Heather (Donald) Watts - Survivor Account
Heather's account was first published online on the website she created with Vivian Collver and Philip Gunyon.
Heather's account covers the whole story and is reproduced verbatim other than the omission of images of postcards showing Athenia that appear elsewhere on the site.
Sixty years ago this week Britain declared war on Germany. I was a small child at the time but I was destined to take part in the first marine tragedy of that war - the sinking of the Athenia.
The saddest thing about this story is that it need never have happened - it was one of those inevitable mistakes that occur in war, killing innocent people and bringing grief and loss to hundreds more. I was one of the lucky ones. So let me take you back to the spring of 1939, to Montreal in the months before the war that everyone hoped would be avoided……
The Donald Family
My parents were both Scottish. They had emigrated as young adults, and met and married in Montreal, where I was born. For several years they had been saving their money so that my mother could return to visit her family in Inverness-shire. In 1939 they had enough for two passages.
Travel Agent's Receipt
Two return tickets were booked on the RMS Athenia which ran regularly between Glasgow and Montreal. You will see the travel agent’s receipt says Cunard White Star Line - the Athenia was actually part of the Donaldson Atlantic Line which operated jointly with Cunard’s White Star Line.
The Athenia was a modest, medium-sized liner of 13,465 tons, built by Fairfield of Glasgow, and launched in 1923 for use on the Glasgow-Montreal route. She had a reputation for comfort and informality, and was quite modern for the times - being fitted to carry fuel oil instead of coal. Halifax and Saint John knew her well, for when the St. Lawrence was frozen she and her sister ship, the Letitia, made these their winter ports.
Heather and Mary Donald on Board the Athenia
In April of 1939 we left Montreal, on the Athenia, my mother wearing her new muskrat fur coat, and happily looking forward to the journey. She had been ill for several years, and, in part, this trip was to be a celebration of her recovery, as well as a long holiday with her family. You can just see one of the Athenia’s covered lifeboats in the background. And that fur coat was to be very useful later.
We spent a pleasant summer in Scotland visiting our relatives. But my father was increasingly anxious that we return to Canada before hostilities began - hostilities that everyone felt were coming. We left from Glasgow, therefore, several weeks early, on September 1st. More passengers were picked up in Belfast that evening and one young man being brought out to the Athenia by tender, remembered the eerie darkness of the ship. It was completely "blacked out" even though war had not yet been declared -there was not a light showing. Overnight we recrossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool where crowds of European refugees, many of them German Jews escaping the Nazi brownshirts, were waiting. Most of the refugees spoke no English and were already terrified by the experiences they had lived through.
In Germany that summer Hitler was putting the finishing touches to his preparations for the invasion of Poland, and readying the German navy (which included 21 submarines) for deployment in the North Atlantic in case Britain and France should refuse any further accommodation with his plans. Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, who you can see in this picture, was 26 years old, an experienced sailor, humorous and popular with his officers and crew. He was Captain of a 650-ton Atlantic VII U-boat, the U-30, which carried more than 40 crew members and had 5 torpedo tubes, with a 4-inch gun mounted on the deck. By the beginning of September 1939 he had been at sea for ten days, his U-boat one of 18 that were strung across the Western Approaches - the shipping routes leading into the British Isles from North America. The U-boat Captains were waiting for the telegraphic messages from Berlin that would tell them that peace talks had failed and that Britain and France had declared war. Lemp’s orders were then to begin hostilities at once, and not to wait to be attacked In his last briefing before he sailed from Wilhelmshaven, Commodore Doenitz, Flag-Officer Commanding U-boats, had warned Lemp to be on a particular look-out for armed merchant cruisers.
The Athenia Leaving Port
Captain James Cook, master of the Athenia, knew his ship well - this was his 14th voyage on the vessel. Before departing Liverpool he had received new instructions suggesting that he steer a course much farther north than usual, thereby avoiding contact with the U-boats that were expected to be clustered round the normal shipping routes. This he intended to do, and by the time he was 200 miles out from Ireland and the Hebrides he felt he ought to be safe. And in any case Britain was not yet at war, so the risk should not be too great. As we headed out into the Atlantic on the late afternoon of September 2nd the Athenia carried just over 1400 passengers - she was the last passenger ship out of Europe before war was declared and three-quarters of those passengers were women and children. Before we were even out of the Mersey the passengers were put through a lifeboat drill, told where their boat stations were and how to prepare themselves in the event of an emergency. As the darkened ship steamed round the North of Ireland past Inishtrahull Island, Captain Cook must have thought briefly of his ship’s predecessor, the first Donaldson liner Athenia, which was torpedoed off Inishtrahull in August 1917. One small incident occurred that evening which was to have important repercussions. A passenger, Mrs. Rose Griffen, slipped on the stairs and fell heavily, fracturing her pelvis and hitting her head. She was taken to the hospital ward where the ship’s doctor and nurse cared for her, but she remained unconscious.
