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).
Her premonition only added to the sense of foreboding she felt coming aboard the ship two days earlier. As Athenia sailed from Glasgow that Friday, nearby shipyard workers had called her passengers “cowards.” Evelyn soon discovered the ship’s portholes were painted over, windows were boarded-up, and signs warned passengers not to smoke on deck at night.
Sunday evening, she sat down to dinner with her companions feeling quite indifferent to the thought of food. Appetizers had just been served when a torpedo struck Athenia with a huge explosion. The dining room went dark and began to tilt to the port side of the ship. Dishes clattered to the floor, chairs overturned, passengers screamed, and Evelyn thought, “This is it.” Yet, struggling to her feet amid the room’s darkened chaos, she felt a surprising calmness.
With the help of passengers’ lighters and flickering matches, Evelyn, Andrew and his father found their way to the stairs, collected their coats and lifejackets, and gathered at their muster station. Within the hour, they were at sea together in Lifeboat 5A, Evelyn’s premonition having come true. When the first rescue ship, a Norwegian freighter, arrived shortly after midnight, Boat 5A joined the end of a line of lifeboats along the freighter’s hull waiting for their turn to climb aboard.
Suddenly the freighter began to move forward. Boat 5A was sucked into the ship’s starboard propeller and chopped to pieces, tossing Evelyn and more than 80 others into the sea. Her lifejacket brought her to the surface, but the heavy fur coat that had kept her warm became a sodden weight that pulled her back under the water. As she fought to regain the surface, she briefly considered ending her struggle by simply taking a few swallows of water and drowning. Just as quickly she thought, “No, I can die any other way, but I mustn’t drown.”
With the help of her lifejacket, she managed to regain the surface and fill her lungs with air. Before long, she found a large piece of wood in the water and was able to pull herself up across its clapboard surface and lie exhausted on her stomach. She regained her wits and immediately thought of her fiancé, Andrew Allan, who had been at one of the oars in the lifeboat when the disaster struck.
“Andrew,” she called out.
“Judith,” a familiar voice responded.
Against all odds, she and Allan had found each other in the middle of the ocean, as they clung to the same overturned bow section of their wrecked lifeboat. Despite this miraculous stroke of good luck, Judith Evelyn’s ordeal was far from over, as we will see in Part 3.