“Rhoda’s Story” Part 3 – Boarding the SS Athenia

 

British schoolchildren await evacuation to the countryside on Sept. 1, 1939, to escape cities that might become targets in wartime.
Photo credit: BBC

In Part 2 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother took a train on Sept. 1, 1939, headed to Liverpool, where she would board the passenger ship Athenia the next day to begin her journey home to Rochester, NY. That same day, Sept. 1, Germany invaded Poland and England began a long-planned evacuation of school children to the countryside from large cities likely to be targets of German bombers. As Rhoda’s train passed through stations in the countryside, she recorded her observations: 

At Gloucester, we saw the first group of evacuated children. I shall never forget it. Torn away from their homes, all with their little knapsacks on their backs, their gas masks over their shoulders, and bands with numbers on their arms, in [the] charge of one or more teachers from different schools; little tots not knowing what it was all about, some crying and some laughing, unconscious of the danger they were fleeing from. It was then all the women in my compartment gave way to tears and we began to realize how serious the situation had become.

The next day, Saturday, Sept. 2, Rhoda boarded Athenia just before noon and found the ship was “terribly crowded” with many children and babies. Her narrative continues:

A lot of extra help had been taken on, but even then they seemed to have difficulty in coping with so much more luggage and so many more passengers than usual; everything seemed to be off schedule and out of the ordinary. I was fortunate in having a very nice cabin with three other ladies. One of them had only been over four days and seemed very unhappy to have to return so soon, as she hadn’t seen her people for twenty-five years….

At the noon lunch, we sat where we could find room, but as there was to be three sittings, we had to line up for our place cards at meals, and I was fortunate to be at the first sitting. That evening the orders had been posted up that all the lights on the ship would be blacked out, and positively no smoking or striking of matches would be allowed on deck. I stayed on deck with another lady named Mrs. Townley for a little while after dark, then decided to go down to my cabin and go to bed. I didn’t sleep much that night, I don’t know why. It wasn’t that I was afraid, but I had left my friends and relatives so hurriedly, and with the thought of war so close to them, I guess I had lots to think about.

The next morning was Sunday. I got up, dressed and went up on deck quite early. After breakfast I became acquainted with more passengers and learned we were to have our passports examined, so I had to go up to the lounge and wait my turn for this procedure. I stayed on deck all morning. The weather was fair, the sea a little heavy, but I felt fine, although … quite a number of passenger had started to be seasick.

At lunch the steward told us war had been declared and when we came upstairs we found a bulletin posted outside the purser’s office to that effect. We all felt rather blue and I must admit that try as I would, I could not help thinking of the German submarine danger. I guess we all thought alike but were of the opinion that we should be out of the danger zone before anything could possibly happen. After all, we argued, why would Germany want to attack a passenger ship with so many Americans aboard and Germans too. It was silly even to think about it.

In my next blog, the unthinkable happens.

Catch up on Parts 1 and 2:  www.thomascsanger.com

Rhoda’s Story, SS Athenia – Part 2

In Part 1 of Rhoda’s Story, my grandmother was visiting her relatives in the town of Street in Somerset, England, in August, 1939, when Germany announced it signed a non-aggression pact with Russia. The pact cleared the way for Germany to invade its neighbor, Poland, a nation England had previously agreed to defend. War in Europe suddenly seemed a greater possibility. Rhoda’s account of these events continues: 

That evening I heard over the radio the warning to American citizens in Great Britain to leave for home immediately. I called the American Consul and asked his advice, and he told me if I could make arrangements to leave, to do so at once, for, he said, if war broke out and the American government sent ships to evacuate their citizens, we would be allowed to bring only one piece of hand luggage, and would be expected to carry warm clothing and enough imperishable food to last over a week. Having paid my return fare and having bought and packed numerous presents and souvenirs, and clothes I had brought with me in case cold weather set in before I got back in October, I thought the best thing I could do would be to try and make arrangements with the Cunard Steamship Line to transfer me to the earliest possible boat they could. Then I could bring my luggage with me.

Rhoda contacted her steamship company to arrange passage home to New York as soon as possible. After being transferred to a ship whose sailing was cancelled, she received passage on the Athenia, sailing Sept. 2 from Liverpool to Montreal. She arranged to take a train from Street to Liverpool on Friday, Sept. 1.

On Thursday [Aug.31], over the radio came the news that all the danger zones in England were going to evacuate their children [Sept. 1], and that people traveling by train were required to put off their trips if possible, as so many trains were to be taken over by the government for this purpose. I decided I would go by car. I believe it’s about 270 miles from Street to Liverpool, which is quite a journey by car in England.

However, I got in touch with an old acquaintance of ours who owned and operated a garage with cars for hire and they gave me a price, which I accepted, and after talking it over, I decided I would travel all night Friday to arrive in Liverpool early Saturday morning. …Thursday night I went to bed reconciled to the fact that the next night would see me traveling the first lap of my journey home. I don’t think I need try to tell you of the nervous tension we all were under, not knowing from day to day what the next dreaded news would be, trying to keep cheerful and be optimistic about everything. I kept telling my relatives that I knew God would protect us and all would be well.