Heather Donald Sitting on the Stairs
On Sunday morning, September 3rd, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced over the radio that Great Britain was now at war with Germany. A notice was posted on the ship’s bulletin board giving the text of the announcement. During the morning the lifeboats were all uncovered and slung into a position from which they could be easily launched. Most people felt that this was just a precautionary measure as there was no immediate danger. Because the Athenia was leaving Europe and carrying no weapons or contraband, there would be no point in a submarine attacking the ship. There were also more than 300 American citizens on board and the last thing Germany wanted was another incident like the Lusitania sinking in 1917 when the loss of American lives helped to bring the United States into the first world war.
The Athenia Under Way
The first night out my mother went down to dinner and the stewardess looked after me, but the next night she decided to go to the early sitting and take me with her. So it was that at about 20 minutes to 8 on the evening of Sunday, September the 3rd we were sitting in our cabin dressed in our night clothes and reading a bedtime story, when there was what my mother described as "an almighty jolt" and all the lights went out. The ship listed over and the engines stopped. There was a dead silence. She walked with me out to the main passage and could smell an explosion so she went back to the cabin and in the dark got down her lifebelt (the adult lifebelts were too large for me) and her fur coat - it was a mild night and she thought the fur coat could cover both of us. The first two torpedos that were fired missed their target completely but the third had slammed into the Athenia, exploding in No. 5 hold and against the engine room bulkhead. On the bridge Third Officer Porteous, as soon as he felt the ship list to starboard then right itself and finally settle with a pronounced list, sent out the signal for emergency stations and pressed the button that would close down the watertight doors. Captain Cook raced up from the dining room as the other members of the crew headed as best they could to their boat stations or helped terrified passengers groping in the darkness for the exits. In the third class aft water was already rising in the passages and cabins. Debris and collapsing bunks and walls had already injured and killed some occupants, and many died on deck in the vicinity of the No. 5 hatch where the force of the explosion below had blown them into the air. Boiling fat and exploding steam pipes had badly burned some of the galley crew.
The Athenia Going Down
My mother and I were extremely lucky. Our cabin was quite close to the assembly point where we had been told to go, and we got there without difficulty. The lifeboat however, was quickly overloaded, mainly with women and children and very few crew members. The sailors lowering it were straining on the ropes when suddenly someone let go and the others could not hold it. The lifeboat fell seven or eight feet into the sea at an angle - flinging all the occupants into the bottom of the boat, smashing the rudder, and scooping up quantities of the black engine oil that was seeping from the storage tanks and floating on the water. The sailors could only get at one pair of oars which were lashed under the seats where people were sitting, but we managed to get away from the ship. The passengers started bailing with whatever they had - their hands, hats or in my mother’s case one of her slippers. They bailed all night because the water continued to seep into the damaged hull of the lifeboat. We kept the Athenia in sight, and, as my mother remembered it, it was quite a warm moonlit night with a smooth swell, no breaking waves, and the water - even though it was eventually almost up to her knees - did not seem particularly cold. She got the fur coat round us and then, when things had settled down a little, at my request she finished the bedtime story. Other lifeboats were setting off their emergency flares but we were afraid to in case they ignited the thick oil that was everywhere in the boat. The only other thing that caused a little concern was a school of porpoises, cavorting and spouting and, when they approached the lifeboat, suddenly diving underneath it and continuing their play on the opposite side.
