On the last day of September, 1938, British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew into Heston Aerodrome, alighted from his aircraft and proclaimed to the crowd around him, that thanks to the Munich Agreement signed with Herr Hitler, he had secured “peace for our time!”
Less than a year later, the world would be plunged further and further into the greatest military conflict ever seen in the history of mankind.
The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia
This posting looks at one of the most infamous, and yet possibly, one of the most forgettable war crimes of the Second World War. Within hours of war being declared, a passenger-liner with over a thousand lives onboard was torpedoed and sunk. It sparked fury and outrage, condemnation and denial throughout the world, and spurred Europe on into the bloody contest of war for the second time in a generation.
On the 1st of September, 1939, the German Army invaded Polish territory, claiming that the Poles had attacked guard-posts along the German-Polish border. The world held its breath to see what would happen next. For forty-eight hours, the Wehrmacht and the Wojsko Polskie, the German and Polish armies respectively, duked it out on the borderlands.
It was by no means certain that the Polish would lose, or that the Germans might win. Poland had fought, and won, a war against Russia back in the 1920s, so Polish confidence in their armed forces was not without foundation.
For two and a half days, the world held its breath, keeping tuned into the wireless, their eyes on newspaper-headlines, their ears out for the postman’s whistle or the knock of the telegraph-boy, wondering whether or not France and Britain would honor their alliances with Poland to come to her aid if she was ever under attack.
The Athenia Sets Sail – September 1st, 1939
12:05pm. The S.S. Athenia steams towards her dock at Glasgow, Scotland, ready to start taking on passengers. Onboard already are the crew, and some early-boarding passengers.
The S.S. Athenia is a British steamship; a passenger-carrying vessel that plied the transatlantic trade for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, running regular services between two halves of the great British Empire! The United Kingdom at one end, and the Dominion of Canada at the other. It did regular service between Liverpool or Glasgow, in England and Scotland, to Quebec, or Montreal in Canada.
The Athenia is a modest ship – nowhere near the size, or grandeur of the great floating palaces of the world – She cannot compete with the world-famous ocean-liners such as the Aquitania, the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, or the Normandie, pride of the French Line. She doesn’t have the old-world charm of the Olympic or the Berengaria, but she will get you to where you want to go in comfort and style. Her weight is a mere 13,580 tons, compared to a heavyweight such as the Titanic, tipping the scales at over 46,000!
The rumblings of war have been in the paper for weeks. Months, even. Fears of a second Great War had been in the air ever since the German annexation of Austria in 1938.
Some people see war as being inevitable. Others think that 1939 will close as a year of peace. Either way, she leaves Glasgow, Scotland, for Montreal in Canada on the 1st of September. She carries 1,418 passengers and crew.
The S.S. Athenia, Montreal Harbour, Canada; 1935
Passengers on the Athenia range from the moderately famous, to regular families, to single persons heading to the United States and Canada; returning from holidays, from business-journeys, or escaping from the potential powder-keg of Europe before it gets too late.
10:00pm – The Athenia takes on the last of her passengers at Glasgow. She weighs anchor and sets a course for the English port city of Liverpool.
As the ship pulls away from the dock at Belfast, dock-workers scream at the passengers on the deck that they’re cowards, for running away from a war, instead of staying to stand and fight with the rest of them. As yet, no formal declaration of war exists between Britain and Germany. The Athenia sails off into a peaceful Irish Sea.
September 2nd, 1939
3:30pm. The Athenia departs from Liverpool, England. She is bound for the open ocean. She will not stop until she reaches the Canadian port of Montreal.
7:30pm. Under advisement that a state of war is soon likely to exist between Britain and Germany, the ship’s master, Capt. James Cook, orders a blackout onboard, to protect against possible U-boat attacks. All the curtains are drawn. All the portholes are shut, the navigation-lights, mast-lights, port and starboard navigation-lamps and wheelhouse lights are all shut off. Passengers are not even allowed to smoke on deck, in case the glows of their cigarettes should give away the ship’s presence.
On the ship, the war seems far away and distant. But the crew is already taking precautions. Apart from the blackout, the ship now sails up the western Irish coast. It must stay close to land to deter submarines, which can only maneuver effectively in deeper waters.
September 3rd, 1939
3:40am. Having altered her course for safety reasons, the Athenia now sails away from Ireland and out into the open sea. She is heading across the Atlantic Ocean for Canada. As she sails off into deeper waters, there is the ever-present danger of German U-boats. U-boats have been patrolling these waters for several days now, in preparation for the official declaration of war.
