The SS Athenia was launched from Govan shipyards on the Clyde in 1923 and was destined to travel the route from Britain to Canada. On September 1st 1939 she left Liverpool at 1pm carrying 1,103 passengers with additional crew totalling 1,418.
Her passengers had been seated in lounges or at the dinner table, chatting about the war which had so suddenly come upon the world again and how they were looking forward to seeing their relatives in a few days time. Amongst them were several hundred Americans returning from their curtailed visits to London or Paris, and many were refugees fleeing from the terror on the Continent and seeking peace and security in New York.
The Athenia had been tracked by the submarine for three hours, before the U-boat captain believed she was actually a troop ship or an armed merchant carrier and ordered two torpedos to be fired at her. At approximately 9pm one hit and ripped into the port side of the ship and exploded in the engine room, the second is said to have missed.
The lights went out, and smoke began to fill the rooms. Bodies lay dead from the explosion and being thrown across the floor as the boat was hit, and many people could not make it to their own cabins for life belts. The British crew quickly launched lifeboats and helped to get as many passengers off the ship which was listing heavily to port as it took in more and more water. There were approximately thirty to thirty-five people in each boat and they had to climb down rope ladders to escape the ship. Many slipped into the water and due to the listing ship and having no life jacket they never made it into the life boats or survived the cold waters. Unfortunately some boats capsized, probably due to the listing ship, throwing passengers into the cold water and cries for help could be heard by other passengers from the safety of their boats further away.
According to several of the survivors they saw a short distance away the emerging hull of a submarine from the waters, it turned a gun and fired at the ship trying to take out the wireless system.
The ships SOS signals had been received and many vessels hurried to the rescue. The following morning at 10am the Athenia thrust itself into the air and sank into the water below.
This incident was highly embarrassing to Germany, but using it to their own benefit they set out discredit Britain by stating they had torpedo’d their own ship to force the United States into the war. This was in fact untrue and Roosevelt replied that they were remaining ‘neutral’.
On landing the survivors recounted their ordeal…. “marvellous crew, heroic passengers, perfect morale” was the general verdict. One story was that a woman was pulled from the water sat quietly for a moment in the rescue boat and then, screaming “my baby!” leaped into the sea. A Russian couple starting a new life in the United States watched their two young sons drown when their boat capsized at the stern.
Under ‘sea warfare terms’ Fritz-Julius Lemp, Captain of the Submarine was expected to warn and evacuate the ship before sinking it – he didn’t! The Athenia became the first boat to be sunk and the following day Hitler ordered that no passengers ships were to come under fire.