Behind the Scenes

Telling Athenia’s story required a great deal of research.  During the last two years, I read contemporary newspaper accounts 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 studied up on German U-boat technology and operations 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 made me want to tell this story through the eyes of the people who lived it.  Seventy-four years after Athenia sank, there still are several passengers alive today who were aboard that ship on Sept. 3, 1939 and have vivid memories of those events.  I have talked with five such survivors – Rosemary Cass-Beggs Burstall, Geoffrey Etherington, Heather Donald Watts, Donald Wilcox and Barbara Rodman Wilson.  I am deeply indebted to them for their generosity and willingness to share their stories.  I also received wonderful cooperation from the families of Steve Kucharchuk and David Jennings, two of the book’s principal characters.

Below are the libraries and archives I consulted 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.

  • British Library, London & Colindale, UK
  • British Maritime Museum Archive, Greenwich, UK
  • British National Archives, Kew, UK
  • Deutsches U-Boat Museum, Cruxhaven-Altenbruch, Germany
  • Imperial War Museum Archive, London, UK
  • Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, N.S., Canada
  • Metropolitan London Archives, London, UK
  • Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
  • National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
  • New York City Public Library
  • Riverside Transportation Museum, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
  • Royal Navy Submarine Museum Archive, Gosport, UK
  • Scottish Screen Archive, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
  • U.S. National Archives, College Park, MD, USA