U-30 on the Surface
The U-boat had surfaced almost immediately after the torpedoing and although Germany always denied it, many people were certain that it had used its gun to briefly shell the upper deck of the Athenia to try to knock out the wireless equipment. In the dark the people in our lifeboat were not aware of this. But when the sky began to faintly lighten they could see against it the black outline of the U-boat. They were desperately afraid that it might try to shell the lifeboats, and to my mother this was one of the most frightening parts of the whole night, as they tried to keep as far away as possible while not losing touch with the listing Athenia. The torpedoing had taken place about 200 miles west of the Hebrides and several ships picked up the Athenia’s distress calls. Within a few hours the Knute Nelson, an empty Norwegian freighter, riding very high in the water, had appeared. The Nelson had jokingly told the Athenia’s radio operator that they didn't really believe the Athenia had been torpedoed, but they would come anyway. Our lifeboat gradually approached her and my mother’s heart sank as she saw the huge sides of the ship festooned with long ladders and wondered how she was to carry a child and get out of the lifeboat and onto a ladder. The sea was by now getting rougher and there were several lifeboats alongside the Knute Nelson. Reports had been received on the bridge that a lifeboat was sinking up ahead and tragically the Captain ordered the ship full speed ahead, not realizing the danger from the propellers to the boats already roped near the stern. Our boat had not yet been tied in and we were caught in the wash when the propellers started, which pushed us away. Within minutes we were quite a long distance from the freighter and my mother thought "that’s the last hope we have of being saved" Two American women teachers then took charge of rowing in our boat. One of them stood up and called directions to the others who were rowing - "pull on the left, pull on the right". There was no panic at all, and the other occupants continued to bail. It was fortunate that they did not see what had happened to one of the lifeboats that was roped too close to the propeller of the Knute Nelson. It was caught by one of the rotating blades, the hull punctured and the occupants thrown into the sea where many were sucked under and drowned. Andrew Allen, who some of you will remember as a well-known CBC producer, was in this lifeboat with his fiancée and his elderly father. Allen and his fiancée clung to the upturned hull of the lifeboat for three more hours before they were rescued, but his father’s body was never found.
The Southern Cross
Another ship now in the vicinity was the luxury yacht Southern Cross which belonged to the Swedish industrialist Wenner-Gren, on course for Nassau in the Bahamas. The owner, his elegant wife and the crew worked tirelessly to bring aboard as many as they could from the lifeboats, feeding them hot beef tea. The Athenia’s Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Woolcombe, who, he said, was "all in" was taken by one of the officers to his cabin and given a stiff tot of gin and a biscuit, after which he slept. Another lifeboat had been accidentally overturned close to the stern of the Southern Cross. The swell was increasing and the heaving rescue ships were having awful difficulty getting the people from the overloaded lifeboats up the side. The Southern Cross was soon so crowded that it was decided to transfer some of those that wished to return to Scotland to one of the British destroyers that arrived during the night, and over 200 that wished to go directly to North America to another empty freighter that joined the rescue shortly after nine o'clock in the morning - The City of Flint, which was en route for Halifax.
The City of Flint
There were 30 passengers already on the City of Flint - Americans leaving Europe, and among them was a medical doctor and a nurse. Their skills were a godsend to the Athenia survivors many of whom were suffering a variety of injuries. One of the survivors was a young Austrian Jew from Vienna, Ernst Zirkel, whom I met at the Maritime Museum in Halifax 10 years ago. He told me that he tried not to speak to anyone in his lifeboat because he feared they might throw him overboard when they heard his German accent.
H66 - HMS Escort
Three British destroyers, alerted by the distress calls, had reached us in the early morning hours and used their searchlights to look for survivors and lifeboats. Rudderless and rowing as best we could our lifeboat managed to get close to the destroyer H66, HMS Escort, and was quickly roped bow and stern. Ropes with loops in them were let down for all the children, and I was whisked away with my mother crying "hang on - you're going for a swing" . Wooden and rope ladders hung along the side of the destroyer for the adults. My mother at last abandoned her oil-soaked fur coat, because she thought it would impede her climbing, casting away her life jacket at the same time even though she couldn't swim. Then crouching on the seat and grasping the gunnel she waited for the swell to bring the boats together. Remembering the trees she had loved to climb in her youth she said she felt quite confident and just sprang for the ladder and started to climb, until strong arms grasped hers and pulled her onto the destroyer. Once on board the adult survivors were taken to the petty officers mess and given hot sweet tea and dry clothes belonging to the sailors - my mother a pair of dungarees. One woman tried to jump but missed the ladder and died in the water between the boats. A 90-year old woman who couldn't make the jump was helped by a sailor who came down for her. With a rope looped around her and the sailor behind they managed to get her up. She was smiling as she came down into the Petty Officers mess and looked quite calm. After 11 hours in the leaking lifeboat they were finally safe. The children were brought down from another area and reunited with their parents when possible. There were many European refugees on the Athenia and inevitably families had become separated in the confusion. My mother looked after a bewildered 7-year-old girl who could speak no English and could find no-one who could understand her.
