The S.S. Athenia was the first British ship to be sunk by Nazi Germany in World War II. She was the first Allied casualty just 9 hours after Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s, announcement of war on the wireless.
The first Athenia was sunk in 1917 and the second was not built until 1923. She was built by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Ltd., and was launched at Govan, Scotland. 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.
This Athenia measured 13,465 gross tons, 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. Her twin propeller, powered by steam turbines, produced 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 1300hrs 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 U-boat U-30 commanded by Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp around 1630hrs. U-30 tracked the Athenia for three hours until eventually, at 1940hrs, 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.
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, and the American tanker S.S. City of Flint, rescued the survivors. Between them, about 981 passengers and crew were rescued. The German liner Bremen en route from New York to Murmansk, also received Athenia’s distress signal, but hardly surprisingly ignored it. 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 1040hrs the following morning. Of the 1,418 aboard, 98 passengers and 19 crew members were killed. A second accident occurred at about 0500 hrs when the 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 did receive worldwide publicity but no action and denouncement was taken by the US Government.
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”.
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.
ILLEGAL ACT OF WAR
As Athenia was an unarmed passenger ship, the attack was in violation of the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which allowed all warships including submarines to stop and search merchant vessels, but provided that passengers and crew must be transferred to a “place of safety” as a priority if it was decided to sink their ship. Although Germany was not a signatory to this treaty, the German 1936 Prisenordnung binding their naval commanders copied it almost verbatim.