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The Sinking Of The Athenia

The S.S. Athenia was the first British ship to be sunk by Nazi Germany in World War II. The sinking of the Donaldson passenger liner Athenia, by a German U-boat on 3 September 1939, the day after the Second World War began, has largely been forgotten. At the time, however, it was a sensational news story because it was thought the incident would provoke the United States into war, just as the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German submarine had done in 1915.

No one would mistake the Athenia for a luxury liner. The 13,000 tonne vessel, with its single white-striped black funnel, was a small, serviceable ship with a regular run between Glasgow and Montreal. At just over 500 feet long, it seemed more like an institutional faculty club than a floating hotel. The ship was filled with 1,400 passengers and crew, 200 above capacity. Among them were 500 Jewish refugees eager to get out of Europe. It also carried 469 people from Canada, 311 passengers travelling on U.S. passports and 72 from the British Isles.

Fifty-four of the 112 who died in the sinking were Canadians; 28 were United States citizens, North America's first civilian casualties of the war. The same evening that the ship was torpe-doed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had delivered a radio address declaring the U.S. neutral in the conflict. Canada's Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, seized on the outrage and, in his diary, wrote that the sinking "might be the best thing that could have happened. .. .While I did not wish any lives to be lost, I could not help but feel that this would bring home to the Americans the need for their intervention."

Camouflaged for the voyage, the ship, under the command of Captain James Cook, left Glasgow on September 1. Plywood panels covered her portholes. To Barbara Bailey, a London solicitor's daugh-ter on her way to Calgary, Athenia "looked like a coffin." Toronto writer and broadcaster, Andrew Allan, who was travelling withhis father and his fiancee Judith Evans, an aspiring actress, recalled the "air of unreality," that surrounded the departure. "It was if we had all taken a deep breath and were holding it," he wrote. By the time Athenia reached Liverpool at dawn on September 2, the Wermacht invasion of Poland had begun.

Among the Americans on board were Nicola Lubitsch, the 10-month-old daughter of Holly-wood film maker Ernst Lubitsch (who directed Garbo in Ninotchka), 10-year-old Joan Hecht, the great granddaughter of the founder of the department store chain, and 24 young women from Texas, many of them daughters of prominent Dallas families. Per-haps the most socially prominent couple was Richard Stuart Lake, the former Lieutenant-Governor of Saskatchewan, and his wife, Dorothy. Georgina Hayworth and her two daughters, 10-year-old Margaret and 3-year-old Jacqueline, had been vacationing in Falkirk. They would have stayed longer, but Georgina's husband insisted they return home to Hamilton. Other passengers included David Cass-Beggs, the future general manager and architect of the Saskatchewan Power Corporation, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter Rosemary. Fred Blair, a prominent musician and composer, and the organist at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul in Montreal, was traveling with his long-time companion, Frank Rowe. Gil Molgat, a future Canadian senator, was then 12 years old and sailing home after spending the summer at the family's ancestral home in Brittany. Mary Donald, who had recently recovered from a lengthy illness, had taken her three-year-old daughter Heather to Scotland to visit her grandparents and they were on their way home to Montreal.

Well aware of his "awful predicament with all this crowd on board", Captain Cook went ashore at Liverpool for a final briefing. He was instructed to sail north of conventional shipping lanes and to keep out of danger of German U-boats. By the time Britain declared war on Germany on Saturday night, September 2, the Athenia was off the Hebrides in the North Atlantic. Passengers learned at noon Sunday that Europe was at war when a notice was posted outside the purser's office. In spite of the ominous mood, most on board talked themselves into believing they were now too far out to sea to be in danger of enemy submarines. It was still daylight when Hannah Baird, a Scots-born stewardess who lived in Montreal, started pulling the drapes to black out the ship. Mary Donald was in her cabin telling her daughter, Heather, a bedtime story.-Many passengers who didn't want to remain in their darkened cabins sat out on deck and watched the sunset. On a deck chair, nine-year-old Elizabeth Campbell, bound for Montreal, saw "something stick-ing out of the water, like a stick." It was 7:30PM.

About 800 yards away, through the conning tower of his U-30 submarine - one of 27 Type VII short range subs in the German Navy - Kommandant Fritz-Julius Lemp saw what he believed to be the silhouette of an armed British auxiliary merchant cruiser. Since war had been declared, the 26-year-old German navy officer was eager for action. With a shark's instinct, he attacked. Smooth and swift, a torpedo raced from the submarine towards its target.

