The Sinking of the Athenia, the unknown aftermath

This article is mainly based on three articles recently translated from Icelandic; many years after they appeared in a newspaper there. The first one was published Sunday 24 November 1985, the next on Sunday 6 May 1990 and the final one on Sunday 10 September 1994. They were all written by a journalist called Ivor Gudmunndsson and published the Morgunbladid newspaper. The first one announced the publication of a book on the history of Iceland during WWII, written by Professor Tor Whitehead. The other two covered an interview with Adolf Schmidt. When I discovered this material I felt Ivor’s work deserved wider recognition. It describes the aftermath of a major incident in WWII, namely the sinking of the Athenia. Ivor appears to have gone to Canada to meet Adolf Schmidt face to face. I have merged the articles and deleted some repetitions, but the story is as Ivor told it more than 20 years ago:

In a small peaceful village on the banks of St. Lawrence River in Ontario, Canada, called Glen Walter, a man in his eighties lives alone. He’s called Adolf Schmidt. For a short while his name became world famous, when he was landed in Reykjavik on September 19th, 1939 by a German submarine, severely wounded after an attack by a British aircraft from the carrier "Ark Royal" close to the west of Iceland.

Adolf was born in Frankfurt-am-Main May 31st 1917. He was the son of William Schmidt whose opposition to the Nazis would later get him into trouble. Adolf attended public German schools and graduated from a vocational school where he studied vehicle repair. In spite of his father’s opposition he joined the German navy. Adolf studied in the naval school in Wesermunde to become an officer and then attended a secret course in the submarine service. Adolf was then sent to admiral Dönitz’headquarters, "where men stood to attention like toy soldiers when officers arrived, although they were sound asleep" as he put it.

After a six-month course in diesel engines Adolf got his first order of service in the submarine U-30, August 20th 1939. The submarine commander was Fritz Julius Lemp, who had the nickname “The Seawolf,” which was derived from the submarine’s symbol; a drawing of stray dog which the crew had befriended when they docked in Kiel. The dog had a habit of catching the landing ropes the crew threw her onshore when they arrived at the harbour. A drawing of the dog hangs in the living room of Adolf’s home in Glen Walter in Ontario, Canada. In front of Adolf, on a low table, there was a clipping from a Canadian newspaper about him; a photo from the time he joined the German navy, lying in the sun on the deck of a submarine; and picture of him in Landakot hospital recovering from his wounds, and finally a picture from Canada, after he moved there.

Fritz Julius Lemp, who came to Reykjavik with wounded marine Adolf Schmidt, was in Germany, considered one of the most hard working and focused Germans submarine commanders of the Second World War, first in the U-30, the older version of German submarines, and later in a new submarine, U-110, which fought many battles before the British captured it.

Later, U-110 turned out to be one of the most valuable treasures the British encountered during WW II. They found sets of cryptographic keys, an Enigma machine and other invaluable information, which proved crucial to the war effort. It should be noted that according to the British naval history museum the ships HMS Aubrietia, Bulldog and Broadway captured submarine U-110 south of Iceland, and struggled for hours to keep it afloat as the U-boat was under tow, at the same time as they secretly took the secret documents and the cryptography machine. There is conflicting evidence regarding Lemp’s death, as to whether he drowned or died of wounds sustained when the British navy prepared to board the submarine.

U-30 captain, Fritz Lemp, caused the first disaster of World War II, when he sank the passenger ship Athenia, on the very day WWII broke out in September 1939. Athenia was 200 nautical miles north west of Ireland on its way to the US with 1,418 passengers and crew on board. Most of them were trying to escape the war in Europe. 128 died when the ship sank. Adolf, then a member of the U-30 crew, recalls in the following story what happened that faithful day.