Seeking to protect his ship, Capt. Cook adopts traditional wartime tactics against u-boats. The ship sails as fast as it can (15kt), and maintains a zig-zag course, steaming forwards always, but at the same time, changing her heading every couple of minutes. First a few degrees port, then starboard, then port, then starboard again. This is to prevent any submarines from getting an accurate fix on her, and therefore, hinder a u-boat’s ability to fire an accurate shot at her hull.
The Athenia is only doing what any other ship in the British merchant navy would do. But she is hampered in this by her speed and size. Big ships such as the Queen Mary can move much faster, and are less of a target to u-boats as a result, despite their much larger sizes. The Athenia may be smaller, but her slower speed makes her more vulnerable to attack.
While protected by treaties and conventions, the crew of the Athenia don’t expect the Germans to play nice. Although legally, the Germans cannot attack the Athenia due to her status as a noncombatant vessel, Capt. Cook and his men take no chances.
Unknown to Cook and his crew, the one man who is actually on their side is Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler sees the British, as a great and powerful nation of intelligent, white, Aryan people, as brothers and friends of the German people. He is eager to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the problem of war.
So as not to antagonise the British, he orders the u-boats of the German Navy to adhere tightly to the 1936 Prize Regulations. The Regulations are a series of rules (to which Germany was a signatory) which lay out the kinds of ships which may, and may not be sunk during maritime warfare.
Unarmed merchant ships, such as the Athenia, could not be sunk without just cause. If a German u-boat found such a ship, it was obliged to make its presence known. The ship in question was expected to heave-to (stop dead in the water). German sailors were then allowed to search the ship for illegal contraband (such as munitions or firearms).
If no such contraband was found, the ship was to be allowed to continue on its way. If contraband was found, the ship could be sunk. But only AFTER the crew and passengers had been offloaded into lifeboats.
A ship clearly marked as an armed merchant-ship, or a ship of the Royal Navy, could be fired upon without a u-boat making its presence known first.
11:00am. The Athenia is steaming towards Canada. The seas are heavy and rough. This hampers the Athenia’s speed and her ability to maintain an effective anti-submarine, zig-zag course.
11:15am. In the Athenia’s wireless-room, 2nd Radio Officer, Donald McRae, picks up a signal. It’s a radio-broadcast from the tiny island of Valentia, off the west coast of Ireland.
It is nothing less than Neville Chamberlain’s famous speech that informs the entire world that “consequently, this country is at war with Germany”.
The message is hardly unexpected. But it’s a bit of a shock, anyway. McRae makes sure that the entire ship knows the news before very many more minutes have elapsed.
The official declaration of war by Britain means that as of this time onwards, the Athenia is sailing through wartime waters. German submarines will be on the lookout for ships that are of importance to the British war-effort, and if they find them, they will sink them.
The Athenia is safe, however. As an unarmed passenger-ship without the facilities for being converted to an armed merchant-cruiser, troopship or munitions-transport, she is protected by international treaties. A ship such as the Athenia, which does not, and which is unable to contribute to the British war-effort, is an illegal target in marine warfare. This should prevent her from being sunk by German submarines or battleships.
12:00 NOON. Capt. Cook orders a notice to be drawn up. It is to inform the passengers of what has happened back in Europe. Under no circumstances are the officers onboard to cause undue panic or alarm. They are instructed to reassure passengers and tell them that the current activities onboard the ship are precautionary, and for their own safety.
1:00pm. The ship’s lifeboats are uncovered and prepared for an emergency. Two boats are swung out on their davits. Should there be an real emergency, these two may be lowered and loaded with passengers at once. It will give the ship a head-start in rescuing survivors, and provide the crew with valuable minutes with which to evacuate the passengers.
2:00pm. Fritz-Julius Lemp is 26 years old. He is commander of the German U-boat, U-30. Already at sea, he receives orders to proceed to his assigned patrol-area in the Atlantic Ocean. Germany is at war with Great Britain.
7:00pm. The Athenia is steaming full-ahead towards Canada. With U-boats about and war declared, she doesn’t want to linger in hostile waters for any longer than she has to. She is moving at top speed steering a wartime course, with her lights doused. But unknown to her crew, Capt. Lemp of U-30 has already spotted her.
Lemp orders the submarine to dive. He tails the ship, spying at her through his periscope. He finds the ship’s behavior odd. It is moving at top speed, it is steering a zig-zag course and has all its lights off to prevent detection. Lemp is well aware that Hitler does not want civilian shipping destroyed. But this ship is acting like an armed merchant-ship, or even a battleship of the Royal Navy!
