Was the sinking of the SS Athenia the first Nazi atrocity in WW2?

World War 2 officially started on September 3,1939 .Th Nazis wasted very little time in committing their first mass murder during the war. It was only hours after the war was declared.

The S.S. Athenia, was commanded by Captain James Cook, left Glasgow for Montreal via Liverpool and Belfast. She carried 1,103 passengers, including about 500 Jewish refugees, 469 Canadians, 311 US citizens and 72 UK subjects, and 315 crew. Despite clear indications that war would break out any day, she departed Liverpool at 13:00 hrs on 2 September without recall, and on the evening of the 3rd was 60 nautical miles (110 km) south of Rockall and 200 nautical miles (370 km) northwest of Inishtrahull, Ireland, when she was sighted by the German submarine U-30 commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp around 16:30.

U-30 tracked Athenia for three hours until eventually, at 19:40, when both vessels were between Rockall and Tory Island, Lemp ordered two torpedoes to be fired. One exploded on Athenia’s port side in her engine room, and she began to settle by the stern.

Chamberlain’s famous “this country is at war with Germany” broadcast was delivered shortly after 11 in the morning. The torpedo from U-30 struck the Athenia at 7:38 that evening. She was slow to go down, disappearing beneath the waves, stern first, at 11 the next morning.

At 7:38, just as the evening meal was being served, a violent explosion destroyed the engine room, plunging the dining room into darkness, sending tables and chairs skidding across the deck, and causing the ship to list to port and begin settling by the stern. The German submarine U-30 had attacked Athenia. The sinking of the S.S. Athenia, was in violation of the Hague conventions. Germany’s responsibility for the sinking was suppressed by Admiral Karl Dönitz and the Nazi propaganda.

While waiting to go to dinner, young Donald Wilcox of Dartmouth, N.S., had made his way to the very peak of the ship’s bow and was watching the waves curl away from the prow when the ship rose up several feet and then fell back down sharply. “I was almost thrown off my feet,” he remembered years later.

All the lights went out and the ship stopped dead in the water and began settling by the stern. The engine room, the galley, parts of the dining rooms and many staterooms flooded. People were separated and groped in the dark to find their way to the open decks before emergency lights came on. Crew members guided people with matches and flashlights, while James A. Goodson, 18, of Toronto, whose holiday in Europe had been cut short, swam through a flooded section of the ship to rescue struggling passengers, guiding them to what remained of the stairs.

All 26 lifeboats were launched, although there were difficulties in getting many of the women and children into them. Fortunately, distress signals were received by ships reasonably close by. Shortly after midnight, Norwegian freighter MS Knute Nelson arrived on the scene, followed by Swedish steam yacht Southern Cross, owned by the Electrolux millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren. They began taking on survivors from the lifeboats, looking after the injured and offering food and hot drinks.

As the night wore on, three Royal Navy destroyers reached the scene, HMS Electra, HMS Escort and HMS Fame. They also picked up survivors and provided food and dry clothing. In the morning, the American freighter SS City of Flint arrived and took people from Southern Cross and the destroyers before heading back across the Atlantic bound for Halifax. the navy destroyers sailed back to Scotland, sending their passengers to Glasgow. At about 11 a.m. on Monday, Athenia heeled over and sank stern first. Knute Nelson took survivors to the Irish port of Galway.

A survivor’s picture of rescued officers of the Äthenia”watching her last plunge from the Norwegian ship “Knute Nelson”

The Knute Nelson radioed to the harbour master, Captain T. Tierney, that they were making for Galway with hundreds of refugees. Captain Tierney quickly informed all the local authorities to be prepared to deal with disaster relief. A committee was formed on Monday evening, including Galway mayor Joseph F. Costello and the Catholic bishop of Galway Dr Michael Browne. The committee alerted Galway County Council, the Board of Health, the Central Hospital, local hotels and the local bus company. The mayoress, Mrs Costello, also organised a committee of 38 local women to lead the volunteers, including the Girl Guides, who would be essential in looking after the specific needs of the refugees. The Irish cabinet met in Dublin late on Monday and made £500 available to the mayor to provide food, clothing and medical care to the survivors.

Survivors ,including a baby from the Athenia being helped to safety by a soldier.

Instructions were also sent to units of the Irish Army and An Garda Síochána(Police) to cooperate with local authorities in providing care and facilities, and the local schools were to be made available to house people. Seán T. O’Kelly, acting for the minister for education, made available the Preparatory College at Taylor’s Hill, Coláiste Éinde, to be used for refugees, as well as Galway Grammar School. The Irish Red Cross also started a subscription to raise money to assist the relief effort.
Shortly before midnight on Monday a pilot boat went out to Black Head to meet the Knute Nelson and steer the ship into Galway roads to anchor. Some time in the middle of the night a tender from Galway, Cathair Na Gaillimhe, under Captain William Goggin, anchored in the roadstead to wait for the freighter. The tender carried a local priest, Fr Conway, Dr S. Ó Beirne and Dr R. Sandys, and below decks were a number of nurses. Units of the 1st Infantry (Irish-Speaking) Battalion were on board to carry the stretcher cases off the ship, and members of An Garda Síochána were standing by. While it was still dark, a launch took out to the tender several more doctors.

