On the evening of September 3, 1939, a few hours after Britain declared war on Germany, the passenger liner Athenia was sunk by a German U-boat 250 miles west of Donegal, Ireland. The commander of German submarine U-30, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, mistook the passenger ship for an armored cruiser and fired two torpedoes into the port side. The ship was carrying 1,103 people from Liverpool to Montreal, including 300 Americans. Over 100 people were killed.
After surfacing to survey the damage to the ship, Lemp realized his mistake. Soon afterwards, U-30 intercepted a transmission from the stricken ship identifying itself as the Athenia. Knowing full well the magnitude of his blunder, he opted to maintain radio silence and did not make a report. On September 14, eleven days after the sinking of the Athenia, he broke radio silence to report damage received in a confrontation with two destroyers following the sinking of British freighter Fanad Head, and to request permission to debark a wounded man in Iceland for medical attention. He still did not mention the Athenia.
Lemp’s fear of discovery was well founded. German submarines were forbidden to attack the enemy without a special order, which Lemp did not receive. Adolph Hitler realized the large amount of political damage that unrestricted submarine warfare caused during World War I, so he ordered all U-boat captains to refrain from attacking unless specifically told to do so. The sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania played a major part in drawing the United States into WWI and Hitler did not want to give the U.S. a pretext to enter this war.
The Germans 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 the first World War 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 Joseph Goebbels spread the story that the British had torpedoed the liner themselves in an attempt to bring the United States into the war.
After Lemp returned to Germany on September 27, he finally admitted that he had sunk the Athenia. The German government immediately began covering up the incident, any insinuation that a Nazi submarine was responsible for sinking the Athenia was met with swift denial and the ship’s log was altered to indicate that the U-boat was 200 miles away from the Athenia on September 3. Adolf Schmidt, the wounded soldier left in Iceland, swore an oath to Lemp that he would never speak of the incident. Although he became a prisoner of the British when they occupied Iceland in 1940, and was interrogated repeatedly, he kept his silence. After the war, Schmidt provided testimony that was used at Nuremberg, believing that his oath was nullified by the end of the war.
Fritz Lemp was not court-martialed for his mistake, but he was passed over several times for promotions that he should have received. He was later killed during the Allied capture of U-110.
One of the survivors on the Athenia was an 18 year-old Dallas schoolgirl named Betty Jane Stewart, who went on to become the grandmother of Old '97s lead singer Rhett Miller. The band feels the need to mention this fact in their song “Rollerskate Skinny”, so I will too.