Military history

THE SINKING OF THE ATHENIA

There was one other decision agreed upon by Hitler and Raeder at the meeting on September 7. The Admiral noted it in his diary: “No attempt shall be made to solve the Athenia affair until the submarines return home.”

The war at sea, as we have noted, had begun ten hours after Britain’s declaration of war when the British liner Athenia, jammed with some 1,400 passengers, was torpedoed without warning at 9 P.M. on September 3 some two hundred miles west of the Hebrides, with the loss of 112 Uves, including twenty-eight Americans. The German Propaganda Ministry checked the first reports from London with the Naval High Command, was told that there were no U-boats in the vicinity and promptly denied that the ship had been sunk by the Germans. The disaster was most embarrassing to Hitler and the Naval Command and at first they did not believe the British reports. Strict orders had been given to all submarine commanders to observe the Hague Convention, which forbade attacking a ship without warning. Since all U-boats maintained radio silence, therewas no means of immediately checking what had happened.* That did not prevent the controlled Nazi press from charging, within a couple of days, that the British had torpedoed their own ship in order to provoke the United States into coming into the war.

The Wilhelmstrasse was indeed concerned with American reaction to a disaster that had caused the deaths of twenty-eight United States citizens. The day after the sinking Weizsaecker sent for the American chargé, Alexander Kirk, and denied that a German submarine had done it. No German craft was in the vicinity, he emphasized. That evening, according to his later testimony at Nuremberg, the State Secretary sought out Raeder, reminded him of how the German sinking of the Lusitania during the First World War had helped bring America into it and urged that “everything should be done” to avoid provoking the United States. The Admiral assured him that “no German U-boat could have been involved.”9

At the urging of Ribbentrop, Admiral Raeder invited the American naval attaché to come to see him on September 16 and stated that he had now received reports from all the submarines, “as a result of which it was definitely established that the Athenia had not been sunk by a German U-boat.” He asked him to so inform his government, which the attaché promptly did.10

The Grand Admiral had not quite told the truth. Not all the submarines which were at sea on September 3 had yet returned to port. Among those that had not was the U-30, commanded by Oberleutnant Lemp, which did not dock in home waters until September 27. It was met by Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of submarines, who years later at Nuremberg described the meeting and finally revealed the truth about who sank the Athenia.

I met the captain, Oberleutnant Lemp, on the lockside at Wilhelmshaven as the boat was entering harbor, and he asked permission to speak to me in private. I noticed immediately that he was looking very unhappy and he told me at once that he thought he was responsible for the sinking of the Athenia in the North Channel area. In accordance with my previous instructions he had been keeping a sharp lookout for possible armed merchant cruisers in the approaches to the British Isles, and had torpedoed a ship he afterward identified as the Athenia from wireless broadcasts, under the impression that she was an armed merchant cruiser on patrol …

I dispatched Lemp at once by air to report to the Naval War Staff (SKL) at Berlin; in the meantime I ordered complete secrecy as a provisional measure. Later the same day, or early on the following day, I received an order from Kapitaen zur See Fricke that:

1. The affair was to be kept a total secret.

2. The High Command of the Navy (OKM) considered that a court-martial was not necessary, as they were satisfied that the captain had acted in good faith.

3. Political explanations would be handled by OKM.*

I had had no part whatsoever in the political events in which the Fuehrer claimed that no U-boat had sunk the Athenia.11

But Doenitz, who must have suspected the truth all along, for otherwise he would not have been at the dock to greet the returning U-30, did have a part in altering the submarine’s log and his own diary so as to erase any telltale evidence of the truth. In fact, as he admitted at Nuremberg, he himself ordered any mention of the Athenia stricken from the U-30’s log and deleted it from his own diary. He swore the vessel’s crew to absolute secrecy.

The military high commands of all nations no doubt have skeletons in their closets during the course of war, and it was understandable if not laudable that Hitler, as Admiral Raeder testified at Nuremberg, insisted that the Athenia affair be kept secret, especially since the Naval Command had acted in good faith in at first denying German responsibility and would have been greatly embarrassed to have to admit it later. But Hitler did not stop there. On the evening of Sunday, October 22, Propaganda Minister Goebbels personally took to the air—this writer well remembers the broadcast—and accused Churchill of having sunk the Athenia. The next day the official Nazi newspaper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, ran a frontpage story under the headline CHURCHILL SANK THE “ATHENIA” and stating that the First Lord of the Admiralty had planted a time bomb in the ship’s hold. At Nuremberg it was established that the Fuehrer had personally ordered the broadcast and the article—and also that though Raeder, Doenitz and Weizsaecker were highly displeased at such a brazen lie, they dared not do anything about it.13

This spinelessness on the part of the admirals and the self-styled anti-Nazi leader in the Foreign Office, which was fully shared by the generals, whenever the demonic Nazi warlord cracked down, was to lead to one of the darkest pages in German history.

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