Of the 1,418 aboard, 98 passengers and 19 crew members were killed. Many died in the engine room and aft stairwell, where the torpedo hit.The British crews were said to be famous for putting the passengers’ lives before their own, and were expertly trained to handle such “events”; nonetheless, about 50 people died when one of the lifeboats was crushed in the propeller of Knute Nelson. No. 5A lifeboat came alongside the empty tanker and tied up, against advice, astern of No 12 lifeboat.Only 15 feet (5 m) separated the life boat from the tanker’s exposed propeller. Once No. 12 lifeboat was emptied it was cast adrift and began to sink. This fact was reported to the bridge of Knute Nelson. For some reason the ship’s engine order telegraph was then set to full ahead. 5A lifeboat’s mooring line or “warp” parted under the stress, causing the lifeboat to be pulled back into the revolving propeller.

There was a second accident at about 05:00 hrs when No. 8 lifeboat capsized in a heavy sea below the stern of the yacht Southern Cross, killing ten people. Three passengers were crushed to death while trying to transfer from lifeboats to the Royal Navy destroyers. Other deaths were due to falling overboard from Athenia and her lifeboats, or to injuries and exposure. 54 dead were Canadian and 28 were US citizens, which led to German fears that the incident would bring the US into the war. Besides the 28 US citizens who were killed, there were also a great number injured. Like
Mrs. W.B. Sage, of Salt Lake City, Utah, shown here as she was carried from the S.S. Orizaba, which docked at New York, September 27 with 150 American survivors of the Athenia disaster, many of whom, like Mrs. Sage, were injured.

The fact that the first US casualties of war were those 28 civilians, only a few hours after the start of the war, makes me wonder why the Roosevelt Administration did not declare war to Nazi Germany.

A Canadian girl, 10-year-old Margaret Hayworth, was among the casualties, and was one of the first Canadians to be killed by enemy action. Newspapers widely publicised the story, proclaiming “Ten-Year-Old Victim of Torpedo” as “Canadians Rallying Point”, and set the tone for their coverage of the rest of the war. One thousand people met the train that brought her body back to Hamilton, Ontario, and there was a public funeral attended by the mayor of Hamilton, the city council, the Lieutenant-Governor, Albert Edward Matthews, Premier Mitchell Hepburn, and the entire Ontario cabinet.

Margaret Hayworth (left)and her sister

Lemp later claimed that the fact the S.S Athenia was steering a zigzag course which seemed to be well off the normal shipping routes made him believe she was either a troopship or an armed merchant cruiser; when he realized his error he took the first steps to conceal the facts by omitting to make an entry in the submarine’s log, and swearing his crew to secrecy. Adolf Hitler decided the incident should be kept secret for political reasons, and the German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter published an article which blamed the loss of the Athenia on the British, accusing Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, of sinking the ship to turn neutral opinion against Nazi Germany. No one in Britain believed the explanation given by Nazi Germany.

As for my question in the title of the blog “Was the sinking of the SS Athenia the first Nazi atrocity in WW2?” I believe it was because they attacked and murdered men, women and children. Some of them had tried to escape the Nazi tyranny.

sources

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41503664

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/athenia-anniversary-reunion-1.5302935

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205085895

The Four Chaplains-Heroic sacrifice

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The Four Chaplains, also sometimes referred to as the “Immortal Chaplains” or the “Dorchester Chaplains”, were four United States Army chaplains who gave their lives to save other civilian and military personnel as the troop ship SS Dorchester sank on February 3, 1943, during World War II. They helped other soldiers board lifeboats and gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. The chaplains joined arms, said prayers, and sang hymns as they went down with the ship.

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It was the evening of Feb. 2, 1943, and the U.S.A.T. Dorchester was crowded to capacity, carrying 902 service men, merchant seamen and civilian workers.

Once a luxury coastal liner, the 5,649-ton vessel had been converted into an Army transport ship. The Dorchester, one of three ships in the SG-19 convoy, was moving steadily across the icy waters from Newfoundland toward an American base in Greenland. SG-19 was escorted by Coast Guard Cutters Tampa, Escanaba and Comanche.

Hans J. Danielsen, the ship’s captain, was concerned and cautious. Earlier the Tampa had detected a submarine with its sonar. Danielsen knew he was in dangerous waters even before he got the alarming information. German U-boats were constantly prowling these vital sea lanes, and several ships had already been blasted and sunk.

