On Aug. 16, 1917 the Anchor- Donaldson Line's passenger ship Athenia was torpedoed and sunk by SMS U-53. She went down about 19 miles north of Clonmany, Ireland with the loss of fifteen lives. Another sad ending in a long war. Who could have known it would happen again twenty-two years later.
January 28, 1922 the new Athenia was launched at Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company in Govan,
Scotland. The new ship at 13,453 GRT, was much larger in tonnage than the lost sister who was only 8,668
GRT, however she was only 58' longer and her beam was 10' wider. She would take over on the same route, Glasgow to Montreal, that her sister had held, but could carry many more passengers, 1,516 compared to the
512 of the Athenia built in 1904.
She made her maiden voyage on Apr. 19, 1923 and continued to run the North Atlantic departing on her last
crossing on Sept. 1, 1939. At 11:15 that day she sailed from Glasgow, stopped at Liverpool and Belfast
and finally sailed into the North Atlantic, probably not even realizing they passed near the wreck of the ship
that bore the same name in the Great War.
Two days later on Sept. 3, 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to the world that the deadline
for Germany to remove troops from Poland had passed, and that "consequently this country is at war with
Germany.", the war in Europe had begun.
With the war only hours old there was probably not much concern that it would effect her voyage, however
Hitler had prepared. U-30 under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Fritz-Julius Lemp had pulled out of
Wilhelmshaven on Aug. 22 and took up a position west of Ireland and waited. After being informed that war
had broken out he had orders to begin sinking shipping and at 19:45 on Sept. 3, 1939 he fired the first torpedoes of the war, one hit the Athenia, she was only 271 miles from where her sister had gone down
The torpedo struck the ship on the port side behind the engine room and brought her to a halt. The damage
was not tremendous, but it was fatal and her captain, James Cook, knew it, Lemp did not. He surfaced and
fired a third torpedo but missed (the first salvo fired was two, but one failed to explode). Many survivors
reported that U-30 surfaced and shelled the ship, aiming at the wireless room, Captain Cook was quoted
as saying "One shell carried away the main mast. It was evidently aimed at the wireless room, but missed
its mark." A photo of the ship sinking by the stern however shows both masts still in tact.
Other survivors told the same story including Ruth E. Strauss, a New York resident; "I saw a flash on the port side of the Athenia about 800 to 1,000 yards away. The torpedo struck in a few seconds and was followed by a shell. The ship was still afloat when we left the scene five hours later."
Maxine Robinson, a sixteen year old college girl from Austin, Texas also spoke about the shelling; "We were, in the lifeboat only a few minutes when there was a flash and we felt something whiz past us going in the
direction of the liner." As did Gordon Hanson of Boston; "We saw smoke in the distance after the first torpedo
was fired. Then the submarine fired a shell at the wireless rig but it fell short." Other than the stories of the
survivors, there seems to be no evidence that U-30 shelled the Athenia or that more than one torpedo hit
the ship. The explanation for smoke seen coming from the U-30 was not that she was shelling the Athenia,
but a torpedo had stuck in the tube with the engine running, the crew managed to release it seconds before it exploded, debris from the torpedo was probably what the survivors heard fly over their heads.
Many survivors reported a second explosion, which again was thought to have been a shell, but this could have been the boilers bursting when the sea water came in contact with them, this is backed up by a member
of the crew of the Knute Nelson who told reporters that "many of the Athenia's passengers were killed when the ship's boiler exploded after the torpedo had struck."
Including Cook there were 1,418 people on the Athenia and now their lives were in his hands, Lemp would
not approach the liner to aid survivors, but he knew that there were other ships in the area, he also knew he
had made a terrible mistake by torpedoing an unarmed passenger liner. Lemp had, according to his account,
made a horrendous error when he incorrectly identified the Athenia as an armed merchant cruiser, a ship
that would be fair game under the rules of war. According to Lemp the ship he sighted in his periscope was
blacked out and zigzagging and "appeared" to be armed with deck guns.
