Russell Park on the SS Athenia: Part 2

 

WW2 Barrage Balloons

WW2 Barrage Balloons

Saturday Morning, September 2, 1939

A gray overcast held off the early morning sun as Athenia made her way slowly up the Mersey River into Liverpool. Russell and his father, Alexander, leaned on the portside railing where they anticipated having a good view of the action when the liner tied up at the Albert Docks. Russell’s mother, Rebecca, had decided to remain in bed to nurse an upset stomach.

Instead of heading for the docks, the liner came to a stop and dropped anchor a few minutes past seven a.m. in the middle of the river. Russell hardly noticed the unexpected anchoring. He was intrigued by something he had never seen before. Floating on long tethers high above the city were dozens of floppy silver balloons the size of school buses, with two fins on either side of a tapered tail. To Russell, it looked as if the circus had come to town.

“They’re barrage balloons,” his father explained.

“Can people go up in them?”

“Oh no, Russ, they’re to protect the city from bombers, in case England goes to war with Germany.”

“Do the bombs bounce off of them?” Russell thought that might be an interesting sight.

“Nope. If the enemy planes come in low to drop their bombs they’ll be tangled up in the balloon cables and crash. That means they have to fly higher, where the English anti-aircraft gunners can shoot them down.”

“Wow, the German bombers don’t stand a chance, do they?”

“There you are.” A familiar voice interrupted Alexander’s response.

Russell and his dad turned to see Father O’Connor strolling toward them, a white clerical collar visible above the leather buttons of his dark cardigan sweater. They exchanged greetings and learned the priest and his father were staying in a Third class cabin on D deck, four decks below, sharing a small cabin with two other men who were German refugees and spoke no English.

“Dad’s sound asleep, so I decided to see if I could find you,” O’Connor said. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” The priest nodded in the direction of the large balloons.

“A sad one, I’m afraid, Father,” Alexander said. “Now Hitler’s marched into Poland, war seems unavoidable.” Russell turned his attention back to the balloons, but kept an ear cocked to the adults’ conversation.

“Such a tragedy,” O’Connor agreed. “I can’t understand how Hitler can be so blind to his own ambition that he’s willing to plunge Europe into another war.”

“I just hope we can stay out of it.”

“I agree. When you look at what happened in Spain, I’m afraid there’ll be little distinction between soldiers and civilians in the next war.”

“Maybe we should change the subject, Father.”

With a pause in the conversation, Russell shifted his attention to the hazy Liverpool skyline and the big gray building on the shore directly across from the ship. Two reddish stone towers, one facing the river and one at the opposite end of the building, rose above the rest of the structure. A large, greenish-gray statue of a bird with its wings outstretched topped each tower. Apparently Father O’Connor noticed them as well.

“You see the two birds on the building over there?” O’Connor asked Russell’s father. “Do you know how to tell if they are male or female?”

“Can’t say as I do, but I have a feeling you know.” Russell could almost hear a smile in his father’s voice.

“As a matter of fact, I do. The one facing us, looking out to the river, that’s a female. She’s looking to see if her boyfriend is coming in on the next ship. The bird looking away from us, toward Liverpool?  He’s a male.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because he’s looking to see if the pubs are open yet.”

“Sounds like a very sensible bird,” Alexander chuckled.

“There’s another local legend about those birds, but it’s not appropriate for young ears.”

Russell kept his gaze on the building and the balloons, hoping for further discussion of the subject in spite of his young ears. But after a moment of silence, his father introduced a new subject, one that didn’t involve the legend of the birds.

“I heard last night that we’re carrying five million pounds sterling in gold bars. A fellow in the lounge told me he saw the steel boxes come aboard under guard in Glasgow. I asked him how he knew what was in the boxes, but he claimed it was common knowledge on board.”

“Well, I heard something last night, too, but I have some trouble believing it,” O’Connor said. “A couple of people told me the crew has never been to sea before. They said the regular crew had all been mobilized by the Royal Navy.”

“That doesn’t make much sense, Alexander said. “A ship this size isn’t going anywhere without experienced seamen aboard.”  After a brief pause, Russell heard his dad speak again.

“I’m afraid we have to go, Father, before we miss our breakfast. You’re welcome to join us if you think your collar will let you into the Tourist dining saloon.”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll head back downstairs and check on dad. Give my regards to Rebecca.”  With a wink and a wave, the priest headed for the stairway.

“Are we really carrying five million dollars of gold?” Russell asked.

“Not dollars, son. They’re British pounds, and I don’t know. But if I were you, I wouldn’t go looking for it.” His father’s comment raised Russell’s hopes that he still might be allowed to explore the ship on his own, and it started him thinking: How big would steel boxes have to be to hold five million dollars in gold bars?

*In Part 1 of Russell Park’s story (see blog post Feb. 28, 2017), 11-year-old Russell and his parents boarded the British passenger liner Athenia in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the evening of Sept, 1, 1939. Overnight, Athenia sailed back across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, England, her last port of call before sailing for Canada.

In our next blog: Events threaten Russell’s plans to explore Athenia.  

My Personal Ties to Mac’s Web Log…

 

My grandmother, Rhoda ThomasI spent several days exploring the fascinating SS Athenia pages on Ahoy – Mac’s Web Log.

My interest in this site, dedicated to “All who went down to the sea in ships” in World War 2, was a personal one.

 

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a survivor of the Athenia’s torpedoing by a German U-boat, and she left our family with a detailed account of her experiences that evening and beyond.

Rhoda Thomas was born in England, but immigrated to the United States with her husband and small family in 1914.

She had returned to England in August, 1939, to visit with friends and relatives but was advised by the American consulate toward the end of the month to return home as soon as possible.

Grandma boarded the Athenia in Liverpool. When the ship was attacked Sept. 3, 1939, she was on deck and, fortunately for her, wearing a heavy coat against the evening chill.

The lifeboat she entered was crowded and she had to stand for a good portion of the night. During this time, she was handed a baby to hold under her coat to keep warm. How I would love to know that child’s identity and what became of him or her!

Also in the lifeboat with by grandmother were Margaret Hayworth, a child who eventually died of wounds she received in the submarine attack, and her mother.

They were rescued by the Southern Cross and later transferred to the City of Flint and landed at Halifax.

While on the City of Flint, my grandmother met another survivor — a young man named John Garland.  They struck up an acquaintance because they were both from Rochester, New York.

Over the years, I found that many people knew of the Lusitania, a passenger ship torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War I, but hardly anyone had ever heard of Athenia, even though 30 Americans died in that attack more than two years before Pearl Harbor. My fascination with this ship, my Grandmother’s personal account and a collection of newspaper articles encouraged me to write my debut historical novel, Without Warning.  

In researching the book, I read many inspiring and harrowing accounts written by other survivors and I was able to speak to a handful of them who are still alive. What began as a project to remember my grandmother, became a personal effort to honor the memories of Athenia’s passengers, whose heroism and sacrifices have been overshadowed by the war’s greater conflagrations.

 

Passengers aboard the cargo ship City of Flint prepared for arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo credit: Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3

When Captain Joseph Gainard pointed City of Flint’s bow toward Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sept. 4, 1939, his 20-year-old freighter had never carried so many passengers – 265 people, all but 29 being survivors of the torpedoed British passenger ship Athenia. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2, Oct. 1, 2015.)
Gainard and his crew faced a voyage of nine days and the captain immediately set about organizing his ship for the long haul. To oversee passenger matters, he set up a small “cabinet” that included two of Flint’s original paying passengers, her chief officer, and her steward.

“We had to figure things to do to keep all that crowd occupied,” Gainard later wrote. “We didn’t have any space for them to play games so we doubled up on some of the jobs, two sweepers to a broom; anything to keep them busy to take their minds off their troubles.” To the captain’s great satisfaction, nearly everyone aboard volunteered to take up some duty.