Andrew Allan had just sat down to dinner when "There was a crack, a great concussion, the smell of cordite," he wrote in his memoirs. "The dining room careened sideways; tables, chairs, crockery and people rolled against the port side." Cornell University professor Damon Boynton thought he heard what sounded like "a firecracker going off in a 50 gallon drum." The boat shook. The engines stopped. The lights went out. Patricia Hale likened it to "the slamming of a thousand ton door... (then) like a man stabbed, the ship fell on her side. Every-thing on the boat deck was a shambles with men and women lying dead, some terribly man-gled." A family of Polish immi-grants, Eudokia Kucharczuk, and her three children were killed instantly. Flying debris struck 10-year-old Margaret Hayworth a fatal blow. The Hamilton, Ontario girl later died of a concussion in her mother's arms. Other children died too, including 6-year-old Jean Holmes from Winnipeg, and 3-year-old Gladys McFarlane from Verdun, Quebec, who was blown overboard. McFarlane's mother, Agnes, leapt into the ocean to save her child, and also drowned. Stewardess Hannah Baird was the first member of the Canadian Merchant Marine to die on duty.

Athenia was evacuated with little panic. Mrs. Donald put her fur coat on over her life jacket because she thought she would need it to keep her daughter warm. Within 20 minutes, 22 of the ships 26 lifeboats had been loaded and were away. Sitting on her mother's lap in a lifeboat filled with oily water, Heather Donald asked her mother to finish the bedtime story that had been interrupted by the blast.

Most of those in the lifeboats were not crewmen, but untrained civil-ians who had trouble rowing in the heavy seas. The boats formed a semicircle about a quarter of a mile from the sinking ship and began firing flares into the night sky. As survivors rode the swells, they heard a peculiar humming sound and realized that a subma-rine had surfaced. "We could see the dark hulk in the moonlight, and we immediately thought she was going to machine-gun us, so we whispered not to light any matches or flares, recalled one survivor, Douglas Stewart. "How-ever, the murderers just wanted to have another look at their handiwork and to make sure the Athenia would sink, for they dis-appeared shortly afterwards and we saw no more of them."

Almost 10 hours after it had been hit, and its engine room flooded, Athenia settled by the stern and sank. At dawn, the Swedish yacht, Southern Cross, and a Norwegian freighter, the Knute Nelson, began picking up the survivors. Sea ladders and botswain's chairs were used. Because the water was choppy, there was considerable difficulty hauling passengers on board. Mary Donald knew she couldn't climb a rope ladder wear-ing her muskrat coat, so she took it off and left it behind in the lifeboat. One lifeboat drifted into the Knute Nelson's propellers, killing Thornton Mustard and Andrew Allan's father. Allan and his fiancee managed to hang on to the hull of the overturned craft for several hours before being pulled to safety. The bow of the Southern Cross splintered another lifeboat, crushing Montreal or-ganist Fred Blair.

Three British destroyers, HMS Fame, Electra and Escort, arrived, and survivors were given the option of returning to Glasgow or being transferred to the City of Flint, a freighter heading for Halifax. Survivors who did not want to go to Halifax were taken to Glasgow. There were some happy endings. The Cass-Beggs had been separated from their daughter Rosemary, and lived for almost a week with the frantic fear that she might have been lost. It was only after the City of Flint docked in Halifax did the Cass-Beggs, who were in Glasgow, learn that their daughter was aboard, listed as Rose-Marie Casspicks.

Hitler declared flat out that the Germans could not have sunk the ship. The German newspaper Volkischer Beobachter claimed that the British themselves had torpe-doed Athenia in an attempt to persuade those that might be neutral in the war that Germany was to blame. The German secretary of state, Ernst Von Weizsaecker, vehemently denied German submarines were in the area, adding that, "German Naval Forces had strict orders to proceed in accordance with the rules of International Law and honour the agreements signed by Germany."

Arrangements were made to send the Americans back home on a neutral ship, the Orizaba, operated by the Ward Line. Because Canadians were British subjects, and, therefore, "a belligerent nationality," Cordell Hull wouldn't let them sail on the Orizaba, because their presence on board might "jeopardize the lives of the Americans." Less than two years after the Athenia went down, Komman-dant Fritz Lemp and his crew were cornered south of Iceland. A Royal Navy crew boarded his U-boat, where they stumbled upon an unexpected prize: The Enigma code book that helped the Allies crack Germany's encrypted messages. Rather than surrender, Lemp jumped overboard and drowned. It wasn't until the war ended and the Nuremberg war trials were conducted, that the full story of the ship's sinking was told.

Alan Hustak. Attack On Athenia. History Magazine. February/March 2013.


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