History of Athenia



The Athenia that is the subject of this section of the Benjidog Historical Research Resources was the second Donaldson Bros. ship of this name and was in service from her completion in 1923 until she was sunk by a German submarine on the very same day that Britain and France declared war on Germany giving her a service life of 16 years. Up until then she was just another liner. This page covers the story of Athenia to the time of her loss.

Athenia - Location and date not known but she looks pristine so it could be shortly after her completion. [61]

Basic Data

Item Value
Type Passenger/Cargo ship
Registered owners, managers and operators Anchor-Donaldson Ltd.
Donaldson Bros. Ltd. Managers
Builders Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering  Co. Ltd  
Yard Govan
Country UK
Yard number 596
Registry Lloyds Register
Official number 146330
Call sign GFDM
Classification society N/K
Gross tonnage 13,581
Net tonnage 8,197
Deadweight N/K
Length 526.3 ft
Overall Length N/K
Breadth 66.4 ft
Depth 38 ft
Draught N/K
Engines 6 steam turbines DR geared to 2 SC shafts
Engine builders Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering  Co. Ltd
Works Glasgow
Country UK
Boilers N/K
Power N/K
Propulsion Twin screw
Speed 15.5 knots
Cargo capacity N/K
Crew N/k

Additional Construction Information

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
Athenia Athenia
Athenia passing Yorkhill Glasgow with Transylvania and Cameronia in the background. The second image was taken from Fairfield's shipyard. The dates are not known but the event is being filmed by the chap on the right so it is posssible that this was taken just after her completion. [62]

Career Highlights

Date Event
28 January 1922Launched
April 1923Completed
9 April 1923Maiden voyage from Glasgow to Liverpool, Quebec and Montreal as a  Cunard & Anchor-Donaldson joint service.
1924Started service under charter to Cunard Line and remained so until her loss
1928Donaldson Bros. Ltd. & Anchor Line (Henderson Bros.) Ltd became joint managers
1935Transferred to Donaldson Atlantic Line Ltd. (Donaldson Bros. Ltd. Managers)
27 June 1938Managers changed to Donaldson Bros. & Black Ltd.
3 September 1939Torpedoed by German submarine U-30 and sunk the following day.

Service History

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.

Advertisement from The Times dated 4 July 1922 - some 9 months before Athenia's maiden voyage. Ship photos used in adverts and on postcards tended to be 'generic' and the image is not clear enough to be sure exactly what ship is shown here - but it could not have been Athenia in view of the date as she was still being built. [63]
Athenia attended by the tug-tender Paladin built by in 1913 by Murdoch & Murray Port Glasgow and owned by Anchor Line (1935) Ltd. The tug's role was harbour towage, berthing assistance and passenger tendering. The date is not known. [64]

Dock Strike (1924)

In February 1924 Athenia narrowly escaped being caught up in a general strike which particularly affected Liverpool docks.

Athenia Athenia
Cutting from The Times dated 18 February 1924 [63]
Athenia in port at an unknown date and location. [24]

Voyages for Cunard Line

By April 1924 Cunard Line was advertising passages to Canada on Athenia and continued to do so through to 1939.

Cunard advertisement from The Times dated 25 April 1924 that includes passages to Canada on Athenia from Liverpool with destinations of Quebec and Montreal via Queenstown. In fact Queenstown had been renamed Cobh in 1922 with the foundation of the Irish Free State but I guess it took a while for the new name to be universally accepted. [63]

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.

Advertisement from The Times dated 4 July 1927 and advertising cabin and 3rd class passages to Canada from Liverpool, Southampton, Glasgow, Queenstown and Belfast. It seems likely that a lot of the passengers, especially in 3rd class, would be emigrating. [63]

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 - [46]. It appears from the newspaper report that there was no major damage.

Report of the collision from The Times dated 20 March 4 July 1929. [63]

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.

Casualty report from The Times dated 19 July 1930. [63]

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.

Report from The Times dated 25 July 1935. [63]

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.

Athenia Athenia
Cutting from The Times dated 25 July 1935. [63]

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.

Cutting from The Times dated 31 August 1936. [63]

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.

Cutting from The Times dated 30 December 1936. [63]

'Business as Usual' as War Looms

Cunard continued the services from Southampton and Liverpool across the Atlantic right up to the start of WW2.

One of Cunards more expensive advertisements from The Times dated 15 May 1939. [63]

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.

Athenia - covers of Donaldson Atlantic Line Leaflet from 1939 [24]
Athenia - Donaldson Atlantic Line Offices from 1939 leaflet [24]
Athenia - facilities from 1939 leaflet [24]
Athenia - Plan of Sun Deck, Promenade Deck and 'A' Deck from 1939 leaflet [24]
Athenia - Plan of Decks B, C and D from 1939 leaflet [24]
Deck Plan
Deck Plan believed to be from approximately 1924 [54]
Click image for enlarged view

Loss of Athenia

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 and sank the following day.

Click NEXT at the bottom of the page for the story of the loss of Athenia.