- Passenger Casualties
- Merchant Navy Casualties
- Survivor's Recollections of the Loss
- Discovery of Wreck
The table below is a transcription of newspaper reports of passenger casualties and has been included to assist anyone searching for information about relatives as the newspaper cuttings are not searchable.
|Name/Other Information||Nationality||Last Abode|
|William Allan||British||Northfield, Queen Street, Alloa|
|Georgina Allan, Age 51, Domestic||British||West Croydon|
|Harriet Barrington, Age 52, Housewife||British||Sandfield Road, Gateacre, Liverpool|
|John Bernard, Age 23, Student||U.S|
|Peter Birchall, Age 49, Librarian||US||Hawberry Street Bedford|
|Nancy Bishop, Age 36, Housewife||British||C/O T. Eaton Company, Regent Street London|
|Frederick Blair, Age 60, Musician, born Chatham Ontario||British||Savoy Court Hotel, Portman Square, London|
|Herbert Bown, Age 79, Retired, born Birmingham England||U.S.||Faireview Road, Dartmouth|
|Henry Braunschneiger, Age 33, Lawyer||German||C/O Cunard White Star, Liverpool|
|Elizabeth Brookes, Age 60, Widow||British||C/O Scott, Highholm Street, Port Glasgow|
|William Brown, Age 60, Teacher, born Scotland||U.S||C/O McMorland, Belmont, Barrhill Road, Gourock|
|Sarah Burdett, Age 51, Housewife||U.S.||Broughton Astley, Nr Leicester|
|Helen Burrows, Age 50, Housewife||British||C/O Coleman, York Lodge, Antrim|
|E. Campbell, Age 37, Teacher||U.S.||Ederston Road, Peebles|
|Helen Chalmers, Age 46, Table Maid||British||Restalrig Circus, Edinburgh|
|Isabella Chalmers, Age 51, Nurse||British||Restalrig Circus, Edinburgh|
|Ina May Duncan, Age 30, Nurse||British||C/O Davidson, Craighill Terrace, Edinburgh|
|Arthur Fisher, Age 16||U.S||C/O R. Hancock, Tunbridge Wells|
|Mrs. A.B. Fletcher||British||Kildare Terrace, Bayswater, London|
|Helen Flower, Age 45, Housewife||British||Cromer Villas Road, Wandsworth, London|
|Alexandrina Forbes, Age 52, Housewife||British||Frederick Street, Aberdeen|
|Muriel Fraser, Age 54, Secretary||British||Cockspur Street, London|
|Anna Gacii (possibly Gach), Age 13, Schoolgirl||Polish|
|Cora Gilroy, Age 41, Housewife||U.S||Lockend Road, Leith|
|John Gilroy, Age 7, born Detroit Michigan||U.S||Lockend Road, Leith|
|Martha Goddard, Age 52, Housewife||British||Oldham Road, Manchester|
|Sarah Goodman, Age 31, Secretary||British||Northfield Road, London N|
|Nellie Graham, Age 34, Housewife||British||Collier Street, Carnoustie|
|George Graham, Age 2½||British||Collier Street, Carnoustie|
|Helen Hannah, Age 37, Housewife||U.S||Berebriggs, Strathaven|
|Sara B. Harper, Age 66, Housewife||N/K||Belfast|
|Robert Harper (husband)||N/K||Willowholme Drive, Belfast|
|Ellen Harrington, Age 63, Housewife||U.S||C/O Cunard Whte Star Limited, Liverpool|
|Robert Harris, Age 21||U.S||York Buildings, Adelphi, London|
|James Haslet, Age 41, Butler||British||Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire|
|Margaret Haslet, Age 38, Housemaid||British||Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire|
|Albert Hart, Age 60, Accountant||British||C/O Miss A Hart, University Avenue, Belfast|
|Margaret Hayworth, Age 9, Schoolgirl, born Hamilton Ontario||British||Primrose Hill Drive, Aberdeen|
|Margaret Hogg, age 52, Housewife||British||C/O Tough, Dundee Terrace, Edinburgh|
|Mary Hodge, Age 49, Widow||British||C/O Thos. Cook and Sons, Glasgow|
|Jean Gwen Holmes, Age 6, Schoolgirl, born Winnepeg||British||Inverskip Street, Greenock|
|Ellen Howland, Age 65||U.S||C/O Raymond Whitcombe and Co, London SW|
|Dorothy Hutchings, Age 39, Teacher||British||Peel Street Glasgow|
|George Innes, Age 41, Advertising Executive||British||C/O Stewart, Glenmackie Terrace, Dundee|
