60. Red in the Atlantic during 1939 - 1945
OCT. 13, 2022
Pete and Ryan brave the rough Atlantic seas in this episode which looks at Red in the Atlantic during World War II. Learn the controversial stories of two very different U-boat sinkings. Marvel at the bravery of the men who boarded and abandoned a U-boat in search of secret codes.. and discover the officers club which will that will serve you living history and a tot of rum!
This episode saw Pete and Ryan don their oilskins and head out to brave the Atlantic during World War Two to discover the topic of Red, which seemed ominous.
The Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest and also the second-largest of the world's five oceans, which are the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, the Southern and the Arctic
It is separated into the North and South Atlantic split not by the equator, but about 8°N by the Equatorial Counter Current. The Coriolis effect means that water circulates the North Atlantic in a clockwise direction, whereas South Atlantic water circulates anti-clockwise. These spinning currents are known as gyres
It’s a big bit of water, 41,100,000 sq mi or 106,460,000 sq km, 100 times larger than France and comprising 20% of the Earth’s surface.
Unsurprisingly, the population of the Atlantic is low, but it’s not necessarily zero. Lee Wachtstetter, retiree wrote the story about how she spent 12 years living on the cruise ship Crystal Serenity, travelling the world’s seas and oceans.
But, what is an ocean? 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by water and, almost all of it is interconnected. In fact, you could say there is only really one ocean in the world. But that’s not very helpful when trying to figure out where you are. So we identify different oceans bounded either by land or, typically, by an ocean current.
As for food and drink, whilst there isn’t an official food of the Atlantic Ocean, there is a candidate for a drink . Rum is a drink traditionally associated with sailors and the navy, in particular the British Navy, in part because for over 100 years it was a British sailor’s right to get a ration of rum a day.
Officers got it neat and junior sailors got it watered down – a drink known as grog, sometimes with lime juice to prevent scurvy, and maybe sugar.
This daily tot of rum was tradition that carried on until finally it was decided being a sailor was too tricky and technological to carry out with as skinful of booze, so the tot was ended on 31 July 1970, a date known and mourned by Naval folk today as Black Tot Day.
Red is a colour often associated with danger, or high alert. The study of languages has suggested that as language develops, typically it starts with words for light/dark white/black disctinctions, but the next colour that gets a word is most frequently red.
This may be because it has importance as the colour of blood, blossoms and berries, and is often the colour of warning in nature – poisonous creatures are often red.
It’s also the first colour used by early man artists – because available in the areas they lived in the form of red ochre and iron oxide. Early man could also make a red dye called Kermes, made from the crushed up bodies of insects. In fact, jars of kermes have been found in a Neolithic cave-burial in France.
In ocean related reds – in shipping the convention is that a red light indicates your port side (left looking towards the front) side of your ship (green for Starboard)
Also, if you find yourself in the Atlantic ocean and you see a ship flying a red flag at the stern, with a union jack in the canton or top left corner of the flag, that is what’s known as the Red Ensign.
Sometimes known as the Red Duster, it actually has a white stripe on the hoist side, and if you see it, it indicates a British ship.
The ensign should be worn at the most senior position which is as close to the stern of the vessel as possible, in contrast to the flag flown from the front or bow of a ship, which is known as a jack and is where the UK flag name ‘union jack’ originates.
There are also White Ensigns, indicating the Royal Navy, and Blue Ensigns which represent the Navy reserve.
But in World War II, the red ensign would have been flown by the merchant ships ferrying between Britain and the Americas, providing a vital lifeline to keep Britain in the war.
World War II – the battle of the Atlantic
A major part of World War 2 was what’s known as the Battle of the Atlantic, which was the longest battle of World War 2, running for basically all of it, 1939 to 1945.
Early in the war, Germany decided to try to blockade Britain, which imported 70% of it’s food supply. The Americas, particularly the United States were a resource-rich country and friendly to the UK, albeit not officially in the war (until Pearl Harbour in December 1941.) Consequently, a lot of the goods were coming to the UK North America across the Atlantic.
