The First 5 Days After the Loss of Athenia

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Media Coverage from 4 September 1939

After many years of routine service, Athenia was suddenly catapulted into the news when she was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine on 3 September 1939 - the day that France and Great Britain declared war on Germany; she sank the following day.

There was extensive media coverage of this event as sinking a passenger ship without warning was in contravention of The Hague Convention.

As Athenia had radio facilities and summoned help, it is presumed that news of her sinking came to the attention of the Government very quickly. However it was not until 4 September 1939 that the story was published in the newspapers. Given the coverage on that day we can presume that a lot of effort had gone into making as much capital out of the disaster as possible.



4 September 1939

Image 1 is the front page of the London Evening News on 4 September 1939 and appears to be the first mention of the loss in the press. [3]

Athenia


5 September 1939

Image 2 is from page 10 of The Times on 5 September 1939 and has the following caption: [1]

THE TORPEDOED LINER - The Donaldson Atlantic liner Athenia, outward bound from Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast to Canada, which was torpedoed about 250 miles west of the Hebrides in the early hours of yesterday. There were 1,400 persons on board, and the passengers and crew, except those killed by the explosion, took to the boats and were picked up by various ships.

Note: This photo has the appearance of a standard shipping postcard of the time that passengers would send to their families and friends.

Athenia

Images 3 to 6 are from Page 4 of The Times on 5 September 1939 and reports on proceedings in the House of Lords. The UK government were keen to make clear that Germany was responsible for a “crime against humanity” and that this was part of a pattern of treaty breaking. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Athenia Athenia

Images 7 to 11 are also from Page 4 of The Times on 5 September 1939 and report Winston Churchill’s comments on the sinking and the Government response. Key parts of the message were that four destroyers had been dispatched to rescue survivors, that a Convoy system would be deployed and that there had been no warning before Athenia was torpedoed - further evidence of Germany’s law-breaking being implied. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Athenia Athenia Athenia

Images 12 to 15 shows part of Page 8 of The Times on 5 September and reports the US views on the sinking - of great interest as there had been a large number of US citizens who were passengers on the sunken vessel and the hoped-for early US participation in the war. Clarification is given that Athenia was not armed - another point to be seen with respect to the wording of international treaties. However the tone of the US correspondent is that the US was determined to remain neutral despite this event. [1]

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Images 16 to 17 shows part of Page 9 of The Times on 5 September and shows the first signs of a suggestion that this was a deliberate German act along the lines of the “unrestricted submarine warfare” that was declared by Germany in the latter half of WW1. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Images 18 to 22 also shows part of Page 9 of The Times on 5 September and makes what appears with hindsight a hopelessly over-optimistic statement that Britain will be using its naval strength to ensure the use of the sea to us whilst denying it to the enemy. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Athenia Athenia Athenia

Images 23 to 28 also shows part of Page 9 of The Times on 5 September and once again makes capital of Hitler having broken his word - with regards to attacking passenger ships and in many other ways as well. And of course by and large this was true. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Athenia Athenia Athenia Athenia


6 September 1939

By 6 September the first pictures of survivors became available to the public; The Times newspaper again provides a wide coverage.

Images 29 and 30 are from page 10 of The Times on 6 September. [1]

The image has the following caption:

From the torpedoed Athenia - Two pictures of survivors of the torpedoed Athenia on their arrival ashore. Some were landed at Albert Harbour Greenock and the picture on the left shows three of the crew soon after their arrival. The other picture shows some of the injured passengers being assisted from an ambulance into the hospital at Galway where they were taken by the Norwegian vessel Knute Nelson. Survivors gave dramatic accounts of their terrible experiences.

Athenia

Athenia

Images 31 and 32 are from page 4 of The Times on 6 September and contain a further House of Lords exchange in which the government clarify that the final number of casualties is so far unconfirmed, that a submarine was sighted, and that the possibility of the cause being a mine must be discounted. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Images 33 to 36 are from page 5 of The Times on 6 September and contains a statement from President Roosevelt of the USA in which he proclaims US neutrality and an arms embargo. No help will be given to any of the belligerents. That was the public statement anyway - the reality we now know became a bit different as time wore on. [1]

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Images 37 and 38 are from page 5 of The Times on 6 September and contains the first account from a survivor - Captain James Cook. He notes that some passengers were killed during rescue attempts. At this point the death toll is estimated as “at least 50” and the account makes it very clear that there is no doubt that the ship was sunk by a torpedo. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Images 39 and 40 are from page 6 of The Times on 6 September. It suggests that the isolationist statement by the President is not necessarily shared by the American public. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Images 41 to 48 are from page 8 of The Times on 6 September and is the first account by passengers. This group had been landed at Greenock. The accounts include a harrowing story of a lifeboat containing a large number of people being drawn into the propeller of the Knute Nelson with large loss of life. [1]

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7 September 1939

Now four days since Athenia was torpedoed, the papers were still providing a great deal of coverage and information is gradually become available to the public.

Image 49 is a photograph from page 10 of The Times on 7 September and has this caption: [1]

Among the survivors of the Athenia taken by the Knute Nelson to Galway were several stretcher cases.

Athenia

Images 50 to 54 are from page 4 of The Times on 7 September and includes a statement by Winston Churchill that there were 1,418 persons on board including 315 crew and 1,103 passengers. Of these 800 had British or European passports and over 300 had US passports. At this point in time there were 125 people unaccounted for. [1]

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At this point in time it was realised that the Germans were going to deny responsibility for the sinking.

Image 55 is from from page 6 of The Times on 7 September and says that the German press has denied any German responsibility and starts to blame Churchill for the sinking. [1]

Athenia

Images 56 and 57 are from page 7 of The Times on 7 September. Finally some good news as some survivors are re-united and a relief fund is set up. [1]

Athenia Athenia

Image 58 is from the Ormskirk Advertiser on 7 September and reports the mixed news of the rescue of a Mr. Thomas Quine and notes that his wife (Annie) was still missing. [2]

Athenia


Click the link below for information about the aftermath of the loss.

The Aftermath


Image Credits

  1. By courtesy of The Times archive.
  2. By courtesy of The Ormskirk Advertiser
  3. By courtesy of Mick Cardiff