The First Five Days

The service history of Athenia before her loss can be found on the Benjidog Ship Histories website HERE. I suggest you check this out before proceeding if you have not already done so. After many years of routine service, Athenia was suddenly catapulted into the news when she was torpedoed 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. Due to the timing, news about this was first published on 4 September 1939. There may have been announcements on the radio but I have found no information about this. Given the coverage on 4 September we can presume that a lot of effort had gone into making as much capital out of this disaster as possible.

Media Coverage 4 September 1939

Newspapers across the UK and around the world were full of reports about the sinking. The Cuttings below are just a small sample of the articles published on 4 September. Many relate stories about people from their local area - both seamen and passengers. A lot mention returning US citizens and that there were many refugees on board.


The London Evening Standard was one of the first newspapers to announce the sinking.

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Cutting from the London Evening Standard on 4 September 1939 [39]


The Birmingham-based Evening Despatch carried the same story.

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Cutting from the Evening Despatch on 4 September 1939 [40]


The Staffordshire Sentinel went further than some of the other newspapers and described the German action as 'murderous piracy' and refers back to the sinking of the Lusitania in WW1

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Cutting from the Staffordshire Sentinel on 4 September 1939 [41]


The Liverpool Echo somehow managed to get hold of the names of the crew and listed them

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Cutting from the Liverpool Echo on 4 September 1939 [42]


The Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough highlighted the fact that, following the declarations of war, large numbers of US citizens were anxious to get home and that Athenia had made an additional call at Liverpool to take many of them on board. If this call had not been made, maybe Athenia would have been unharmed.

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Coverage from the North-Eastern Gazette on 4 September 1939 [26]

Media Coverage 5 September 1939

By 5 September more news was emerging and the newspapers had managed to dig out some existing photos of Athenia - though the one most commonly used has the appearance of a standard shipping postcard of the time that passengers would send to their families and friends.

The Times Cutting below has the following caption:

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.

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Cutting from page 10 of The Times on 5 September 1939 [43]


The Times also reported on proceedings in the House of Lords. The UK government was keen even at this stage to accuse Germany of a "crime against humanity" and suggest that this was part of a pattern of treaty breaking.

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Cutting from Page 4 of The Times on 5 September 1939. [43]


On the same page as the previous Cutting, The Times reported 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.

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Cutting from Page 4 of The Times on 5 September 1939 [43]


A bit further back in The Times on page 8 was a statement about the US views on the sinking. This was of great interest as there had been a large number of US citizens who were passengers on the sunken vessel and a 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 was indicating that the US was determined to remain neutral despite this event.

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Cutting from Page 8 of The Times on 5 September [43]


On page 9, The Times is hinting at the sinking of Athenia being signs that this was a deliberate German act along the lines of the "unrestricted submarine warfare" that had been declared by Germany in the latter half of WW1.

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Cutting from Page 9 of The Times on 5 September [43]


Also on page 9 The Times makes what, with hindsight, was 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.

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Cutting from Page 9 of The Times on 5 September [43]


Another article on page 9 of The Times 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.

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Cutting from Page 9 of The Times on 5 September 1939 [43]


The Liverpool Echo carried information about two rescue ships arriving in the Clyde with accounts from rescued passengers and crew including the fate of a lifeboat that had been drawn into the propellors of Norwegian cargo ship Knute Nelson resulting in the death of a number of those on board.

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Cutting from Liverpool Echo on 5 September 1939 [42]


The Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph gave a little more information about the wrecked lifeboat.

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Cutting from Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph on 5 September 1939 [30]


The Newcastle Evening Chronicle included further harrowing descriptions of the scenes after Athenia was torpedoed.

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Cutting from Newcastle Evening Chronicle on 5 September 1939 [25]


The Aberdeen Press and Journal reports on a young girl travelling alone on Athenia. She does not appear on the list of casualties so presumably survived.

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Cutting from Aberdeen Press and Journal on 5 September 1939 [3]

6 September 1939

By 6 September the first pictures of survivors became available to the public

The Times carried two images (originally shown side by side but here shown one above the other) with 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.

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Photos from page 10 of The Times on 6 September 1939 [43]


British Pathé produced a newsreel item showing survivors being taken ashore from Knute Nelson. Click the play button to view it. (Please note that there is no sound on this video):


On page 4 The Times reported a further House of Lords exchange in which the government clarified 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.

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Cutting from page 4 of The Times on 6 September 1939 [43]


While on page 5 The Times had a statement from President Roosevelt of the USA in which he proclaimed US neutrality and an arms embargo. No help would 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.

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Cutting from page 5 of The Times on 6 September 1939 [43]


Also on page 5 The Times carried the first report of a survivor - James Cook the Captain of Athenia. Cook's account includes a statement that some passengers were killed during rescue attempts. At this point the death toll was estimated as "at least 50" and the account makes it very clear that there was no doubt that the ship was sunk by a torpedo.

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Cutting from page 5 of The Times on 6 September 1939 [43]


Movietone News produced a newsreel item showing survivors landed at Greenock. Click the play button to view it.


Another article on page 6 of The Times suggests that the isolationist statement by the President is not necessarily shared by the American public.

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Cutting from page 6 of The Times on 6 September 1939 [43]


The Scotsman meanwhile announced the intention by the Lord Provost of Glasgow to start an appeal to assist survivors.

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Cutting from The Scotsman on 6 September. [29]


The Scotsman also carried early photos of survivors landed at Greenock.