The Dorchester was now only 150 miles from its destination, but the captain ordered the men to sleep in their clothing and keep life jackets on. Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.

On Feb. 3, at 12:55 a.m., a periscope broke the chilly Atlantic waters. Through the cross hairs, an officer aboard the German submarine U-223 spotted the Dorchester.
The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive–and deadly–striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

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Captain Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.

Tragically, the hit had knocked out power and radio contact with the three escort ships. The CGC Comanche, however, saw the flash of the explosion. It responded and then rescued 97 survivors. The CGC Escanaba circled the Dorchester, rescuing an additional 132 survivors. The third cutter, CGC Tampa, continued on, escorting the remaining two ships.

Aboard the Dorchester, panic and chaos had set in. The blast had killed scores of men, and many more were seriously wounded. Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.

dorchestertelegram

Men jumped from the ship into lifeboats, over-crowding them to the point of capsizing, according to eyewitnesses. Other rafts, tossed into the Atlantic, drifted away before soldiers could get in them.

Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

Quickly and quietly, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers. There they tried to calm the frightened, tend the wounded and guide the disoriented toward safety.

Witnesses of that terrible night remember hearing the four men offer prayers for the dying and encouragement for those who would live,says Wyatt R. Fox, son of Reverend Fox

According to some reports, survivors could hear different languages mixed in the prayers of the chaplains, including Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Catholic prayers in Latin. Only 230 of the 904 men aboard the ship were rescued. Life jackets offered little protection from hypothermia, which killed most men in the water. The water temperature was 34 °F (1 °C) and the air temperature was 36 °F (2 °C). By the time additional rescue ships arrived, hundreds of dead bodies were seen floating on the water, kept up by their life jackets.

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“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

— Grady Clark, survivor
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U123-the U-Boat that could have attacked New York.

Lorient, Einlaufen von U-123

On January 14,1942  U123 surfaced so close to New York Harbor that the rides at Coney Island could be seen silhouetted against the evening sky. Captain Reinhard Hardegen expected the U.S. east coast to be blacked out after more than a month at war and was surprised to see the glow in the sky from Manhattan’s millions of lights.

reinhard_hardegen

U-123 took part in the opening of Unternehmen Paukenschlag (“Operation Drumbeat”), also called the “Second Happy Time” in January 1942. She began by sinking the cargo ship Cyclops about 125 nmi (232 km; 144 mi) southeast of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia on the 12th.

Moving down the coast, she sank Norness, Coimbra, Norvana, City of Atlanta and the Latvian Ciltvaira.

ciltvaira_sinking

She was also credited with sinking San Jose on 17 January, although this ship was actually lost in a collision.The Malay was only damaged because Hardegen had under-estimated her size and chose to use the deck gun rather than a torpedo.

U-123 was attacked by an aircraft off New York City, but withdrew without any damage being sustained.

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She also had a lucky escape on 19 January when Kosmos II tried to ram the boat off Oregon Inlet.

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At 12.50 hours on 19 Jan 1942, the Kosmos II . spotted U-123  from a distance of about 400 metres about 17 miles northeast off Cape Hatteras. The U-boat had troubles with one of the engines and steered a course out to the sea on the surface. The unarmed whale factory ship steered at full speed (about 17 knots) towards the U-boat and tried to ram it, while they send radio messages to notifiy the maritime authorities. The U-boat was out of torpedoes and the draught of the whale factory did not allow the U-boat to submerge. As the U-boat was only 75 metres from the ship, they managed to start the second engine and evaded the ship at full speed. The big ship followed the U-boat for over one hour, but it was making 18 knots and slowly got some distance to her. Hardegen thought about firing the machine guns at the ship to irritate the crew, but decided to fire two flares with the signal pistol at the bridge of the vessel.

The Sinking of the HMS Courageous

hms-courageous

On September 15 1939, a convoy contact was made due west of the English Channel, in an area the British called the Western Approaches. The sea lanes were abuzz with traffic and some successes against British shipping had occurred in the early days of the war. To provide at least some form of protection for these ships, the Admiralty had deployed the old aircraft carrier HMS Courageous with a destroyer escort screen to conduct anti-submarine patrols.

Launched in February 1916 and commissioned in January 1917, the HMS Courageous was originally laid down as a Battle Cruiser,

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being converted into an aircraft carrier between June 1924 and May 1928. A hangar and flight deck were installed aft of the hull with the original armament of two twin 15-inch guns being removed and replaced with 4.7 inch anti-aircraft guns. The light armament meant that she had to rely on her screening escorts for protection against surface ships.

When Donitz received word of the convoy contact, he ordered all boats in the Western Approaches to converge on the convoy. That included Otto Schuhart in U-29 and Ernst-Gunther Heinicke in U-53.

