The Truth at Last


Athenia Pages on this website:

How the Truth Emerged

The true story of what happened to Athenia only emerged after the end of the war during the Nuremberg Trials. Extracts of the evidence presented and transcripts of the hearings are presented below.

Personal Notes: My interest in the Nuremberg Trials started the day my parents told me that I was born on 16 October 1946 at exactly the time when the major German war criminals sentenced to death at Nuremberg were hanged. My father was in the Royal Artillery and, at the end of the war, was one of those who liberated the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen - the after-effects of which I believe contributed to his relatively early death at the age of 62.

For any reader not aware of Belsen, it was summed up by the late BBC commentator Richard Dimbleby in the following words:

..Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.

In the 1970s whilst working for the Department of Social Security in Leicester, a fellow civil servant told me proudly that he was a member of the National Front and "knew" that everything about the concentration camps had been faked by "The Jews" and that "Hitler was right" about most things. I will not repeat my response here.

Until researching the background to the loss of Athenia, I had only seen brief film excerpts of the trials, but I have been exploring the transcripts and evidence presented thanks to a number of excellent websites that have made them available online. The two I have used mainly are the Nizkor website - External Ref. #6 and Yale Law School’s Avalon Project - External Ref. #7. I plan to produce a further website about the trials of Dönitz and Raeder at a later date.

The Nuremberg Trials

The Major War Criminals were tried by the International Military Tribunal sitting at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. Erich Raedar and Karl Dönitz were amongst the 24 people on trial. Documents unearthed in the preparations of evidence referred to in the trials brought a lot of new information to light. Various other trials of war criminals were held - many relating to concentration camps, death camps and medical experiments on prisoners.

It is self-evident that among the people who really knew what happened to Athenia were:

The key evidence from the relevant people is presented below.

Announcement of the Trials

The first UK announcements of the forthcoming trials appeared in the Times newspaper in December 1945.

Images 1 to 3 are from page 4 of The Times on 31 December and reports on the preparations for the trial. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Key Tribunal Personnel

The following people appear in the various excerpts from the transcript of the Nuremburg Tribunal that follow:

Affidavit of Adolf Schmidt

Adolf Schmidt had been serving on German submarine U-30 which was under the command of Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp. Lemp had attacked the merchant ship Fanad Head on 14 September 1939 and the crew had abandoned ship into lifeboats. Lemp put a "prize crew" aboard with the intention of obtaining provisions before scuttling the ship. However their action was interrupted by an attack by aircraft from HMS Ark Royal which had been alerted by radio. The first attack was unsuccessful and the submarine crash-dived. Surfacing later U-30 torpedoed Fanad Head but was attacked again by aircraft and depth charges from HMS Bedouin and HMS Punjabi. The submarine was badly damaged but managed to escape and limped into Reykyavik on 19 September.

According to - External Ref. #3 - the seriously wounded Maschinenobergefreiter (Fireman 1st class) Adolf Schmidt was transferred to the interned German steam merchant Hamm and replaced by Hamm's third officer Grohm. Adolf Schmidt recovered from his wounds, but was taken prisoner when Britain occupied Iceland in May 1940 and transferred to a POW camp in Canada.

International Military Tribunal Day 34: (Tuesday January 15 1946)

During this stage of the trial, the Prosecution was presenting various items of evidence that would be used in later examination of witnesses. Major Elwyn Jones presented to the Tribunal an affidavit sworn by Schmidt.

The Athenia, as the Tribunal will be aware, was a passenger liner which was sunk on the evening of 3rd September, 1939, when she was outward bound to America, about one hundred lives being lost. On 23rd October, 1939, the Nazi Party paper, the "Volkischer Beobachter, published, in screaming headlines, the story, "Churchill sank the Athenia." I would refer the Court to Document 3260-PS, at Page 97 of the document book, which will be Exhibit GB 218, and I would also like the Tribunal to, look for a moment at the copy of the "Volkischer Beobachter" here, and see the scale on which this deliberate lie was perpetrated. I have a photostat of the relevant page of the "Volkischer Beobachter" for that day. The Tribunal will see that on this front page, with the big red underlining, there are the words:

"Churchill found guilty this time."

The extract from the "Volkischer Beobachter," which is at Page 97 of the document book, reads as follows:

"Churchill sank the Athenia.

