Rhoda’s Story: Part 4 The SS Athenia is Torpedoed…

Photo credit:   wreckhunter.net

 In Part 3 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother boarded Athenia in Liverpool, England, on Sept. 2, 1939. The next day, Sept. 3, word reached the ship that Britain had declared war on Germany. While Rhoda was concerned about the danger posed by German submarines, she and many other passengers believed they would be out of danger before anything might happen.

Her story continues: 

Just before the evening meal, I went down to my cabin, washed, and changed my dress for dinner. I took my coat and hat with me as I decided to come back up on deck right after. Mrs. Townley said she didn’t feel well, but she ate dinner and we both went up on deck and found a seat [on the] starboard side of the hatchway. About fifteen or twenty minutes past seven, as we sat there,  a terrific explosion suddenly occurred. Something struck the port side of the ship, and she seemed to keel over on her side and the water came over the deck. The lights went out all over the inside of the ship and a dense cloud of gas-filled smoke seemed everywhere. I was thrown down and as I picked myself up and turned around, I saw out on the water about a half a mile away, a long-shaped dark object with black smoke around it, and in a flash I knew what had happened.

The panic, the screaming and cries of the women and children [were] terrible. …The officers and men were shouting and hurrying to get the lifeboats lowered. I just stood there, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of my home and family and wondering if I should ever see them again, and yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm. I turned to a panic-stricken woman, put my arms around her and said, “Don’t be afraid, God will save us; let us put our faith in him.”

She said, “If there is a God, why did He let this happen?”

I said, “This is the devil’s work, and God is mightier than the devil. He’ll save us,” and I led her to the side of the ship, and saw her get into a lifeboat.

I cannot describe all the scenes around me just then. It seemed such a scramble and so much shouting and screaming, especially when we heard another shell fired which seemed to burst overhead. I only remember climbing over the side of the ship and down a rope ladder, [then to] drop off the ladder into the lifeboat. I also remember hearing a boy cry, “There’s my mother on the ladder. Oh, please wait for my mother.” But they said the boat was overloaded and pulled away. I turned around to see a gray-haired woman clinging to the ladder, and her two children, a boy, 15, and a little girl, nine, pulling way in our lifeboat. They both cried for their mother all night long.

After we got clear of the Athenia, it became very dark and began to rain, and we found water coming in the boat. …We found a pail in the boat and started to bail out the water. …I was glad I had a warm coat on, as there were those in the boat that only had a thin dress on and some only night clothes, and it was very cold. I took the bottom part of my coat and wrapped it around a poor shivering woman who stood by me crying, with just a thin dress on… [I] tried to comfort her by repeating the 23rd Psalm. By that time, I was standing ankle deep in oil and water. Then someone asked me to please take a baby under my coat to keep it warm, as it had only a little shirt on. I took the baby; I  judged it to be about eighteen months old. The baby was asleep.

The sea was heavy and at times I thought we would capsize. …I got very tired. [T]he baby lay a dead weight in my arms, and as I was standing, every time the boat lurched, I had difficulty keeping my balance, then one of the boys [who was] rowing called for someone else with a coat to take the baby and give me a rest. Finally a girl sitting on the other side of the boat took [the infant] from me.

In my next blog, Rhoda witnesses a tragedy.

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“Rhoda’s Story” Part 3 – Boarding the SS Athenia

 

British schoolchildren await evacuation to the countryside on Sept. 1, 1939, to escape cities that might become targets in wartime.
Photo credit: BBC

In Part 2 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother took a train on Sept. 1, 1939, headed to Liverpool, where she would board the passenger ship Athenia the next day to begin her journey home to Rochester, NY. That same day, Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and England began a long-planned evacuation of school children to the countryside from large cities likely to be targets of German bombers. As Rhoda’s train passed through stations in the countryside, she recorded her observations: 

At Gloucester, we saw the first group of evacuated children. I shall never forget it. Torn away from their homes, all with their little knapsacks on their backs, their gas masks over their shoulders, and bands with numbers on their arms, in [the] charge of one or more teachers from different schools; little tots not knowing what it was all about, some crying and some laughing, unconscious of the danger they were fleeing from. It was then all the women in my compartment gave way to tears and we began to realize how serious the situation had become.

The next day, Saturday, Sept. 2, Rhoda boarded Athenia just before noon and found the ship was “terribly crowded” with many children and babies. Her narrative continues:

A lot of extra help had been taken on, but even then they seemed to have difficulty in coping with so much more luggage and so many more passengers than usual; everything seemed to be off schedule and out of the ordinary. I was fortunate in having a very nice cabin with three other ladies. One of them had only been over four days and seemed very unhappy to have to return so soon, as she hadn’t seen her people for twenty-five years….