Searching for the convoy on September 17, Heinicke found and attacked the 5,000 ton British freighter, Kafristan with a combination of gunfire and torpedoes. The ASW fleet of the HMS Courageous was close by. Two of her destroyer escorts (out of four) and Swordfish biplanes from the Courageous were dispatched to the area of the Kafristan sinking to hunt Heinicke.

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Meanwhile to the east, Schuhart in U-29 was still searching for the convoy. While running submerged, he spotted a Swordfish biplane instead.

cnp_submarine_u29_01

A Swordfish 300 miles out in the open sea could only mean one thing – that an aircraft carrier had to be close by. Keeping a sharp watch, at 1800 hours a puff of smoke was spotted on the horizon. It was the carrier Courageous. Schuhart sent his crew to battle stations and adjusted for an interception course.

But he could not mount an attack. Planes were circling over the carrier and the two remaining destroyer escorts were clearly visible. He later wrote in his log “At that time it looked like a hopeless operation. Because of the aircraft, I could not surface and my underwater speed was less than 8 knots while the carrier could do 26. But we were told during our training to always stay close and that is exactly what I did, following him submerged”.

courageous2

Schuhart trailed on for another one and a half hours, all the while losing distance with the carrier. Then suddenly at 1930 hours, the carrier turned into the wind to launch aircraft, inadvertently placing the ship in perfect position for a torpedo attack. By 1940 hours, U-29 was in position and Schuhart fired all three forward torpedoes from less than 3,000 yards. Schuhart logged “the vast size of the target upset all normal calculations and in any case, I was looking straight into the sun”

Just 500 yards away, while the torpedoes were still making its run, Schuhart observed through his periscope lens as one of the destroyers sailed by, still unaware of the impending attack. To evade, he dived deep – to a depth of 180 feet, the deepest he had ever dived. Then, in the creaking silence of U-boat’s pressure hull, the crew heard two resounding explosions. Two torpedoes had it the target and exploded with such force that Schuhart thought he had been attacked. The crew cheered, although they all knew what was to follow next – an impending depth charge attack.

hms_courageous_sinking

They braced themselves for the attack and minutes later, one of the destroyers picked up the U-29 on sonar. The second destroyer rushed to the location to join the hunt and both attacked with such fury and ferocity that during the pounding, Schuhart thought he had lost the U-29. The boat reeled and creaked under the force of the explosion which lasted for hours. Then at 2340 hours, the last depth charge exploded. Both destroyers had expended all depth charges and were now weaponless in attacking the enemy down below. Silently easing away, Schuhart in the U-29 made good his escape. As soon as he surfaced, he radioed to Donitz, “Courageous destroyed. U-29 homebound”.

Meanwhile, back at the sinking of the Courageous, a Dutch passenger liner Veendam was passing nearby.

veendam-1922-after-ww-2-blog

Eye witnesses account that a huge white cloud had engulfed the Courageous. They thought it was a smoke screen and paid little attention until two tremendous explosions ripped through the carrier. Pieces of steel and dismembered aircraft shot upwards as with the flames and oil slick which soon followed. The Courageous sank in less than 15 minutes with the loss of 519 lives, including her commander Captain W T Makeig-Jones. Her total complement was 1,260 officers and ratings (including air group), and two squadrons of Fairey Swordfish aircraft (48 planes). The Veendam and a British freighter Collingsworth participated in the rescue, fishing survivors from the oily waters.

By the next morning of September 18, news of the sinking had been broadcast worldwide. The sinking of the HMS Courageous was the first U-boat offensive against the Royal Navy, and more importantly, Schuhart’s victory prompted the Admiralty to withdraw all three remaining carriers from the Western Approaches. The first naval engagement turned out to be a resounding victory, as carriers were not to be seen in those waters for another four years.

This was precisely what Donitz had wanted, as the withdrawal of ASW vessels allowed his U-boats to continue with their sinkings unabated. Politically, Hitler was neither pleased, nor displeased. He was still hopeful of a diplomatic solution with Great Britain and did not want to further antagonize the Western Powers by sinking a major capital warship. However, no specific orders had been issued otherwise and in fact, the Kriegsmarine was ecstatic. Donitz noted gleefully in his diary “A wonderful success”.

Schuhart was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the entire crew the Iron Cross Second Class. In tonnage sunk for a single patrol, his tally was 41,905 tons which was to stand as a record high for a very long time.

The U-29 was a Type VIIA U-boat, an oceangoing boat which had four bow and one stern torpedo tube.

HMS Courageous was sunk on September 17 1939 at 1940 hours at the Western Approaches (Southwest of Ireland), Grid BE3198, 150nm WSW of Mizen Head, Ireland.

bridge

Her sister ship, the HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, Ardent and Acasta was to suffer the same fate on June 8 1940, during an attack by two German battle cruisers, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst