Loss of Athenia and the First Five Days
After many years of routine service, Athenia was catapulted into the news when she was attacked on 3 September 1939 - the very day that France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. She sank the following day. There was extensive media coverage of this event around the world as sinking a passenger ship without warning contravened The Hague Convention.
As Athenia had radio facilities and summoned help, it is presumed that news of her sinking came to the attention of the Government very quickly. Due to the timing, news of the sinking was first published on 4 September 1939. There may have been announcements on the radio but I have found no information about this. Given the amount of press coverage on 4 September it seems likely that the British Government put a lot of effort into making as much capital out of this disaster as possible but there is no denying that there was world-wide outrage.
Those on board said the ship had been torpedoed by a submarine but this was denied by the Germans. The rest of this page shows exactly how the sinking and rescue of survivors was covered in the press in the following five days.
Newspapers across the UK and around the world were full of reports about the sinking. The Cuttings below are just a small sample of the articles published in the first five days. Many relate stories about people from their local area - both seamen and passengers. A lot mention returning US citizens and that there were many refugees on board.
4 September 1939
The London Evening Standard was one of the first newspapers to announce the sinking.
The Birmingham-based Evening Despatch carried the same story.
The Staffordshire Sentinel went further than some of the other newspapers and described the German action as 'murderous piracy' and refers back to the sinking of the Lusitania in WW1
The Liverpool Echo somehow managed to get hold of the names of the crew and listed them
The crew list was above was actually incomplete though newspapers were mainly interested in the passengers. I was contacted in 2019 by Jim Gilhooly as his father
Charles Joseph Gilhooly was serving as a bellboy and not in that list. Born 8 Jun 1925 he would have been only 14 and most likely the youngest member of the crew. This
was his second trip on Athenia. Jim kindly sent me a wage slip and press cuttings from 4 and 5 September 1939 to confirm this. As was the practice
in those days, if a ship was torpedoed, crews wages stopped immediately so Charles ended up with the princely sum of 15 shillings for his time on Athenia.
Charles recounted that he was put in a life boat by an older crew member and was rescued and taken to a hotel. He said he met John F. Kennedy there.
The Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough highlighted the fact that, following the declarations of war, large numbers of US citizens were anxious to get home and that Athenia had made an additional call at Liverpool to take many of them on board. If this call had not been made, maybe Athenia would have been unharmed.
5 September 1939
By 5 September more news was emerging and the newspapers had managed to dig out some existing photos of Athenia - though the one most commonly used was from a generic Donaldson Shipping postcard that passengers would send to their families and friends.
The Times Cutting below has the following caption:
THE TORPEDOED LINER - The Donaldson Atlantic liner Athenia, outward bound from Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast to Canada, which was torpedoed about 250 miles west of the Hebrides in the early hours of yesterday. There were 1,400 persons on board, and the passengers and crew, except those killed by the explosion, took to the boats and were picked up by various ships.
The Times also reported on proceedings in the House of Lords. The UK government was keen even at this stage to accuse Germany of a "crime against humanity" and suggest that this was part of a pattern of treaty breaking.
On the same page The Times reported Winston Churchill's comments on the sinking and the Government response. Key parts of the message were that four destroyers had been dispatched to rescue survivors, that a Convoy system would be deployed and that there had been no warning before Athenia was torpedoed - further evidence of Germany's law-breaking being implied.
The Times also carried a statement about US views on the sinking. This was of great interest as there had been a large number of US citizens who were passengers on the sunken vessel and a hoped-for early US participation in the war. Clarification is given that Athenia was not armed - another point to be seen with respect to the wording of international treaties. However the tone of the US correspondent was indicating that the US was determined to remain neutral despite this event.
On page 9, The Times is suggesting that the sinking of Athenia meant that Germany was going to act along the lines of the "unrestricted submarine warfare" that it had declared in the latter half of WW1.
Another article in the same edition makes what, with hindsight, was a hopelessly over-optimistic statement that Britain will be using its naval strength to ensure the use of the sea to us whilst denying it to the enemy.
Also on page 9, capital is made that Hitler had broken his word with regards to attacking passenger ships. And of course by and large this was true - though hardly surprising as the Nazi regime lied continuously.
The Liverpool Echo carried information about two rescue ships arriving in the Clyde with accounts from rescued passengers and crew including the fate of a lifeboat that had been drawn into the propellers of Norwegian cargo ship Knute Nelson resulting in the death of a number of those on board.
The fate of the lifeboat is recounted in Judith Evelyn's survivor account which you can read HERE.
The Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph gave a little more information about the dreadful circumstances of the wrecked lifeboat.
The Newcastle Evening Chronicle included further harrowing descriptions of the scenes after Athenia was torpedoed.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal reported on a young girl travelling alone on Athenia. She does not appear on the list of casualties so presumably survived.
I am grateful to Donald Fisher for sending me the cutting below which includes a photo of a group of American tourists which had been taken in Prague while they were on holiday and who later boarded Athenia. The clipping is difficult to read so I have included a transcription under the image.
Standing before an old cathedral in Prague are eighteen of the nineteen in the party with Mrs. W. Arthur Strain, their chaperone. They little dreamed when they posed for this picture that their boat, the Athenia, was to be sunk.
Left to right, in so far as Dallas friends could identify them are: Second, Genevieve Morrow, Houston; No. 3, Rowena Simpson, Houston; No. 5, Margaret Doggett, Dallas; No. 6, Barbara Hull, St. Louis; No. 7, Betty Jane Stewart, Dallas; No. 8, Maxine Robison, Austin; No. 9, Jerry Jane Wynne, Dallas; No 11, Judith Wooten Scott, Chickasha Okla; No 12, Mrs. Strain, Dallas; No. 14, Alice Newman, Arkansas City, Kan; No. 15, Bobbie Halbert, Sonora; No. 17, Louise Mackey and No. 18, her sister Catherine Macket, both of Gladewater.
6 September 1939
By 6 September the first pictures of survivors became available to the public
The Times carried two images (originally shown side by side but here shown one above the other) with the following caption:
FROM THE TORPEDOED ATHENIA - Two pictures of survivors of the torpedoed Athenia on their arrival ashore. Some were landed at Albert Harbour Greenock and the picture on the left shows three of the crew soon after their arrival. The other picture shows some of the injured passengers being assisted from an ambulance into the hospital at Galway where they were taken by the Norwegian vessel Knute Nelson. Survivors gave dramatic accounts of their terrible experiences.
British Pathé produced a newsreel item showing survivors being taken ashore from Knute Nelson. Click the play button to view it. (Please note that there is no sound on this video):
On page 4 The Times reported a further House of Lords exchange in which the government clarified that the final number of casualties is so far unconfirmed, that a submarine was sighted, and that the possibility of the cause being a mine must be discounted.
Page 5 of The Times had a statement from President Roosevelt proclaiming US neutrality and an arms embargo. No help would be given to any of the belligerents. That was the public statement anyway - the reality we now know became a bit different as time wore on.
The Times also carried the first report of a survivor - James Cook the Captain of Athenia. Cook's account includes a statement that some passengers were killed during rescue attempts. At this point the death toll was estimated as "at least 50" and the account makes it very clear that there was no doubt that the ship was sunk by a torpedo.
Movietone News produced a newsreel item showing survivors landed at Greenock. Click the play button to view it.
Another article on page 6 of The Times suggested that the isolationist statement by the President was not necessarily shared by the American public.
The Scotsman meanwhile announced the intention by the Lord Provost of Glasgow to start an appeal to assist survivors.
The Scotsman also carried early photos of survivors landed at Greenock.
The Daily Record carried photos of a crew member and a passenger landed at Galway from Knute Nelson.
As well as the report from Athenia's Captain, the Times had further accounts by passengers. This group had been landed at Greenock. The accounts include another of the lifeboat that had been drawn into the propeller of the Knute Nelson with large loss of life.
