Behind the Scenes

Athenia Wreck Tentatively Identified

In October of 2017, the BBC published a story on its website that marine geologist David L. Mearns identified a sonar image on the ocean floor as likely being the wreck of the Athenia, the British passenger ship sunk by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939. Follow the link below to read the full story.

Telling the story of the attack on the passenger ship Athenia required six years and a great deal of research. The first two years, I read contemporary newspaper accounts from 1939 about the incident and familiarized myself with the political and social environment in which it took place; reviewed affidavits given by many of Athenia’s passengers and crew members regarding their experiences; and studied the British government’s official inquiry into the ship’s sinking. I also read about German U-boat operations and torpedo technology at the start of World War II.

Because I wanted to tell the human side of the sinking, I identified a number of individuals aboard Athenia and the U-boat whose stories would allow readers to experience these events first-hand in order to bring this history to life. Getting to know these people, either through their writings or by meeting their descendants turned out to be the most rewarding part of the research.

My interest in the Athenia tragedy stems from my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, who was a passenger on the ship. She survived the torpedoing and later wrote an account of her experiences.  Her personal recollections were so vivid that they inspired me to tell this story through the eyes of the people who lived it. Nearly 78 years after Athenia sank, there are several people still alive who were aboard that ship on Sept. 3, 1939, and who have vivid memories of those events. I met with five such survivors – Rosemary Cass-Beggs Burstall in England, Geoffrey Etherington in Florida, Heather Donald Watts, Donald Wilcox in Canada, and Barbara Rodman Wilson in New York. I am deeply appreciative of the time they took to share their stories with me.  I also received wonderful cooperation from the families of Steve Kucharchuk and David Jennings, two of the book’s principal characters. The family of Russell Park was also helpful in providing insights into the man this 11-year-old boy would become. To trim the book’s length and tighten its focus, I reluctantly eliminated Russell from my later manuscript revisions. However, you can still read about Russell’s experiences in my blog.

For anyone interested in this subject, below is a list of the books I read, the libraries and archives I visited, and the most helpful Websites I reviewed to research Without Warning.  I am indebted to the skills and enthusiasm of archivists and librarians who helped me and my wife, Kay, track down the details of Athenia’s story.


Allan, Andrew; Andrew Allan: A Self-Portrait; MacMillan of Canada; Toronto; 1974

Allan, Rev. William; Memories of Blinkbonnie; Thomas Nelson & Sons; Toronto; 1939

Blair, Clay; Hitler’s U-Boat War, Vol. I; Random House, Inc.; New York; 1996

Brennecke, Jochen; The Hunters and the Hunted; Corgi, London; 1960

Carroll, Prof. Francis M.; Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the
Atlantic; Naval Institute Press; Annapolis, MD; 2012

Cass-Beggs, Barbara; Roots and Wings: A Memoir of My Life with David; Cass-Beggs Productions; Hull, Quebec; 1992

Caulfield, Max; Tomorrow Never Came: The Story of the S.S. Athenia; W.W. Norton & Co.; New York; 1959 (First published in England under the title Night of Terror in 1958)

Charman, Terry; Outbreak 1939: The World Goes to War; Virgin Books; London; 2009

Evans, Montgomery; A Ship Was Torpedoed; Montgomery Evans, USA; 1941

Gainard, Joseph; Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of the City of Flint; Frederick A. Stokes Co.; New York; 1940

Hibbert, Joyce; Fragments of War: Stories from Survivors of World War II; Dundurn Press; Toronto; 1985

Kaplan, Philip & Currie, Jack; Wolfpack: U-Boats at War 1939-1945; Naval Institute Press; Annapolis, MD; 1997

Krzysztalowicz, Marek; Type VII: Germany’s Most Successful U-Boats; Seaforth Publishing; Barnsley, S. Yorkshire, U.K.; 2012

Kurowsk, Franz;  Jäger der sieben Meere. Die berühmtesten U-Boot-Kommandanten des II. Weltkriegs; Motorbuch Verlag, Stuttgart; 1998 (2. Auflage)

Mulligan, Timothy P.; Neither Sharks Nor Wolves: The Men of Nazi Germany’s U-Boat Arm, 1939-1945; Naval Institute Press; Annapolis, MD; 1999.

Rademacher, Cay, Drie Tage Im September; Die Ietzte Fahrt der Athenia 1939; Mareverlag, Hamburg; 2009

Rӧssler, Eberhard; The U-boat: The Evolution and Technical History of German Submarines; Arms and Armour Press, London; 1981

Stern, Robert C.; Type VII U-boats; Brockhampton Press, London; 1991

Werner, Herbert A.; Iron Coffins: A personal account of the German U-boat battles of World War II; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York; 1969

Wright, David Habersham; Wolves Without Teeth; The German Torpedo Crisis in World War Two; Master of Arts Thesis, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia; 2010

Archives & Libraries:

British Library, London & Colindale, UK

British Maritime Museum Archive, Greenwich, UK

British National Archives, Kew, UK

Deutsches Marine Museum, Wilhelmshaven, Germany

Deutsches U-Boat Museum, Cruxhaven-Altenbruch, Germany

Imperial War Museum Archive, London, UK

Metropolitan London Archives, London, UK

Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

New York City Public Library, New York, New York, USA

Riverside Museum, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

Royal Navy Submarine Museum Archive, Gosport, UK

Scottish Screen Archive, Glasgow, Scotland, UK

Technisches Museum U-995 at the Laboe Naval Memorial, Laboe, Germany

U.S. National Archives, College Park, MD, USA


Ahoy – Mac’s weblog (click on “The Athenia Pages”) (click on “Athenia 1923”)

MaritimeQuest (click on “Daily Event” ›“Daily Event Archive” ›“2008” ›“September” ›“3”)

Mikekemble  (click on “WW/2 Sea” ›“SS Athenia”)

Sharkhunters (click on “U-Boat History” ›“view history of any U-Boat,” scroll down to click on “U-30,” scroll down to find and click on individual stories) (for general information about German U-boats in World War II)