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The sinking of the Athenia.

If the world was slipping into war in the final days of August 1939, most Canadians seemed oblivious to the fact. In Toronto, the Canadian National Exhibition was winding down, having out-drawn even the New York World's Fair with its preview of a "New Era" featuring streamlined cars, electric stoves and refrigerators and a sort of radio with pictures called "television." For a dollar, teenagers could dance the night away to six big bands: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Grey, Guy Lombardo, and Stanley St. John. Tony Martin was singing, too.

On August 22, when Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler's greatest enemy, the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin, the Toronto Stars headline read: "POLICE FOIL GRIMSBY BANK HOLDUP, NAB SUSPECT." Three days later, as German troops massed along the Polish frontier, the Star informed its readers: "$11,004 NEEDED STILL FOR FRESH AIR, FUND."

Across Canada, fall fairs were drawing large crowds and there were long lineups for the hot new movie Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, pure escapist fare with young Mickey Rooney. And Canadians tuned out the bad news from Europe by tuning in to "The Happy Gang" on CBC radio. Or played the popular games of the day: Chinese checkers, Parcheesi, pick-up sticks and the new table hockey games.

At Naval Service Headquarters in Ottawa, on the third and fourth floors of a non-descript office building on Queen Street with a delicatessen on the ground floor, life went on pretty much as usual. Each day, promptly at three, Miss Hetty Evans, the Chief of the Naval Staff Rear-Admiral P.W. Nelles's secretary, opened the massive safe in his office and took out his tea caddy and biscuits and served afternoon tea. On August 31, the admiral bestirred himself to order the destroyers Ottawa and Fraser back to Halifax "with all convenient despatch" from a public relations visit to the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver.

If most Canadians seemed unconcerned about the news from Europe, John Hayworth of Hamilton, Ontario, was not. He and his family had travelled to Scotland for a summer vacation with relatives, but he had left early to return to work, leaving his wife Georgina and daughters ten-year-old Margaret and six-year-old Jacqueline behind. Now, as the news worsened, the tall, quiet Scot, anxiously sent a telegram to his wife urging her to come home. Reluctantly, Georgina booked third-class passage for herself and the girls on the 13,500-ton Cunard-White Star liner Athenia, due to sail on the night of August 31 from Glasgow to Montreal by way of Liverpool.

Margaret Baldwin of Ottawa and her friend Patsy Hale were in England celebrating their recent graduation from McGill University. "The atmosphere was quite foreboding," Baldwin recalled. "Everybody told us, 'Get out of here,' so Patsy and I managed to get a cabin on the Athenia."

They hurried north by train to Glasgow to find the city preparing for war. Barrage balloons were going up, traffic lights were dimmed, and a blackout was in effect. When they boarded the Athenia, they were shocked to find that the ship was blacked out as well.

As the Athenia left Glasgow, news was rippling around the world that Germany had invaded Poland. The next day, September 2, the Athenia docked in Liverpool and took on several hundred more passengers, including 150 European refugees who thought they were escaping the Nazis for good. Sailing on the evening tide, the Athenia had 1,418 passengers and crew aboard, of which 400 were Canadians and 300 Americans. Three-quarters of the passengers were women and children.

Alexander Lamont, of Hopkins Landing, B.C., was travelling with his mother. Ten years old at the time, he vividly recalled that the mood aboard the Athenia was tense as word of Britain's declaration of war spread throughout the ship the next morning. At noon, Captain James Cook ordered a lifeboat drill, but as the afternoon wore on people relaxed, sensing they were now safely beyond the point where submarines lurking in British waters could attack the ship. At six o'clock, the Athenia was blacked out, the portholes were closed and dark curtains drawn over the passageways. An hour later, Alex and his mother went up to the portside deck and found chairs to enjoy the sunset.


On the morning of Sunday, September 3, some 250 nautical miles off the coast of Scotland, Fritz-Julius Lemp, the commander of U-30, a Type VIIA German submarine, joined the new watch on the conning tower. It was a fine, clear day with a gentle Atlantic swell, and life aboard the U-boat was almost comfortable, His orders were simply to await an urgent signal and be ready for immediate action. It was the seventh day that U-30 had spent waiting, cruising the patrol area it had been allocated.

Georg Hogel, U-30's radio operator, recalled that everyone on board was worried. When the signal came it was brief and shocking: "Britain and France have declared war on Germany. Battle-stations immediate." No one on U-30 had wanted this. "I was lying on my bunk, still sleepy from the middle watch," Hogel said. "My comrades came in and gave me a poke, saying 'England has declared war on us.' Eleven in the morning. I looked at my watch; it was twelve o'clock in Germany. We felt a certain tension, curiosity, but there was no enthusiasm."

Before sailing, all U-boats had been issued with strict orders to operate within the Prize Rules, the international agreements governing the conduct of war at sea. Merchant ships were to be stopped and searched, and if found to be carrying contraband cargo, could be sunk, but only after the crew had been seen safely into lifeboats. At two o'clock that afternoon, Fuhrer der U-Boote, Karl Donitz, sent a message to every U-boat at sea reminding them of these restrictions.

Lemp and his watch had observed a good number of ships on the horizon, but all of these were allowed to pass unmolested. At 4:30 p.m., the watch picked up the outline of a large ship outward bound from Britain and Lemp decided on pursuit. Hogel recalled: "While the commander was unsure what he was supposed to do we remained at a distance, so that we always had the ship on the horizon. He waited until dusk fell, and then we moved closer."

