Return of the Killer

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Barnet Mackenzie Copland was the thirty two year old Chief Officer of the 13,465 tons passenger liner Athenia when she left Liverpool for America on 2nd September, 1939, carrying 1400 passengers. The Athenia becoming the last passenger ship out of Europe before war was declared. She was part of the Donaldson Atlantic Line and usually ran regularly on the Glasgow to Montreal route. It is another coincidence that the ships predecessor, the first Donaldson liner, Athenia was torpedoed off Inishtrahull in August 1917.

Shortly after dinner, Copland found Mrs Rose Griffin of Toronto, lying unconscious at the foot of the stairs leading to ‘D’ deck, probably caused by a bad fall. Copland managed to get her to the sick bay and called the doctor.

Mrs Griffin was still unconscious when, later the following day, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, the 26 year old commander of the German submarine U-30, sighted Athenia about 200 miles West of the Hebrides. Four hours earlier he had received the signal telling him that his country was now at war with Britain. Lemp ordered three torpedoes to be fired on the Athenia. These were the first shots fired at sea of World War II. Two of them missed. But the third hit the liner broadside in the engine room. With this explosion, Athenia then became the first sea casualty of World War II.

Copland was one of the last to leave the sinking ship after organising the launch of all lifeboats. He was picked up by the destroyer HMS Electra, which was one of the ships that had answered Athenia’s distress call. Climbing aboard, he met the Athenia’s doctor and was told that in the confusion Mrs Griffin had been left behind.

Copland immediately organised her rescue and with two volunteers, returned with them to the sinking liner. They found her listing over thirty degrees, this nearly fifteen hours since being hit by the torpedo. The liner was still struggling to stay afloat. Risking their lives in a race against time, Copland and the two volunteers found the unconscious Mrs Griffin – she was close to drowning in the flooded sick bay. Hurriedly, they got her from the ship to safety back aboard the destroyer. Tragically, the rescued woman never regained consciousness and died two weeks later in a Glasgow hospital.

Copland was awarded the OBE for his bravery. Then almost two years passed. In May 1941, Copland was serving aboard the freighter Esmond, sailing in an Atlantic convoy. The convoy was sighted by a newly-commissioned enemy submarine, the U-110. For the second time in his career, Copland’s ship was torpedoed.

But escorting destroyers closed in mercilessly on the submarine. Aubretia put down ten depth charges which blew U-110 to the surface. Two others, Bulldog and Broadway then pounded it with shell-fire. The battered submarine surrendered and was captured. Thirty-four members of her crew were rescued from the water – but her commander was not among them. That commander, who was never seen again, was none other than Fritz-Julius Lemp, the man who had sunk Athenia. Thus, for the second time, and in dramatic fashion, even though they never met, did the hand of Fate cause the paths of Copland and Lemp to cross each other.

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