After he had fired the third torpedo Lemp went below to check Lloyd's Register to positively identify the ship,
it was then, he claims, that he learned the true identity of the Athenia, the identity was confirmed by the
Athenia herself when the radio operator sent a distress call giving the ship's name and position. The message
was sent in plane language and included S-S-S, a British code that indicated the ship was being attacked by a
submarine. Lemp submerged and left the area making no report about the sinking to the OKM
(Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine), Dönitz himself did not learn about the sinking until he heard it on the radio.
On the Athenia the ship was being abandoned, most accounts state the evacuation was orderly, but not
without trouble. She was sinking by the stern and beginning to list, as it did, launching lifeboats became more difficult. One loaded boat fell from the davit and crashed to the sea dumping her charges into the water. A second lifeboat capsized after launch, Isaac Stotland, a Polish refugee fleeing with his family to the United States rescued eighteen of those in the water when the boat capsized, tragically he was not able to save his own two children who had been in the boat.
Passengers and crew rescued people who were trapped below, Helen Hannay, a college student from
Houston, Texas was even commended in a letter to her father by Ambassador Kennedy. Another passenger, James Goodson saved a number of women and children who were trapped below, swimming back and forth with the terrified souls on his back. After he had rescued those people he helped the crew search the cabins for anyone who was not able to get out. All he found was the body of one man. He escaped the ship by going over the side on a rope and swimming to a lifeboat. (Note, Goodson, an American, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force shortly after he returned to the U.S.A. He was transferred to the RAF and later to the USAAF where he became Commander of the 336th Fighter Squadron of the 8th Air Force. Major James A. "Goody" Goodson shot down 15 German aircraft before he was shot down June 20, 1944 over France and taken prisoner, he remained a POW for the rest of the war.)
While in the lifeboats survivors reported a close encounter with the U-boat which had torpedoed them. Mary Kathryn Underwood of Athens, Texas said; "We were in a boat with 38 women and only three men. A
little while after we left the Athenia's side, we saw the periscope of the submarine and nearly hit it. I didn't see her come to the surface."
Jane Forte, a dancing teacher at Stephens Junior College for women in Columbia, Missouri said; "I didn't see the sub myself, but many did. Friends of mine in the first lifeboat practically rowed over the periscope, The sub stayed around an hour or so after torpedoing us. We could feel the vibration of it passed under the lifeboats. It made sort of a scraping, swishy sound, awful."
The Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson arrived early the next morning to find half a dozen lifeboats drifting in
the sea. Captain Carl J. Anderssen stopped his ship and dropped rope ladders to those in the lifeboats. For
some unknown reason Anderssen decided to move the ship and when he did a lifeboat filled with over 50 women andchildren was drawn into the propeller. Needless to say the propeller chewed up the boat and most all the people who were in it as a result all but 8 or 9 were killed before the ship stopped.
On the deck of the Knute Nelson a strange scene took place. A number of those who made it on to the tanker
were a group of U.S. college girls who had been on a post graduation trip to Europe, they had abandoned the
Athenia and now found themselves standing on the deck of a Norwegian tanker dressed mostly in bras and
panties and not much else. According to a survivor Capt. Anderssen was almost stunned by this scene. He
told them in broken English "Go down, down, any door, any room! Warm, you must have warm." The girls
went down a stairway and found several dark rooms filled with sleeping Norwegian sailors, who probably had
not seen a woman for awhile. It must have been some surprise to the Norwegians when the half naked
college girls jumped, unannounced, into their bunks to get warm. After it was explained to them what had happened, they did everything they could to make the survivors comfortable.
Other ships were soon on the scene and picked up the rest of the survivors. The yacht Southern Cross, owned
by Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren, a Swedish entrepreneur and the owner of the Electrolux Company, was at the
time sailing from Stockholm to the Bahamas when they happened to come across the scene. The yacht picked
up 376 survivors and later transferred them to the City of Flint and the British destroyers HMS Electra H-27, HMS Escort H-65 and HMS Fame H-78 which also responded to the distress call. Wenner-Gren was an
enigmatic figure, he was suspected of being a Nazi agent and was on the economic "blacklist" of both the U.S.A. and the U.K. While it appears these rumors were unfounded and baseless his assets were frozen during the war. Most of the rumors were a direct result of his attempting to be a conduit between the Nazis
and the British, in an attempt to stop the war. It seems all concerned thought less of him than he thought of himself, but it was enough to raise suspicions.