"We were out in the North Atlantic about 200 miles west of Ireland around 9 in the evening on September 3rd when Woolf Dehm, the First Mate [could have been the First Watch Officer] and I were ordered to return to the deck," says Adolf. "What we saw was frightening. About 200 meters from us a large ship was engulfed in flames at the back. We heard the cries of women and children. People were trying to release the lifeboats but it took time and meanwhile the shouts, tears and anguish increased. I heard our submarine’s captain, Fritz Lemp, blurt out "Verdamt" repeatedly and other profanity: "What can we do. Verdamt?" He turned to Dehm and repeated the question: "What should we do?" But no one answered him, and finally Lemp said as to himself: "It is best to hurry away from here as soon as possible." Half a minute later, the submarine dived to around 30 meters. When we were submerged, I heard our radioman Erwin Strammer, saying that he had clearly heard distress signal SOS from the ship. The ship’s name was "Athenia." It was an awful experience.

No one knew who attacked the ship, the British blamed the Germans, but Hitler and Goebbels claimed the British had done it to tear down the German reputation. The German government denied all accusation of their involvement in the sinking of Athenia and Goebbels, Hitler’s minister for propaganda, released a statement stating that Winston Churchill had had the ship sunk and blamed the Germans for the atrocity. This, he claimed, was to increase the world's hatred towards Germany, similarly to when the passenger ship "Lusitania" was sunk in 1918 which became one of the main reasons why the United States went to war against the Germans in 1916.The truth did not come to light until after the war when Adolf revealed what had truly happened. His testimony, for the investigative committee of the Nurnberg trials led to the truth about the Athenia matter being revealed.

“When we had been submerged for about an hour Lemp called the crew to a meeting. He told us that he had committed a crime when he shot torpedoes at the passenger ship. He thought that the vessel was a warship. He gave orders that no one would mention what had happened until an order would come from "our Führer, Adolf Hitler, through Döniz, BdU (Officer in charge of the U-boats)." There was a lot of discussion among the crewmembers about what had happened. They found it hard to believe that a captain with this much experience at sea as Lemp did, could miss what kind of ship Athenia was. But he argued that he had thought the ship to be a warship. At 1 o’clock that night we finally got a message from the German headquarters, where the following instructions were given: "Stay in the same area. Forget everything that happened on September 3rd. Lock the ship's War Diary ‘U-30’ in a safe place. When the submarine returns to Wilhemshaven a new page will replace the one from September 3rd ”.


“I learned later,” said Adolf, "that a new page was put in the ship's War Diary, with lies about the time and place where the submarine was located on September 3rd. The main base of the submarine fleet ordered us to stay in the same area that we had been in the North Atlantic. We encountered several ships which we sank according to international law; where the captain was ordered to go abandon ship and take to the lifeboats with his crew. They were then asked if they had food and drink. Then, men from the submarine crew went on board with explosives and blew the ships up. Among the ships, were coal cargo carriers from England to Canada and some fishing vessels.

Adolf explained how he got so seriously wounded that it was decided to take him with the U- 30 to Reykjavik: "On September 14th we noticed a merchant ship. It turned out to be a Canadian steamship. After the crew had reached the lifeboats, four of the U-30 crew were sent to the ship to blow it up. I was one of these men because of my knowledge of the machinery. I had with me two and a half pounds of explosives in each side pocket of my leather jacket. I had to arrange the trigger so the charges would explode in five minutes. I was about to open the bottom locks of the ship when I noticed that the steam pressure was dangerously high. I had no desire to get blown by the steam so I started to cool the boiler. It was then that I heard Franke shout that there were planes in the air above us.

They seemed to be old planes, but they had bombs and machine guns and they hit us. But what struck us as the worst sight of all, was to see our submarine submerging into the sea. One of the aircraft flew so low it hit the waterspout from one of their own bombs and crashed into the sea. The remaining plane swooped over us with, strafing our dinghy with intense machine gun fire. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my right arm. Blood was oozing from my arm which was dangling limp like a yard hose by my side. I then remembered the explosives in my jacked. Had the bullet that went through my arm gone a few centimetres to the side, I would have exploded in the air and the boat too. Now I saw that there was only one plane hovering over us. The other had surely gone for reinforcements. We rescued the two British pilots from the plane that had crashed into the sea and from them we learned that the planes were from the British aircraft carrier "Ark Royal".