|Matilda Jacobs, Age 24, Housewife||British||English Street, Shieldmuir, Wishaw|
|Emily James, Age 38||British||C/O E. Pullen, Preston Park Avenue, Brighton|
|Lottie Kunstlicher, Interpreter||German||Great Russell Street, London|
|Eudokia Kucharczuk, Age 40, Housewife||Polish|
|Aleksandra Kucharczuk, Age 8||Polish|
|Jakeb Kucharczuk, Age 2||Polish|
|Stefan Kucharczuk, Age 15||Polish|
|Margaret Lennon, Age 57, Housewife||British||Newall Terrace, Dumfries|
|Catherine Leslie, Age 69, Widow||British||C/O Preshaw, Chancellor Street, Glasgow|
|Artur Lourie, Age 35, Merchant||Polish||C/O Regent Street London|
|Edith Lustig, Age 27, Housewife||German||C/O Great Russell Street, London|
|Charles Mailer, Age 69||British||Wilson Street, Craigie, Perth|
|Lucy Marston, Age 53, Housewife||British||Ely View, Houghton Road, St Ives|
|Thornton Mustard, Age 47||British||Dudley Arms Hotel, Dudley|
|Sophie McDonald, Age 78||British||C/O Dawson, Sankey Street, Warrington|
|Bridget McErlean, Age 38, Domestic||U.S||Moneystaghan, Portglenone, Co. Antrim|
|Agnes McFarlane, Age 43, Housewife||British||Curwood Street, Greenock|
|Gladys McFarlane, Age 3, born Verdun P.Q.||British||Curwood Street, Greenock|
|Ray McFarlane, Age 19, Student||U.S||C/O Macfarlane, Cathkin Avenue, Rutherglen|
|Margaret McGorty, Age 7||U.S||Milltown Birches, Portadown, Co. Armagh|
|Jean C McNeish, Age 69, Widow||British||Glebe Road, Letchworth, Herts or Clochview, Kirn|
|Alexander Nicol, Age 40, Receiving Clerk||U.S||Easter Drylaw View, Edinburgh|
|Edith Nicol, Age 33, Housewife||U.S||Easter Drylaw View, Edinburgh|
|Marion Nicol, Age 9, born Lawrence Mass||U.S||Easter Drylaw View, Edinburgh|
|Alexander Park, Age 49||U.S||C/O McAleer, Omagh, Co.Tyrone|
|Annie Quine, Age 57, Housewife||U.S||Marsh Lane, Halsall|
|Nancy Redgers, Age 16,||British||Tredegar Street, Risca, Mon|
|Gertrude Reed, Age 58, Housewife||U.S||C/O Stewart, Stubbs Road, Chertsey|
|Alice Robinson, Age 44, Housewife||U.S||C/O Mr Home, Little King Street, Edinburgh|
|Mary Scott, Age 31, Housekeeper||British||C/O Mr J Scott, James Street, Edinburgh|
|Jessie Sharp, Age 45, Housewife||British||C/O Williamson Limited, Frederick Street Edinburgh|
|Fejga Spring, Age 32||Polish|
|Emma Steele, Age 49, Librarian||British||C/O Canada House London|
|F. Stotland, Age 13||Stateless|
|Fred Tinney, Age 30||U.S||C/O Robinson, Graham Street, Johnstone|
|Madeleine Tinney, Age 27, Housewife||U.S||C/O Robinson, Graham Street, Johnstone|
|Hariet Tolley, Age 74||British||Tyran Avenue, Llancily|
|Harry Truss, Age 54||British||Fleet, Holbeach|
|Ethel Truss, Age 52, Housewife||British||Fleet, Holbeach|
|A.H.Vincent, Age 7||British||C/O Thomas Cook and Son Newcastle|
|Sara Warenreich, Age 39, Cook, born Vienna||U.S||c/o Kingsley, Miens Road Blackburn|
|Anne Waterman, Age 52,||British||C/O C.W.S. Limited, London|
|Fred Weir, Age 61,||British||C/O Watson, Lochend Road, Leith|
|Matilda Wilkes, Housewife||U.S||C/O American Express Company, Glasgow|
|Jonathan Wilkes, Age 8||U.S||C/O American Express Company, Glasgow|
|David Wright, Age 63, Laundry Manager||U.S||Killshannagh, Co. Tyrone|
|Jessie Young||British||Wilson Street, Craigie, Perth|
Robert Shenton Harris
I am grateful to Bill Zimmerman of Norfolk Virginia who contacted me about one of the lost passengers, Robert Shenton Harris from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Robert was an American student returning home via Canada when Athenia was lost. He may well be one of the first US Casualties of the war.
I am grateful to Paul Charlesworth who contacted me after coming across the gravestone of Annie Quine at Halsall in Lancashire and located the cuttings from the Ormskirk Advertiser shown on on this website.