With help from several passengers, City of Flint’s carpenter completed building 250 bunk beds on the Shelter deck by the next evening, Sept. 5. To help find their way through the maze of beds, passengers put up names to identify various locations. Polish and Czech survivors occupied the “Polish Corridor” and “Sudetenland;” Canadians gathered in “Montreal” and “Quebec;” while names like “Madison Avenue,” “Times Square” and “Seventh Avenue” identified American sections.

Dining was a particular challenge. Before sailing, City of Flint’s steward had arranged enough food to feed 60 people for 90 days, never imagining how fortuitous his planning would prove. But the sheer number of passengers to be fed three times a day threatened to overwhelm the ship’s two small dining facilities. The cabinet set up a system of seatings, similar to the dining arrangements on a passenger ship. Diners picked up their plates and utensils, had a time limit to finish their meals once they were served, and carried their dirty dishes to the washroom. Other passengers, working in shifts, cleaned the plates and utensils for the next set of diners.

Passing ships helped to augment short supplies on City of Flint, sending across blankets, milk, fresh vegetables, medical supplies, and toys and candy for the children.

The cabinet established an entertainment committee, which organized passenger talent shows featuring singers, magicians, and story tellers. A dance instructor from a women’s junior college did the hula to the rhythm of a drum made by stretching canvas over an empty trash can. Passengers also held a limerick contest and conducted a fashion show featuring various “models” wearing their most outlandish makeshift outfits.

One of the passengers, a baker from Albany, NY, fashioned a cake for a party for the children on board, complete with presents of toys and candy supplied by a generous passenger on one of the passing ships. The children also put on a talent show to rival the adults.

Sadly, early on the morning of Sept. 9, the 10-year-old girl, Margaret Hayworth, who had received a head wound in the torpedo attack on Athenia, succumbed to her injury. Not wishing to add to the grief of the survivors who already had been through so much, Gainard decided not to announce the child’s death to the general population of passengers.

On the morning of Sept. 10, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters met City of Flint and took up positions on either side of the cargo ship to escort her the rest of the way to Halifax. The cutters took on board 10 injured survivors so they might enjoy less crowded conditions and have more medical personnel to look after them.

Three days later, City of Flint entered Halifax Harbor to little fanfare. “There were no welcome boats dashing about the harbor, no launches or hollering or shrieking tugs—no whistles,” Gainard said. “This was in line with my request the night before, and was, in fact, appreciated by the Canadians who did not feel that the sinking of the Athenia was any occasion for a celebration.”

As his passengers disembarked, Gainard might well have thought that he could slip back into the welcome anonymity of a merchant mariner. Fate, however, had different plans for the colorful captain and his ship. More about that in our next blog.

City of Flint Captain Joseph Gainard. Photo credit: Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of The City of Flint.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2

The American freighter City of Flint was less than a day into its voyage from Scotland to New York Harbor on Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, when a radio message relayed news that England and Germany were at war. The ship’s captain, Joseph Gainard, did not expect City of Flint to be a target of hostilities because America had declared its neutrality. But the state of war injected an element of uncertainty into an already stressful Atlantic crossing (see blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1, Sept. 15, 2015).
Read More

American freighter City of Flint Photo credit: www.snipview.com

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1

With the threat of war hanging over Europe at the end of August 1939, passenger space on ships leaving England for North America was in great demand. For one ship in particular, the U.S. freighter City of Flint, that demand would unexpectedly swell its passenger manifest from zero to more than 250 in a most unexpected fashion.

