We were victims of Nazi frightfulness.
Athenia, first victim of Nazi frightfulness on the high seas.
Below is an amplified account supported by a number of first-hand
When Mr Winston Churchill answering from his place on the
Treasury bench in the House of Commons questions directed
to that board of Admiralty of which he was head more than
20 years before Rose to make his second statement regarding
the sinking of the Athenia, he declared that it was now clearly
established that the disaster was due to an attack without
warning by a submarine.
At 1945 hrs local time, he proceeded on the night of Sunday
a torpedo struck the ship abaft the engine room on
the port side, when she was 250 miles north west of the coast
of Ireland. Soon after the torpedo struck the ship, the submarine
came to the surface and fired a shell which exploded in the
middle deck. The U-30
cruised around the sinking ship and was seen by numerous persons
including American survivors, a considerable number of whom.
I think 12 or more have given affidavits to this effect.
After a statement concerning the number of survivors who had
been picked up by the rescue ships, the first Lord of the
Admiralty went on to deny that the Athenia was defensively
armed on the contrary, not only did she carry no guns but
her decks had not even been strengthened for this purpose.
A little later in the sitting. Mr Churchill said that it was
quite clear that before the Athenia left on her peaceful mission.
And before war was declared, the submarine must already have
taken up her position waiting to pick up a prey. Of the witnesses
mentioned by Mr Churchill, the fact that the Athenia was torpedoed,
the first was the captain of the ship, Captain James Cook,
who in a statement declared emphatically that there is no
doubt about it. My ship was torpedoed. The passengers were
at dinner at about 1930 hrs when the torpedo struck the ship
and the explosion killed several of them. The torpedo went
right through the ship to the engine room. It completely wrecked
the galley. The submarine fired a torpedo and rose above the
surface and fired a shell, which was aimed at the destruction
of the wireless equipment, but it missed its mark. An officer
of the Athenia said he saw the periscope of the submarine
clearly, and also a line coming along the water as a torpedo
approached the ship. Several members of the crew testified
to the same fact.
John M'Ewan said there was a great deal of smoke with a torpedo
struck the ship, but through the smoke we could see the submarine
break surface, and then before we knew where we were the commander
had turned a gun on us.
Claud Barrie, a bedroom steward, said that he was in the pantry
helping the waiters when there was a violent explosion. The
lights went out, the ship gave a lurch. I am an old soldier,
and that once smelt cordite. It can't be, I thought to myself
but my mate said, the swine has hit us. The ship suddenly
took a list. We ran to the alleyways to warn passengers and
then up on deck in time to see the periscope of the submarine
disappear. Then one of the Czech refugee boys on board, described
in graphic fashion how he saw a machine suddenly come up some
distance away. There was a column of water near the ship,
and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us.
There was a bang and then I saw men on the submarine turn
the gun and fire it.
In the light of the statements such as these, it is difficult
to understand the pertinacity with which the German authorities
maintain that the Athenia could not have been sunk by a German
submarine, and that if it had been sunk by a submarine at
all. It was probably a British one!
In our earlier account of the torpedoing of the ship we gave
an impression of the terrible hours that followed, as the
boats overloaded with passengers rowed here and there across
the open sea. When the survivors were landed by the rescue
ships, the three destroyers, the Norwegian merchantman Knute
Nelson, the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, and the American
steamer, City of Flint at Galway and Greenock, there were
heart rendering scenes. Many were so injured that they were
hurried by waiting ambulances to hospital. Most of the others
were able to go to their hotels had black eyes, cut cheeks,
bruised arms and legs. Some had been injured when lifeboats
were caught in a swell and dashed against the side of a rescue
ship. Others had crashed into bulkheads as they hurried to
the lifeboats or made for the boat stations. Several of those
who were picked up died before landing. Many of the women
and children wearing clothes borrowed from men in the destroyers.
Several had still their night clothes on, with a sailors greatcoat
thrown over them. Somewhere in stokers uniforms and war sailors
boots. Two or three little boys were dressed in sailors uniform.
Not for some days, was it possible to estimate the full extent
of the disaster in terms of human lives. Then it was stated
that the Athenia had on board 1418 persons of whom over 300
where Americans, and of this total 128 were unaccounted for
after the disaster
sinking of the Athenia
We were victims of Nazi frightfulness
The Second Great War.
Edited by Sir John Hamilton
The War Illustrated.
Edited by Sir John Hamilton
2194 Days Of War.
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