We desperately started to screen the ocean looking for our submarine and it was not long before we saw it remerging from the deep. We managed to get on board the submarine, with the British officers we had taken captive. After a little while a British destroyer arrived and attacked us with depth charges. I counted 94 of them. I felt like each one was the one that would kill us, but all of a sudden the explosions stopped.

Lemp was instructed to take the wounded crew members to Iceland. I was among those wounded men. We had strict orders to conceal that there were two British officers prisoners aboard the U-30 and the Icelandic authorities did not find out about them. Those two British officers were the Axis powers’ first prisoners of war in WW II."

After three days’ sailing the submarine U 30 crept into the outer harbour of the capital, in rain and gloomy weather. When approaching, they saw three ships docked. These turned out to be the German merchant ship that had fled to Reykjavik. The submarine crew could therefore soon see that they had not been the only refugees to seek shelter in Iceland’s neutrality. Here they had unexpectedly joined friends. While the town awoke this Tuesday morning, September 19th, 1939, Lemp moored between the German ships. This strange guest quickly drew the attention of the town, and people asked curiously what they were doing there.

When the German submarine U-30 arrived in Reykjavik, with a wounded German sailor, it was kept a secret from Iceland’s national authorities that on board were two British prisoners. This 50-year-old secret only saw the light of day when Ivor Gudmundsson was talking to Adolf at his home in Glen Walter in Ontario, Canada.

Nobody suspected that this submarine was the one that had destroyed the Athenia and killed 128 people. Furthermore, they suspected even less that British pilots were held in captivity in the U-boat. News of the submarine’s arrival quickly reached Consul Werner Gerlach so he ran in haste down to the pier. There he asked if they had arrived because of injured men. German naval leadership (Seekriegsleitung) officers had not informed anyone that the U 30 had any plans of docking in Reykjavik, perhaps for the safety of the U-boat and the crew. The navy leaders trusted that Gerlach would be the man to sort things out, even though their arrival was unexpected.

When the Consul had learned about why the submarine was there he called for Magnús Pétursson, the regional doctor, whom he already knew. Together they joined a boat from Customs and the Immigration Police and sailed out to where the submarine moored. It was "a great event" in Gerlach’s mind to have been "visited by one of our majestic submarines ", as he later remarked in a letter to Himmler. U30 was a beautiful sight in this old warrior and warlover’s eyes. He was therefore greatly offended when a friend of Germany, a known Icelandic upper class man" looked at the submarine and had said, "Welche schreckliche Mordwerkzeuge!" – What an awful killing machine! Most likely it was Magnús Pétursson, who unknowingly hurt the feelings of Gerlach with these words. Magnus was, as mentioned previously, “the apostle of the old Germania”, a former Member of Parliament and the Chairman of the Medical Association. When such a man was afraid of the war machines of the Third Reich, what did all the others feel, that had no association to the Germans? It seems that Gerlach discovered, whilst out in the port of Reykjavík, that Icelanders were indeed very similar to each other. He was going to inform Himmler that even cold hard descendants of the Vikings lacked understanding "not only of all heroism, but also war in general.”

The toll boat arrived at U 30, and Lemp stated his business to Gerlach. The submarine commander felt that his case would be safe in the hands of this heavily browed man, he undeniably had Germany's interests as top priority. "No hesitation", he wrote about Gerlach’s response. With the doctor’s approval, an order was given to transfer the three wounded men to the customs boat. Lemp was obviously relieved that the reception in Reykjavik was so kind. He had worked so hard to save Schmidt’s life. Still, he could not afford to relax yet.

Adolf was one of the few crew members on U 30 that had seen the Athenia after she was torpedoed. Lemp had sent for the young man to the conning tower whilst the submarine rested in the moonlight not too far from the sinking ship. Adolf had seen the ship drop on its side and heard the cries of people trying to escape. Lemp realized, when the time came to say goodbye to Adolf that he would have to pay for the Icelandic medical help by remaining there until the end of the war. How could he ensure that Adolf would not reveal the truth to these foreigners? When the wounded men were about to be transferred over to the customs boat Lemp appeared unexpectedly, where Adolf lay exhausted from anaemia. The commander asked the company, except forAdolf, to step out for a second.

