The S.S. Athenia was the first British ship to be sunk by Germany in World War II.
Athenia was built by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company
, Ltd., and was launched at Govan
in 1923. She was built for Anchor-Donaldson Ltd.
's route between Britain
. For most of her career she sailed between either Glasgow
, and Quebec
. During the height of winter, she operated as a cruise ship. After 1935, her owners became the Donaldson Atlantic Line Ltd
Athenia displaced 13,465 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. She was a twin screw vessel powered by steam turbines, with a top speed of 15 knots.
The "Athenia" incident
On September 3
, just hours after Britain
declared war on Germany, U-boat U-30
(Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp
) sank Athenia
, mistaking her for an armed merchant cruiser
The 13,500 ton passenger liner was carrying 1,103 civilians
, including more than 300 Americans, and 315 crew, from Glasgow
The ship, under Captain James Cook, had departed there on 1 September, and after calling at Liverpool and Belfast departed Britain on the 3rd. By evening that day she was 60 miles south of Rockall
(250 miles northwest of Inishtrahull
), when U-30
sighted her and fired two torpedoes
's hull without warning. She began to settle by the stern. As Athenia
was an unarmed passenger ship, the attack was in violation of the prize rules
U-boats were to be operating under, that obliged them to stop and search potential civilian targets and allow passengers and crew to abandon ship before sinking their vessel.
Several ships, including , 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 on an anti-submarine sweep of the area, while Electra
, another destroyer
, , the Swedish yacht Southern Cross
, the 5,749 ton Norwegian cargo ship
MS Knute Nelson
, and the American tanker S.S. City Of Flint
, rescued the survivors. Between them, about 980 passengers and crew were rescued. Athenia
sank stern first the next morning.
Most of the fatalities occurred in the engine room and after stairwell, where the torpedo hit,
though these were compounded when one of the lifeboats was crushed in the propeller of Knute Nelson.
118 passengers and crew were killed, including 28 Americans, which led to German fears the incident would bring the US into the war.
Having realized his error after the torpedoes hit, U-30 immediately disengaged, left the scene and did not report its attack until it reached port. Since the torpedoing of the Athenia without warning violated the rules of war then in force, Hitler ordered evidence of it suppressed, and Lemp's log was rewritten.
Famous people on the Athenia
- 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.
- 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)