While this was a tragedy it could have been far worse, of the 1,418 on board, 112 were killed, many of these
by the propeller of the Knute Nelson, the rest died in the Athenia either from the explosion or were trapped
inside when she went down. All in all a disaster on the scale of the Lusitania from the war before was avoided.
The rescue ships all went to different ports, the destroyers made for Greenock, Scotland, the Knute Nelson
landed in Galway, Ireland and the City of Flint made for Halifax. At all ports the wounded were treated and
those who were uninjured were taken care of by the local population. Of course for some who survived the agony was not over. Mrs. Fisher, a New Yorker, was unable to find her 16 year old son Arthur. She landed at
Greenock and was still terribly distressed when she was placed at a local hotel, I have no idea how long she
had to wait to learn a mothers worst nightmare, he had perished. Roy Barrington, nine year old son of Harriet
Barrington also arrived at Greenock, he and his mother had been separated during the ordeal and now he had
no idea if she was still alive. Several female survivors were seen providing him what ever comfort they could,
perhaps he had learned that his dear mother had not survived.
The Knute Nelson landed at Galway, Ireland on Sept 5, and unloaded her survivors including captain Cook
and the sixteen college girls from the U.S.A. Cook was interviewed by the press along with many of the survivors. Most told of the submarine shelling the ship, including Cook.
The City of Flint arrived in Halifax on Sept. 13, the ship was carrying 216 survivors who slept where ever
they could as the Hog Islander was not built for passengers. They slept on tarpaulins on the open deck arranged in rows, the master, Captain Joseph Gainard gave his cabin to ten women and became a refugee
on his own ship. To make things worse one of the children, 10 year old Margaret Hayworth, died of a head injury received in the sinking, because of her overwhelming anguish her mother had to be helped off the ship at Halifax.
The sinking of the Athenia set off a political firestorm on both sides of the ocean. The Germans denied sinking the ship throughout the war and even altered the KTB of U-30 to show she was hundreds of miles from the
scene of the sinking. Their early denial may have had some merit as Lemp had not informed OKM of the
sinking, but they surely were able to figure out what U-boat had been in the area. In fact Lemp did not
confirm the sinking until Sept. 27 when he and the U-30 arrived in Wilhelmshaven.
The Germans immediately denied any complicity in the sinking on orders from Adolf Hitler himself. The
German Foreign Ministry issued the first official denial on Sept. 4 by saying "no U-boat could have sunk Athenia inasmuch as the northern boundary of the patrol zone of the nearest U-boat lay seventy miles to the south." They further asserted that the Athenia must have hit a British mine. Both Raeder and Dönitz took part
in the cover-up, Raeder in a telegram which was leaked to the press called the story "an abominable lie", he also claimed the nearest U-boat was 170 miles away. This was all because Hitler feared that the British would use the sinking to renew old memories from the last war of German barbarity and inhumanity, much of which was very true, but of course not all. His biggest fear seemed to be the British making a "Lusitania" out of the
Athenia and the world condemning Germany so early in the war.
The reaction of the OKM was swift, on Sept. 4 orders were radioed to all warships and submarines operating
in the Atlantic; "By order of the Führer: No hostile action is to be taken for the present against passenger ships, even in convoy."
The Nazi Minister of Propaganda Dr. Josef Göbbels, the creator of the "Big Lie" theory, railed against the
British for their "lies" about the sinking. What his initial thoughts about the incident were are not known as
the pages from his diary from May 31 to Oct. 8 did not survive the war. The first entry in his diary that did survive came on Oct. 20, 1939; "At the same time, we receive a report from America from a certain [...] at just the right time, which finally unveils the secret of Athenia. According to this account, Churchill had holes bored in her bottom. We make a really big splash with it. I revise my leader article again. A comprehensive attack against Churchill. Perhaps this will start him rocking on his pedestal." (Note: the unnamed person mentioned may be Gustav Anderson.)