At the noon lunch, we sat where we could find room, but as there was to be three sittings, we had to line up for our place cards at meals, and I was fortunate to be at the first sitting. That evening the orders had been posted up that all the lights on the ship would be blacked out, and positively no smoking or striking of matches would be allowed on deck. I stayed on deck with another lady named Mrs. Townley for a little while after dark, then decided to go down to my cabin and go to bed. I didn’t sleep much that night, I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid, but I had left my friends and relatives so hurriedly, and with the thought of war so close to them, I guess I had lots to think about.

The next morning was Sunday. I got up, dressed and went up on deck quite early. After breakfast I became acquainted with more passengers and learned we were to have our passports examined, so I had to go up to the lounge and wait my turn for this procedure. I stayed on deck all morning. The weather was fair, the sea a little heavy, but I felt fine, although … quite a number of passenger had started to be seasick.

At lunch the steward told us war had been declared and when we came upstairs we found a bulletin posted outside the purser’s office to that effect. We all felt rather blue and I must admit that try as I would, I could not help thinking of the German submarine danger. I guess we all thought alike but were of the opinion that we should be out of the danger zone before anything could possibly happen. After all, we argued, why would Germany want to attack a passenger ship with so many Americans aboard and Germans too. It was silly even to think about it.

In my next blog, the unthinkable happens.

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Rhoda’s Story, SS Athenia – Part 2

In Part 1 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother was visiting her relatives in the town of Street in Somerset, England, in August, 1939, when Germany announced it signed a non-aggression pact with Russia. The pact cleared the way for Germany to invade its neighbor, Poland, a nation England had previously agreed to defend. War in Europe suddenly seemed a greater possibility. Rhoda’s account of these events continues: 

That evening I heard over the radio the warning to American citizens in Great Britain to leave for home immediately. I called the American Consul and asked his advice, and he told me if I could make arrangements to leave, to do so at once, for, he said, if war broke out and the American government sent ships to evacuate their citizens, we would be allowed to bring only one piece of hand luggage, and would be expected to carry warm clothing and enough imperishable food to last over a week. Having paid my return fare and having bought and packed numerous presents and souvenirs, and clothes I had brought with me in case cold weather set in before I got back in October, I thought the best thing I could do would be to try and make arrangements with the Cunard Steamship Line to transfer me to the earliest possible boat they could. Then I could bring my luggage with me.

Rhoda contacted her steamship company to arrange passage home to New York as soon as possible. After being transferred to a ship whose sailing was cancelled, she received passage on the Athenia, sailing Sept. 2 from Liverpool to Montreal. She arranged to take a train from Street to Liverpool on Friday, Sept. 1.

On Thursday [Aug.31], over the radio came the news that all the danger zones in England were going to evacuate their children [Sept. 1], and that people traveling by train were required to put off their trips if possible, as so many trains were to be taken over by the government for this purpose. I decided I would go by car. I believe it’s about 270 miles from Street to Liverpool, which is quite a journey by car in England.

However, I got in touch with an old acquaintance of ours who owned and operated a garage with cars for hire and they gave me a price, which I accepted, and after talking it over, I decided I would travel all night Friday to arrive in Liverpool early Saturday morning. …Thursday night I went to bed reconciled to the fact that the next night would see me traveling the first lap of my journey home. I don’t think I need try to tell you of the nervous tension we all were under, not knowing from day to day what the next dreaded news would be, trying to keep cheerful and be optimistic about everything. I kept telling my relatives that I knew God would protect us and all would be well.

Sept. 1, 1939, just before dawn, the German army began its invasion of Poland, making war in Europe almost inevitable.

Friday morning about 10:30, the father of the young man who was to drive me to Liverpool, called to tell me his son had been called for military duty and would not be able to drive the car. He told me he would telephone and find out if the Pine Express would be running that day, and if so, the best thing for me to do would be to try to catch it at Shepton Mallet, 13 miles away, where it would go through about 12 o’clock. He was assured that it was running as scheduled, and as quickly as I could I got ready, and without saying goodbye to most of my friends and relatives, I rushed off to try to catch the Express. We just made it. The train was crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm. As I think about it now, and remember how unified they were and how unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and to give up all their country demanded, I [have] to admire their courage.

Part 3: Rhoda boards Athenia, and wonders how the crowds of women and children will all find accommodation on the ship.   

Meet the Character Guest Blog by Rosemary Cass-Beggs Burstall

Note: Rosemary Cass-Beggs was three years old when she boarded the British passenger liner Athenia Sept. 2, 1939, with her parents, Barbara and David Cass-Beggs. When their ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat (the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning), Rosemary’s parents put her on one of the first lifeboats to leave the ship, even though there was no room for them in the boat. They expected Athenia to sink at any moment and wanted to make sure their daughter survived. Following are Rosemary’s memories of these events.

I am kneeling on a bench near the pointed end of the boat crying, “Mum-mee!” at intervals. What worried me most was that I was wearing my pajama top and nothing else. I don’t remember being cold or wet, simply embarrassed. Behind me, sitting round the edges of the boat were a lot of other people, all very silent. Read More