The story of the loss of Athenia was one that would not go away but by 8 September 1939 the coverage of the sinking was starting to reduce.
8 September 1939
The Times reported a visit to Glasgow by the son of the American Ambassador to 'look after the interests of the American survivors of the Athenia disaster'. The Ambassador was Joseph P. Kennedy and the son in question was John Fitzgerald Kennedy the future US president.
JFK came to England in 1938 to work with his father in the American Embassy. In 1939 he embarked on a tour of Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
His last visits were to Czechoslovakia and Germany before arriving back in London on 1 September 1939 - the day Germany invaded Poland. He was
in the House of Commons on 3 September 1939 to hear speeches supporting the UK declaration of war with Germany and, after helping the
American victims of the sinking of Athenia, he returned to the US by aeroplane.
Joseph Kennedy opposed Winston Churchill's 'no compromising with the Nazis" approach and supported Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy. He had antisemitic leanings, and was considered a 'defeatist' in UK government circles. He retreated to the countryside during the bombings of London by German aircraft, at a time when the British Royal Family, Prime Minister, government ministers, and other ambassadors chose to stay in London. This prompted a member of Britain's Foreign Office to say, "I thought my daffodils were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy." He ceased to be the American Ambassador to the UK in 1940 and was replaced by John Gilbert Winant - to the great relief of the British.
The Times reported the return of Captain Cook and 82 members of Athenia’s crew to Glasgow after their landing at Galway.
The Times also reported demands being made to Mr. J.F. Kennedy by US survivors for a convoy to escort them back to the US. He was non-committal but promised to brief his father.
Kennedy got a pretty rough ride when he met US survivors according to the Daily Record and they demanded a convoy to take them home.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal had a photo of Jack Kennedy with US survivors at a Glasgow hotel.
The Times reported a revision to the expected number of deaths to 128.
The Times also described the proposed counter-measures including the use of convoys. There are some reassuring noises about the Navy bringing the situation under control.
9 September 1939
This day The Times announced the imminent publication of the official US reports and its view of some of the expected content.
The Times stated its view that Germany was going to repeat the submarine operations of WW1 with a "sink merchant ships on sight" policy. It also rather optimistically predicts that the effects of the German campaign will reduce once the convoy system was fully implemented.
On 9 September the first reports with definite information about survivors were published. The Times carried a list of the names of survivors that had been rescued by City of Flint.
The Times also reported on the arrangements being made for Canadian survivors.
11 September 1939
The Times confirmed the arrival in Glasgow of the survivors landed at Galway.
The Times also reported the death of a Canadian child who had survived the sinking. It also mentions that liners will no longer be scheduled or information posted about arrivals and departures.
The Northern Whig included a photo of survivors being entertained at a Glasgow hotel.
13 September 1939
The Daily Record reported that Sir Harry Lauder had entertained survivors at the Banqueting Hall at Glasgow
Sir Henry Lauder (1870-1950) had been a very popular Scottish singer and comedian and in 1911 was the highest-paid performer in the world and the first British artist to sell a million records. He had raised large amounts of money for the war effort during WW1 and was knighted for this in 1919. By the time of the Athenia affair he had largely retired. Some of his songs, most of which he wrote himself, can still be heard in drunken company to this day including 'Roamin' in the Gloamin', 'A Wee Deoch-an-Doris', 'The End of the Road' and 'I Love a Lassie'. 'Deoch-an-doris' literally translates as 'Drink of the door' and is the Scots term for the practice of providing one last drink for their guest before they would leave for the long journey home.
The Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette reported the expected arrival of US liner Orizaba which had been chartered to take US survivors back to the States.
14 September 1939
The Times reported the arrival of a chartered liner to repatriate the 250 US survivors of the Athenia sinking.
The Ormskirk Advertiser reported the rescue of a Mr. T Quine of Halsall and hoped that his wife might be alive. Sadly this was not the case and she appeared on a subsequent casualty list. You can see a photo of her grave on the Remembering Athenia page of this website HERE.
The Daily Herald reported the arrival at Halifax Nova Scotia of survivors taken on board City of Flint and how they had ridiculed German claims that none of their submarines were responsible.
Movietone News produced a newsreel item showing survivors arriving on City of Flint. Click the play button to view it:
15 September 1939
The Times reported the arrival of survivors taken on board City of Flint at Halifax Nova Scotia.
