In response to the invasion of Poland on Sept 1, Great Britain declared war on Germany at 11am on Sept 3, 1939.
Less than nine hours later, a German submarine torpedoed the passenger liner Athenia, 13,581grt, of the Donaldson Atlantic Line, managed by Donaldson Bros & Black Ltd, of Glasgow, and she sank with a heavy loss of life.
The marine scientist and wreck hunter David Mearns believes that a wreck he has seen in the waters of the Rockall Bank off the coast of Galway could be that of the passenger liner.
The loss of the Athenia marked the start of the longest battle of the Second World War. The Battle of the Atlantic did not end until May, 1945.
Completed in 1923, the Athenia was the first of two sister ships ordered by the then Anchor Donaldson Line, of Glasgow, from the Clyde shipbuilders Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co, of Govan, for its service between Glasgow, Liverpool and Canada. As built, the Athenia had accommodation for 400 Cabin class and 1,000 Third class passengers. The Letitia, 13,595grt, entered service in 1925.
On Sept 3, 1939, the German Navy sent a radio message to all U-boats: “Troopships and merchant ships carrying military equipment are to be attacked in accordance with the Prize Regulations of the Hague Convention. Enemy convoys are to be attacked without warning on condition that all passenger liners carrying passengers are allowed to proceed in safety. These vessels are immune from attack even in convoy.”
The Athenia had embarked passengers at Liverpool and then Glasgow and she left the River Clyde on Sept 2 with 1,103 passengers and 315 crew, bound for Montreal. The ship had no guns on board with which she could defend herself if attacked. Most of the passengers were heading for the United States and Canada to escape the war.
Following the declaration of war, the Athenia’s passengers were informed that they would now be sailing under a total blackout. About 7.30pm, the liner was some 230 miles west of Donegal when, without any warning, she was hit on the port side abaft the engine room by a torpedo from the U-30, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Fritz-Julius Lemp, The U-boat then surfaced and opened fire with her gun to destroy the wireless equipment.
Water quickly flowed in, the lights went out and as the ship began to sink, the passengers and crew rushed for their boat stations in total darkness. Ninety three passengers and 19 crew died.
The 1,306 survivors spent over 10 hours in the lifeboats, huddled together to try and keep warm, many were seasick, and they spent hours bailing out water from the bottom of their craft.
Giving details of the wreck this autumn, wreck hunter David Mearns, who has found some 24 wrecks for insurance and TV companies, said the Athenia’s hull is visible in sonar data acquired by the Geological Survey of Ireland. The wreck is split in the aft section but is otherwise sitting proud of the sediment and looks in reasonable shape.
He said: “The dimensions match exactly what would be expected of a 160m long 13,500 tons passenger liner. The co-ordinares are very close to those sent out by the Athenia’s radio officer in his distress call, and recorded in the logbooks of the vessels that came to the rescue.