Lemp noted that the ship was blacked out and zigzagging on a defensive course and concluded that she must be a British merchant cruiser; fair game under the Prize Rules. No warning was necessary.

At 7:40 p.m., Lemp gave the order to fire two torpedoes.


The first torpedo smashed into the Athenia amidships, ripping open the bulkhead between the engine and boiler rooms, instantly crippling the ship.

"The explosion knocked over all the deck chairs," Jacqueline Hayworth recalled. Debris flew everywhere, a jagged splinter tearing a gash in her sister Margaret's forehead. Jacqueline and her mother were not hurt. "There was a lot of rushing around," she recalled. "My mother went to get life vests and I wanted to go below to get a doll I was given in Scotland. But I couldn't. At our lifeboat station, I remember holding on to my mother's skirt. Margaret went into the lifeboat. Then my mother was pulled in. I fell backwards and someone grabbed me--and took me to another lifeboat station ... It was the worst moment of my life, being separated from my mother."

Below decks, Alexander Lamont's mother was knocked unconscious when she was hit on the head by a heavy fan that fell from the top of a dresser in their cabin. "My feet were suddenly in two or three inches of water," Alex remembers. "Yelling for my mother and the water hitting my mother's face brought her back to consciousness. She called out 'Alex, are you there?' It was pitch black, we couldn't see. I reached down, stumbled over my mother, pulled her up. She said 'O God help us!'"

Making their way out of their wrecked cabin into a passageway, Alex and his mother climbed up a twisted emergency ladder to the main deck. "The passageways were strewn with broken suitcases and travelling trunks," he recalled. "And a couple of bodies floating in the flotsam. The most horrible sight was that of a lady's severed leg, lying on top of a floating travel trunk. It was severed about 12 inches above the knee. I will never forget that sight ... One poor lady, a little older than my mother, was hysterically screaming and crying, 'Have you seen my baby daughter?'"

On deck, they headed for the lifeboats. Swells were now running between four and five metres high. "The first sight I saw when we stumbled out on to the open main deck was three bodies," Alex recalled. "The crew on deck had to help people over the rail and have them hold on with their hands. Then they would yell, 'Jump! Jump! Jump!' and everyone jumped when they should." About thirty people made it into his lifeboat.

Others were not as lucky. Margaret Baldwin recounted that "many people fell off the rope ladders. My aunt's two maids were on the Athenia. Only one survived--the other fell between the lifeboat and the ship ... In my lifeboat, people were singing and people were being sick."

Shortly after midnight, as the Athenia settled by the stern, the Knute Nelson, a Norwegian tanker and the Southern Cross, an ocean-going yacht, arrived on the scene. "We tried to board her," but we couldn't," Baldwin recalled. "One boat was thrashed to pieces by her propeller and ours almost suffered the same fate. The boat was sucked back and I used an oar to push off." Eventually, Baldwin was picked up by the Southern Cross.

The Hayworths, Patsy Hale and the Lamonts were also rescued by the Southern Cross, then transferred to a small American freighter, the City of Flint. Margaret Hayworth slipped in and out of consciousness and died on September 9, halfway home.


Aboard the U-30, Hogel heard the Athenia's distress call, "SSS--attacked by submarine," and hurried to the conning tower with a copy of Lloyds' Register in hand to inform the captain that she was a civilian passenger liner. Lemp was stunned, but he had a more immediate concern--the second torpedo he had ordered fired was stuck in a forward tube. It was finally ejected with compressed air, and exploded almost as soon as it was gone, rocking the boat violently.

Lemp later admitted that he had been just too "over-exited by the declaration of war" to take the time to check his target. It was a ghastly mistake and a propaganda gift for the Allies, which were quick to draw parallels with Germany's unrestricted U-boat campaign during World War One. The new First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, told the War Cabinet as much the morning after the sinking. The whole affair, he said, could not fail to have a "helpful effect" on public opinion in America. Of the almost 1,400 passengers and crew, 118 civilians perished aboard the Athenia, including 22 American citizens.

The significance of the sinking was instantly recognized by Hitler. The first step was to deny responsibility. Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels claimed that it was the British who had sunk the Athenia in a desperate attempt to bring the United States into the war. The second step was a tightening of restrictions on U-boat operations which went even further than Germany was required to do under international law.

Aboard U-30, Lemp ordered his crew not to breathe a word of the affair. "We were assembled in the bow compartment, apart from the officers," Hogel recalls, "and then we were sworn to secrecy. Not only were we not to discuss it, but we were not to betray anything by sign or gesture." Back in Wilhemshaven, the U30's log was rewritten to remove any reference to the Athenia.

Although Helen Baird of Verdun, Quebec, a crew member aboard the Athenia, is listed as the first Canadian to die in WWII, it was the death of Margaret Hayworth that became a rallying cry for the nation. Even though her parents wanted a private funeral for their daughter, they bowed to politicians' pleas to hold a state funeral. The streets of Hamilton were packed with people to watch the funeral procession pass by on its way to Woodlawn Ceremony, where she was buried beneath a stately grey stone marker. Flags flew at half-mast that day across Canada.

Her death may have stirred Canada to war, but, ironically, the submarine commander responsible for it later helped to end it. In May 1941, after a running fight, Lemp's new U-boat, U-11 O, was captured off Iceland by HMS Bulldog along with an Enigma machine that enabled the Allies to crack the German naval codes. Hogel and 32 crew members were rescued before U-110 sank in heavy seas.

Lemp was not among the survivors.
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Title Annotation:Second World War; passenger ship
Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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