Amidst the death and destruction, the Catholic Standard appears to have been more concerned with a complaint by a priest on board Athenia that he had struggled to get a room in which to say Mass!
16 September 1939
The Falkirk Herald reported that flags would be flown at half mast across the country on the day of the funeral of Margaret Hayworth - the child who had died after being rescued from Athenia and taken to Halifax aboard City of Flint.
The Sphere included a full page article about Athenia and included artists impressions of what had happened when the torpedo struck and the rescue and a photo of the Knute Nelson arriving at Galway Bay with survivors. Also some clearer survivor photos.
The Illustrated London news carried a photo of an injured boy being helped ashore at Galway from Knute Nelson on its front cover. It also had several artist impressions of lifeboats being launched and survivors crowded into lifeboats that are not included here.
The Imperial War Museum has the following photo:
19 September 1939
The Times reported that 28 US Nationals were unaccounted for.
The Lincolnshire Echo, like many other newspapers, reported that the Orizaba had left the Clyde with 150 US citizen survivors from Athenia.
20 September 1939
The Times reported the departure of Orizaba with the US survivors and other passengers.
22 September 1939
The newspaper coverage of the sinking of Athenia was beginning to decrease at last - not least because of the number of other ships that had been sunk and other war news. The Lancaster Guardian though carried an interesting article about a Toronto citizen with relatives in Lancaster that had been on the ill-fated ship.
23 September 1939
The Times was a bit slow off the mark but also reported that Orizaba had departed Galway after picking up more US survivors and other passengers.
British Pathé produced a newsreel item showing survivors leaving for the US on Orizaba. Click the play button to view it.
28 September 1939
The Times provided a breakdown of the nationalities of those aboard Athenia when she was sunk. The presence of 28 Germans exposes the nonsense of some of the propaganda proceeding from Berlin at a later date.
6 October 1939
The Manchester Evening News, and other newspapers, carried a very strange report that Grand Admiral Raeder had warned the US Government that the US vessel Iroquois would 'sink through a repetition of the circumstances which marked the loss of the steamship Athenia'. This is the first time I have come across this report and it implies that Raeder had either willingly, or through manipulation by the Nazi rulers, taken part in the lie about the cause of Athenia's loss. The vessel in fact arrived safely - escorted by destroyers and flying boats.
10 October 1939
Over a month after the sinking, this is the first media report I have found providing a list of those reported missing. You can access a searchable transcription of this list on the Remembering Athenia page of this website HERE.
14 October 1939
The Times noted the gratitude of survivors for the hospitality afforded to them.
17 October 1939
The Times reported that Donaldson Atlantic Line had made a payment towards the cost of returning survivors to the US
21 October 1939>
The German propaganda machine continued to push the story about 'Churchill sinking Athenia' and an article covering their latest statements on the subject were published in the Exeter newspaper Express and Echo.
The Illustrated London News had a reproduction of a moving painting of the evacuation of Athenia by the Cornish painter Arthur James Wetherall Burgess.
23 October 1939
The Times reported a rabid outburst by Joseph Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda and National Enlightenment, who was trying to convince the world (and the German population) that Churchill was to blame for the sinking which he says was done by three British Destroyers.
On the same day, the German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, a mouthpiece of the Nazi regime, carried the headline "Churchill Sank the Athenia" on its front page. Page 3 of the same edition carried a picture of Athenia and the following item
The above picture shows the proud 'Athenia', the ocean giant, which was sunk by Churchill's crime. One can clearly see the big radio equipment on board the ship. But nowhere was an SOS heard from the ship. Why was the 'Athenia' silent? Because her captain was not allowed to tell the world anything. He very prudently refrained from telling the world that Winston Churchill attempted to sink the ship, through the explosion of an infernal machine. He knew it well, but he had to keep silent.
Nearly fifteen hundred people would have lost their lives if Churchill's original plan had resulted as the criminal wanted. Yes, he longingly hoped that the one hundred Americans on board the ship would find death in the waves so that the anger of the American people, who were deceived by him, should be directed against Germany as the presumed author of the deed. It was fortunate that the majority escaped the fate intended for them by Churchill.
Our picture on the right shows two wounded passengers. They were rescued by the freighter, 'City of Flint', and as can be seen here, turned over to the American coast guard boat 'Gibb' for further medical treatment. They are an unspoken accusation against the criminal Churchill. Both they and the shades of those who lost their lives call him before the Tribunal of the world and ask the British people, 'How long will the office, one of the richest in tradition known to Britain's history, be held by a murderer?'"