When City of Flint’s captain, a crusty New Englander named Joseph Gainard, brought his ship into Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 31, he was told by the ship’s agents ashore that the U.S. Maritime Commission in London wanted to talk to him. Unable to get through to the commission, Gainard phoned the U.S. Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had once helped him resolve a difficult situation with a crew on another ship when Kennedy was chairman of the Maritime Commission. Read More

During the war, David Jennings (second from right at table) served in the Canadian Royal Navy. Here he enjoys liberty with fellow officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, four days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo credit: Jennings family photo.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 4

The survivors of the German submarine attack on the British passenger ship Athenia returned to the British Isles, Canada, and the United States to heroes’ welcomes in the waning days of summer 1939. But the headlines quickly faded, superseded by news of German conquests on the Continent, the British Army’s retreat from Dunkirk, and the London blitz.

Athenia survivor David Jennings returned home to begin his senior year at the University of Toronto, albeit a few days later than planned. (See blog post: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3, Aug. 16, 2015.) While Canadians answered the call of their government to serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen, Jennings completed his engineering degree and in the summer of 1940 and went to work at a local de Havilland Aircraft Company plant. Read More

Survivors (from left) John Woods, David Jennings and Tony Cassels return home Sept. 23, 1939 to Toronto after being rescued from the torpedoed passenger ship Athenia. Photo credit: The Evening Telegram, Toronto, Canada.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3

The Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson was the first ship to respond to distress signals from the British passenger liner Athenia after she was torpedoed in the North Atlantic on the first day of World War 2. David Jennings, a University of Toronto senior, and his friend and fellow student, Tony Cassels, watched from one of the 26 lifeboats arrayed around the sinking ship as the freighter approached shortly after midnight, came to a stop and began rescue operations.

Working at their oars for nearly two hours, Jennings and Cassels helped bring their boat alongside the big Norwegian ship. As he waited to climb aboard the Nelson, Jennings heard a shout from the deck above and was surprised to see his friend and fellow student John Woods, who had been separated from Jennings and Cassels a few hours earlier. Read More

David Jennings enjoys his pipe in an undated photo taken after WW2. Photo credit: Family photo

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 2

The longest continuous military conflict of World War 2 – The Battle of the Atlantic –began at 7:39 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, when a German torpedo loaded with 600 pounds of high explosives slammed into the port side of the British passenger ship Athenia.

At that precise moment onboard Athenia, David Jennings was preparing to leave his Third class cabin near the ship’s bow to attend the third seating for dinner. A University of Toronto student returning home for his senior year, Jennings was accompanied by two university friends, Tony Cassels and John Woods, with whom he had vacationed in the British Isles the previous month. (See blog post July 16, 2015: “David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man.”) Read More

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 4

Rhoda Thomas and her fellow Athenia passengers had nearly given up hope of being rescued from their lifeboat when a bright light found them in the early morning darkness of Monday, Sept. 4, 1939. They had been drifting in the North Atlantic for hours following the attack on Athenia by a German submarine (see blog post June 1, 2015).

The light belonged to the luxury yacht Southern Cross, the second rescue ship to reach the scene of the attack. When the yacht came alongside Rhoda’s lifeboat, sailors threw lines to the passengers and pulled them up out of the boat one by one. Read More

Rhoda Thomas with her brother Albert Fisher in Street, England. Rhoda’s visit in the summer of 1939 was cut short by the start of World War 2. Photo credit: Family photo

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 1

The threat of war was not a major consideration for my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, when she visited relatives and friends in her native England during the summer of 1939. Although German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was making territorial demands on Poland, few people thought the situation would lead to war.

Born in 1885, Rhoda had grown up in the little town of Street near Glastonbury in southwest England. She had met and married her husband, Frank Thomas, in Street and the couple had a son and a daughter before immigrating to the United States in 1914. Two more children were born in the U.S., where Rhoda and Frank became naturalized citizens in 1922. In the years that followed, Rhoda devoted herself to her husband, children, and grandchildren, and even in the most difficult days of the Great Depression she never lost her sense of humor or her trust in God,.

After her youngest daughter married in 1939, Rhoda left at the end of July for a two-month visit to Street. If she felt any hesitation boarding the ship in New York Harbor, it was because Frank, who worked for the State of New York Employment Office, could not accompany her. Read More