September wasn’t a particularly good month for merchant ships in WW 2. The sinking of the 13,580 ton Donaldson liner Athenia signalled the start of a new sort of war when she was torpedoed on September 3, 1939. The ship was loaded with refugees headed for safety in Canada following the German blitzkrieg invasion of Poland that summer, which precipitated Britain’s declaration of War that very same day.
The conventions of sea warfare in the First War required that unarmed ships receive advance warning from hostile warships – allowing time for passengers and crew to take to the boats – before being sunk. The submarine U-30, under the command of Oberlieutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, fired without warning as the Athenia rounded the north of Ireland. 118 of the 1,100+ passengers were drowned, setting of a storm of outrage in Britain, the US and even in the German Navy. Oblt Lemp claimed that he mistook the liner for an Armed Merchant Cruiser, but the chance to probe this mistake was lost in May 1941 when Lemp was lost with U-110.
The following year, on September 17 1940, the City of Benares was headed to Canada with convoy OB-213. The modern 11,000 ton liner was carrying nearly 100 children bound for safety in Canada when she was torpedoed and sunk by U-48. 325 drowned in the sinking, including 77 children.