Donald Fisher has advised me that this article, quite apart being a complete pack of lies, contains a specific inaccuracy about the 'US Coast Guard boat'.
The US Coast Guard has never had a Cutter named Gibb. There was, however, in service at that time the USCG Cutter Bibb, homeported at Norfolk, Virginia. According to her official history "…in 1939 spent about three months on temporary duty with the Navy, engaging in joint maneuvers. Later that year Bibb joined a destroyer squadron for the assistance of shipping in the North Atlantic. In the winter of 1939 she was part of the Grand Banks Patrol." There is no specific mention of this incident in the Cutter's history, but it is highly likely that Bibb was the Cutter involved. Bibb went on to a glorious 48 years of service including combat action in WW II, Korea and Vietnam before being retired in 1984.
27 October 1939
Survivor stories were still emerging and the Arbroath Herald and Advertiser carried a harrowing description of the fate of those who had been in the lifeboat that had been smashed by the propeller of Knute Nelson.
18 November 1939
The Times had a letter to the editor about the assistance given to survivors by the owner of Southern Cross.
Remainder of 1939
There continued to be passing references to Athenia through to the end of December of the year but nothing of any significance appeared. Newspaper writers seemed obliged to put in a passing reference to her; I guess it is rather like the press reaction to various terrorist acts in our own time, and indeed the dreadful disaster at Grenfell Tower in London. But there was a genuine feeling amongst the population that Germany had 'played foul' from the first day of the war.
3 January 1940
The Times recorded awards made to members of Athenia's crew:
- An OBE to the Chief Officer Barnett Mackenzie Copeland for his efforts in organising the loading of passengers into lifeboats and going back to the stricken ship to rescue an injured passenger who had been left behind
- A BEM to Boatswain William Harvey who also played a vital role in the same tasks
The Imperial War Museum has a portrait of Chief Officer M.B. Copeland by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale completed in 1940.
2 February 1940
The Aberdeen Press and Journal was one of several newspapers reporting that one of the lifeboats from Athenia had washed up on the Shetland Islands.
10 February 1940
Presumably the same ocean current that brought the lost lifeboat to the Shetland Islands bore the two mailbags that turned up there as reported in the Aberdeen Press and Journal
8 June 1940
There had continued to be references to Athenia since February but, for good reason, other events were in the forefront of people's minds as the war progressed. However the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette reported that the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Society had expended £30,396 on relief efforts since the beginning of the war - though obviously not all related to Athenia.
29 October 1940
The Liverpool Evening Express reported that Captain James Cook of Athenia had been commended in the Merchant Navy Honours announcements.
18 March 1941
In 1939, with the coming of WW2, Lloyd's set up a committee to find means of honouring seafarers who performed acts of exceptional courage at sea, and this resulted in the announcement on 27 December 1940 of the "Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea". The bravery of Mr. Copeland was recognised by the award of one of the first of these medals as announced in the Evening Telegraph and Post.
1941 to 1945
There was really nothing new to say about the loss of Athenia but there are passing references to her throughout this period. It was clearly a story that was not going to go away.
After the reports from James Cook and Barnet Mackenzie Copeland that follow, and which were not made public at the time, the story will move on to the preparations for the Nuremberg Trials.
Report of Interview with James Cook 26 September 1939
Athenia's Master, gave a statement to the Casualty and Statistical Section of the Trade Division and I took a copy of it during a visit to the National Archives at Kew. In it he describes the launching of the boats and says they were all got away although with difficulty in some cases. The report doesn't include much detail.
Report of Interview with Barnet Mackenzie Copeland 23 November 1939
Athenia's Chief Engineer gave a statement to the Casualty and Statistical Section of the Trade Division on 23 November 1939. The images below are from photographs I took of the original document which is held at the National Archives at Kew. In it he suggests that there was a second explosion which he thought was caused by a shell. He notes that the ship listed to port and the lights all went out - presumably due to damage caused in the engine room.
Copeland reports that he saw a submarine which rapidly disappeared. There were 26 lifeboats that had to be launched from 7 davits - a dangerous restriction but presumably considered acceptable up until that time. The disembarkment seems to have gone smoothly with no panic. Copeland went back to the ship to rescue an unconscious passenger. He was later awarded an OBE for his handling of the situation.