SS Athenia (1922)

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

SS Athenia was a steam turbine transatlantic passenger liner built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1923 for the Anchor-Donaldson Line, which later became the Donaldson Atlantic Line. She worked between the United Kingdom and the east coast of Canada until September 1939, when a torpedo from the German submarine U-30 sank her in the Western Approaches.

Ss athenia.jpg
Athenia in Montreal Harbour in 1933
United Kingdom
Name: Athenia
  • Anchor-Donaldson Line (1923–1935)
  • Donaldson Atlantic Line (1935–1939)
Port of registry: United Kingdom Glasgow
Builder: Fairfield SB & Eng Co, Govan
Yard number: 596
Launched: 28 January 1922
Completed: 19 April 1923
Fate: Sunk by U-30, 3 September 1939
Notes: First UK ship sunk by Germany in World War II
General characteristics
  • 13,465 GRT
  • tonnage under deck 10,200
  • 8,118 NRT
Length: 526.3 ft (160.4 m) p/p
Beam: 66.4 ft (20.2 m)
Depth: 38.1 ft (11.6 m)
Decks: 3
Propulsion: 6 × steam turbines; twin screws
Speed: 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph)
Sensors and
processing systems:
Notes: sister ship: Letitia

Athenia was the first UK ship to be sunk by Germany during World War II, and the incident accounted for the Donaldson Line's greatest single loss of life at sea, with 117 civilian passengers and crew killed. The sinking was condemned as a war crime. Among those dead were 28 US citizens, leaving Germany to fear that the US might join the war on the side of the UK and France. Wartime German authorities denied that one of their vessels had sunk the ship. An admission of responsibility did not come from German authorities until 1946.

She was the second Donaldson ship of that name to be torpedoed and sunk off Inishtrahull by a German submarine. The earlier Athenia (1903) was similarly attacked and sunk in 1918.


The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Govan in Glasgow built Athenia, launching her on 28 January 1922 and completing her in 1923. She measured 13,465 gross register tons (GRT) and 8,118 net register tons (NRT), was 526.3 ft (160.4 m) long between perpendiculars by 66.4 ft (20.2 m) beam and had a depth of 38.1 ft (11.6 m). She had six steam turbines driving twin screws via double reduction gearing, giving her a speed of 15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph).[1] She had capacity for 516 cabin class passengers and 1,000 in 3rd class.[citation needed] By 1930 her navigation equipment included wireless direction finding,[1] and by 1934 this had been augmented with an echo sounding device and a gyrocompass.[2]


Athenia was built for Anchor-Donaldson Line, which was a joint venture between Anchor Line and Donaldson Line. Fairfield built a sister ship, Letitia, which was launched in October 1924 and was completed in 1925. Athenia and Letitia were the two largest ships in Donaldson's various fleets. The ships worked Anchor-Donaldson's trans-Atlantic route linking Liverpool and Glasgow with Quebec and Montreal in summer and to Halifax in winter. After the construction of the Pier 21 immigration complex in Halifax in 1928, Athenia became a more frequent caller at Halifax, making over 100 trips to Halifax with immigrants.[3] In 1935 Anchor Line went into liquidation and Donaldson Line bought most of its assets.[4] In 1936 Donaldson was reconstituted as Donaldson Atlantic Line.[5]


Workers painting Athenia's stern, summer 1937

On 1 September 1939 Athenia, commanded by Captain James Cook, left Glasgow for Montreal via Liverpool and Belfast. She carried 1,103 passengers, including about 500 Jewish refugees, 469 Canadians, 311 US citizens and 72 UK subjects, and 315 crew.[6] Despite clear indications that war would break out any day, she departed Liverpool at 13:00 hrs on 2 September without recall, and on the evening of the 3rd was 60 nautical miles (110 km) south of Rockall and 200 nautical miles (370 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, a Q-ship or an armed merchant cruiser. U-30 tracked 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. One exploded on Athenia's port side in her engine room, and she began to settle by the stern.

Several ships, including the E-class destroyer HMS Electra, responded to Athenia's distress signal. Electra's commander, Lt. Cdr. Sammy A. Buss, was senior officer present and took charge. He sent the F-class destroyer HMS Fame on an anti-submarine sweep of the area, while Electra, another E-class destroyer, HMS Escort, the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the 5,749 GRT Norwegian tanker MS Knute Nelson,[7] and the US cargo ship City of Flint, rescued survivors. Between them they rescued about 981 passengers and crew. The German liner SS Bremen, en route from New York to Murmansk, also received Athenia's distress signal, but ignored it.[8] City of Flint took 223 survivors to Pier 21 at Halifax, and Knute Nelson landed 450 at Galway.

