John Kalbfleisch: U-Boat Torpedo That Rallied Canada To WWII

Roundup: Talking About History

"The grave of a 10-year-old girl on a hillside overlooking Hamilton Bay became the rallying point of thousands of Canadians today for prosecution of the war against Germany." - Gazette, Monday, Sept. 18, 1939

The little girl was named Margaret Hayworth, and two days before, in the presence of Premier Mitch Hepburn of Ontario, most of his cabinet, some federal MPs and hundreds of other mourners, some prominent, many just ordinary people, she was laid to rest. She was the first victim of the Second World War to be buried in Canada.

She had died of wounds received when a German U-boat sank the British liner Athenia on Sept. 3, just hours after Britain had declared war on Hitler's Reich. Many Canadians were among the 1,300 people on board, bound for Montreal, and dozens of Canadians were among the 118 people who were lost. A similar number of Americans also died.
The Glasgow-built Athenia was well known in Montreal. She had been laid down in 1923 for the Donaldson line, mainly to carry immigrants to Canada. Refitted 10 years later to cater to a growing tourist traffic, she had last been at dock in this city on Aug. 18. No one watching the tugs nudge her back into the St. Lawrence's shipping channel that day could have suspected she would never return.
After the Athenia was sunk, comparisons were instantly made with the Lusitania, similarly destroyed by a U-boat in 1915. Both ships were unarmed and carrying civilian passengers. Both attacks were ready-made for highlighting German iniquity. The Lusitania's sinking was seen as a crucial step toward bringing the United States into the war two years later, for 123 Americans died when she went down; the Athenia's sinking, it was thought, would similarly sway Americans away from their isolation.

"Most historians of the first Great War cite (the Lusitania's sinking) as an outstanding example of the savage stupidity of German submarine warfare - a 'victory' that gained nothing and lost much," The Gazette said.

The story of the Athenia has a curious footnote. Despite his blunder in sinking her, Oberleutnant Lemp was not court-martialed and was eventually given command of a new submarine, the U-110. In May 1941, he attacked an Allied convoy off Iceland but was forced to bring his submarine to the surface when it was damaged by depth charges. Sailors from HMS Bulldog rushed on board to capture her. Vastly more important, they also captured the top-secret Enigma coding machine she carried.

Instantly, Britain had a window through which it could view what the Germans were up to. Lemp was under no illusions about how vital the stakes were. In one version of events, he was shot by his captors when he rushed back to the U-110 to destroy its Enigma machine; in another, he committed suicide by drowning himself.

The Bulldog tried towing the damaged U-boat back to England, but it sank a day later. This was just as well for the Allied cause. For all the Germans knew, they had lost a submarine; they never knew the Allies had gained a far greater prize.

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