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SS Athenia
SS Athenia seen in Montreal Harbour 1933
Career Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom
Name: SS Athenia
Operator: Anchor-Donaldson Ltd.
Builder: Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Ltd.
Launched: Govan, Scotland in 1923
Fate: Sunk by U-30, 3 September 1939
General characteristics
Tonnage: 13,465 gross tons
Length: 526.3 ft (160.4 m)
Beam: 66.4 ft (20.2 m)
Speed: 15 knots (28 km/h)
Notes: First British ship sunk in World War II

The SS Athenia was the first British ship to be sunk by Nazi Germany in World War II.


Athenia was built by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Ltd., and was launched at Govan, Scotland in 1923. She was built for Anchor-Donaldson Ltd.'s route between Britain and Canada. For most of her career she sailed between either Glasgow or Liverpool, and Quebec and Montreal. During the height of winter, she operated as a cruise ship. After 1935, her owners became the Donaldson Atlantic Line Ltd.

Athenia measured 13,465 gross tons,[1] was 526.3 feet long and had a 66.4 foot beam (160.4m x 20.2m). She had two masts and a single funnel. She carried 516 cabin class passengers and an additional 1,000 in 3rd class. She was a twin propeller vessel powered by steam turbines, with a top speed of 15 knots.


Athenia, under Captain James Cook, departed Glasgow for Montreal on 1 September 1939, via Liverpool and Belfast, carrying 1,103 passengers, including more than 300 Americans, and 315 crew. She left Liverpool at 13:00 on 2 September, and on the evening of 3 September was 60 mi (97 km) south of Rockall (250 miles/400 km northwest of Inishtrahull, Ireland), when she was sighted by the German submarine U-30 commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp around 16:30. Lemp later claimed that the fact that she was a darkened ship steering a zigzag course which seemed to be well off the normal shipping routes made him believe she was either a troopship or a Q-ship or an armed merchant cruiser. U-30 tracked the Athenia for three hours until eventually, at 19:40, when both vessels were between Rockall and Tory Island, Lemp ordered two torpedoes to be fired. The first struck home and exploded, while the second misfired. Athenia began to settle by the stern.

SS Athenia fsa 8d37075

Workers painting the stern of the Athenia, summer 1937

Several ships, including HMS Electra, raced to the site of the attack. The captain of Electra, Lt. Cdr. Sammy A. Buss, was Senior Officer Present, so he took charge. He sent the destroyer HMS Fame on an anti-submarine sweep of the area, while Electra, another destroyer, HMS Escort, the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the 5,749 ton Norwegian tanker MS Knute Nelson,[2] and the American freighter SS City of Flint, rescued the survivors. Between them, about 981 passengers and crew were rescued. The German liner SS Bremen en route from New York to Murmansk, also received Athenia's distress signal, but hardly surprisingly ignored it.[3] The City of Flint took 223 survivors on to Halifax, and the Knute Nelson landed 450 at Galway.

Athenia remained afloat for over fourteen hours after being torpedoed, until she finally sank stern first at 10:40 the following morning. Of the 1,418 aboard, 98 passengers[4][5] and 19 crew members were killed.[6] The toll in lives included fatalities caused when the torpedo struck, and from accidents and other mistakes during the evacuation. Most of the fatalities occurred in the engine room and after stairwell, where the torpedo hit,[7] though other sources dispute this. Some died later when one of the lifeboats was crushed in the propeller of the Knute Nelson.[8] In this case[citation needed] No. 5A lifeboat came alongside the empty tanker and tied up against advice astern of No 12 lifeboat. Only 15 feet separated the life boat from the tanker's exposed propellor. Once the No. 12 lifeboat was emptied it was cut adrift and began to sink. This fact was reported to the bridge of Knute Nelson. For some reason the ship's throttle was then set to full ahead. The 5A lifeboat's warp parted under the strain, causing the lifeboat to be pulled back into the fast revolving propellor. This resulted in about 50 deaths. A second accident occurred at about 0500 hrs when No. 8 lifeboat capsized in a heavy sea below the stern of the yacht Southern Cross causing ten deaths. Three passengers were crushed to death while attempting to transfer from lifeboats to the RN destroyers. The other fatalities were due to falling overboard from Athenia and her lifeboats, or to injuries and exposure. Twenty-eight of the dead were American citizens, which led to German fears that the incident would bring the US into the war.