The Athenia’s Chief Officer Barnet Copland on board the destroyer Electra met the Athenia’s doctor and asked if he had got his patient Mrs. Rose Griffin away all right. But the doctor had been told the woman would be looked after by the crew and had been ordered with his nurse to the lifeboats. Copland himself had checked the whole ship before leaving and had found one hospital room locked and the other, which he assumed had contained Mrs. Griffin, empty. After checking the other rescue ships without finding Mrs. Griffin, he began to think with growing horror that she might still be on the Athenia, in a room whose door was jammed, not locked. Despite the extreme danger he gathered three volunteers and a boat crew from the Electra to go back to the Athenia, listing now at more than 30 degrees. Wading through the rising water and then putting their shoulders to the hospital door they burst it open, to find the still unconscious Mrs. Griffin lying on her bed, the water lapping within a foot of her head. They bundled her into a sheet and left the doomed ship as quickly as possible. When the ship’s boats had picked up everyone from the water, they told us not to be frightened if we heard guns firing because they were going to sink the Athenia - she was too far gone to tow back. But this wasn't necessary. Just seven minutes after the boarding party had returned to the Electra with Mrs. Griffin, the water in the Athenia’s hull reached a critical height, the bow reared up and she swiftly sank. She had stayed afloat for fifteen and half hours after the torpedo struck, allowing all her living passengers and crew to make their escape.
During the 24 hour journey back to Scotland the sailors had fun with a clothesline full of women’s underclothes hanging to dry. When they were brought back to be claimed a sailor held up a gorgeous boned corset with lacing all over it and great shaped bust and called out "And who’s the owner of this?" An embarrassed lady passenger shyly claimed it. In the morning they even managed to cook everyone a bacon and egg breakfast. Other rescue ships went to Galway and Belfast but ours went to Greenock on the Clyde - when we left Glasgow four days earlier the band had played "Will Ye No Come Back Again" and now we had. As we disembarked workmen in the shipyards offered their lunch packets to the survivors. There were buses waiting to transport us but my mother who was suffering from a sore back and by this time a fairly out-of-control two-year-old, was placed in an ambulance. After she had been checked at the hospital we were taken to one of the three best hotels in Glasgow until we could make our arrangements. My mother, her thick hair and her skin caked with black oil and wearing nothing but sailor’s dungarees was still thinking clearly enough to try and avoid being captured on film by the hoards of newspaper photographers that she could see crowding round the door! Doctors and nurses were on hand and a huge table of food and drink was waiting in the lounge. Later a nurse conducted us to a beautiful room with linen sheets and satin quilts and invited us to climb into bed. My mother protested that we couldn't possibly sleep in those beds covered in black oil! The nurse calmly placed bath towels over the pillows and said "you're not to even think about it - just get in". So after a brief wash, we did. A telegram was dispatched to my father in Montreal and one to Inverness-shire where two of my mother’s sisters immediately responded by travelling down to Glasgow to collect us and take us back to Beauly.
Young JFK at Glasgow
Because of the number of American passengers on the Athenia, Joseph Kennedy, who was the American Ambassador in London, sent a special delegation to Glasgow to meet them and assist in any way it could. A young member of that delegation was his own son, John F. Kennedy, who you can see in this photograph, speaking with the American survivors.
Heather and Mary Donald Back in Scotland
This picture taken in my grandmother’s garden shortly afterwards shows the little red knitted suit that I had been given in Glasgow, with my mother wearing her sister’s clothes. My aunt told a reporter from the local paper that it had taken seven shampoos to remove all the oil from her hair.
Halifax Herald Front Page
There was outrage throughout the English-speaking world as news of the sinking was released. Newspapers from the Boston Herald to the East African Star in Nairobi carried banner headlines about the Athenia. 112 of the passengers had lost their lives, including 28 Americans, either as a result of the explosion of the torpedo, by drowning, or from the accidents to the lifeboats. The attack had been made without warning on an unarmed passenger ship in defiance of the Hague Convention which the German High Command had instructed their forces to respect.