Onboard the Athenia, Capt. Cook is taking NO chances. He well remembers the unrestricted submarine warfare of the 1910s and how great ships such as the Lusitania were torpedoed and sunk for no other reason than that they could be. Although he shouldn’t have to do so in this war, Capt. Cook adopts all the traditional tactics for eluding submarines. He lived through an era of unrestricted submarine warfare and knows what might happen to his ship.
7:30pm. Capt. Cook, confident in the security and safety of his ship, joins the first class passengers for dinner. The Athenia continues to steam westwards, zigzagging all the way.
7:38pm. Capt. Lemp on U-30 is finally satisfied that the ship he has been tailing is a British armed cruiser or a military vessel of some description, and therefore a legitimate target of war under the terms of international treaties and regulations. He orders the submarine to fire two torpedoes.
7:39pm. The Athenia is rocked as something slams into the side of the ship! The whole ship is rocked by the impact and the electrical power goes out, plunging the entire vessel into darkness! Crew on deck spot the disappearing periscope of a submarine, confirming that it is indeed a torpedo-strike.
7:40pm. The first torpedo has hit the Athenia square-on and blown a hole in her side. The other torpedoes have missed, or have not fired at all due to malfunctions in the torpedo-tubes.
7:45pm. 1st R/O Don is ordered to send out an immediate distress-message, in case another torpedo knocks out the Athenia’s power-supply altogether. He sends out a coded distress-message, but also sends out a message in plain English. Automatically, an electronic cry for help is sparked off across the airwaves…
“ATHENIA TORPEDOED – 5/42 NORTH, 14/5 WEST”
At once, the ship receives welcome news. Norwegian cargo-ship, the Knute Nelson, just 40 miles away, has received her loud and clear. The Nelson’s radio-operator appears to be in shock. He telegraphs back to the Athenia:
“THE OLD MAN* DOESN’T BELIEVE YOU’VE BEEN TORPEDOED, BUT HE’S COMING TO YOUR ASSISTANCE ANYWAY”
(*’Old Man’ is the ship’s captain).
One of the ships that receives the SOS call is the German ship the S.S. Bremen. Unsurprisingly, it ignores the radio-message and continues to its destination, the Russian port of Murmansk.
8:15pm. The Athenia has been sinking for a little over half an hour, settling heavily by the stern. The submarine, U-30, has surfaced to watch the effects of the torpedo. Radio-officer Georg Hoegel intercepts the Athenia’s plain English radio-transmission. He is shocked by what he hears. He writes it down and hands it to Capt. Lemp. Lemp too, is horrified and guilt-ridden by what he reads. Instead of torpedoing a prize of war, he has attacked and sunk an unarmed civilian passenger-ship, carrying women and children! He swears his crew to silence and secrecy. They will not speak of this to anyone, ever. Lemp feels so horrible about what he has done that he refuses even to enter it into the logbook.
The distress-messages sent out by the Athenia echo around the Atlantic Ocean. Allied shipping receive the calls, and telegraph the unspeakable information to the Admiralty in London.
9:15pm. The Athenia is in no immediate danger. She is sinking, but the damage is limited and there is time to spare. For the 1,400-odd people onboard, the Athenia is amply equipped with 26 lifeboats. All those not killed in the torpedo-attack are offloaded onto the boats and lowered into the water. By now, there are only two lifeboats left. Radio Officer Don continues to send out distress-messages over the radio. So far, four ships have responded and are steaming towards the disaster-site.
9:30pm. The S.S. City of Flint is an American steamship making her way across the Atlantic Ocean. It picks up the Athenia’s distress-messages and alters course towards her. The captain, navy-veteran Joseph Gainard, informs his passengers (mostly students and academics) that the unthinkable has happened – a British civilian passenger-ship has been fired upon by a German submarine, is sinking, and is in need of immediate assistance. Passengers aid the crew in preparing the ship to take on survivors as it steams towards the disaster-site.
10:00pm. With rescue just a few hours away and all surviving passengers and crew put off in the boats, Capt. Cook, and the remaining crew and officers abandon ship. Radio Officer Don sends off one last communication to the rescue ships, that their vessel is being abandoned and to come as fast as they can. Officer Don joins the captain and remaining crew in the last lifeboat, reserved for their use, and lower it into the water.
Onboard lifeboat No. 6, Sir Richard Lake, a former Canadian politician, and his wife, watch the ship sinking. As on the Titanic, passengers row the lifeboats around and into clusters and clumps, to remain secure, and to keep warm in the open air. Despite his age (Sir Richard is eighty years old!), he insists on taking an oar and helping with the movement of the boat.
