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.
I knew my parents weren’t there but I called, “Mum-mee!” because something was wrong and I knew that if I called long enough, eventually someone would come. Sure enough, someone did.
Far down the boat a woman calls something reassuring. I watch her and she begins to clamber over the thwarts between us, past all the people sitting along the sides. She moves very slowly and clumsily and the sailors in the center of the boat help her. I go on calling until she reaches me. She takes me back with her to her own place near the center of the boat.
Later, sitting on Auntie Davidson’s* lap, I was sick – a strange kind of sickness because I didn’t feel it beforehand. One moment I was feeling quite comfortable, and the next I was vomiting into the bottom of the boat. So was everyone else. The sailors in their gum-boots were wading and baling in a pool of mixed water and sick in the bottom of the boat.
Outside the boat is the water. It is not “the sea” or “the ocean.” It is “the water,” all round us: dark, and making the boat very tippy.
We’re in a room full of little tables, on a bigger boat.** Several new people come in. I can see one of them, a woman, very clearly. She is wet all over and she’s dripping black stuff as well as water onto the floor. It drips off her face, her hair, her arms and hands, her clothes. I know about getting wet, but the black stuff is strange and alarming. People exclaim and ask what happened. She explains in a clear voice, “I’ve been swimming in the water.” I realize that, unlike us, they weren’t in a small boat, like we were – they were swimming in all the water! But I can’t understand that strange, black liquid that isn’t water, dribbling down her.
Years later I asked my father what it would be. Oil, he says, engine oil from the Athenia, floating on the surface of the water while the ship sank.
I associate this scene with the song, “Let him go or let him tarry;” a record? A false memory?
I am sitting at a bar counter. It is all warm and bright and Auntie Davidson is beside me. Everyone is friendly and I am eating a meal. They give me a glass of milk. But it’s not milk! It’s some horrible-tasting fluid instead. It is very confusing, because it looks white, like milk; is thickish, like milk, and yet has this extraordinary taste. For some reason everybody around me calls it “milk.” I don’t.
The rest of my journey, more than a month, during which I landed at Halifax, was taken to Ottawa, and lived there with family friends, is a blank. Except for the end. We go to a station, right onto the platform where a huge, tall train engine arrives. Suddenly my mother appears, hurrying towards me! She has come back to me again, just as I thought she would, only taking rather a long time about it.
Rosemary Cass-Beggs Burstall is retired and lives in England.
*Mrs. Winnifred Davidson took charge of Rosemary in the lifeboat and told the child to call her “Auntie.” She remained with Rosemary until delivering her to family friends in Toronto. Winnifred kept a diary of all their experiences during the rescue operations, which she provided to Barbara and David.
**Rosemary and Auntie Davidson’s lifeboat was rescued by the luxury yacht Southern Cross. They later transferred to an American freighter and were taken to Halifax.