Survivors in one of Athenia's lifeboats alongside City of Flint

Athenia remained afloat for more than 14 hours, until she finally sank stern first at 10:40 the next morning. Of the 1,418 aboard, 98 passengers[9][10] and 19 crew members were killed.[11] Many died in the engine room and aft stairwell, where the torpedo hit.[12] The British crews were famous for putting the passengers' lives before their own[dubious ], and were expertly trained to handle such "events"; nonetheless, about 50 people died when one of the lifeboats was crushed in the propeller of Knute Nelson.[13] No. 5A lifeboat came alongside the empty tanker and tied up, against advice, astern of No 12 lifeboat.[citation needed] Only 15 feet (5 m) separated the life boat from the tanker's exposed propeller. Once No. 12 lifeboat was emptied it was cast adrift and began to sink. This fact was reported to the bridge of Knute Nelson. For some reason the ship's engine order telegraph was then set to full ahead. 5A lifeboat's mooring line or "warp" parted under the stress, causing the lifeboat to be pulled back into the revolving propeller.

There was a second accident at about 05:00 hrs when No. 8 lifeboat capsized in a heavy sea below the stern of the yacht Southern Cross, killing ten people. Three passengers were crushed to death while trying to transfer from lifeboats to the Royal Navy destroyers. Other deaths were due to falling overboard from Athenia and her lifeboats, or to injuries and exposure. Ultimately, all deaths were the result of the U-boat violating orders and torpedoing a merchant passenger liner.

54 dead were Canadian and 28 were US citizens, which led to German fears that the incident would bring the US into the war.[6]


Approximate position of Athenia's wreck

It was not until the Nuremberg Trials after the War that the truth of the U-boat sinking of Athenia finally came out. The sinking was given dramatic publicity throughout the English-speaking world.[14] The front pages of many newspapers ran photographs of the lost ship along with headlines about the UK's declaration of war. For 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,[15] was among the casualties, and was one of the first Canadians to be killed by enemy action. Newspapers widely publicised 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. One thousand people met the train that brought her body back to Hamilton, Ontario, and there was a public funeral attended by the mayor of Hamilton, the city council, the Lieutenant-Governor, Albert Edward Matthews, Premier Mitchell Hepburn, and the entire Ontario cabinet.[16]

When Grand Admiral Raeder first heard of the sinking of 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 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 U-30, which was seen by many people, was altered to sustain the official denials.[citation needed]

A month later the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party's official newspaper, published an article which blamed the loss of Athenia on the UK, accusing Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, of sinking the ship to turn neutral opinion against Germany. Raeder claimed not to have known about this previous to publication and said that if he had known about it, he would have prevented its appearing.[17]

In the US, 60 per cent of respondents to a Gallup poll believed the Germans were responsible, despite their initial claims that Athenia had been sunk by the UK for propaganda purposes, with only 9 per cent 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 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".[18]

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.

After Athenia's sinking, conspiracy theories were circulated by 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.[19] The claims were unfounded.


A cargo of 888 tons was taken on in Glasgow, 472 tons of which were building bricks. Other items included granite curling rocks from Scotland, textbooks for the Toronto school system, a number of sealed steel boxes containing new clothes purchased in Europe by tourists, and watercolor paintings by passenger and English illustrator Winifred Walker, intended for her planned book, Shakespeare's Flowers.[20][21][22]

Excavations of Urartu antiquities by the American scholars Kirsopp and Silva Lake during 1938–1940 and most of their finds and field records were lost in the sinking of the ship.

On 4 September 1939, curling stone manufacturer Andrew Kay & Co. sent a cablegram to its sales representative in Toronto stating, "We now learn that the Athenia was this morning sunk off the coast of Scotland, and we regret that the finest consignment of curling stones that have ever yet left our factory has gone with it." According to James Wyllie, secretary and director of Kays of Scotland (as the company is now known) in 2018, three bills of lading for this shipment included 48 pairs of Blue Hone Ailsa curling stones for the London, Ontario Curling Club, 41 pairs of Blue Hone Ailsa curling stones for the Toronto High Park Curling Club, and 50 pairs of Red Hone Ailsa curling stones for the Lindsay Curling Club. This is a total of 278 Andrew Kay & Co. Excelsior Ailsa curling stones with handles and cases weighing nearly six tons with a 1939 value of £585.12 (equivalent to £36,544 in 2019).[23]

Wreck discoveryEdit

In 2017, the oceanographer and marine archaeologist David Mearns found a wreck he believes to be Athenia. Mearns located the wreck on Rockall Bank using sonar imagery that was scanned by the Geological Survey of Ireland to map the sea floor. He stated "Can I go into a court of law and say, '100%, that's Athenia?' No. But barring a photograph I can say in my expert opinion there's a very, very high probability that that's Athenia. Everything fits."[24]

Legality of sinkingEdit

As Athenia was an unarmed passenger ship, the attack violated the Hague conventions and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 that 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.[25] 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 had not signed the 1930 treaty, the German 1936 Prize Rules (Prisenordnung) binding their naval commanders copied most of its restrictions.[25] Lemp of U-30 did none of these things, choosing instead to fire without warning.


