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.
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

This overturned lifeboat is smaller but similar in design to the hull on which Judith Evelyn and five others survived for several hours in rising seas.
This overturned lifeboat is smaller but similar in design to the hull on which Judith Evelyn and five others survived for several hours in rising seas. Photo credit: pixgood.com

Judith Evelyn: An Act of Survival, Part 3

In the early morning hours of Monday, Sept. 4, 1939, Judith Evelyn found herself adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on the overturned bow section of her wrecked lifeboat. The burgeoning stage actress had been returning to Canada when her ship, the British liner Athenia, was torpedoed by a German submarine only hours after England and Germany declared war (see blog post March 15, 2015, Judith Evelyn, Part 2).

Evelyn escaped the sinking ship along with her former fiancé, Andrew Allan, and his father, the Reverend William Allan. After several hours in the lifeboat, they were in the process of being rescued when the propeller of the would-be rescue ship inadvertently chopped their boat to pieces, tossing all aboard into the sea. Read More

athenia
Cover illustration for a 1958 book about the ATHENIA torpedoing depicts the tragedy that befell Judith Evelyn's lifeboat. Photo Credit: Ebay

Meet the Character Judith Evelyn: An Act of Survival, Part 2

In the early afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, Judith Evelyn experienced a grim premonition. A Canadian stage actress, Evelyn was returning home aboard the British passenger liner Athenia. She had just learned that England and Germany declared war, and when she saw Athenia’s crewmen provisioning the ship’s lifeboats, the thought came to her that, “We shan’t be out of this without being the lifeboats.”

Evelyn had made a last-minute decision to join her fiancé, Andrew Allan, and his father, William Allan, a Presbyterian minister, on the voyage home after she and Andrew had spent more than a year pursuing their careers in London (see blog post March 1, 2015, Judith Evelyn, Part 1). Read More

Canadian Actress Judith Evelyn
Canadian Actress Judith Evelyn Photo credit: famousdude.com

Judith Evelyn: An Act of Survival, Part 1

Judith Evelyn, a 30-year-old Canadian stage actress, boarded the British passenger liner Athenia with a sense of foreboding the morning of Sept. 1, 1939, in Glasgow, Scotland. That same morning the German army invaded Poland, and England launched a nationwide emergency evacuation of schoolchildren from cities likely to become targets if Britain went to war.

The circumstances appeared bleak for this bright and ambitious actress from Canada’s Prairie Provinces who had pushed her career from humble beginnings to unexpected heights.

Judith Evelyn was born Evelyn Morris in Seneca, South Dakota, but grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, with a step-father who was a successful stage actor. Young Evelyn fell in love with acting, working with her step-father in the Chautauqua shows of rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan. When she changed her name from Evelyn Morris to Judith Evelyn there was no doubt she intended to make acting a career. Read More

The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder’s model of the ship at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
The nested configuration of lifeboats aboard Athenia visible on the builder’s model of the ship at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

At Sea in a Lifeboat

Few passengers on a cruise ship nowadays ever give much thought to escaping the ship in lifeboats if an emergency occurs. This also was the case 75 years ago when passengers aboard the British liner Athenia suddenly had to abandon their ship at dusk after it was torpedoed by a German submarine (the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning).

Then, as now, ships were required to carry lifeboats and life rafts that exceeded the total number of passengers and crew aboard. Modern lifeboats, however, have several advantages over those carried by Athenia.

The newer lifeboats can be launched by emergency power systems or by gravity if the power fails, and they can do so even if the ship is listing to one side by as much as 20 degrees. Such boats are enclosed to protect passengers against the elements, are self-powered, and have communications equipment or radio beacons that transmit signals to help rescue vessels locate them. Read More

Meet the Character: Ruth Etherington, An Unlikely Hero, Part 2

Ruth Etherington returned with her husband, Harold, and their ten-year-old son, Geoff, to their home in Milwaukee following their rescue from the torpedoed Athenia. Ruth would never again experience the intensity of the emotions she felt saving her son’s life (see Ruth Etherington, An Unlikely Hero, Jan. 2, 2015). But in the years that followed, she would support and encourage the remarkable achievements of the two men in her life.

When the United States entered World War 2 in 1941, Ruth used her university studies in mathematics and chemistry to take a job as a hydraulic engineer for the Allis-Chalmers Co. On the day Japan surrendered to end the war she resigned her position and returned to the varied hobbies and interest she loved. An avid photographer and artist, she also supported many civic causes in the communities where the Etheringtons lived. Read More

Meet the Character: Ruth Etherington, An Unlikely Hero

Ruth Etherington and her family checked into their Liverpool hotel the evening of Sept. 1, 1939, concluding a five-week holiday with relatives in Great Britain and preparing to depart the next day for Canada aboard Athenia. Germany’s invasion of Poland that same morning brought a sense of urgency to their voyage home as war between the British and Germans now seemed imminent. Ruth had no way of knowing she was about to become one of the first targets of that war and one of its first heroes (as featured in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning).

Born 35 years earlier to a Scottish mother and Welsh father, Elesa Ruth Ashton grew up in England’s West Midlands. At the University of Wales, she studied mathematics, chemistry, and botany on the way to earning a degree in education. A petite and energetic beauty, Ruth also enjoyed playing romantic and comedy roles in student theater productions. She graduated “magna cum laude” in 1925 and took a teaching job in northern Wales before meeting Harold Etherington, a brilliant mechanical engineer who was nearly four years her senior. They married in early 1928 and their son, Geoffrey, was born that December. Read More

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

Meet the Character: Barbara Cass-Beggs, A Life in Music, Part 1

Barbara Cass-Beggs was 34 years old when she boarded Athenia in Liverpool on the afternoon of Sept. 2, 1939, with her husband, David, and 3-year-old daughter, Rosemary. In a little more than 24 hours, Barbara and David would become separated from their daughter when a German U-boat torpedoed their ship, the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning.
Nothing in Barbara’s life prior to boarding Athenia could have prepared her for the hardships she was about to endure or the terrible anxiety of separation from her daughter.

Barbara Cass was born in Nottingham, England, the younger of two daughters. Her father, Bingley Cass, a Church of England minister, moved the family frequently as he sought positions of greater responsibility in churches with ever larger congregations. Read More