Nineteen members of the Merchant Navy were killed in the incident as detailed in the Roll of Honour below. Information is from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
|Forenames||Surname & Honours||Age||D.O.D||Rank||Service||Country||Cemetery/Memorial||Grave Ref.||Addl. Information|
|Hannah||Baird||03/09/1939||Stewardess||Canadian Merchant Navy||Canada||Halifax Memorial||Panel 17.|
|James||Carlin||56||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 56|
|Ian||Donnelly||26||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 26|
|John||Donnelly||23||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 23|
|James||Elder||45||03/09/1939||Donkeyman||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 45. Husband of Mary Elder of Cambuslang Lanarkshire.|
|Charles||Fordyce||65||03/09/1939||Watchman||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 65. Son of George and Jessie Fordyce; husband of Mary Penelope Fordyce.|
|Hugh||Gallagher||23||03/09/1939||Greaser||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 23. Son of Thomas Gallagher and of Isabel Gallagher of Glasgow.|
|Alison||Harrower||41||03/09/1939||Stewardess||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 41. Daughter of William and Hannah Foster Denny Harrower.|
|John||Hogg||51||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 51. Husband of Sarah A. Hogg of Brantford Ontario Canada.|
|Margaret||Johnston||41||03/09/1939||Stewardess||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 41. Daughter of James and Christina Johnston of Glasgow.|
|John||Kent||50||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 50. Husband of Jessie Darroch Kent of Bridgeton Glasgow.|
|Jessie||Lawler||60||03/09/1939||Stewardess||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 60. Wife of Patrick Lawler of Sholing Southampton.|
|James||Marshall||15||03/09/1939||Bellboy||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 15|
|David||Morrison||32||03/09/1939||Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 32|
|Michael J.||Mcdermott||33||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 33|
|John||Mcjarrow||39||03/09/1939||Printer||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 39|
|John||Mckeown||47||03/09/1939||Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 47. Husband of M. E. McKeown of Dunoon Argyllshire.|
|David||Provan||65||03/09/1939||Barber||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 65. Son of Alec and Margaret Provan; husband of Martha Provan of Glasgow.|
|Samuel||Thomson||45||03/09/1939||Assistant Steward||Merchant Navy||United Kingdom||Tower Hill Memorial||Panel 12.||Age 45. Husband of Julia McCafferty Thomson. of Glasgow.|
The Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill
Eighteen of the crew members who lost their lives on Athenia are commemorated on the memorial at Tower Hill to those 'who have no grave but the sea'.
Philip C. Gunyon
Philip was a 7 year-old passenger on Athenia. He contacted me in early 2018 having come across an earlier version of this website and has kindly provided his recollections of the loss of the ship. Born in Japan of English and Canadian parents, he moved to England with his family in 1938. A year later, they emigrated to Canada, setting out in September on Athenia and finally arrived in New York on the Washington. Settled in Canada, he graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada in 1955. He recently retired after spending all but one year of his career with Alcan Aluminium Limited and has had a lifelong interest in military history focusing mainly on WW1 and the American Civil War.
2 September 1939:
In the early morning hours of Saturday, 2nd September, 1939, my mother, younger sister, brother and I left our home in London, bound for Canada. Father was in Brazil, where his company had posted him several months before. We passed through sad, quiet streets to Euston Station. Silent, tired people were setting out to work; children with gas masks in cardboard boxes slung around their necks were on their way to school.
The threat of imminent war hung over the whole country. Yesterday’s newspapers had announced Hitler's invasion of Poland and that Britain and France had now completed mobilization of their armed forces.
The station was crowded with other refugees leaving the city for safety , mostly mothers with small children and older people. Looking out the window as our train slowly wound its way into Liverpool, I remember looking down into the rear of depressing looking tenements. During that trip, the only smiling face my mother saw was on the agent who put us aboard the tender Skirmisher, headed out to the Athenia. She was anchored in midstream Mersey, ready for a quick getaway after loading the 546 passengers and baggage who boarded in Liverpool. Of these, 101 were American citizens, lucky enough to have secured a berth for their return home on the last available liner.
Although very tired by now, mother was feeling glad that we were on our way and that we children might be spared the inevitable air raids on London. But deep in her heart she still had a strange feeling of insecurity. Our cabin was small, with three bunks for the four of us and she spent that first night curled up at the foot of my two year old brother’s bunk. Other passengers, no longer depressed, settled down for a pleasant evening of dancing, card playing, and singsongs.
Chief Officer B. Copeland began his usual nightly tour of the ship, paying particular attention that the black-out provisions were in proper order. Just after darkness fell, Athenia cleared The Chickens lighthouse off the southern tip of the Isle of Man and set course on her next leg, racing through the night at 15 knots.
3 September 1939
The next morning, feeling much rested, we were ready to enjoy the glorious sea air. During the day, Captain James Cook, O.B.E. ordered a lifeboat drill. Athenia was equipped with 26 lifeboats of which 2 were motorized. Total capacity was 1,828 persons. She also carried 21 Gradwell liferafts, 18 lifebouys and 1,600 lifejackets. Mother recalled that the officers were strict and passengers understood the seriousness of it all. Our boat station was on the deck just above our cabin. To reach it, we walked down a passage, through the smoking room, up a flight of stairs and then a short way along the deck. I recall the ship’s paint, shining white in the bright sun. If the grown-ups were worried, I didn’t feel that way.
Around 7 pm, mother dressed us for bed and helped us with our prayers, which ended “keep me safe ‘till morning light”. Putting on an evening skirt and blouse (blue with large black buttons, which I loved to play with) she tucked us into our bunks with our favorite stuffed animals and went down to dinner.