Later, Adolf described what was went on between them: “Lemp showed me a document where I was supposed to swear that I would not say a word about the event in U-30 on September 3rd 1939.

The oath was something like this: ‘I hereby by swear that I will not reveal to enemies as well as friends what happened aboard the U 30 September 3rd 1939 and will erase from my memory the events of that day’. I swore an oath, and added my signature, which I scribled on the paper with my left hand.”

After this the captain handed his mechanic over to Gerlach and the customs boat sailed ashore. Gerlach intended to admit Adolf to a hospital, but have the wounds of the others taken care of quickly and get them back on board the U-3O before departure.

The three submarine crewmembers arrived at the quay with the customs boat. All of them wounded, but one very seriously. He had his arm in a sling and was obviously seriously ill, but nonetheless tried not to show it. He was so ill that he could barely stand the noise of the boat’s engine. Another man also had his hand in a sling, but didn’t look as troubled as he managed to use his hand. The third one had a naval officer hat on and didn’t look injured except for a bandage on his face.

The captain claimed that they were injured because of rough seas whilst aboard the submarine. The three Germans that arrived, all had heavy beards and looked exhausted, their clothes were dirty. As staff started to treat Adolf’s the wounds, however, it was quickly discovered that his injuries were not due to turbulent seas, as claimed earlier. These were serious bullet wounds.

Adolf recalled his stay in Iceland from September 1939 with fondness. It was a peaceful and carefree life in good company. His wounds healed relatively quickly under the guidance of Matthias Einarsson, chief physician at Landakot hospital, resulting in his discharge after 14 days. Until the British arrived on May 10th 1940, life was sweet, he said.

There were many Germans in Iceland at the time, who became his good friends. Adolf also got to know many locals, which he appreciated and some he considered himself indebted to. Adolf Schmidt was a great athlete, an experienced and accomplished skier. He volunteered as a ski coach and later went on many ski trips around Reykjavik, to the Hengill Mountains and beyond. An Icelandic girl, whose name he’d rather keep to himself was very dear to him. He does not know whether she is alive today. Perhaps she got married and had children. When asked if he ever got married himself, Adolf replied: "No, it never occurred to me for the simple reason that I felt that no one would ever measure up to my Icelandic love when it comes to intellect, kindness and beauty. She was always the one I’d compare other women to that I could think of marrying. But there was no one that would come close! I’ll never forget her.

In Reykjavik, I was a completely free man. I had given my solemn promise that I would not make any attempt to flee the country to get back to Germany. I never thought about betraying that promise. I needed nothing except my friends.

In the beginning I lived at Hótel Ísland but later I was invited to stay with a German family in Reykjavík and I gratefully accepted. Every day I dined at Hotel Ísland and I particularly remember one incident: When I first started eating there a waiter helped me to cut my food, as my right hand was powerless to start with. I noticed that every day a man came to eat there on his own at the same time as I did. This was very respectable gentleman. One day he approached me and after talking for a while he offered to cut my food for me and I accepted. The man spoke German fluently and I got the impression that he was unmarried and probably a very important official. Sadly, I have forgotten his name. After I stopped eating at Hotel Iceland I didn’t see this gentleman until we ran into each other at the Press Ball on New Year’s Eve at Hotel Borg [1939]. It was a crazy party, that press ball!

I had little or no contact with the German Consulate office during my stay unless I needed money to buy necessities, such as clothing. I also never took a job or needed to do so. If I needed money to support myself I went to the senior counsellor of the consulate, who I believe had been there for years. I have now forgotten his name, but I'm sure the older city folk remember this man since he was employed at the office for a very long time. He was the nicest man, when he wanted to, but precise and accurate when matters had to be accounted for, especially when money was involved."

When the journalist mentioned his relationship with Consul Werner Gerlach, who Adolf always called "Professor Gerlach", he had nothing but good things to say. He said, however, that they had had relatively little contact, but he liked and respected him. Adolf considered him proper and precise in every way and the role model of German officials, where the book is followed to the fullest.

