US neutrality in World War Two was put to the test on the very first day of the Battle of the Atlantic. Michael E Haskew explains how the U-boat menace prematurely thrust the Americans into the bitter campaign for ocean supremacy

The war had begun only hours earlier, but the waters around the British Isles were already hostile. On the evening of September 3, 1939, Kapitänleutnant Fritz- Julius Lemp, commander of the U-30, was stalking a darkened ship sailing a zig-zag course across the Atlantic. The 13,465-ton Athenia had departed Glasgow for Montreal two days earlier with 1,418 on board. At around 7:40pm, during the ocean liner’s second dinner seating and 200 nautical miles off Ireland, Lemp began the attack.

Two torpedoes hissed toward the liner, one striking her port side. The explosion wrecked the engine room and sent a geyser of steam and water skyward. Athenia went to the bottom the next morning with 98 passengers and 14 crew.

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