10:30pm. Now that the fuss has died down, an urgent telegram is sent to the Admiralty in London. It reads:
“IMPORTANT – IMPORTANT – ADMIRAL ROSYTH INTERCEPT 2059 JAMMING NEAR SSS SSS* ATHENIA GFDM*, TORPEDOED, POSITION 54.44/14.05”
The signal “SSS” is similar to the signal “SOS”, but is specifically used by ships who were the victims of submarine-attacks. The letters “GFDM” is the Athenia’s radio callsign.
11:00pm. Onboard the last lifeboat to leave the Athenia, Capt. James Cook removes his uniform and dons civilian clothes instead, to make it appear that the captain has gone down with the ship. He knows that in the last war, German submariners would shoot the commanding officer of an enemy ship.
12:00 MIDNIGHT. Another telegram reaches the Admiralty in London, confirming that the steamship Athenia has indeed been hit by a German torpedo. The Admiralty sends out urgent radio-messages to all Royal Navy ships within broadcasting range.
September 4th, 1939.
12:05am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vanquisher receives an urgent communication:
“IMMEDIATE PROCEED TO SS ATHENIA SINKING IN POSITION 56.42 NORTH, 14.05 WEST”.
12:56am. Royal Navy ship, H.M.S. Vivacious receives an urgent communication:
“IMMEDIATE HMS VANQUISHER PROCEEDING TO BRITISH SHIP ATHENIA SINKING IN POSITION 56.42 NORTH, 14.05 WEST. DETAIL ONE OF YOUR DIVISIONS TO ACCOMPANY HER. ACKNOWLEDGE”.
2:30pm. The impact of the torpedo-attack on the Athenia goes much further than other ships, the Royal Navy or even the Admiralty or the German Navy. In London, at the American Embassy, American Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Patrick Kennedy…as in the father of future American president John F. Kennedy…is awoken to the news of the sinking of the Athenia. Americans are onboard the ship, and he makes it his duty to find out how many, and who they are. He sends a telegram to the State Department in Washington D.C.:
“REPORT: STEAMSHIP ATHENIA OF DONALDSON LINE TORPEDOED 200 MILES OFF MALIN HEAD WITH 1400 PASSENGERS ONBOARD. SOS RECEIVED. SHIP SINKING FAST”.
At the same time out at sea, the first rescue-ships arrive. Passengers and crew from the Athenia are offloaded from the lifeboats onto the vessels which come to the sinking ship’s aid. The ships sail off to the town of Galway, in Ireland, the nearest land to the sinking vessel.
4:30am. The Athenia continues to sink. Despite the damage, the ingress of water is slow. She will not go under for another six hours. She will finally founder at 10:30am. More ships arrive to rescue more passengers and take them to Ireland. British naval ships have come to pick up more survivors.
The S.S. Athenia sinking; Sept. 4th, 1939
The City of Flint, one of the first ships to pick up the Athenia’s distress call, sails for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with over 400 survivors onboard.
The Impact of the Sinking
The sinking of the Athenia sent shockwaves around the world. Newspapers in Great Britain, the colonies, Australia, Canada and the United States flashed the despicable and cowardly act of the Germans, to attack an unarmed passenger-ship without warning, over their front pages in big letters, complete with photographs. Here is the New York Times for the morning of September 4th, 1939:
In Kansas, the Topeka Daily Capital flashed the following headlines:
If you haven’t spotted it yet, it’s under the heading: “BRITISH STEAMSHIP SINKS IN 18 HOURS”.
Almost at once, the finger-pointing began. The British knew the Germans did it. The Germans knew that the Germans did it. But the Germans insisted that the British did it, as a way to discredit the honourable German Navy, which would NEVER attack an unarmed civilian ship! The truth was that the German Navy knew what had happened. By listening to English radio and reading English newspapers, and by plotting out the locations of all their u-boats, the Germans knew that it was U-30 that had done the deed.
The truth about what really happened to the Athenia did not come out until 1946, during the famous Nuremberg Trials.
The sinking of the Athenia destroyed any hopes that the Germans, or the British had, of finding a quick, peaceful and diplomatic end to what they hoped would be a false war. Instead, it horrified the British people and resolved them to despise the Germans. It shocked the Germans and dragged them into a war which they were still trying to get out of…get out of with Britain, at least. The sinking of one ship had so polarised the European community that by 1940, the whole continent was at war.
“OUTBREAK 1939 – The World Goes to War”, by Terry Charman (Virgin Books, London, 2009).