Why Athenia is Special to Me

Before I was approached by a teacher at Govan High School which was celebrating its centenary in 2010, I knew nothing about Athenia other than that she was an old Donaldson Brothers liner. A former student of the school had been a member of her crew and was killed when she was torpedoed. The school asked me if I could provide some background information for an exhibition they were putting on - which I was pleased to do.

I was expecting to produce a one-page history of the ship with a note at the end to say something like She was sunk by submarine U-xx on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a position. But as my research progressed I was quickly drawn into the story of a propaganda war that followed the ship's loss and found that the full story of her fate had only emerged during the Nuremberg trials of major war criminals in 1945/6. I delivered the information the school were looking for in time for their centenary but decided the story warranted much more attention and spent a couple of years on and off producing this website, and added further information and generally updated it in April 2020.

Nowadays we can find out what happened easily by using the internet, but in 1939 the public's only sources of information were newspapers, the radio and newsreels shown at cinemas. If you want the bare facts just look on Wikipedia. Here I will tell the story as it unfolded using contemporary press cuttings, witness statements and sound/film clips - exactly what ordinary people would have seen at the time. I have included information about the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg to try Nazi leaders and the evidence presented there regarding the fate of Athenia.

Nazis, Nuremberg and the Watson Family

From a very early age I knew that I was born at the hour that those sentenced to death at Nuremberg were hanged on 16 October 1946. My research on Athenia led me to the Nuremberg trial transcripts and I spent weeks reading them from start to finish. They make grim but riveting reading.

For some while I had been trying to pinpoint why I felt so connected to the story of Athenia but finally realised that it is because the final chapter of Athenia's story - the Nuremberg verdicts and the hanging of those war criminals - coincides with the start of my own life.

My parents, Reginald Arthur Watson Jnr. (1913-1976) and Vera (née Hutchin) (1914-1994) married in 1937. When WW2 started Reg was employed as a bricklayer although he had trained as a joiner. He enlisted on 26 July 1940 at the age of 26 and was demobilised on 16 January 1946; exactly 9 months later I was born. He served in the Royal Artillery as did my grandfather Reginald Arthur Watson Snr. in WW1. Like most servicemen of those times, he didn't like to speak about the war though he sometimes referred to the Nuremberg trials. Knowing what he went through, I can't say I am surprised. I have the Army Paybooks and medals of both my father and grandfather and have recently had their medals re-mounted.

Reginald Arthur Watson Jnr Medals
Army Paybook and medals- Reginald Arthur Watson Jnr. [32]

I knew from overhearing family conversations that my father had had a narrow escape when a round jammed in the breach of his gun and exploded, and that towards the end of the war he had been batman to an officer named Maurice Denham who was a famous character actor both before and after the war.

Denham appeared in the very popular radio programmes 'It's that man again! (ITMA)', and with Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch in 'Much Binding in the Marsh'. His list of film appearances is astonishing and include 'Sink the Bismarck!', 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines' and 'The Day of the Jackal'.

Liberation of Belsen

In the last months of the war in Europe my father was one of those sent to liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. I believe the after-effects of his experiences contributed to his early death at the age of 62.

For any reader not aware of the horrors of Belsen, the scenes during the liberation were summed up by the late BBC commentator Richard Dimbleby in the following words:

... Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.

Richard Dimbleby was the BBC's first war correspondent and reported on the Battle of El Alamein, flew on 20 raids with Bomber Command and was at the Normandy Landings. He was the first broadcaster to enter the Bergen-Belsen camp and, overcome, broke down several times while making his report. The BBC initially refused to broadcast Dimbleby's report, as they could not believe the scenes he had described. It was finally broadcast on 19 April 1945 after Dimbleby threatened to resign in protest. After the war he became the BBC's chief commentator at major public events and hosted various programmes including Panorama.

You can hear Dimbleby's account in full by clicking on the control below. [58]

I was not allowed to play with toy guns as a child and when a relative gave me a toy revolver one Christmas it was rapidly disposed of. When about 10, my father took me to the local cinema where they were showing the horrific footage taken showing Nazi atrocities in those dreadful concentration and death camps. This was traumatic but my parents said everyone should see what the Nazis had done so it wouldn't happen again. I have to steel myself to watch them even now.

I plan to make a pilgrimage to Belsen one day as a mark of respect to my father and the poor bastards who suffered there although I know that very little remains of it.I visited Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich in 2007 and took the photo below of the heart-rending memorial by Yugoslavian sculptor Nandor Glid whose parents had been killed there.

holocaust Memorial
Holocaust memorial by Nandor Glid at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site [32]

Click image to enlarge

Holocaust Denial

In the 1970s whilst working for the Department of Social Security in Leicester, a fellow civil servant told me proudly that he was a member of the National Front and "knew" that everything about the concentration camps had been faked by "The Jews" and that "Hitler was right" about most things. Clearly fascist supporters had not changed their lying ways and were, and for that matter are, still able to take in the gullible. The awful thing was that the man concerned was actually quite intelligent in other respects. He was taken aback when I robustly challenged what he had said saying that my own father was an eye witness to what the Nazis had done.

As recently as 2019, the media were reporting on a survey recently conducted that suggested that many UK adults are unaware of the scale of atrocities committed during the holocaust. This is very depressing and makes you wonder how well it is covered in schools.

Transcripts and the evidence presented at the Nuremberg trials is available online thanks to a number of excellent websites. The two I have used are Nizkor and Yale Law School’s Avalon Project. Links to both are on the Sources and Acknowledgements page.