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.