencer attacks U-boat U-175 as it disrupts an Allied merchant convoy in 1943

On of a SS Donaldson 13,000-ton the September Athenia, second Atlantic of day liner, 1939, the Line, set sail from Liverpool for Montreal, across the Atlantic Ocean. Among the 1,103 passengers were a number of German Jews and 72 British nationals, along with 315 crew, under the command of Captain James Cook.

Lieutenant Fritz-Julius Lemp (left) salutes fleet commander Karl Dönitz in 1940
When Hitler learned Lemp had sunk the SS Athenia, U-30’s log was falsified to cover it up

The next day, the Athenia was making good progress as passengers sat down to dinner. There was only one topic of conversation: the message pinned to the ship’s noticeboard that morning announcing Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.

Not all passengers had an appetite. A few, like Mrs McMillan Wallace, were getting some fresh air on the promenade deck. Suddenly from the crow’s nest she heard a a yell: “Submarine!” She looked out to sea and saw an ominous white wake.

Lieutenant Fritz-Julius Lemp sounded the klaxon for battle stations, as U-30 dipped below the surface of the Atlantic to attack what he thought was “an armed merchant cruiser” travelling at 16 knots. When the U-boat was 1,600 yards from its target, Lemp “called out his firing intervals for a spread of four torpedoes”. Back came the message: “Torpedoes loose!”


At 7.43pm, the Athenia shook with a mighty explosion. The ship listed to port, and diners screamed in confusion as tables, chairs and cutlery went flying. In the melee, husbands were separated from wives, mothers from children and sisters from brothers. The crew rushed to lower the 26 lifeboats, as a few hundred yards away the crew of U-30 roared their delight. They had struck the first submarine blow for the fatherland, sinking an armed cruiser less than 12 hours after the declaration of war.

ABOVE: Winston Churchill (right) with Admiral Dudley Pound, Britain’s First Sea Lord, in 1943
RIGHT: Among the passengers on the Athenia were Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution
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About History Revealed

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