Background to the Creation of the Website
What was Special about Athenia?
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 student of the school had been a member of Athenia's crew and had been killed when she sank. The school asked me if I could provide some background information for an exhibition they were putting on. I was expecting to respond with a one-page history of the ship with a note at the end to say that 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.
The basic facts about Athenia can be looked up easily on websites like Wikipedia, but this fails to give a picture of how the story unfolded to the general public at the time. I decided that I could bring the story to life by re-telling the story with contemporary newspaper cuttings.
The final answer to the fate of Athenia came to light at the Nuremberg Trials so I have included a review of the problems faced by those tasked with recommending what to do with the Nazi leaders and other war criminals at the end of the war, which ultimately resulted in the Nuremberg Trials. I have used extracts from the trial transcripts to show exactly what happened to Athenia.
Nuremberg, Belsen and the Watson Family
I was born on 16 October 1946 at exactly the time the major Nazi war criminals that had been sentenced to death at Nuremberg were hanged. I had always intended to find out more about the Nuremberg Trials for this reason and researching Athenia pointed me at the trial transcripts.
My father Reginald Arthur Watson, like most of his generation, didn't like to speak about the war but sometimes referred to the trials. I have his Army Paybook which records that he was enlisted on 26 July 1940 and served through until 1946. I knew from overhearing family conversations as a child that he had been in the Royal Artillery, that at one time he had had a narrow escape when a round jammed in the breach of his gun and exploded, that at the end of the war he was one of those who liberated the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and that towards the end of the war he had been batman to an officer named Maurice Denholm who in civvies was a famous actor. I believe the after-effects of my father's war experiences contributed to his relatively early death at the age of 62 and I am currently trying to get hold of documentation about his war service to find out more.
As a child I was taken to see the horrific movies that had been made showing German atrocities in those dreadful concentration and death camps and can only just bring myself to watch them even now. I visited Dachau during a work assignment at Munich and plan to make a pilgramage to Belsen one day although I know that very little remains of it. I was not allowed to play with toy guns as a child and when a relative got me one for Christmas one year it was rapidly disposed of.
For any reader not aware 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.
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 most 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.
Until researching the background to the loss of Athenia, I had only seen brief film excerpts of the Nuremberg trials, but I have read most of the transcripts and evidence presented there thanks to a number of excellent websites that have made them available online. The two I have used mainly are the Nizkor website and Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. Links to both of these websites are on the About page of this website.
Click the link below to learn about the first five days following the sinking: