Prior to his graduation from Harvard, Jack Kennedy’s global eyes began to open when President Franklin D. Roosevelt named Joe Sr. the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James in England – a first for an American of Irish descent.
Life in England’s American Embassy was calm and collected; however, the situation outside is something totally different. Hitler’s planned Anschluß (Political union of Austria with Germany, achieved through annexation by Adolf Hitler in 1938) focused on a total takeover of Austria by Germany. Following this, Germany signed the Munich Agreement, which turned over half of Czechoslovakia to settle a prior claim. The agreement, however, became void the moment the German army invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia.
The countries of Europe had no desire to go to war with Germany. Neville Chamberlain, England’s Prime Minister, requested “Peace at any cost.” During this time, Joe Sr. wrote to FDR, advising him the United States should avoid entering the conflict. In time, Joe Sr. would lose his job for expressing this opinion.
On September 3, 1939, France and England declared war on Germany. At this time, Hilter was still holding out hope for a diplomatic solution to the situation – that being the acceptance by the Western Powers of the fact German sovereignty should reign in Europe; similar in manner to the way the British had established their colonies in Asia. In an effort to bring this goal to reality, Hitler gave orders to his U-boat fleet stating the rules for the Prize Regulations Germany signed in 1936 were to be obeyed.
The rules stated every merchant ship was to be stopped and searched. If, in the process, contraband was found aboard, the ship was to be sunk – but only after its crew and any passengers were safely evacuated. The lack of contraband permitted the ship to continue its journey in peace. Warships and convoy vessels were prime targets for sinking without warning. There was one exception. Hitler forbade attacks on French ships, except in the case of self-defense, due to his feeling the French could easily be talked out of entering the war. Passenger liners from any country, however, were totally off limits.
On the afternoon of September 3, 1939, Oberleutnant Lemp was in command of U-30, patrolling approximately 250 miles northwest of Ireland and 60 miles south of Rockall banks. At 1630 hours (4:30 p.m.) U-30 approached the northern tip of its assigned zone. The bridge watch discovered a large ship moving towards the distant horizon out of the normal shipping lanes. Lemp moved U-30 closer to the ship and noticed it zigzagging at a high rate of speed; a technique normally employed by combatant vessels. Her size was that of a passenger liner; however, her behavior made him think she was, instead, a British Armed Merchant Cruiser; a ship originally built as an ocean liner, but now outfitted with naval guns. If so, she was fair game under the Prize Regulations rules.
Unknown to him at the time, when Lemp ordered two torpedoes discharged towards the ship at 1940 hours, he had just fired the first shots of the Battle of the Atlantic. The first torpedo found its target and stopped her dead in her tracks while the second torpedo made off for parts unknown. A third torpedo was later fired and went AWOL as well.
Lemp slowly moved his U-boat closer to inspect his victim. Being able to now clearly identify the vessel’s silhouette, he compared it to his copy of Lloyd’s Register. The icy fingers of panic quickly tightened their grip on his heart as Lemp realized his horrid mistake. The vessel previously deemed a British Armed Merchant Cruiser was instead the British passenger liner SS Athenia. As if to confirm his fears, he soon heard a distress call over the radio in clear English in which the vessel identified herself and her position, as well as including the code “SSS” which meant she had been struck by a submarine. On board were 1,100 passengers, including 311 Americans, on their way to Canada. Fearing what the fuehrer would do to him were his identity to be revealed for this mistake, rather than render aide, Lemp silently sailed away.
Jack Kennedy now found himself in the right place at the right time. As the son of the American ambassador to Britain, Jack was sent to Glasgow, Scotland to interview those who survived the attack on the Athenia. From there, Kennedy went on a fact-finding mission throughout Eastern Europe. Before long, his passport bore the stamps of Poland, Russia, Palestine and Nazi-occupied Prague, Czechoslovakia, thanks to strings his father pulled. The research he did during the trip became the basis of his thesis, Appeasement at Munich. The high accolades the thesis earned encouraged Jack to publish it. He chose the title Why England Slept to echo the book While England Slept, written by Britain’s new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In his book, Churchill proclaimed the need for a strong response to the aggressiveness of the Nazis regarding Germany’s government. Jack’s book went on to sell 40,000 copies, making him a best-selling author and a celebrity.