The next entry came on Oct. 21; "Anderson's statements in New York are still the big sensation. We shall
hold back our counter-stroke until we have final confirmation from our embassy in Washington. Then we
shall let rip with our broadsides against Churchill." After a few sentences not pertaining to the Athenia he
ends the day's entry this way; "We release the attack against Churchill. It will hit home."
Gustav A. Anderson, a travel bureau operator of Evanston, Illinois filed an affidavit on October 1939 with the
U.S. State Department, in it he swore under oath that "Chief Officer Copeland of the Athenia told him that the
ship carried "plenty" of guns for Canada's coast defenses and for fitting herself out as a raider on her return
trip." He also said " he had heard British destroyers finally sank her as a dangerous derelict." Who told him
that is not mentioned. The reply from the Donaldson Line; "Tommyrot and absolute nonsense!". I have not
been able to determine the motivation of Mr. Anderson in giving these statements, however later reports
state that he, as an operator of a travel bureau, stood high in Nazi circles.
The Canadian Department for External Affairs issued the following statement on Oct. 23 in reply to Anderson's charge; "It is declared that careful and complete investigation has proved conclusively that the
Athenia carried no guns, ammunition, or munitions of war of any nature, either as cargo or as stores."
On Oct. 21, 1939 Göbbels launched his attack on Churchill, it should be noted that Churchill was not named
First Lord of the Admiralty until Sept. 3, two days after the Athenia had sailed, this fact Göbbels did not
overlook, but like the present day propagandists of the Hollywood left, he assigned to him "mystic powers" of
intuition to be able to foretell events of the future.
"I have to ask several questions of the First Lord of the British Admiralty, Mr. Winston Churchill. He is the chief inciter of this war. It is his work, and he even boasts of it. He has become a European danger. If he tries
to make a counter-accusation in reply to our accusations this will only make us smile.
You, Mr. Churchill, declared immediately after the sinking of the Athenia that she was the victim of a German
torpedo. You did this with the intention of arousing suspicion against the German Command and of drawing
the United States into the war. We have succeeded in ascertaining the truth by means of circumstantial
There cannot be any talk of a German torpedo in connection with the sinking of the Athenia. There is not a lie
which could make us keep silent. Now we are clinging to your coat tails, and we shall not release you. On the
ground of the unimpeachable evidence of the American witness Anderson, we have clearly proved that you
yourself sank the Athenia by shooting her down with three British destroyers.
Why did you wait until you were accused by the evidence of Mr. Anderson, and why are you waiting still?
Why have you brought questionable witnesses who have stated just the opposite to that which is stated now
by the witness Anderson? It has been proved now that the Athenia was not sunk by a German U-boat.
The world demands to be informed who actually sank her. With matters of very minor importance you annoy
the world with your talkativeness. Now come to the microphone, go into the House of Commons, but for
heavens sake talk, talk, talk, talk.
You have found the time for lyric poems about the activity of British troops in France, where they unfortunately have not been sighted by the French poilus (sic) so far. It is true that the Athenia left her
harbour before war broke out, but at the same time you knew already that Great Britain was determined to
declare war on Germany, and you knew, too, that you would become First Lord of the Admiralty.
Your criminal plan was to bring you as a dowry, America's entrance into the war. That is why you carefully
prepared the explosion in advance. But apparently the explosion was as stupidly arranged as everything you
do and that is why the Athenia remained 14 hours above the water after the explosion had taken place.
After 14 hours waiting in vain you had to sink the ship in order to obliterate the traces of your crime. The
question now is whether a convicted criminal should be able to remain in his present position or whether the
indignation of entire world opinion will prove too strong after all.
This has to be decided by yourself and by England. It cannot be doubted that every court in the world would
find you guilty."
Göbbels entry for Oct. 22; "Our attack against Churchill hit home. It has been taken up by the entire neutral
press. The English lies are being noted in Paris, causing great ill-feelings and indignation. These days in
London, all they do is tell lies."
Göbbels continues on Oct. 23; "Churchill answers our charges in the Athenia affair with a bare-faced denial.