The Birmingham Daily Gazette report also gave more details from the Captain and accounts from passengers.
The Daily Herald report contained some different and distressing accounts from passengers.
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph had different photos of survivors landing at both Glasgow and Galway.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph had photos of survivors arriving at the Central Hotel Glasgow and a list of those admitted to the Glasgow Western Infirmary.
The Dundee Courier also had photos of survivors at Glasgow.
The Daily Mirror carried survivor photos and also a claim that the submarine that sank Athenia had itself been sunk by a British warship - alas this was completely unfounded. Some lady survivors in lifeboats had burnt their skirts in an effort to draw the attention of rescuers.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal also had survivor photos including one of a child whose mother's name was not showing on the list of survivors. In fact Harriet Barrington from Liverpool was later included in the list of casualties.
Passengers Rescued by Southern Cross
One of the vessels that rescued survivors was the steam yacht Southern Cross. This vessel is only mentioned obliquely but I discovered an interesting side story - see the note under the image of the vessel.
Southern Cross was owned by the Swedish businessman Axel Wenner-Gren who was one of the world's wealthiest men at that time. He became the owner of
the Electrolux business in the early 1930s and made a fortune out of the sale of refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. His business empire expanded to include newspapers,
banking and arms manufacture.
In WW2 he was blacklisted by the FBI as a friend of Hermann Göring, but probably more importantly because of his somewhat dubious business intentions in Mexico. He put himself forward as a conduit between the UK/US governments and Göring but was considered a self-promoting nuisance. The poor chap retired to his estate in the Bahamas where he was a friend of the equally obnoxious Duke of Windsor who had been sent there as the island's Governor to get him out of the way and reduce the chances of him becoming an embarrassment.
Werner-Gren's later business ventures included the development of early computers in the USA. His company created a computer which he modestly had named ALWAC (Axel L. Wenner-Gren Automatic Computer) and which was considered to be a competitor to the early IBM 650 - but it had no commercial success - nor did it's successors. His company ALWEG built the original Disneyland Monorail system in 1959.
Werner-Gren set up a foundation which, perhaps not surprisingly, has a rather more benign description of the man and his intentions. He died in 1961.
7 September 1939
Four days after Athenia was torpedoed, the papers were still providing a great deal of coverage and more information gradually became available to the public.
The Times published a photo with the caption:
Among the survivors of the Athenia taken by the Knute Nelson to Galway were several stretcher cases.
Page 4 of The Times included a statement by Winston Churchill that there were 1,418 persons on board including 315 crew and 1,103 passengers. Of these, 800 had British or European passports, and over 300 had US passports. At this point in time there were 125 people unaccounted for.
At this point in time it was realised that the Germans were going to deny responsibility for the sinking. The Times reported that the German press had started to blame Churchill for the sinking.
The dispersion of survivors into different ships meant that in some cases families got split up with children not knowing whether their parents had survived and vice versa. The Times at last had a little bit of good news as some survivors were reunited and also reported that a relief fund had been set up.
In Ormskirk in Lancashire The Ormskirk Advertiser reported the rescue of a Mr. Thomas Quine but noted that his wife (Annie) was still missing. It was later confirmed that she was dead. You can see a photo of her grave on the Remembering Athenia page of this website HERE.
The Daily Record carried the sad news that the mother of two crew members working on Athenia had had a heart attack on learning of the loss of the ship and died shortly afterwards. Had she lived she would have learned that both of her sons had survived.
The Birmingham Daily Gazette noted that Athenia's master James Cook was on his way to the Donaldson Line offices in Glasgow to give his report of what had happened. The paper also describes the state of survivors - many of whom had been badly burned - and the desperation of mothers who had been separated from their children and didn't known whether they were alive. There was also a photo of a baby that had survived being brought ashore at Galway.
The Scotsman had further photos of survivors.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal reported that some of the seamen from Athenia had reported for work only 24 hours after their rescue. What they didn't mention was that, at the time, a seaman's pay stopped as soon as his vessel was sunk. They reported for work as they would not have been paid otherwise!