3 September 1939 - 7:39 p.m.
Lying in my bunk in the dark cabin, I was not quite asleep. Suddenly I heard and felt a terrific, thump. In later years, watching war movies which showed merchant ships being torpedoed on the Atlantic convoys, I couldn’t reconcile those spectacular explosions with the one I had felt on Athenia. Still, it was severe and the huge ship suddenly lurched and took on a decided list, then slowly went dead in the water. I sat up in the bunk and waited. I have no vivid memory now of fear, only a wondering of who would come and tell us what next to do. The stewardess arrived first, followed very soon by mother.
Down in the dining room, she had been seated at a table near the stairs. She ordered soup. While waiting for it to arrive she read the Captain’s notice apologizing for the reduced level of service. The soup soon came and she laid the notice down, took up her spoon and dipped it into the soup. It never reached her mouth. She recalled a "tremendous thud and the crash of breaking things". The floor seemed to lift. There were shouts and screams. Then the lights went out. She was shocked!
The stewards made for their stations without panic or hesitation. Mother made for the nearby stairs at once. The ship lurched, listed and then stabilized. She asked herself "Am I to die now?" Then she suddenly realized that so much depended on her. "What will my husband feel?". "My children, quickly, I must reach them.".
She remembered the directions - two flights up and turn left twice. She was helped by men's lighted matches and their encouraging entreaties to "Keep calm - steady now". Reaching our passageway she turned into a cabin. It was empty! Feeling desperate, she realized she had made a mistake and turned in too soon. Hurrying out, she found the right cabin and found us, "quiet but frightened, but oh! So very brave. It was they who gave me courage."
Together, the stewardess and mother put life-belts on my sister Barbara and I. Little Andrew was too small for one, so putting on a life-belt herself, mother lifted him up.
It was very dark and I suggested that we should get the flashlight from the dresser drawer. With Andrew and Barbara in her arms and followed by the stewardess and I, we moved into the passage. It seemed smoky and smelt of cordite. The smoking room floor was wet and mother fell. But she was up again quickly, and moving through the swelling crowd, we hurried to our boat station to see the boat being lowered as we arrived. The stewardess gave us two blankets and mother gave her the flashlight as she wanted to return to see that all her passenger’s cabins were empty.
Right after the explosion, mother had taken off her skirt in order to move freely. I was wearing only pajamas and Barbara a nightie. Andrew had on his pajama jacket. Mother took off her blouse and wrapped it around Barbara and her stockings were put on Andrew. This left her just decent. Then she dropped one of the blankets and somebody took it away!
Now we prepared to enter our lifeboat. It was swinging from its davits - in and out, in and out. Somebody lifted me onto the ship’s rail. Looking down I saw the dark and angry waves below. As the lifeboat swung in to the rail, I was pitched headlong into it and grabbed by helping arms. How mother made it with the two other children, I don’t know, but she did.
Then began the lowering. It couldn’t be quick enough for mother. There was trouble with the ropes at one end when we finally reached the water and they could not be released. Two men who seemed to be managing things finally got them cleared, but it was a nasty moment and she dreaded a spill. I recall all of this, but had the supreme confidence of a seven year old that the grown-ups would eventually get us away.
We moved out quickly in case we should be drawn in by suction. A young girl took Andrew and the blanket and mother held Barbara. I sat nearby. It was not fully dark and we could still see what we were doing. Not far away we also saw the huge, beautiful ship remaining very steady and with only a very slight list.
Only later would we know that Third Officer Colin Porteous, on the bridge when the torpedo struck had immediately pushed a button which closed all watertight doors throughout the ship. As he sounded eight short and one long blast on the ship’s whistle, Athenia had heeled violently about 5 or 6 degrees to starboard, then slowly swung back to port and settled at about 3 degrees. She would remain afloat for another 15½ hours and soon after 11am the next morning, tipping her bows skyward and slipping quietly, stern first, faster and faster, would be gone, her grave marked only by debris, bubbles and a vortex on the sea's surface.
Athenia's Lifeboat - Night of 3-4 September 1939
Although the lifeboat was crowded, nobody panicked. There was water in the boat up to our knees and the seats were wet and cold because the lifeboat's drain plug was not in place and could not be found. People took turns bailing to keep the boat from filling up. After an hour of frantic searching, someone found the drain plug, to everyone’s great relief. Although the sea was not very rough, some people were being sick. Others struck up a hymn and tried to keep spirits up by singing. That lasted for a while, but eventually everyone settled down to wait for rescue and try to keep as warm as possible.
A 12 year old girl gave Barbara and mother her rug. She was wearing a warm dress and had noticed that Barbara had only a nightgown and mother her three pieces of underwear. Toward morning, I got close to mother and she pulled me to her. The three of us huddled under the rug like a tent, to keep off the rain and the wind. What a joy it was!