So, the goal for the Germans was to cut off this supply by sinking as many ships as they could before they got there. A major tool for doing this was the U-boat, under Germany’s Admiral Dönitz.
Dönitz was a huge believer in U-boats and he figured he could do major damage if he had at least 300 ships.
He was given 57.
But the U-boat campaign got off to a controversial start.
On 4th September 1939, the Halifax Herald newspaper hit the newsstands with a banner across its front page, "EMPIRE AT WAR" in big red letters.
Another headline cried out "LINER ATHENIA IS TORPEDOED AND SUNK"
Three days earlier, on 1 September 1939 the Athenia, commanded by Captain James Cook, left Glasgow for Montreal. This was a passenger ship carrying just over 1,000 souls.
When they set out, the world was not at war. A few hours into the journey, it was.
After war was declared, out in the Atlantic, U-Boats stalked.
This included U-30 a submarine commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp. At twenty-six years old he was one of the youngest officers to command a U-boat.
About 200 nautical miles (370 km) off the coast of Ireland, U-30 spotted a ship. To the captain it appeared to be darkened ship, travelling off the normal shipping routes and steering a zigzag course. All these being traits that suggested a troopship, a Q-ship or an armed merchant cruiser – in other words a legitimate target which he could fire on without warning.
It was not. It was the Athenia with its cargo of innocent passengers. As those passengers enjoyed their journey, for three hours they were tracked invisibly by U-30.
Finally, still believing it to be a legitimate target, Lemp issued the order to fire and two deadly torpedoes slipped through the Atlantic water.
One exploded on Athenia's port side in her engine room with devastating effect.
Realising the danger they were in, Athenia sent out a distress signal, begging for aid from anyone in the area. Fortunately, several responded. HMS Electra came along and organised the other ships. HMS Fame from the Royal Navy set out to make sure the U-Boat was not still around whilst HMS Escort started to pick up survivors. They were joined by the Southern Cross, a Swedish luxury yacht, once owned by Howard Hughes, a Norwegian cargo ship MS Knute Nelson and a US cargo ship, City of Flint.
The ship took 14 hours to sink, time enough to save a lot of people. But not everyone. 19 crew members were killed and 98 passengers lost, including a 10-year-old Canadian girl, Margaret Hayworth, who was one of the first Canadians to be killed by enemy action.
Obviously the sinking of a passenger ship was big news, and made for red headlines. Questions were asked, how could civilians be targeted. The Propaganda Ministry denied all that any German U-boat had sunk Athenia. Instead they claimed that the British had torpedoed their own vessel in an attempt to bring the United States into the war on their side.
U-30 eventually came home and docked on 27 September, 1939 where it was met by Admiral Karl Dönitz. He met captain Lemp while he was disembarking from the U-boat, later describing that Lemp looked "very unhappy".
He confesses his mistake and the sinking of the Athenia. Unsure what to do next, word was sent to the government and Hitler and they decided to cover the whole affair up.
The High Command of the Navy (OKM) did not court-martial Lemp as they considered his actions in good faith . Dönitz had U-30's ships log altered in order to erase any evidence, and the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party's official newspaper, continued to blame the loss of Athenia on the UK.
In fact, it was not until the Nuremberg trials in 1946 that the Germans finally admitted the truth about the fate of the Athenia.
As the war progressed, the Allies had developed a tactic to counter U-boats. Convoys were implemented, which were themselves countered by the introduction of the Wolf Pack, where U-boats would attack in groups.
Overall, Uboats were still a major threat to Allied shipping
Between September and December 1939, the U-boats sank 110 merchant vessels, the consequences of which were soon felt in Britain.
The big red book
On 5th Jun 2014, Bonhams auction house had a lot. It was a book, with a red cloth cover, the pages and the ink on them designed to dissolve in water.