The sinking caused dramatic publicity throughout the English-speaking world.[9] The front pages of many newspapers running photographs of the lost ship alongside headlines about Britain's declaration of war. As an example, the Halifax Herald for 4 September 1939 had a banner across its front page announcing "LINER ATHENIA IS TORPEDOED AND SUNK" with, in the center of the page, "EMPIRE AT WAR" in outsized red print.

A Canadian girl, 10-year old Margaret Hayworth, was included among the casualties, and was one of the first Canadians to die as a result of enemy action. Newspapers widely publicized the story, proclaiming "Ten-Year-Old Victim of Torpedo" as "Canadians Rallying Point", and set the tone for their coverage of the rest of the war. A thousand people met the train that transported her body back to Hamilton, Ontario, and there was a public funeral attended by the mayor of Hamilton and the city council, as well as the Lieutenant-Governor, Albert Edward Matthews, Premier Mitchell Hepburn, and the entire Ontario cabinet.[10]

When Grand Admiral Raeder first heard of the sinking of the Athenia, he made inquiries and was told that no U-boat was nearer than 75 mi (121 km) to the location of the sinking. He therefore told the US chargé d'affaires in good faith that the German Navy had not been responsible. When, on 27 September, U-30 returned to Wilhelmshaven, Lemp reported to Admiral Dönitz that he had sunk the Athenia in error. Dönitz at once sent Lemp to Berlin, where he explained the incident to Raeder. In turn, Raeder reported to Hitler, who decided that the incident should be kept secret for political reasons. Raeder decided against court-martialling Lemp because he considered that he had made an understandable mistake, and the log of the U-30, which was seen by many people, was altered to sustain the official denials. A month later the Voelkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party's official newspaper, published an article which blamed the loss of the Athenia on the British, accusing Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, of sinking the ship to turn neutral opinion against Nazi Germany. Raeder claimed to not have known about this previous to publication and said that if he had known about it, he would have prevented it appearing.[11]

In the US, 60% of respondents to a Gallup poll believed the Germans were responsible, despite their initial claims that the Athenia had been sunk by the British for propaganda purpose, with only 9% believing otherwise. Some anti-interventionists called for restraint while at the same time expressing their abhorrence of the sinking. Boake Carter described it as a criminal act.

Some were not completely convinced that Germany was in fact responsible. Herbert Hoover expressed his doubts, saying, "It is such poor tactics that I cannot believe that even the clumsy Germans would do such a thing", while North Carolina senator Robert Rice Reynolds denied that Germany had any motive to sink the Athenia. At best, he said, such an action "could only further inflame the world, and particularly America, against Germany, with no appreciable profits from the sinking." He added that Britain could have had a motive - "to infuriate the American people".[12]

It was not until January 1946, during the case against Admiral Raeder at the Nuremberg trials, that a statement by Admiral Dönitz was read in which he finally admitted that Athenia had been torpedoed by U-30 and that every effort had been made to cover it up. Lemp, who claimed he had mistaken her for an armed merchant cruiser, took the first steps to conceal the facts by omitting to make an entry in the submarine's log, and swearing his crew to secrecy.

Legality of sinkingEdit

As Athenia was an unarmed passenger ship, the attack was in violation of the Hague conventions and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which allowed all warships including submarines to stop and search merchant vessels, but forbade capture as prize or sinking unless the ship was carrying contraband or engaged in military activity. Even if this was the case, and if it was decided to sink their ship, it was required that passengers and crew must be transferred to a "place of safety" as a priority. Although Germany was not a signatory to the 1930 treaty, the German 1936 Prize Rules (Prisenordnung) binding their naval commanders copied most of its restrictions. Lemp of U-30 did none of these things, choosing instead to fire without warning.

Questioning of sinkingEdit

Following the sinking of Athenia, some conspiracy theories were floated among pro-Axis and anti-British circles. For example, one editor in Boston's Italian News suggested the ship had been sunk by British mines and blamed on German U-boats to draw America into the war.[13] The claims were unfounded.