We were fortunate enough to have an American sea captain in our boat and he took charge and did it well. People took turns with the rowing through the night, including Athenia’s nurse, a steward and an elderly American gentleman who had been at mother's table. Toward morning the rowers became weary and our boat began taking the waves broadside. By now they had grown quite big and Mother had a horror that the boat would capsize. The rescue ships Knute Nelson, City of Flint and Axel Wenner-Gren’s private yacht, Southern Cross (once owned by Howard Hughes) had arrived during the night, but we were far from them. But then, as the dawn brightened we saw two British destroyers approaching. What a joyful sight! Mother recorded that it was almost funny the way people tried not to sound too eager, but couldn't help showing their feelings.
H.M.S. Electra - 4 September 1939
One of the destroyers, H.M.S. Electra soon drew near to our lifeboat. We heard words of warning, "sit still", "keep your heads", "just be patient". Then we were alongside. Down came a rope ladder, followed immediately by a great, tall sturdy sailor. One look at him was enough - we were safe!
More sailors dropped into the lifeboat and began to get us aboard. Children first, we were boosted up and had to jump for the rope ladder as the boat came up on a swell. Here mother got her only injury, a bruised leg, when she swung onto the ladder and just escaped catching it between the lifeboat and the destroyer. Her only recollection of the ascent was "Thank goodness I was a once a gymnastics teacher!". As her bare feet came into contact with Electra’s solid deck, she knew that all four of us were safe and her next thought, from deep in her heart, was "Thank God for this".
The sailors took us below and brought tea and dry blankets. Their complete understanding and wonderful kindness released bottled up feelings and the tears of gratefulness and relief came to her. We had all been separated coming aboard, and I was taken over by the torpedomen's mess. Slung up in a hammock just under a beam, I fell asleep in the warmth, crying for my drowned stuffed animals. I don't remember how long I slept, but when I woke and sat up suddenly, I hit my head hard on the steel deck overhead! Lying in my hammock and feeling quite seasick, I asked where my mother was. The torpedomen soon found her and re-united us. While we waited, one of them gave me an old Leading Torpedoman's arm badge. I have it still today.
Mother had already found Andrew and Barbara and we were all taken to the engine room, washed up in buckets and changed into sailor's warm dry clothing. We ate too. I recall eating so many chocolate bars that I got sick and wasn't able to eat them again until the war was nearly over. But afterwards we were taken on deck and the clean fresh air cleared my head and I felt good once more.
Electra and her sister ships remained on the spot until evening, looking for the sub and watching for survivors. Towards evening, our sailor friend set out three mattresses for us on deck and settled his own on the outside. Despite a call for "Action Stations" and a warning not to mind any depth charge explosions we might hear, we slept.
Greenock - 5 September 1939
By morning, we came in sight of Scotland. How destroyers can move! As Electra moored, people from our mess hurried on deck, but we waited below. As our turn came to disembark, one of the torpedomen, Jack Phelan, approached mother and pressed something into her hand saying, "Please take this; the men of my mess have collected it for you and the children, knowing you are without money or clothes". This gesture meant a lot to her and she could not reply. She held back tears, her throat hurting and eyes burning until he was gone. Perhaps he misunderstood her silence for that December, safely in Canada, we received a Christmas card signed by the men of Electra's torpedomen’s mess. With it came a letter from Jack Phelan.
Dec 23rd 1939
Dear Mrs. Gunyon.
I was very pleased to know that you & the Children arrived home quite safe & going by the snaps the Children look in wonderful health. But I think you still have a lot to forget. But all that will pass in time. I have always admired your courage & Devotion which you gave to your children during that time & I wanted to help to lift that Burden off your mind During your short stay with us.
I have often wondered, you had my address But you never wrote to me & I was thinking if it was on account of me collecting that small donation for you & the Children, that it made you feel embarrassed to me.
Well this is only a short note also hoping that you & the Children spent a enjoyable Xmas.
Yours most Sincerely,
Two years later in February 1942 the first communiqué of the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea included this epitaph; H.M.S. Electra attacked through the smoke and was seen no more…. Electra, defending the cruiser H.M.S. Exeter, had attacked four Japanese destroyers and been sunk by one of them, the Jintsu. Of her crew of 173, fifty-four survived and were picked up later by the US submarine S.38. After surviving 17 depth-charge attacks, the S.38 reached Sourabaya and safety. Whether Jack Phelan and his mates were aboard, we never heard.
We went ashore and once more were overwhelmed with kindness. Clothing had been collected and was handed out to everyone. Mother remarked that at some other time it might have been funny to see some people's eagerness to claim the lovely silk underwear and stockings!
Glasgow - 5 September 1939
Next came the trip to Glasgow by bus - a crowded hotel, a hasty meal, everyone bewildered, loudspeakers never ceasing their inquiries for somebody or other. At last our names were called and a friend of my father appeared like a fairy godfather. He had us installed in no time at a quiet hotel, where we rested and got warm. There mother wrote to my father in Brazil.