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Cutting from The Scotsman on 6 September. [29]


The Daily Record carried photos of a crew member and a passenger landed at Galway from Knute Nelson.

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Cutting from The Daily Record on 6 September. [10]


As well as the report from Athenia's Captain, the Times had further accounts 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.

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Cutting from page 8 of The Times on 6 September 1939 [43]


The Birmingham Daily Gazette report also gave more details from the Captain and accounts from passengers.

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Cutting from Birmingham Daily Gazette on 6 September [6]


The Daily Herald report contains some different and distressing accounts from passengers.

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Cutting from the Daily Herald on 6 September [8]


The Sheffield Daily Telegraph had different photos of survivors landing at both Glasgow and Galway.

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Cutting from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 6 September [31]


The Dundee Evening Telegraph had photos of survivors arriving at the Central Hotel Glasgow and a list of those admitted to the Glasgow Western Infirmary.

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Cutting from the Dundee Evening Telegraph on 6 September [13]

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Cutting from the Dundee Evening Telegraph on 6 September [13]


The Dundee Courier also had photos of survivors at Glasgow.

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Cutting from the Dundee Courier on 6 September [12]


The Daily Mirror carried survivor photos and also a claim that the submarine that sank Athenia had itself been sunk by a British warship - alas this was completely unfounded. Some lady survivors in lifeboats had burnt their skirts in an effort to draw the attention of rescuers.

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Cutting from the Daily Mirror on 6 September [9]


The Aberdeen Press and Journal also had survivor photos including one of a child whose mother's name was not showing on the list of survivors. In fact Harriet Barrington from Liverpool was later included in the list of casualties.

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Cutting from the Aberdeen Press and Journal on 6 September [3]

Passengers Rescued by Southern Cross

One of the vessels that rescued survivors was the steam yacht Southern Cross. This vessel is only mentioned obliquely but I discovered an interesting side story on finding out more.

Southern Cross
Axel Wenner-Gren's steam yacht Southern Cross [39]

Southern Cross was owned by the Swedish businessman Axel Wenner-Gren who was one of the world's wealthiest men at that time. He became the owner of the Electrolux business in the early 1930s and made a fortune out of the sale of refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. His business empire expanded to include newspapers, banking and arms manufacture.

In WW2 he was blacklisted by the FBI as a friend of Hermann Göring, but probably more importantly because of his somewhat dubious business intentions in Mexico. He put himself forward as a conduit between the UK/US governments and Göring but was considered a self-promoting nuisance. The poor chap retired to his estate in the Bahamas where he was a friend of the equally obnoxious Duke of Windsor who had been sent there as the island's Governor to get him out of the way and reduce the chances of him becoming an embarassment.

Werner-Gren's later business ventures included the development of early computers in the USA. His company created a computer which he modestly had named ALWAC (Axel L. Wenner-Gren Automatic Computer) and which was considered to be a competitor to the early IBM 650 - but had it no commercial success - nor did it's successors. His company ALWEG built the original Disneyland Monorail system in 1959.

Werner-Gren set up a foundation which, perhaps not surprisingly, has a rather more benign description of the man and his intentions. He died in 1961.

7 September 1939

Four days after Athenia was torpedoed, the papers were still providing a great deal of coverage and more information gradually became available to the public.

The Times published a photo with the caption:

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

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Photograph from page 10 of The Times 7 September 1939 [43]


Page 4 of The Times included 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.

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Cutting from page 4 of The Times 7 September 1939 [43]


At this point in time it was realised that the Germans were going to deny responsibility for the sinking. The Times reported that the German press had started to blame Churchill for the sinking.

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Cutting from page 6 of The Times 7 September 1939 [43]


The dispersion of survivors into different ships meant that in some cases families got split up leading to children not knowing whether their parents had survived and vice versa. The Times at last had a little bit of good news as some survivors were reunited and also reported that a relief fund had been set up.

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Cutting from page 7 of The Times 7 September 1939 [43]


In Ormskirk in Lancashire The Ormskirk Advertiser reported the rescue of a Mr. Thomas Quine and but noted that his wife (Annie) was still missing. It was later confirmed that she was dead. You can see a photo of her grave on the Remembering Athenia page of this website HERE.

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Cutting from the Ormskirk Advertiser 7 September 1939 [44]


The Daily Record carried the sad news that the mother of two crew members working on Athenia had had a heart attack on learning of the loss of the ship and died shortly afterwards. Had she lived she would have learned that both of her sons had survived.

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Cutting from the Daily Record on 7 September [10]


The Birmingham Daily Gazette noted that Captain Cook was on his way to the Donaldson Line offices in Glasgow to give his report of what had happened. The paper also describes the state of survivors - many of whom had been badly burned - and the desperation of mothers who had been separated from their children and didn't known whether they were alive. There was also a photo of a baby that had survived being brought ashore at Galway.

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Cutting from the Birmingham Daily Gazette 7 September 1939 [6]


The Scotsman had further photos of survivors.

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Cutting from the The Scotsman 7 September 1939 [29]


The Aberdeen Press and Journal reported that some of the seamen from Athenia had reported for work only 24 hours after their rescue. What they didn't mention was that in all likelihood they would not have been paid otherwise!

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Cutting from the The Aberdeen Press and Journal 7 September 1939 [3]

Click the link below for further contemporary reports and passenger and seaman casualty information.

Next Page: Loss of Athenia - The Aftermath