The above picture" - and the Tribunal will see it is a fine picture of this fine ship - "shows the proud Athenia, the ocean giant, which was sunk by Churchill's crime. One can clearly see the big radio equipment on board the ship. But nowhere was an SOS heard from the ship. Why was the Athenia silent? Because her captain was not allowed to tell the world anything. He very prudently refrained from telling the world that Winston Churchill attempted to sink the ship, through the explosion of an infernal machine. He knew it well, but he had to keep silent. Nearly fifteen hundred people would have lost their lives if Churchill's original plan had resulted as the criminal wanted. Yes, he longingly hoped that the one hundred Americans on board the ship would find death in the waves so that the anger of the American people, who were deceived by him, should be directed against Germany, as the presumed author of the deed. It was fortunate that the majority escaped the fate intended for them by Churchill. Our picture on the right shows two wounded passengers. They were rescued by the freighter City of Flint; and as can be seen here, turned over to the American coastguard boat Gibb for further medical treatment. They are an unspoken accusation against the criminal Churchill. Both they and the shades of those who lost their lives call him before the Tribunal of the world and ask the British people, 'How long will his office, one of the richest in tradition known to Great Britain's history, be held by a murderer?"

Now, in view of the maliciousness of this "Volkischer Beobachter" announcement, and in fairness to the men of the British Merchant Navy, I think it is proper that I should say, that contrary to the allegation in this Nazi sheet, the Athenia of course made repeated wireless distress signals which were in fact intercepted and answered by His Majesty's ship Electra, in escort, as well as by the Norwegian steamer Knut Nelson and the yacht Southern Cross.

I shall submit evidence to the Tribunal to establish that, in fact, the Athenia was sunk by the German U-boat U-30. So unjustifiable was the torpedoing of the Athenia, however, that the German Navy embarked upon a course of falsification of their records and on other dishonest measures, in the hope of hiding their guilty secret. And for their part, as the Tribunal has seen, the Nazi propagandists indulged in their favourite falsehood of seeking to shift the responsibility to the British.

Note: As I am writing this on 29 May 2012, the Government of Syria is currently blaming rebels for killing over 100 civilians and injuring over 300 more in the town of Houla contrary to clear evidence that the killing was done by Government forces. The behaviour of dictators does not appear to have changed much in 70 years unfortunately.

The Captain of the U-boat 30, Oberleutnant Lemp, was later killed in action, but some of the original crew of the U-30 have survived to tell the tale, and they are now prisoners of war. And so that the truth of this episode may be placed beyond a peradventure, I submit to the Tribunal an affidavit by a member of the crew of the U-30; as to the sinking of the Athenia and as to one aspect of the attempt to conceal the true facts.

I refer to document C-654, Exhibit GB 219, at Page 106 of the document book. The affidavit reads:

I, Adolf Schmidt, Official Number N 1043-33T, do solemnly swear that:

  1. I am now confined to Camp No. 133, Lethbridge, Alberta.
  2. That on the first day of war, 3 September 1939, a ship of approximately 10,000 tons was torpedoed in the late hours of the evening by the U-30.
  3. That after the ship was torpedoed and we surfaced again, approximately half an hour after the explosion, the Commandant called me to the tower in order to show me the torpedoed ship.
  4. That I have seen the ship with my very eyes, but that I do not think that the ship could see our U-boat at that time on account of the position of the moon.
  5. That only a few members of the crew had an opportunity to go to the tower in order to see the torpedoed ship.
  6. That apart from myself, Oberleutnant Hinsch was in the tower when I saw the steamer after the attack.
  7. That I observed that the ship was listing.
  8. That no warning shot was fired before the torpedo was launched.
  9. That I myself observed much commotion on board of the torpedoed ship.
  10. That I believe that the ship had only one smoke stack.
  11. That in the attack on this steamer one or two torpedoes were fired which did not explode but that I myself heard the explosion of the torpedo which hit the steamer.
  12. That Oberleutnant Lemp waited until darkness before surfacing.
  13. That I was severely wounded by aircraft 14 September 1939.
  14. That Oberleutnant Lemp, shortly before my disembarkation in Reykjavik 19 September 1939, visited me in the forenoon in the Petty Officers quarters where I was lying severely wounded.
  15. That Oberleutnant Lemp then had the Petty Officers' quarters cleared in order to be alone with me.
  16. That Oberleutnant Lemp then showed me a declaration under oath according to which I had to bind myself to mention nothing concerning the incidents of 3 September 1939 on board the U-30.
  17. That this declaration under oath had approximately the following wording: 'I, the undersigned, swear hereby that I shall shroud in secrecy all happenings of 3 September 1939 on board the U-30, regardless whether foe or friend, and that I shall erase from my memory all happenings of this day.'
  18. That I have signed this declaration under oath, which was drawn up by the Commandant in his own handwriting, with my left hand very illegibly.
  19. That later on in Iceland when I heard about the sinking of the 'Athenia,' the idea came into my mind that the U-30 on the 3 September 1939 might have sunk the 'Athenia,' especially since the Captain caused me to sign the above-mentioned declaration.
  20. That up to today I have never spoken to anyone concerning these events.
  21. That due to the termination of the war I consider myself freed from my oaths.