Tuesday Sept 5th /39
I can't write much, some day I will tell you, not just yet. I won't look back. Just feel so thankfull that we are all safe & well. I was in the dining room when it happened & was given some wonderful strength to get through the darkness to the children. Philip was so wonderful, I am terribly proud of him - so cool-headed. Suggested the torch, came to the muster station alone. Cecil, he was wonderful, all three were in that long 12 hrs. on the life boat. I really don't want to talk about it now. Keith had a friend find us here in Glasgow (we came from Greenock) This friend has been wonderful & tomorrow we go to London & Devon. Keith has found a place near Alice & I want to take the children away for a bit until we can forget & get rested. Keith has been wonderful, everyone has. I can't look far ahead & don't know what we shall do - sufficient to go to Devon now… I couldn't even think of saving anything but the children… I am so thankful to be here with the children. When the thing hit us I knew for your sake I must save them…Oh God war is terrible & especially Hitler's kind - I do pray it will soon end. Now don’t worry, Dear, Dear Cecil.
All my love,
Within 48 hours of the sinking, father had received three telegrams assuring him that we were safe. We spent a couple of weeks at a friend's lovely private home on the moors at Dawlish in Devonshire. I got a new stuffed toy, a Scottie dog I named "Larry", to replace those who had gone down with Athenia. But I still grieved mightily for them. On Sunday, 1st October, we embarked for New York aboard the United States Lines’ Washington, anchoring the next day off the French town of Le Verdon, near Bordeaux. Here she debarked French passengers and picked up a cargo of wines, automobiles and other cargo. On 5th October we left France and that is when I learned about the Bay of Biscay. We tossed, jumped, bumped and went through agony and I was very seasick. I recall sucking lemons as a cure. Some cure! But it seemed to work.
Arriving in New York harbor on 12th October, shipyard workers re-painted the huge American flag on each side of Washington's hull, advertising her neutral status. Andrew's underpants, hung out the porthole to dry, received a coat of red paint. I never learned which of the original 13 colonies they were baptised by. That evening we landed and drove through the darkening streets of the city to my Uncle Mario's home on Staten Island. The next day we took a train north and finally arrived at my grandmother's home in Oakville, Ontario.
I still have my mother's replacement passport, issued on 28th September 1939. It records our arrival in Canada at Fort Erie North on 13th October 1939. Another stamp testifies to our having been granted status as "Canadian landed immigrants" on 21st January 1942.
It had been quite a trip.
Note: I have checked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database for Jack Phelan and can find no casualty of that name. The closest casualty name to this is a John Joseph Phelan, Service No. D/J 106536, who died on 11 January 1941 on H.M.S. Gloucester. I have no way of knowing whether this was the person concerned but it seems the odds are that Jack Phelan survived the war. I hope he did anyway.
Andreana Hermine Gunyon
Andreana was Philip Gunyon's mother and she produced her own account of her experiences which Philip drew on in his own account. Andreana's account has its own take though - that of a mother whose children were in great peril and it is very moving.
This first-hand account of the Athenia’s sinking was dictated by my mother, Andreana Hermine Gunyon to her husband, Charles Cecil Gunyon. The handwritten
account in my father's hand is undated but seems to have been made after he returned from Brazil to Canada in 1942 and before he joined the Royal Canadian Navy.
Philip C. Gunyon
Germany's First Victim
Early in the morning of September 1st 1939, we left our home in London bound for Canada. We passed through quiet streets to Euston Station, the saddest streets I have ever known. Silent people setting out to work, children who, already wearing gas masks, on their way to school glanced now and then uneasily at the skies. The grown people looked so tired; few can have slept for long the night before. At the station there were bewildered crowds, mostly mothers or old people with very small children and babies, all being sent from the city. Everyone knowing that the cloud of war must soon break. There were no smiles from London to Liverpool; the only one I can remember (how it cheered me!) was the agent who put us on the tender going out to the Athenia – Germany's first victim at sea in this war.
Let me tell you about our little family. My husband was at the time in Brazil, so when war seemed imminent my mother & father in Canada had cabled me to bring the children to them – Philip 7 years old, Barbara four and Andrew two and-a-half.
Through the kindness of a friend our passages were booked and we set out. We were all very tired by the time we had boarded the Athenia and I was thankful at last to be able to settle ourselves in for the voyage and to put the children to bed.
Although I felt glad that we were on our way and that the children might really be spared from air raids, I must confess that deep in my heart I had a strange feeling of insecurity.
The ship was naturally overcrowded. We had three bunks for the four of us, so I spent the first night curled up at the foot of Andrew’s bunk. We woke up the next day feeling rested and ready to enjoy the glorious sea air. During the day we had a lifeboat drill, something for which I shall always be thankful. Officers were strict and we understood the seriousness of it all. Our boat station was on the deck just above our cabin, necessitating a walk down the passage, through the smoke room and up a flight of stairs, then a short way along the deck.
Of course, by the afternoon we knew that England was at war so our anxiety became very real. Few said much but everyone knew that our ship was in great danger. My heart ached for the children's sake.
In the evening, after bathing the children with the help of our very kind stewardess the children and I said our little prayer –
Thank you, God, for the world so sweet,
Thank you, God, for the food we eat,
Thank you, God, for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything.
