Fritz Julius Lemp came on my radar while I was doing research for my novel, The Last Titanic Story. The U-boat commander had, simultaneously, one of the most celebrated and most disastrous of naval careers. So of course, I had to find a place for him in my story.
Lemp is credited (if that is the word) with having sunk the first ship fired upon in World War II. The unfortunate vessel, the Athenia, was traveling from Glasgow, Belfast, and Liverpool to Quebec and Montreal. It was carrying passengers of British, Canadian and U.S. citizenship as well as a number of refugees from Europe. There were about 1400 passengers and crew on board when she was hit by Lemp's torpedo from his U-30 off the northwest coast of Ireland on September 3, 1939 just hours after war had been declared.
The Athenia has long been a little known chapter of the war. It is easy to see why it was overlooked, given all of the disastrous consequences that followed during the next five years. I have a personal relationship to the tragedy. My former brother-in-law, Arch Miller, was a passenger on the Athenia. He was traveling home to Canada with his mother and older brother. Arch was about ten years old. I talked to him at length about his experience, and in reading the 2012 book, Athenia Torpedoed, by Francis M. Carroll, I was surprised at how true Arch's memories were, compared to the memories of others who had been on board.
Arch had been alone on deck when the torpedo hit and clearly remembered the feeling of impact. In the panic that followed, he managed to locate his brother and mother and they all got onto one of the lifeboats. About 112 passengers died. The rest were picked up from their lifeboats by several passing ships and taken to various ports, including on to Canada.
Lemp tried to deny that he had taken the action because he understood that Hitler was furious that he had sunk a ship with American passengers, which the Fuhrer feared would bring America into the war. Instead, Germany made up a story that it was Winston Churchill who had ordered the ship sunk by his own navy in order to bring the U.S. into the war. The true story did not fully come out until after the war crimes trials in Nuremberg in 1946.
Lemp went on to a highly decorated career as one of the most successful U-boat commanders in the early part of the war, receiving the Iron Cross and other awards from Hitler. Being successful, in this context, means Lemp sank a huge number of ships during the conflict.
However, Lemp had another direct impact on the war's outcome. In a new submarine, the U-110, during a "wolf pack" attack on a convoy southwest of Iceland on May 9, 1941, Lemp's luck ran out. During the attack, Lemp successfully sank three freighters. But in the ensuing destroyer counter-attack, the U-110 was badly damaged and forced to the surface. Lemp ordered his crew to abandon ship, as he expected the destroyers to ram and sink his vessel. But somehow, Lemp ended up in the water and drowned. However, HMS Bulldog, under Commander A.J. Baker-Cresswell, attempted to take U-110 under tow, though it sank before they could reach Iceland. But before that happened, British sailors were able to board the submarine and retrieve a working Enigma cipher machine. This feat, unknown to the Germans, contributed substantially to the ability of the British to read German naval radio messages throughout the rest of the war.
It was also Fritz Julius Lemp's second major blow to the German war effort. Sinking the Athenia had been the first, as it led to the United States increasing its support of the British war effort and indirectly to the Americans coming into the war. The Enigma helped defeat Germany itself by contributing to the end of the U-boat menace that had threatened to isolate Britain from receiving food and munitions during the conflict.
So here was U-boat commander Fritz Julius Lemp, one of Germany's most successful and decorated U-boat captains and simultaneously the man who, perhaps more than any other, contributed to Germany's defeat. Quite a career run for a man who never made it out of his twenties.