The Athenia covered on this page was the second Donaldson Bros. ship of this name and was in service from her completion in 1923 until she was sunk in 1939 giving her a service life of 16 years.
She was just another liner until she was sunk by a German submarine on the very same day that Britain and France declared war on Germany. The repercussions of this event echoed throughout WW2 and played a significant part in the trial of German Major War Criminals that took place in Nuremberg in 1945-6.
This page covers the story of Athenia up to her loss. I have created a separate website that goes into great detail of what happened from the point of her being torpedoed which can be accessed HERE.
|Registered owners, managers and operators||Anchor-Donaldson Ltd.
Donaldson Bros. Ltd. Managers
|Builders||Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd|
|Engines||6 steam turbines DR geared to 2 SC shafts|
|Engine builders||Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd|
The Lloyds Register entry for Athenia for 1939-40 has the following additional information about her:
- 3 decks and cruiser stern
- Fitted for oil fuel
- Fitted with refrigeration equipment
- Fitted with radio direction-finding and echo-sounding equipment
- Fitted with gyro compass
|28 January 1922||Launched|
|9 April 1923||Maiden voyage from Glasgow to Liverpool, Quebec and Montreal as a Cunard & Anchor-Donaldson joint service.|
|1924||Started service under charter to Cunard Line and remained so until her loss|
|1928||Donaldson Bros. Ltd. & Anchor Line (Henderson Bros.) Ltd became joint managers|
|1935||Transferred to Donaldson Atlantic Line Ltd. (Donaldson Bros. Ltd. Managers)|
|27 June 1938||Managers changed to Donaldson Bros. & Black Ltd.|
|3 September 1939||Torpedoed by German submarine U-30 and sunk the following day.|
Voyages for the Anchor Donaldson Line
Initially Anchor-Donaldson Line deployed Athenia for its own service to Canada but by 1924 she was being chartered by Cunard who classified her as a 'Cunard A class' ship.
Dock Strike (1924)
In February 1924 Athenia narrowly escaped being caught up in a general strike which particularly affected Liverpool docks.
Voyages for Cunard Line
By April 1924 Cunard Line was advertising passages to Canada on Athenia and continued to do so through to 1939.
Ships like Athenia carried mail and newspapers regularly; notices would be published saying when mail should be posted to catch specific ship sailing times.
As a variation from the regular runs, Cunard provided vessels for special occasions. On 1 January 1927 The Times reported that Cunard was reserving 13 liners to provide 'excursions' from the USA and Canada to Europe. Planned trips included one for a party of 3,000 Rotarians from Canada attending a convention in Ostend involving 7 liners, another a visit to Glasgow by 600 'Masonic Brethren' on Athenia, and another for 1,000 people attending an Eistedfodd at Holyhead.
Regular advertisements for passages to Canada and mail deadlines appear continuously in The Times, and no doubt other newspapers, through to 1939.
Collision with Corteen
On 19 March 1929 Athenia collided with Corteen in dense fog whilst approaching Liverpool coming from New York. Corteen was a Kelly Line ship and there is a photograph of her in The Allen Collection - External Ref. #46. It appears from the newspaper report that there was no major damage.
Assistance for Dalryan
On 18 July 1930 United Steam Navigation Company's nearly new cargo ship Dalryan ran aground on an iceberg in the Strait of Belle Isle near Newfoundland Canada on a voyage from Swansea to Montreal. Her bow was stuck on a ledge with the result that holds #1 and #2 were leaking. She was carrying a cargo of 6,700 tons of coal and had a crew of 35.
Athenia was standing by but Dalryan was floated off. Dalryan was less fortunate nearly a decade later when she struck a mine and sunk on 1 December 1939 2½ miles SW of the Tongue Light Vessel. The crew was rescued and taken to Margate.
WW1 Reunion Cruise
Athenia seems to have continued to ply the UK to Canada route with Cunard Line with almost monotonous regularity. There was a notable departure in 1935 when she was chartered for a "reunion cruise" to the WW1 battlefields of Palestine and Gallipoli.
Loss of Vadulia
In October 1936, Athenia was once more called to the assistance of an ailing ship. The Cunard cargo ship Vardulia was travelling from West Hartlepool to St. John, New Brunswick with a cargo of coal. During severe weather conditions she sent two radio messages - the first saying "Dangerous List" and the second saying "Am Abandoning Ship". Athenia was one of several ships diverted to look for survivors but in the end the entire crew of the Vardulia perished - 37 men in all.
Increased Demand for Passages to North America
As the 1930s proceeded, Athenia continued to take passengers to and from North America with the occasional special trip. In 1936 The Times reported that there was an increasing number of outward bound passengers. The reason for the increase is not stated but it was clearly related to the increasingly unsettled conditions in Europe as Hitler came to power.
Conveyance of Troops from Palestine
Part of the peace settlement after WW1 was that Great Britain was given a League of Nations mandate over Palestine and Transjordan. Initially few troops were involved, but increasing conflict between the Palestinians and Jewish immigrants in 1929 resulted in deployment of two Army battalions. By 1936 this had risen to three battalions, later a whole infantry division and by 1939 two infantry divisions.
At the end of 1936, Athenia was one of three ships engaged to bring troops home from Palestine for a period of home leave. The other ships were Laurentic and Tuscania.
'Business as Usual' as War Looms
Cunard continued the services from Southampton and Liverpool across the Atlantic right up to the start of WW2.
Passenger Accommodation in 1939
I have reproduced below a Donaldson Atlantic Line leaflet issued in Montreal 1939 which has information about the passenger accommodation. This was originally published amongst the Athenia pages of the website Ahoy - Mac's Web Log created by Mackenzie J. Gregory who sadly died in 2014. I have been unsuccessful in attempts to contact the inheritors of the website which is currently still online HERE. I wanted to ask their permission to republish the material related to Athenia so that it will not be lost to future generations. Mac is missed by many people, including myself, who exchanged information with him over many years. I am sure he would give this republication his blessing.
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 - and sank the following day.
Click the link below to visit the Benjidog Athenia website for details of how the sinking came about and the complex political aftermath of her sinking.
- From The Allen Collection on the Benjidog website HERE.
- By courtesy of The Times archive.
- By courtesy of Andrey Nelogov
- By courtesy of Paul Strathdee
- By courtesy of Mick Cardiff
- By courtesy of Ahoy - Mac's Web Log