"Women and Children First"
This Chambers cartoon from the Halifax Mail doesn't pull any punches. In fact the U-30 never fired on the lifeboats although it certainly surfaced and watched until the rescue ships arrived. Lemp realized as soon as he heard the distress calls that he had torpedoed a passenger liner against all his orders, and is supposed to have said "But why was she blacked out? Why was she blacked out?" Lemp did not survive the war but some of his officers did - it seems that in the excitement and enthusiasm for the task he had been given he simply did not wait long enough to properly identify his target. The Athenia was about the right size for an armed merchant cruiser, in fact would have probably been turned into one at the end of that voyage, and in the twilight Lemp simply assumed that was what he could see.
Commodore Doenitz with the Fuhrer
The German Propaganda ministry didn't believe the British reports - they were told at first by the Naval High Command that there were no U-boats in the vicinity of the sinking. Hitler ordered Grand Admiral Raeder to summon the American naval attache to assure him that no German submarine had sunk the Athenia. They were very afraid that the loss of American lives might precipitate the United States into the war and went out of their way to placate the Americans. The following day a signal was sent to all Uboats "By order of the Fuehrer, on no account are operations to be carried out against passenger steamers, even when under escort." A case of shutting the barn door. Commodore Karl Doenitz, Commander of Submarines, shown here with the Fuhrer that he would one day succeed, must have suspected the truth. He was on the dock at Wilhelmshaven 10 days later when the U-30 finally returned to port. But by the time Doenitz got to talk to Oberleutnant Lemp in person the Nazi-controlled press had already reported that the British had torpedoed the Athenia themselves. In October Hitler ordered his Propaganda Minister Goebbels to broadcast that Winston Churchill, the British First Lord of the Admiralty, had had a bomb planted on the Athenia to destroy her and discredit Germany. Hitler’s party newspaper followed with an article "Churchill Sank the Athenia". The Naval Chiefs who knew the truth were uncomfortable with such blatant lies but there was little they could do.
Admiral Doenitz at Nuremberg
It was not until the Nuremberg trials at the end of the war, that the truth about the sinking of the Athenia was finally revealed. Admiral Doenitz testified that Lemp confessed immediately he came ashore that he had mistaken the Athenia for an armed merchant cruiser on patrol and had later identified her from wireless transmissions. Doenitz packed him off to report to the Naval High Command in Berlin and in the mean time ordered the submarine’s logbook to be rewritten. He also altered his own diary to erase any mention of the Athenia. The submarine crew were sworn to secrecy, including one member who spent the war in an internment camp in Canada. He never told anyone the truth about the incident until the war was over.
At the beginning of November Canadian Pacific provided us with passage back on the Duchess of Bedford (known to everyone as "the rolling Duchess") and my mother, whose sense of humour hadn't deserted her, thought that if they were rolling as well as zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid submarines then we would really have quite a journey! No-one but the Captain, the Purser and the Stewardess knew that we were Athenia survivors and certainly the Stewardess tried to make our journey less frightening. But at the same time the Captain invited us to his cabin and wanted to know every detail of the experience that my mother was already trying to forget, so that he could prepare himself and his crew. He even told her that the Germans had issued a list of five ships that morning that were in their sights. Three of them had already been torpedoed and the Duchess of Bedford was the fifth on the list. [What none of them knew was that Lemp’s U-30 logbook, produced in evidence at Nuremberg, recorded intercepting the Duchess of Bedford on September 5, 1939, two days after the sinking of the Athenia, but in accordance with the Fuhrer’s orders, had refrained from attacking.] Truly we seemed to choose our ships badly. However the U-boats missed the fifth ship on their list and we finally landed at Saint John where my father, already in uniform, met us and travelled with us back to Montreal. Within six months we had moved to the Annapolis Valley where my mother and I spent the rest of the war in peace. Our family travelled by sea many times after the war but my mother always became nervous when lifeboat drill was called, and worried that other passengers did not take it seriously enough. My father submitted claims on our behalf to the Canadian and British governments for compensation for the possessions we had lost in the Athenia, and in 1952 the claims were settled, including $150 for that useful fur coat. With the money my parents bought their first car, all things considered perhaps a safer form of transport.