This was because it was supposed to be easy to destroy, because this was a 1944 edition of the Kurzsignalheft, also known as an enigma code book.
In May 1941 the British destroyer HMS Bulldog was escorting a convoy from Britain to America, having made it about 300 miles out from Ireland’s coast. The Captain looking out suddenly saw two huge plumes of water fountain up alongside two of the merchantmen he was protecting. It was the horrifying and unmistakable sight of torpedo hits.
A U-boat had struck and the two ships started to sink.
Meanwhile, on the U-boat, which was U-110, the Captain gave the order for a third torpedo to fire.
That captain’s name? Fritz-Julius Lemp, former Captain of the sub that sank the Athenia.
Unfortunately for Lemp, the third torpedo he ordered misfired and stayed in the tube, which caused a mechanical issue that meant they could not dive.
So when the convoys escort come hunting for them, dropping depth charges all around, the U-boat sailors can do nothing but wait, terrified as the explosions go off around them.
Lemp tried to settle his men "It's OK. We're all going to be fine," he said. Which was perhaps an overstatement.
The U-boats was damaged such that depth meters were broken, so they didn’t know what was happening. Were they sinking to the depths of the ocean? Rising to the where their enemy waited?
They couldn’t tell.
Then, they feel the sub rocking from side to side, the movement of a ship on the waves, which told them they had broken the surface.
Opening the hatch they saw two large warships bearing down on them and the air filled with the sound of guns. Lemp shouted ‘Out, Out! The destroyer is going to ram us’.
The crew abandoned ship, piling out of the U-boat as quickly as they could.
This left an abandoned submarine floating on the water. The British decided to board it.
A boarding party led by Sub/Lieutenant David Balme they went over to the sub on a little boat and Balme climbed the ladder into the vessel.
He didn’t know if there was a soldier down there with a gun ready to fire, if the ship had been rigged with explosives, or what other dangers might lay in wait.
Also the ladder meant he had to use both hands to descend, so he was totally defenceless
Balme recalled later "Going down those ladders and thinking there may be Germans ready to shoot you ... it was terrifying. We couldn't believe that they would have just abandoned this submarine. It was something that haunted me for 15 or 20 years afterwards."
When he got down and found it was safe he called his men to follow. They formed a human chain and started passing code-books and charts up the conning tower.
They also found an enigma machine, which they unscrewed from the desk took with them as well.
After an hour and a half of scavenging, during which the captain of the Bulldog sent over some sandwiches, they scrambled up and out of the u-boat and returned to the Bulldog with their prize of maps and code books and the strange machine.
The next morning, U-110 slipped beneath the waves.
Two days later, HMS Bulldog arrived in Scapa Flow, in the Orkneys to hand over their prize to an intelligence officer who swore the ships captain to secrecy.
All the seized materials were shipped to the secret codebreaking institute at Bletchley Park where, in fact, the enigma machine didn’t help much at all, the British already had some.
What was really important in amongst the books and papers was the settings and procedure to be used for "Offizier" messages, the especially important doubly enciphered messages sent to officers in U-boats while they were at sea.
This find was so important, that King George VI, said the operation was "perhaps the most important single event in the whole war at sea"
The red cross and blood in the water
The sinking of U-110 was just one victory, albeit very important. The battle of the Atlantic dragged on and the U-boats were still a terrifying threat.
On 12th September 1942, U-156 was on patrol off the coast of western Africa. Its captain, Werner Hartenstein spotted a ship. The RMS Laconia.
The ship was armed and, as such legitimately qualified to be attacked without warning. A torpedo hissed through the water.
What Captain Hartenstein did not know was that the ship was only carrying people. 463 crew, 87 civilians, 286 British soldiers, 1,793 Italian prisoners and 103 Polish soldiers acting as guards of the prisoners.
The torpedo hit.