Fritz-Julius Lemp

No direct evidence could be obtained from Lemp, the commander of U-30, as he had died during the capture of U-110 on 9 May 1941. The submarine had been forced to the surface by depth charges fired by HMS Bulldog, HMS Broadway and HMS Aubretia. Lemp did not survive - there are differing views of what happened to him. German survivors alleged that he was shot whilst swimming back to the submarine but he may have simply drowned. What is clear is that he had ordered the crew to abandon ship when he thought that the submarine would be rammed by HMS Bulldog but she veered away at the last minute. Lemp then tried to get back to destroy key equipment.

What happened next was critical to the future conduct of the war, though of no relevance to the loss of Athenia. A boarding party managed to get hold of an Enigma machine and code books with rotors set to operate. To make sure that this was kept secret, the survivors were taken to Iceland, the crew of HMS Bulldog sworn to secrecy and the submarine scuttled.

Affidavit of Karl Dönitz

After reading out the affivit of Adolf Schmidt, Major Jones went on to read an affidavit by Dönitz.

International Military Tribunal Day 34: (Tuesday January 15 1946)

Doenitz' part in the Athenia episode is described in an affidavit which he has sworn, which is Document D-638, Exhibit GB-220, at Page 102 of the document book. The affidavit was sworn in English, and I invite the Tribunal to look at it and observe the addition in Doenitz' handwriting of four words at the end of the affidavit, the significance of which will be seen in a moment.

"Firstly, the affair was to be kept a total secret. Secondly, the OKM considered that a court-martial was not necessary as they were satisfied that the captain had acted in good faith. Thirdly, political explanations would be handled by the OKM. I had had no part whatsoever in the political events in which the Fuehrer claimed that no U-boat had sunk the Athenia."

"After Lemp returned to Wilhelmshaven from Berlin, I interrogated him thoroughly on the sinking and formed the impression that, although he had taken reasonable care, he had still not taken sufficient precaution to establish fully the identity of the ship before attacking. I had previously given very strict orders that all merchant vessels and neutrals were to be treated according to naval prize law before the occurrence of this incident. I accordingly placed him under cabin arrest, as I felt certain that a court-martial would only acquit him and would entail unnecessary publicity" and then Doenitz had added the words "and loss of time."

It is right, I think, that I should add that Donitz's suggestion that the captain of the U-30 sank the Athenia in mistake for a merchant cruiser must be considered in the light of a document which Colonel Phillimore submitted - Document C-191, Exhibit GB 193, dated; 22nd September, 1939 - which contained Donitz's order that "the sinking of a merchant ship must be justified in the War Diary as due to possible confusion with a warship or an auxiliary cruiser."

Now, the U-30 returned to Wilhelmshaven on 27th September, 1939. I submit another fraudulent naval document, Document D- 659, Page 110 of the document book, which will be Exhibit GB 221, which is an extract from the War Diary of the Chief of U-boats, and it is an extract for 27th September, 1939. The Tribunal will see that it reads:

"U-30 comes in. She had sunk: S.S. Blairlogies, S.S. Fanad Head."

There is no reference at all, of course, to the sinking of the Athenia.

But perhaps the most elaborate forgery in connection with this episode was the forgery of the log book of the U-30, which was responsible for sinking the Athenia. I now submit that original log book to the Tribunal as Document D-662, which will be Exhibit GB 222, and an extract from the first and relevant page of it is found at Page 111 of the document book. I would like the Tribunal to examine the original, if you will be good enough to do so, because the prosecution's submission is that the first page of that log book is a forgery, but a forgery which shows a curiously un-German carelessness about detail. The Tribunal will see that the first page of the text is a clear substitute for pages that have been removed. The dates in the first column of that page are in Arabic numerals. On the second and more authentic looking page, and throughout the other pages of the log book, they are in Roman numerals.

The Tribunal will also see that all reference to the action of the sinking of the Athenia on 3rd September is omitted. The entries are translated in Page 111 of the document book for the Court's assistance. The log book shows that the position at 14.00 hours, of the U-30 on 3rd September, is given as A.L. 0278, which the Tribunal will notice is one of the very few positions quoted at all upon that page, and which was, in fact, some 200 miles west of the position where the Athenia was sunk. The course due South, which is recorded in the log book, and the speed of 10 knots -those entries are obviously designed to suggest that the U-30 was well clear of the Athenia's position on the 3rd September.