And another favourite one which ends
Through the darkness be Thou near me
Keep me safe 'til morning light.
Dear children, how hard I prayed for them!
After changing into an evening blouse and long skirt I went down to dinner, leaving Barbara with her best dolly, Philip with 'his children' (two bunnies, a dog and a duck) and Andrew with his woolly dogs. My seat in the dining room was near the stairs. I ordered soup then read a notice from the Captain apologizing for the service – some of the crew had been 'called up'; they were short handed, the ship was crowded and would we please understand….. I laid the notice down, took up my spoon to start my soup – then it happened. The tremendous thud and the crack of breaking things. The very floor seemed to lift. There were some shouts and screams. I was shocked. The stewards one knew made for their stations; they all seened ready, without panic or hesitation. I didn't waste a moment but made for the stairs fortunately so near. The ship seemed to be lurching and to list, and then to quiet down, I felt. I seemed to ask myself the question, "Am I to die now?" and then I suddenly realized that so much depended on me. "What will my husband feel?" My children, quickly, I must reach them.
The lights had gone out soon after the explosion, but I remembered the directions – two flights and turn left twice. With the aid of men's lighted matches, to say nothing of their encouraging "Keep calm, steady now", I reached our passage. The first cabin I went into was empty. I felt desperate. Then I knew I had made a mistake and turned too soon. So I hurried on and found them in the cabin, quiet but frightened, but oh! so very brave. It was they who gave me courage. The stewardess was there and took down the life-belts and put them on Philip and Barbara. Andrew was too small to wear one. It was so dark and it was then that Philip who with such presence of mind said, "Mum, what about the flashlight?" I knew where it was and this helped us again. I put on a life-belt and decided to carry Andrew (I wonder when really small life-belts will be provided.) I was desperate. Would I try to keep one on Andrew or try to hold him? He would slip through these huge things.
I took Andrew and Barbara in my arms and the stewardess followed with Philip. The passage seemed smoky and to smell of gunpowder. The smoking room floor was wet and I fell but was soon up again, and with many others we hurried to our boat station. As we arrived the boat was being lowered. The stewardess gave me two blankets and I gave her the flash-lamp as she wanted to return to see all the cabins were empty. Oh, the bravery of these people. I dropped one blanket and someone took it, however it was time to get in the boat. With help we hurried into the little craft hanging, it seemed, in mid-air, the great sea below us. I had taken off my skirt right after the explosion in order to be able to move freely. Philip had only pyjamas on, Barbara a nightie and Andrew his pyjama jacket. I put my evening blouse on Barbara and my stockings on Andrew, leaving myself just decent.
Then began the lowering. It couldn't be quick enough for me. There seemed to be trouble with the ropes at one end when we finally reached the water and they could not be released. However, the two men who seemed to be managing things finally got them cleared, but it was a nasty moment and I dreaded a spill. We moved out quickly in case we should be drawn under by suction. A young girl took Andrew and the blanket and I held Barbara, Philip sitting nearby. Thank goodness it was not dark and we could see what we were doing. I looked beyond to see the huge and beautiful ship remaining very steady and with only a very slight list.
There were no signs of panic. The life-boat seemed to be crowded, there was water in it almost up to one's knees, and the seats were wet and cold. Fortunately it was not very rough, because the plug of the boat was nowhere to be found and all the time water was coming in while people took turns bailing to kep the boat from filling. After a frantic search taking about an hour it was found to our great relief. People were very sick. I suppose from fear more than anything. Poor little Barbara too. How I longed for something warm and dry to wrap around her. A little girl of about twelve noticing that Barbara had only her nightgown and I underwear, gave us her rug as she had a warm dress – what a joy it was! For half the night I held it around Barbara and myself, then Philip towards morning came to be near us, so I pulled it over our heads to keep off the wind and rain, and there we crouched for some hours.
We were fortunate enough to have an American Sea Captain in our boat and he took charge, and did it well. Several people took turns with the rowing through the night, amongst them being the ship's nurse, an elderly American gentleman who had sat at my table at dinner, and a steward. Some of them grew very weary and our boat began taking the waves, by then quite big, broadside, and I had a horror the boat would capsize. It would have been so dreadful as we were far off from the rescue ships which had appeared, the Swedish boat and the City of Flint. These ships seemed far off, then nearer, then to move away again picking up boats in the other direction. We tried once to make the Swedish boat, but she was too far off – better wait – we had used all but three flares, but morning was coming and with it real hope, for then we saw appear two destroyers. What a joyful sight! It was almost funny the way people tried not to sound too eager but couldn’t help showing their feelings.