Almost immediately, the ship began to list to one side. As a result, half the lifeboats could not be launched.
People started throwing themselves off the ship and into the water however they could. The prisoners who had been left locked up in the boat broke out and escaped by any means possible.
Clearly the ship was doomed.
In ugly scenes, as Italian prisoners attempted to board or climb into lifeboats, they were shot or bayonetted or even had hands chopped off with axes to prevent them boarding.
The red blood of the wounded flowed into the water, and in that water, sharks began to circle, and a feeding frenzy began.
As the Laconia sank, U-156 surfaced, initially hoping to capture some senior officers. It was only now that it became clear to Captain Hartenstein exactly what that ship had been carrying as he see the water littered with 2,000 desperate men
Hartenstein raised a flag – the red cross – to indicate that he is now on a rescue mission. More than that, big red crosses painted on bedsheets were thrown over the ship’s guns, making clear their intentions.
He also radiod base. Admiral Dönitz received the message and immediately ordered seven U-boats from nearby to divert to the scene to pick up survivors.
Hartenstein also issued an open, unencoded message in English requesting help, “If any ship will assist the shipwrecked Laconia crew I will not attack her, providing I am not being attacked by ship or air force.”
For two and a half days U-156 remained on the surface at the scene. She was joined by three more submarines.
The four submarines, with lifeboats in tow and hundreds of survivors standing on their decks, headed for the African coastline to meet up French ships that had been sent out to help.
On 16 September U-156 was spotted by an American B-24 bomber flying from a secret airbase on Ascension. Hartenstein signalled to the Pilot in morse code and one of the British survivors messaged the plane. “RAF officer speaking from German submarine, Laconia survivors on board, soldiers, civilians, women, children.”
The pilot notified his base of the situation.
The senior officer on base, Captain Robert C. Richardson III, gave his order to the B-24 bomber, “sink the sub”.
He claimed he believed that the rules of war at the time did not permit a combat ship to fly Red Cross flags. He was also scared that the German submarine would attack any ships sent to help and he assumed that the German submarine was rescuing only the Italian POWs, not everyone. Finally, he feared the submarine might discover the secret airfield Ascension, which was critically important, strategically.
Given the order, the bomber flew back and dropped bombs and depth charges on the U-boat and the survivors it was helping.
One bomb landed amongst the lifeboats. Others caused minor damage to the U-boat
Hartenstein had to act. He cast adrift those lifeboats and told the people on deck to get into the water. He submerged slowly to give those still on the deck a chance to get into the water and escape.
Two other U-boats were advised of the danger and ordered to cast adrift any survivors. They chose not to do that.
Eventually the French ships arrived to pick up the remaining survivors. 373 Italians, 70 Poles and 597 British, including 48 women and children were saved. Hundreds more were dead.
After this event, Admiral Dönitz issued the Triton Null order, later known as the Laconia Order. This prohibited U-boat crews from attempting rescues like this.
A red brick refuge
If you travel to the small Newfoundland town of St Johns, Canada and head down towards the docks, you might find yourself in front of an unassuming, red brick building.
The building is home to a club known as The Crows Nest and it’s been there since it was first established in 1942 as a club for Officers from the merchants ships and the escorts braving the Atlantic crossing.
Established as a club for people who are sharing this difficult experience of the war in the Atlantic by Captain Mainguy, it was the location where the idea was hatched to paint red and white stripes on the funnels of escort vessels, to make them more recognisable. This led to the ships becoming known as The Barberpole Brigade and the red and white striping can be seen on Canadian ships in the Atlantic to this day.
Pete was lucky enough to interview club treasurer Margaret Morris, who shared some of the history and fascinating stories of the club.
The war dragged on until 30th June 1945, when Hitler committed suicide, with the following day Goebbels following suit. That left none other than Admiral Dönitz in charge of surrendering on behalf of Germany to the Allies, finally bringing the war in Europe, and the battle for the Atlantic, to a close.