Finally, and most curiously, the Tribunal will observe that Lemp's own signature upon the page dealing with the 3rd September differs from the other signatures in the text. Page 1 shows Lemp's signature with a Roman "p" as the final letter of his name. On the other signatures, there is a script "p", and the inference I submit is that either the signature is a forgery or it was made up by Lemp at some other, and probably considerably later date.

Now, in my submission, the whole of this Athenia story establishes that the German Navy under Raeder embarked upon deliberate fraud. Even before receiving Lemp's reports, the German Admiralty had repeatedly denied the possibility that a German U-boat could be in the area concerned. The charts which showed the disposition of U-boats and the position of sinking of the Athenia, which Colonel Phillimore introduced, have shown the utter dishonesty of these announcements, and my submission upon this matter is this: Raeder, as head of the German Navy, knew all the facts. Censorship and information control in Nazi Germany were so complete that Raeder, as head of the Navy, must have been party to the falsification published in the "Volkischer Beobachter," which was a wholly dishonourable attempt by the Nazi conspirators to save their faces with their own people, and to uphold the myth of an infallible Fuehrer backed by an impeccable war machine.

Examination of Dönitz

International Military Tribunal: Day 126 (10 May 1946)

Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe:: Well, now, tell me this: Did you know that the log of the Athenia was faked, after she came in?
Doenitz: No, it was not faked, but there was a clear order that the case of the Athenia should be kept secret for political reasons and, as a result, the log had to be changed.
Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe:: I see. You do not like the word "faked." Well, I will use the word "changed"; that a page was cut out of the log and a false page had been put in. Did you know about that?
Doenitz: I cannot tell you that today. It is possible. Probably Captain Lemp received the order either from me or my staff: "The case is to be kept secret." And following that, he or the flotilla took the log, which went to ten different departments of the Navy, and altered it. What else could he do? He could not do otherwise.
Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe:: I want to know, was it your order and with your knowledge that that log was altered from, I suppose, the truth into the falsity in which it exists today? That is a simple question. Can you answer it?
Doenitz: Yes. Either it was done by my order or, if it had not been done, then I would have ordered it, because the political instructions existed that "it must be kept secret." The fighting men had no other choice, therefore, but to alter the log. The U-boat commanders never received the order to make a false entry, but in the particular case of the Athenia, where it was ordered afterwards that it must be kept secret, it was not noted in the log.

Same date - later in session:

Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: In connection with the sinking of the Athenia it has been hinted that your statement was considered an excuse; that is, that the commanding officer of the submarine confused the Athenia with an auxiliary cruiser. Therefore, I should like to put to you an excerpt from the war diary of the officer commanding in that action and I want you to confirm that it is really by the same commanding officer. I shall read from the document of the Prosecution, Exhibit GB-222, on Page 142 of my document book, Volume III. It is the war diary of the submarine U-30. The excerpt is dated 11 September 1939, Page 142 in document book, Volume III.

"Sighted a blacked-out vessel. Got on its trail. In zigzag course recognized as merchant ship. Requested to stop by morse lantern. Steamer signals 'not understood,' tries to escape in the thick squall and sends out SOS 'chased by submarine' and position by radiotelegraphy. "Gave 'stop' signal by radio and morse lantern. "Ran ahead. First 5 shots with machine gem C/30 across the bow. Steamer does not react. Turns partly, about 90°, directly toward the boat. Sends 'still chased.' Therefore, fire opened from aft bearing with 8.8 cm. English steamer Blairlogie, 4,425 tons. "After 18 shots and three hits, steamer stops. Crew boards boats. Last message by radio, 'Shelled, taking to boats.' Fire immediately ceased when emergency light was shown and steamer stopped. "Went over to life boats, gave orders to pull away toward south. Steamer sunk by torpedo. Afterwards both boat crews supplied with Steinhager and cigarettes. 32 men in two boats. Fired red stars until dawn. Since American steamer, American Skipper, was nearby, we departed. Crew was rescued."

Can you confirm, Admiral, that this was an entry by the same commanding officer who nine days before had torpedoed the Athenia?
Doenitz: Yes, that is the same commander of the same operation who shortly before had committed this error.

Examination of Admiral Godt

Admiral Godt was Chief of Operations attached to the Chief of Submarines (Doenitz) and, during questioning by Kranzbuehler about various operational matters, explains how Athenia was sunk by mistake and why the log of U-30 was changed on the orders of Doenitz.