Popular cultureEdit

While no movie was ever made regarding the full story of the sinking, the film Arise, My Love (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland, had a sequence involving the torpedoing of the liner.

The sinking of the Athenia is mentioned in the song "Rollerskate Skinny," written by Rhett Miller, and performed by his band The Old 97's.

In the novel The Man Who Could Not Shudder, Dr Fell announces the end of story by showing his audience a newspaper bearing headline "LINER ATHENIA: FULL LIST OF VICTIMS". He means to say that the war has begun and the truth of the mystery is now unlikely to surface.

Recent extensive research concerning the incident appears in Cay Rademacher's 2009 book Drei Tage im September - die letzte Fahrt der Athenia, 1939 published by Mareverlag, Hamburg.

Famous people on the AtheniaEdit

  • Richard Stuart Lake Former Saskatchewan Lieutenant-Governor and federal politician
  • Hannah Baird, a civilian waitress from Montreal, was the first Canadian killed in the war [14]
  • James A. Goodson, notable fighter pilot of the RCAF and later USAAF
  • Judith Evelyn, American stage and film actress (Craig's Wife)
  • Andrew Allan, head of CBC Radio Drama, fiancé of Judith Evelyn
  • Prof. John H. Lawrence, American physicist and MD, later called father of nuclear medicine, he returned to Berkeley, CA and worked with his brother, Phyicist Ernest O. Lawrence
  • Charles Wharton Stork, American writer and essayist (Day Dreams of Greece)
  • Thomas Finley, head of Loomis Chaffee in Windsor, Connecticut
  • Nicola Lubitsch, then ten-months-old daughter of film director Ernst Lubitsch (accompanied by a nurse)
  • Carmen Silvera, Canadian-born British actress
  • Barbara Cass-Beggs, British-Canadian teacher, writer and music scientist
  • Daphne Sebag-Montefiore, relation to Moses Montefiore
  • James Thornton Mustard, father of Canadian physician and cardiac surgeon, William Thornton Mustard
  • Agnes Sharpe, sitting C.C.F. alderman for Hamilton's Ward Eight, second female elected to Hamilton City Council [15]

See alsoEdit


  1. McKenna, Robert, The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy, p. 19 (2003)
  2. M/S Knute Nelson,
  3. Brennecke, Jochen (2003). The Hunters and the Hunted. Naval Institute Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 1-59114-091-9. 
  4. CWGC reports 64 Civilians of "HMS Athenia" died at sea.
  5. See also
  6. [1]
  7. Padfield p7.
  8. Blair, p67
  9. Andrew Williams, The Battle of the Atlantic: Hitler's Gray Wolves of the Sea and the Allies' Desperate Struggle to Defeat Them p 17 ISBN 0-465-09153-9
  10. Houghton, Margaret (2003). The Hamiltonians. James Lorimer & Company. pp. 75–76. ISBN 1-55028-804-0. 
  11. Davidson, Eugene (1997). The Trial of the Germans: an account of the twenty-two defendants before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. University of Missouri Press. p. 381. ISBN 0-8262-1139-9. 
  12. Doenecke, Justus D. (2003). Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 68. ISBN 0-7425-0785-8. 
  13. Santosuosso, P.A. "Dear Joe." Italian News, p. 5. September 15, 1939. (Weekly column)
  14. "Nova Scotia House of Assembly Committee on Veterans' Affairs". Retrieved 2007-10-30. 
  15. Ellen Fairclough, Saturday's Child: Memoirs of Canada's First Female Cabinet Minister, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 61.


  • Peter Padfield, The War Beneath The Sea (1996)
  • Clay Blair, Hitler’s U-Boat War Vol I (1996) ISBN 0-304-35260-8
  • Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia
  • LtCdr Timothy J. Cain, HMS Electra (Frederick Miller, LTD, London, 1959), ISBN 0-86007-330-0
  • Max Caulfield, A Night of Terror (Pan Books Ltd. London,1958)
  • Cay Rademacher, Drei Tage im September (MareVerlag, Hamburg, 2009)

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 56°44′N 14°5′W / 56.733°N 14.083°W / 56.733; -14.083

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