The lost British members of Athenia's crew are commemorated at the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Canadian crew who died are listed at the Halifax Memorial (Sailor's Memorial) at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia[26] as well as by special plaque for Hannah Baird, a Canadian stewardess who died in the sinking and who is commemorated in a memorial to female merchant mariners in Langford, British Columbia.[27]

Popular cultureEdit

No movie has been made of the full story of the sinking, but 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 song Rollerskate Skinny, written by Rhett Miller and performed by his band The Old 97's, mentions Athenia's sinking.[28]

In John Dickson Carr's 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 Second World War has begun and the truth of the mystery is now unlikely to surface.

The sinking of Athenia is also mentioned in Alyson Richman's novel The Lost Wife about pre-war Prague and how the dreams of two young lovers are shattered when they are separated by the Nazi invasion, their endurance and experiences during World War II and the Holocaust only to find one another again decades later in the United States.

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 of Hamburg.

In the novel by Norman Collins, London Belongs to Me, he describes the sinking of Athenia as war breaks out across Europe. As a result of the sinking, Londoners are in no doubt war has started, and start bracing themselves for what's to come. Similarly, at the close of Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square (1941) the protagonist, George Bone, finds that the newspapers were "all about the sinking of the Athenia".

The sinking of Athenia also forms part of the beginning in the movie U 47 – Kapitänleutnant Prien (1958).

A graphic firsthand account of the sinking and rescue appears as the first chapter of James A. Goodson's autobiographical account of his wartime experiences as a fighter ace.[29]

The sinking of Athenia plays an integral part of the plot of the novel Nemesis by Rory Clements.

Notable individuals aboardEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Lloyd's Register 1930.
  2. ^ Lloyd's Register, Steamships and Motor Ships (PDF). London: Lloyd's Register. 1934. Retrieved 4 October 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  3. ^ "Ship Arrival Database". Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  4. ^ Swiggum, Susan; Kohli, Marjorie (3 May 2006). "Donaldson Line". Retrieved 3 October 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  5. ^ "SS Athenia". Clydebuilt database. Clydeships. Retrieved 6 November 2019.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  6. ^ a b Johnmeyer, Hillard. "The Sinking of the Athenia". Something About Everything Military. Retrieved 13 August 2014.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  7. ^ Holm Lawson, Siri. "M/S Knute Nelson". maint: ref=harv (link)
  8. ^ Brennecke 2003, pp. 15–16.
  9. ^ "S.S. Athenia". Commonwealth War Graves Commission.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) The CWGC puts the number of civilians killed at 64
  10. ^ Gregory, Mackenzie J. "Martha Goddard died on the Athenia in Sept 1939". Ahoy – Mac's Web Log.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  11. ^ Gregory, Mackenzie J. "SS Athenia, First Casualty of the U-Boat War on the 3 September 1939". Ahoy – Mac's Web Log.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  12. ^ Padfield 1996, p. 7.
  13. ^ Blair 1996, p. 67.
  14. ^ Williams 2003, p. 17.
  15. ^ "Hayworth, Margaret Janet". Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
  16. ^ Houghton 2003, pp. 75–76.
  17. ^ Davidson 1997, p. 381.
  18. ^ Doenecke 2003, p. 68.
  19. ^ Santosuosso, PA (15 September 1939). "Dear Joe". Italian News. p. 5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) (weekly column)
  20. ^ a b Francis M. Carroll (2012). "Chapter 2, In All Respects Ready For Sea". Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack that Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic. Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-61251-155-9.
  21. ^ Caulfield, Max. Tomorrow Never Came - The Story of the S.S. Athenia. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  22. ^ "Gifts For the Gardener". Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  23. ^ MacTavish, Angus. "The Finest Consignment of Curling Stones Ever..." Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  24. ^ Amos, Jonathan (5 October 2017). "Wreck could be sunken Athenia from WW2". BBC News.
  25. ^ a b Harwood 2015, p. 20.
  26. ^ "SS Athenia (Glasgow)". Commonwealth War Graves Commission Find War Dead Database.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  27. ^ "Hannah Baird". Veterans Affairs Canada. Virtual War MemorialCS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  28. ^ "Rollerskate Skinny Lyrics".
  29. ^ James Goodson (28 January 2016). "Chapter One, The Kings Enemies". Tumult in the Clouds: Original Edition. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-1-4059-2552-5.
  30. ^ "Nova Scotia House of Assembly Committee on Veterans' Affairs". Hansard. Archived from the original on 13 November 2007. Retrieved 30 October 2007.
  31. ^ Fairclough 1995, p. 61.
  32. ^ "Noted Painter of Flowers Visitor in Palm Springs". Desert Sun (1934–1989). Palm Springs, California. 22 January 1943. Retrieved 12 March 2018.

General sourcesEdit

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