Why the Website was Created
I knew virtually nothing about Athenia until I was approached by a teacher at Govan High School which was celebrating its centenary in 2010. A former student of the school had been a member of Athenia's crew and was killed when she sank. The school asked me if I could provide some background information for an exhibition they were putting on - which I was pleased to do.
I was expecting to respond with a one-page history of the ship with a note at the end to say something like She had been sunk by submarine U-xx on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a position. As my enquiries progressed I got drawn into the propaganda war that followed Athenia's loss and found that the full story of her fate had only emerged during the Nuremberg trials of major war criminals in 1945/6.
Nowadays we can find out what happened easily by using the internet. In 1939, the public's only sources of information were newspapers and the radio. On this website I explain the reasons for my interest in this topic and have tried to bring together, with press cuttings and witness statements, what ordinary people would have known at the time as events unfolded. I have also included information about the preparation for the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg, and present the evidence about the fate of Athenia from the trial transcripts.
The truth about the fate of Athenia was finally confirmed at the Nuremberg Trials of major Nazi war criminals so I have included background information to the trials used extracts from the trial transcripts to show exactly what happened to Athenia.
From a very early age I knew that I was born on 16 October 1946 at the very time the major Nazi war criminals who had been sentenced to death at Nuremberg were hanged. I had always intended to find out more about the trials and, whilst researching Athenia, I came across the trial transcripts on line and have now read them from end to end.
During WW2 my father Reginald Arthur Watson Jnr. served in the Royal Artillery; his father Reginald Arthur Watson Snr. had done likewise in WW1. My father enlisted on 26 July 1940 and was demobilised on 16 January 1946 - exactly 9 months to the day before I was born. Like most servicemen of both WW1 and WW2 he didn't like to speak about the war though he sometimes referred to the Nuremberg trials. I have his Army Paybook and his medals which I have recently had re-mounted.
I knew from overhearing family conversations that he had been in the Royal Artillery, that he had had a narrow escape when a round jammed in the breach of his gun and exploded, and that towards the end of the war he had been batman to an officer named Maurice Denham who was a famous character actor both before and after the war.
Denham appeared in the very popular radio programmes 'It's that man again! (ITMA)', and with Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch in 'Much Binding in the Marsh'. His list of film appearances is astonishing and include 'Sink the Bismarck!', 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines' and 'The Day of the Jackal'.
At the end of the war my father was one of those sent to liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen and I believe the after-effects of his experiences there contributed to his early death at the age of 62.
For any reader not aware of the horrors of Belsen, the scenes during the liberation were summed up by the late BBC commentator Richard Dimbleby in the following words:
..Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
As a child I was taken to see the horrific movies that had been made showing Nazi atrocities in those dreadful concentration and death camps. This was traumatic but my parents said everyone should see what the Nazis had done so it wouldn't happen again. I have to steel myself to watch them even now. I was not allowed to play with toy guns as a child and when a relative gave me a toy revolver one Christmas it was rapidly disposed of.
I visited Dachau Concentration Camp during a work assignment at Munich in 2007 and took the photo below of the heart-rending memorial by Yugoslavian sculptor Nandor Glid whose parents had been killed there. I plan to make a pilgrimage to Belsen one day although I know that very little remains of it.
In the 1970s whilst working for the Department of Social Security in Leicester, a fellow civil servant told me proudly that he was a member of the National Front and "knew" that everything about the concentration camps had been faked by "The Jews" and that "Hitler was right" about most things. Clearly fascist supporters have not changed their lying ways and are still able to take in the gullible. The chap concerned was actually quite intelligent despite his gullibility; he was taken aback when I robustly challenged what he had said and mentioned that my own father was an eye witness to what the Nazis had done.
In 2019 while I was updating this page, the media are reporting on a survey recently conducted that suggests that even now many UK adults are unaware of the scale of atrocities committed during the holocaust. This is very depressing and makes you wonder about how well it is covered in schools.
Transcripts and the evidence presented at the Nuremberg trials is available online thanks to a number of excellent websites. The two I have used are the Nizkor website and Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. Links to both of these websites are on the Sources and Acknowledgements page HERE.