This enrages me so much that I immediately set to dictating a radio speech in reply, which summarizes the
entire case against him in the most biting form. It is a huge success, comes pouring out like water from a
spring. In the evening at 8 p.m. I deliver the speech on all stations and order it to be transmitted in all the
world's languages. It will make a tremendous impression. Now I am working stubbornly to bring about this
man's downfall. He is the cause of this war, and of its prolongation."
His speech was laughed at by the American press, the New York Herald Tribune said that "the announcement
that he was going to address the world was sufficient promise that something grotesque would be
forthcoming." The remarks he made did not disappoint, he repeated his charge that Churchill had
masterminded the sinking to draw America into the war, (we hear such nonsense in the press today about current events) but added the following;
"That was how you planned it, wasn't it, Mr. Churchill? That was how it was carried out also and then!—then
this God-damned American citizen Anderson came along and uncovered your whole scheme! The Athenia
case is now the Churchill case and the Churchill case has developed into the British case. It is now a question
of whether proven criminals are to continue to be tolerated in such a high official position or whether the
indignation of the world is stronger than the unscrupulousness of a notorious British liar. There is no doubt,
Mr. Churchill, that you will be found guilty by any court of justice, now you are standing before the judgment
chair of a world tribunal. The accused, Winston Churchill, now has the floor. . . . Stand, rascal, and answer
And so went the propaganda war, on Oct. 24 Göbbels wrote in his diary; "My speech against Churchill
arouses enormous interest. It is thoroughly reported all over the world, with comments that are to some
extent favourable to us, and even the London press is forced to print extracts. Churchill tries to sidestep the
issue by blustering evasions, but one can only smile. His main tack is to declare that my speech was too
fantastic to deserve a reply. So, a lame excuse! The reaction in the rest of the world is very strong. And that
was the point of the exercise." And later in the same entry; "My attack against Churchill is approved by the
Führer. We shall respond with new material during the next few days. Churchill has named four German
passengers on the Athenia. But these were Jewish emigres. The response to my speech in the editorial
pages of the German press has been enormous."
Perhaps Herr Göbbels was not fully informed as to some of the "favourable" responses in the American press,
"It was an accusation without parallel even among all the world war tales of "atrocities", and neutral
observers around the world groped for an explanation as to why it was made at this time."
And this from another writer;
"If the propaganda minister is going to feed the world that sort of thing, maybe Hitler should "concentrate"
him for the good of the Nazi cause. Certainly the doctor's speech is a fine example of idiotic nonsense."
In the Canadian press the following;
"Dr. Joseph Göbbels jabbers when he climbs to the top of his flagpole, and makes pretty much of a monkey
of himself. He says now that the Athenia was sunk by three British destroyers on orders of Mr. Winston
Churchill. Göbbels' silly propaganda ministry said when the ship was sunk that she was sunk by a British
submarine. And only a week ago, his ministry seemingly instructed the German High Admiral to inform the
United States Navy that he was informed from an Irish source that a ship loaded with returning Americans
was to be sunk by a submarine, obviously meaning a British submarine. (this refers to the Iroquois incident)
This order, too, would have to be given by Mr. Churchill.
No sane person anywhere can believe these preposterous lies. Such calumnies must be attributed to some
irritant making the German gang more jittery than usual. Mr. Churchill was dubbed by them as a war
monger on every possible occasion before he went into the British Cabinet, and now they fear and hate him
more than ever. Anything that they can do or say to have him removed or despised, they do and say. But he
is not to be hurt, by sheer frenzy and mad accusation.
The accusations are too preposterous not to be asinine. Göbbels loses his touch. He has become too gross
to be plausible. He deceives none. And only shows by the evil he attributes to others, to what depths of villainy he and his gang descend."
Perhaps because the story had begun to run its course or because of other matters Göbbels makes only
passing references to the Athenia in further pages of his diary that survived. But in the U.S.A. another explanation of the sinking was coming to light, this time it was not Churchill who sank her, but Stalin. The accuser not a Nazi thug,but a Democrat Senator from North Carolina, Robert Rice Reynolds.