“Like so many times before, I was on a weekend trip at the ski hut in Hveradalir. A snowstorm hit that weekend, leaving most people stranded in the hut. The Professor called me on Monday morning and asked me to accompany his daughter, who was with us in the hut, into town. We took the road on skis toward Reykjavík and a taxi was sent from the other direction, who went as far as he could in the snow. The Professor was very grateful to me for bringing his daughter home from the storm, which was forecasted to last for a few days. We left the hut at 8 in the morning and got to the taxi at 6 in the evening, close to the city limits. The Consul was glad get his daughter back, who was 17 years old at the time. I liked Dr. Gerlach,” Adolf added. “He was a decent man even though he was not German - he was from Innsbrück,” he said and smiled. Adolf recalled that Consul Gerlach was a good pianist. But one thing he said he had a hard time understanding; that the Consuls of France and Germany continued to play piano and violin together for at least a week after the war broke out between their nations.

"When the British occupied Iceland, May 10th, 1940" Adolf continued," I lived with a German family. I woke up early in the morning, to a pebble being thrown at the window where I slept on the first floor. I was sound asleep and did not wake up completely until the second stone hit the glass. When I peeked outside I saw a friend, who told me that the British were coming, but where not ashore yet. He told me that the Consul had advised me to flee to the countryside and hide there. But I suspected, which proved to be correct, that the British knew about me and would soon look for me. I did not speak Icelandic and could not pretend to someone else. But I was utterly lost and did not know what to do. Then I thought of calling a friend of mine. She turned out to be, as before, the most decent woman. "I'll talk to them," she said. But the British did not come to take me that day, but the next day they came. It so happened that the daughter of the family I lived with was getting married that same day. The bride, groom and wedding guests were arriving, but a group of British soldiers followed closely behind.

The captain said they had come to pick me up. My friend stood her ground and said "What the hell are you doing here. Can’t you see that there is a wedding going on here and you're not invited?“ The British officer replied "Oh, oh well! Forgive me for bothering you." Then they left. My friend took me to her friend’s family, but the lady of the house seemed to know what was going on and refused to take me in. We then went to another house, where the Brits found me one or two days later. They took me to the German Consulate office, where they had put up base and I stayed in the basement until I was sent with the next ship to Liverpool, England. They treated me well, but obviously I was interrogated in detail. Among other things, the British found in my possession, were my speeches I had kept for the Germans in Reykjavik, about life aboard the submarines. The British wanted to know if I had written them in order to train people to serve on submarines. I pointed out how ridiculous the idea was - how would that benefit anyone in these circumstances?

About 10 days later a ship was bound for England. There the endless interrogations started. In the middle of it all, I was sent to a Prisoner of War camp here in Canada. I was not released until 1947.”

"When the war ended, I wanted to stay in Canada,” added Adolf when continuing his account. “Here I felt good given the circumstances and was treated nicely. But that did not happen by default, I was lucky enough to have gotten to known important people in the war camp.” Adolf had worked as a camp interpreter.

“I went home to Germany, but there the misery was so great that I did everything I could to get away. One tiny detail describes the situation in Germany after the war; when I came I had with me a few pounds of Mackintosh-apples. Acquaintances of mine fought over who would get the apples and wanted to do anything to gain such a luxury!

Immediately after German citizens were allowed to apply for a residence permit and citizenship in Canada, I applied for and received citizenship. Here I feel good and I now enjoy my remaining days, how many they may be.”For the last years before Adolf Schmidt retired, he was a senior manager of a company called Maq Sonar, based in Cornwall in Ontario, Canada.


The members of staff at the German Consulate in Reykjavik, Iceland were interned by the British when they took control of Iceland. About a year or so later, they were actually used in an exchange to free the members of staff at the British Consulate in Bergen, Norway who had not been able to get away when the Germans invaded 9 April 1940.

Reference: Der Prozess gegen die Hauptkriegsverbrecher vor dem Internationalen Militärgerichtshof. Komet MA, Frechen.

Adolf Schmidt’s witness statement is included in Volume V from page 302 onwards.