Sept. 1, 1939, just before dawn, the German army began its invasion of Poland, making war in Europe almost inevitable.

Friday morning about 10:30, the father of the young man who was to drive me to Liverpool, called to tell me his son had been called for military duty and would not be able to drive the car. He told me he would telephone and find out if the Pine Express would be running that day, and if so, the best thing for me to do would be to try to catch it at Shepton Mallet, 13 miles away, where it would go through about 12 o’clock. He was assured that it was running as scheduled, and as quickly as I could I got ready, and without saying goodbye to most of my friends and relatives, I rushed off to try to catch the Express. We just made it. The train was crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm. As I think about it now, and remember how unified they were and how unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and to give up all their country demanded, I [have] to admire their courage.

Part 3: Rhoda boards Athenia, and wonders how the crowds of women and children will all find accommodation on the ship.   

Rhoda’s Story, Part 1: Joy of Reunion — Then ‘A Thunderbolt’ 

Rhoda with her brother, Albert Fisher, in Street, Somerset, August 1939.
Photo credit: Family picture

My grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger aboard the British liner Athenia when the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine Sept. 3, 1939, at the start of World War II. She survived the attack, was rescued, and returned home to her family in Rochester, NY, where she later wrote an account of these events she titled “Experiences of an Athenia Survivor.” My next several blogs will be devoted to Rhoda’s story, in her own words. 

July 29, 1939, I sailed on the new Mauretania from New York. It was with some misgivings that I said goodbye to home and family, especially my husband. As the ship sailed out of New York, something seemed to rise up and choke me and I wished I had never made up my mind to go. I felt like walking off the ship and returning home. Perhaps it was a foreboding of the terrible happenings that were to follow. However, it passed, and I soon found myself getting acquainted with my cabin mates and other passengers, and telling myself how foolish I had been to allow such a state of mind to possess me.

Rhoda arrived in England August 5th and was met by her brother and niece. They drove back to Street, the town in southwestern England where she had been born and raised. There she spent nearly three weeks gathering with relatives and old friends, enjoying shopping, teas, days at the seaside, and driving trips to the country. 

The time passed all too quickly. Our conversation and talks at time would center on topics concerning the possibility of war, and very few were of the opinion that there would be war. They had passed through such a crisis a year ago, worse than this and were sure a peaceful settlement could be reached. Therefore, they refused to worry over Hitler’s claim to Danzig and the Polish Corridor. England was negotiating with Russia and all in all they were sure Hitler would be afraid to start anything against such a powerful opposition. Then August 24, just like a thunderbolt, the news came that Germany had signed a non-aggression pact with Russia.

It was like a stab in the back for the English people. They seemed stunned, speechless, not knowing whether to blame their government or lay it to the treachery of Hitler and his aids. But one thing was certain:  that was war was inevitable.

In my next blog, advice from the U.S. Embassy sends Rhoda scrambling for passage back to America.

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Without Warning on Amazon: http://bit.ly/WithoutWarningonAmazon

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.

 

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

The luxury yacht Southern Cross, owned by Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, rescued 376 survivors, including my grandmother, Rhoda Thomas. Photo credit: www.latecruisenews.com

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 3

It took the Second World War only a few hours to find Rhoda Thomas and her fellow passengers aboard the British liner Athenia when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine on Sept. 3, 1939 (see blog post May 15, 2015). The ship had been on its way to Canada and was 250 miles northwest of Ireland when the U-boat attacked as night had begun falling in the North Atlantic.

With the cries of women and children all around her, Rhoda stood on the deck, knowing the ship was doomed and thinking of her home and family in Rochester, NY, wondering if she would ever see them again.

“Yet I didn’t seem to be afraid and felt quite calm,” she later recalled, expressing an equanimity felt by many other passengers. After helping one distressed woman into a lifeboat, my 54-year-old grandmother managed to climb some 20 feet down a rope ladder and drop off the end into a lifeboat riding on the ocean’s six-foot swells. The night was cold, the boat leaked, and a drizzling rain added to the discomforts for the survivors. Rhoda was grateful she had worn a warm coat on deck before the torpedo attack. Read More

Rhoda Thomas saw many scenes like this one of school children being evacuated from large cities and factory towns in anticipation of the war. Photo Credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk

Meet the Character Rhoda Thomas: Resourceful Grandmother, Part 2

Like many other vacationers in Great Britain in September of 1939, Rhoda Thomas scrambled to make last-minute arrangements to return home ahead of a war with Germany that now seemed certain. She had arranged a ticket for the passenger ship Athenia, leaving Liverpool Sept. 2, and managed to catch an express train in southwestern England to take her to the port city the day before departure (see blog post May 1, 2015).

It was a grim journey. My grandmother later recalled the train trip as being “crowded with people returning unexpectedly from their vacations, all looking doubtful as to the future, but trying to be brave and calm.” Many were British citizens and they seemed to Rhoda to be “unresentful and reconciled to their fate, ready to do and give up all their country demanded.”

In anticipation of war, the British government had begun a voluntary evacuation of school children from cities and factory towns all over England that Friday, Sept. 1. Rhoda saw the first group of evacuated children as her train passed through Gloucester, a sight she said she would never 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