Reynolds, who held many Fascist views, was a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of the America First
Committee, an anti-war, pro Nazi group of which Charles Lindbergh was a member. On the floor of the U.S.
Senate he argued; "The dictators are doing what is best for their people. I say it is high time we found out how they are doing it, and why they are progressing so rapidly. Hitler has solved the unemployment problem. There is no unemployment in Italy. Hitler and Mussolini have a date with destiny. It is foolish to oppose them, so why not play ball with them?" Of course he did not explain how they had solved these problems and
ignored the oppression that was occurring in those countries. He was on the wrong side of history, to negotiate with madmen can only result in failure as Chamberlain found out.
I included the above to try and explain the following, during a debate in House of Representatives to remove
the arms embargo against Russia he said; "While at the moment most Americans believe that Germany sank the Athenia there has not been published a shred of concrete evidence to prove this. But in the absence of
concrete evidence, there is a much stronger circumstantial case against Russia than any other nation. Let us
remember that the two principle enemies of Russia are Germany and Great Britain. What could be sweeter
than to help shove them into a life and death struggle from which Russia could up the profits with little or no
cost to herself?" He clearly did not want Russia to become involved on the Allied side, Göbbels surely would
have been proud and Hitler could have had no better spokesman in the U.S. Senate.
As a side note in April 1940 Reynolds passed on confidential information about French ports to Simon Koedel,
an Abwehr agent residing in the U.S.A. For this he should have been charged with treason and executed, but
instead the Democrat leadership gave him the chair of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.
The story of the Athenia has it all, tragedy, triumph, heroes, villains, lies, spies and traitors. The ship left its
mark on history. The other ships involved also became part of history, most of them ending up on the bottom
of the sea.
The City of Flint was captured by the German cruiser Deutschland on Oct. 9, 1939 and taken to Norway as a
prize. Due to both the U.S. and Norway being neutral this caused another international incident which
Germany did not need. The ship was finally released on Nov. 4 and the prize crew was interned. A torpedo fired from U-575 sank her on Jan. 25, 1943 south of the Azores taking six of her crew to the bottom.
HMS Escort H-65 was torpedoed by the Italian submarine Guglielmo Marconi on July 11, 1940 east of
Gibraltar, she sank while under tow.
HMS Electra H-27 rescued the only three survivors from HMS Hood on May 24, 1941, she rescued some of the
survivors from the HMS Repulse after she and the HMS Prince of Wales were sunk by Japanese aircraft on
Dec. 10, 1941. She fell to the Japanese cruiser Jintsu and the destroyer Asagumo during the Battle of the
Java Sea on Feb. 27, 1942.
HMS Fame H-78 was the only large ship involved to survive the war, and during her career she exacted a
measure of revenge against the U-boat force. On Oct. 16, 1942 she sank U-353, on Feb. 17, 1943 she
sank U-69 and on June 18, 1944 she aided in the sinking of U-767. In 1949 she was sold to the Dominican Republic and renamed Generalisimo.
The tanker Knute Nelson was captured by the Germans when they invaded Norway and was sunk on the
evening of Sept. 26-27, 1944 by a mine laid by the French submarine Rubis.
The Southern Cross is a bit of a mystery, she was last known to have been "given" to the government of
Mexico in June 1942, from there I don't know her fate.
The U-30 amazingly survived the war being scuttled on May 4, 1945, but Fritz-Julius Lemp did not. He
became the commanding officer of U-110 which was captured by HMS Bulldog H-91, HMS Broadway H-90 and
HMS Aubretia K-96 on May 9, 1941 in another famous incident. While being attacked by the British ships he
believed his boat was about to be rammed and sunk, he therefore ordered the boat abandoned, but did not
dispose of the Enigma equipment or the code books. When he realized the boat was about to be captured he
attempted to swim back to her, he was not seen again, some say he was shot in the water by the British. The
U-110 was quickly stripped of the Enigma and all other secret equipment and then allowed to sink, this to
keep the Germans from changing the codes because of a captured U-boat.
© 2008 Michael W. Pocock
2006 Daily Event