Soon H.M.S. Electra drew near. There were words of warning, "sit still - keep your heads - just be patient” – then we were alongside. Down came the rope ladder and before it had reached its full length a sailor was lowering himself to our boat. He was a great, tall, sturdy fellow and to look at him was enough – we were safe! A few more sailors dropped into the life-boat and then they began to get us on board. Children first. It was all so quick, this transfer to the destroyer. As each survivor’s turn came, a sailor in the life-boat gave him a boost up. It was a case of making a jump for it, and the jump had to be timed and taken as our boat came up with the swell. Here I got my only injury, bruises on my leg when I swung myself onto the ladder and just escaped catching it between the boat and the destroyer. I don't remember much of my ascent. I must have looked very undressed arriving in bare feet and wearing just three bits of underwear. But I do remember one thing clearly; my thoughts as I swung over the rail side of H.M.S. Electra – "Well, a P.T. course taken in my youth has proved its usefulness!". My feet came in contact with the solid deck and I knew we were safe, all four of us, and deep down in my heart I said, and meant it, "Thank God, for this”. It gave me new life.
The sailors led us below, and there this new life seemed to slip a little. A sailor brought blankets and wrapped us up. We lay on benches and gorgeous hot tea was given us. It was the complete understanding and wonderful kindness of the sailors that let something loose inside me which had been bottled up for so long, and I suppose we all wept tears of gratefulness and relief.
The children were somewhere on the ship and that was all that mattered. The sailor boy who gave me tea was so comforting. He later brought Andrew and we must have both slept for some time. When I woke up I borrowed a sailor's coat and began to search for Barbara and Philip. Barbara, poor little soul, I found her in a steaming hot room sitting with a group of people and looking so cold and ill. I shall hold the picture always. Never have I felt such real pity for a child. She was leaning against someone, this little four-year-old, in her nightie with rosebuds, the nightie stained with dirt, sea-water and grease. My sailor picked her up and we went down to one of the messes and soon had her in warm blankets, comforted and asleep. Philip was there, swinging high against the deck above in a hammock. He was weeping for his woolly animals - drowned poor darlings. "Oh! Mummy, my bunnies!". Philip had been so brave. I was amazed that a child of seven could be so plucky. But the loss of his "friends" was just too much for him.
Then came one day and one night spent on the destroyer. After a sleep we washed in buckets and changed into sailor's lovely warm dry shirts, trousers and socks. Our changing room was the Engine Room. We strung our wet belongings on cords reaching across all sorts of complicated and exciting-looking machinery. As far as I can remember we spent the day eating and sleeping, wondering where we were going once we had started. The destroyers remained until the evening trying to catch the submarine and watching for survivors. The Athenia did not disappear from sight for some fifteen or sixteen hours after she had been hit.
Our sailor friend put three mattresses on the deck for us that night. As there had been a command, Action Stations, and as we had been warned not to mind any explosions as our ship might at any time drop depth charges, we could not help but be nervous, however with our sailor friend sleeping on the outside edge of our improvised bed, one could not help knowing that they were ready for any emergency. It flashed through my mind so often, "Will the Germans hit this ship? - Must we go through all this again?"
By morning we came in sight of land – Scotland. How destroyers can move! The people from our mess hurried on deck. We decided and were advised to wait below, it might be some time before we would be alongside and able to leave the ship. While waiting, an officer came down to me. (This little story means so much to me.) He came up to where I was sitting and pressed something into my hand with "Please take this, the sailors of my mess have collected it for you and the children knowing that you are without any money or clothes." I held back tears, my throat hurting and my eyes burning, until he had gone. The unselfishness of those dear men with their scant pay, to collect for us!
We landed and at once more kindness. Clothing was ready for us. If I hadn't been so tired and worried then it could have been a funny sight – the eagerness of some people to get suitable clothing! Some had never owned such lovely silk underwear or stockings. Then came a trip to Glasgow by bus – the crowded hotel, a hasty meal, everyone so bewildered, loud-speakers never ceasing their enquiries for someone or other. Then my turn. A friend, like a fairy godfather, he had us installed in 'no time' in a quiet hotel where we rested and got warm. It was then I realized how tired I was. That evening, dinner at a bright hotel, the best of everything and everywhere people of this great Empire putting on a brave front – their husbands in uniform, perhaps a good-bye dinner, then off, destination unknown.
In two days we left for London by train. Soldiers were leaving too. They said their good-byes in silent sad ways, all too sad to trust their voices. Two men in our compartment dropped back into their seats when the train started and were silent for quite half-an-hour.
Here my story ends, but not without thanks to the dear people who started us on our way again. After three quiet weeks in Devonshire with only kindness about us we set sail anew and in a little over one month from the day we sailed on the Athenia we arrived in New York en route to Canada and a new home.
Nearly three years have passed, the Electra has gone to a sad but glorious end in the Java seas, no doubt with many of those same dear sailors who gave us, the first torpedoing in this war, so much comfort and cheer without thought for themselves. Now they have made the greatest sacrifice – we must not forget.
Andreana H. Gunyon
The Glasgow Museum of Transport housed at the Riverside Museum at Pointside Quay has an excellent model of Athenia and various memorabilia. They are not easy to photograph but I have done my best with them.
On 5 October 2017 it was reported that wreck hunter David Mearns believed he had located the wreck of Athenia at a depth of 650 feet but this has yet to be confirmed.