International Military Tribunal: Day 129 (14 May 1946)

The President: Will you state your full name?
Eberhard Godt (Witness): My name is Eberhard Godt.
The President: Will you repeat this oath after me: I swear by God-the Almighty and Omniscient-that I will speak the pure truth-and will withhold and add nothing.
[The witness repeated the oath.] You may sit down.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Admiral Godt, when did you enter the Navy as an officer cadet?
Godt: On 1 July 1918.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: How long have you been working with Admiral Doenitz, and in what position?
Godt: Since January 1938; first of all as First Naval Staff Officer attached to the Commander, U-boats, and immediately after the beginning of the war as Chief of the Operations Department.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Chief of the Operations Department with the Chief of Submarines?
Godt: Yes, attached to the Chief of Submarines, later Flag Officer, U-boats.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Did you collaborate since 1938 in the drafting of all operational orders worked out by the staff of the Flag Officer, U-boats?
Godt: Yes.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: The Prosecution holds that an order-apparently a verbal order-existed, prohibiting the entry in the log of measures considered dubious or unjustifiable from the point of view of international law. Did such a general order exist?
Godt: No; there was no general order. In certain individual cases-can remember two-an order was given to omit certain matters from the log.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Which cases do you remember?
Godt: The first was the case of the Athenia; and the second was the sinking of a German boat, which was coming from Japan through the blockade, by a German submarine.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Before I ask you to give me details of that, I should like to know the reason for omitting such matters from the log.
Godt: It was done for reasons of secrecy. U-boat logs were seen by a great many people: First, in the training stations of the U-boat service itself; and, secondly, in numerous offices of the High Command. Special attention had therefore to be paid to secrecy.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: How many copies of each U-boat war log were made?
Godt: I should say six to eight copies.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Did the omission of such an item from the log mean that all documentary evidence was destroyed in every office; or did certain of these keep these documents?
Godt: These records were received by Commander, U-boats, and probably by the Naval Operations Staff as well.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Was there a standing war order prescribing treatment of incidents?
Godt: Yes.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: What were the contents?
Godt: It stated that incidents must be reported immediately by wireless and that a supplementary report must be made later, either in writing or by word of mouth.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Does this standing order contain any allusion to the omission of such incidents from the log?
Godt: No.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Will you please tell me now how this alteration was made in the log in the case of the Athenia?
Godt: In the case of the Athenia Oberleutnant Lemp reported on returning that he had torpedoed this ship, assuming it to be an auxiliary cruiser. I cannot now tell you exactly whether this was the first time I realized that such a possibility existed or whether the idea that this might possibly have been torpedoed by a German submarine had already been taken into consideration. Lemp was sent to Berlin to make a report and absolute secrecy was ordered with regard to the case.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: By whom?
Godt: By the Naval Operations Staff, after a temporary order had been issued in our department. I ordered the fact to be erased from the war log of the U-boat.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: And that, of course, was on the orders of Admiral Doenitz?
Godt: Yes, or I ordered it on his instructions.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Did you participate in the further handling of this incident?
Godt: Only with regard to the question of whether Lemp should be punished. As far as I remember, Commander, U-boats, took only disciplinary action against him because it was in his favor that the incident occurred during the first few hours of the war, and it was held that in his excitement he had not investigated the character of the ship as carefully as he might have done.
Flottenrichter Kranzbuehler: Did I understand you correctly as saying that the detailed documentary evidence in connection with the sinking of the Athenia was retained by both Commander, U-boats, and, you believe, the Naval Operations Staff?
Godt: I can say that with certainty only as far as Commander, U-boats, is concerned. That is what happened in this case.


Having considered the evidence, it seems clear that the sinking of Athenia was a mistake that Hitler and his cadre of "spin doctors" decided to try and cover up by using an approach that they were familiar with of "telling a big lie".

In Adolf Hitler's own words (Mein Kampf vol 1 Chapter X):

But it remained for the Jews, with their unqualified capacity for falsehood, and their fighting comrades, the Marxists, to impute responsibility for the downfall precisely to the man who alone had shown a superhuman will and energy in his effort to prevent the catastrophe which he had foreseen and to save the nation from that hour of complete overthrow and shame. By placing responsibility for the loss of the world war on the shoulders of Ludendorff they took away the weapon of moral right from the only adversary dangerous enough to be likely to succeed in bringing the betrayers of the Fatherland to Justice.

All this was inspired by the principle--which is quite true within itself--that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.

Image Credits

  1. By courtesy of The Times archive.