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Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic

By Francis M. Carroll

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012

6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 218 pages

Photographs, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95

ISBN: 9781591141488

 

This work does an excellent job of placing the tragedy and human drama of the sinking of the passenger ship Athena on September 3, 1941, in various contexts: the outbreak of World War Two; German submarine strategy and tactics; and the deliberations of Franklin Roosevelt towards neutrality. Since the attack on the ship came immediately after the invasion of Poland and the declaration of war by England and France against Germany, but before any other attack on English targets, this event can be seen, as the author points out, as the first and opening shot of World War Two beyond Poland.

The author constructs an excellent narrative derived from hundreds of first-hand accounts found in memoirs, letters, news accounts and other documents. He gives a vivid account of the attack on the ship, the transfer of passengers and crew to lifeboats, their survival overnight in lifeboats, their ultimate rescue and transport to Canada and the United States, and in some cases, the details of their later lives. Carroll presents a condensed version of the expansion of the Nazi regime in Europe in the 1930s; the litany is familiar to students of the period. However, for readers needing the context, the summary is very useful.

For mariners, Caroll raises interesting issues: apparently the policy of "women and children" first was ill-advised since it led to separation of families and the lack of strong arms at the oars in lifeboats. Lifeboat procedures were so complex as to be difficult to fulfill under emergency conditions; yet order prevailed and the vast majority of passengers survived.

The work, either explicitly or implicitly, also raises some thought-provoking historical questions. The treatment of the German position is not particularly sensitive to the dilemmas faced by the German commander and his superior officers. It is clear from Carroll's account that the torpedoing of Athena was a mistake, soon recognized by U-boat commander Fritz-Julius Lemp, who had concluded that the ship was a British warship because it ran without lights and maneuvered as a warship rather than a liner. Even so, Carroll still appears to reflect the British position that the event showed German ruthlessness, savagery, and inhumanity. At the same time, he includes enough evidence to show that the attack did not reflect those qualities. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.











Carroll suggests that the Athena episode affected public opinion and official policy in both Canada and the United States. The evidence he presents on this score is far less detailed and compelling than the detailed account of the event itself. Even so, the information he provides can contribute to understanding the Canadian declaration of war, the changing attitudes towards neutrality in the United States, and the passage of the U.S. Cash and Carry Neutrality Law in November 1939.

Rodney Carlisle

Rutgers University