Russell Park on the SS Athenia: Part 2


WW2 Barrage Balloons

WW2 Barrage Balloons

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.  

Passport photo of Spirydon Kucharczuk survived Athenia sinking with some water damage. Photo credit: Family collection

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 2

During the summer of 1939, Nazi Germany’s continued expansionist efforts led many people in Eastern Europe, especially Jews, to seek refuge in Western Europe and North America. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), a farmer in eastern Poland, was typical of these emigres. Though the Kucharczuks were not Jewish, Spirydon was certain Germany would invade Poland and was eager to move his family beyond the reach of war. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 1;” Jan. 15, 2016.)

The Kucharczuks secured visas to immigrate to Canada, where they had relatives. But according to family stories, Spirydon’s wife, Ewdokia, hesitated to go because she feared their family had been cursed. She suspected her oldest sister, Titianna, had arranged the curse, possibly over a dispute regarding the disposition of their family’s land.

In his will, Ewdokia’s father omitted his two older daughters, Titianna and Julianna, and left the land to Ewdokia. The sisters took Ewdokia to court and were awarded a piece of the property, which Ewdokia bought back from them. Julianna and her husband immigrated to Canada in 1938, but Titianna and her husband continued to live a few miles from the Kucharczuks. The relationship between the sisters seemingly continued to smolder.

To satisfy Ewdokia, Spirydon visited a fortune teller in the nearby town of Trosteniec to seek advice. Family sources say the fortune teller told Spirydon not all of his family would arrive in Canada.

As he considered this unsettling prediction, Spirydon decided it involved his oldest son, 20-year-old Jan, who lately had become involved with one of the many ethnic splinter groups in the area. He believed Jan would choose to stay behind in Poland to support his political friends, rather than travel with the family to Canada.

The explanation must have satisfied Ewdokia because the family’s travel plans moved forward. When the day to leave Poland finally came in late August, 1939, Spirydon and Ewdokia must have been overjoyed because Jan had decided to go with them, keeping the family together.

No one knows if they gave any further thought to the fortune teller’s prediction.

The Kucharczuks’ journey continues in our next blog.

German Leutnant Hans Pushback (right) with members of his prize crew that took charge of the City of Flint on Oct. 9, 1939. Photo credit: Illustration from “Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of The City of Flint”

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 6

City of Flint sailed into the Russian port of Murmansk a day after leaving Tromso, Norway. The American freighter remained under the direction of the German prize crew that had captured the ship and its crew Oct. 9, 1939; this in spite of the efforts of Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, to outwit the Germans during their brief stay in Norway. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 5, Nov. 15, 2015.)

Although the Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August, Russia remained a neutral country. So when the Russian port authorities and customs officers boarded the ship and immediately took the German prize crew ashore to be interned, Gainard’s hopes rose once again.

The Russian Naval Port Officer declared City of Flint was free and told Gainard he could sail as soon as the ship’s papers were returned from the port’s customs office. Gainard gave the customs people a message for the American ambassador in Moscow, the first of several he delivered in hopes of reaching the ambassador.

The next morning, without any word from the ambassador, he asked to go ashore to telephone the U.S. Embassy and was told he would have to wait until tomorrow. After three “tomorrows,” and with Flint’s radio still inoperable, Gainard sent a signal by flags to the harbor boat that monitored the activities of the port’s neutral ships, asking for a launch to take him ashore. The Soviets responded with a display of flags saying, in essence, they could not supply a boat and he was not to use his own boat to go ashore.

With no way to legally go ashore and without the ship’s papers necessary for City of Flint to sail, Gainard and his crew effectively became prisoners on their own ship.

Meanwhile, it [was] an ironic fact that the world at large knew much more about us than we ourselves knew,” he later recalled in his memoir. “On our short-wave set we received broadcasts from home and, though it seem[ed] hard to believe, it was a U.S. news program that informed us—in Murmansk harbor—that our German friendly enemies were coming on board again, and that again we were under two flags bound for Germany.”

Fifteen minutes after the news broadcast ended, the Soviet port authorities came aboard with the German prize crew, returned the ship to German authority and gave City of Flint 24 hours to leave. The Russians suddenly became most helpful, and after a flurry of activity the ship’s papers were returned, but so far as Gainard could determine, none of his messages to the American ambassador was delivered.

Five days after arriving in Murmansk, City of Flint left the Russian port and headed south for Germany and a likely confrontation with British and/or German naval forces.

The odyssey continues in our next blog.

The German pocket battleship Deutschland captured City of Flint a month after the freighter rescued Athenia survivors. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 4

Captain Joseph A. Gainard, master of the American freighter, City of Flint, expected the notoriety he and his ship gained after rescuing survivors of the Athenia tragedy would quickly fade when he sailed Oct. 3, 1939, with a cargo bound for Liverpool, England. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3, Oct. 15, 2015.)

Gainard’s welcome return to obscurity lasted only until Oct. 9 when the German pocket battleship Deutschland appeared from over the horizon and ordered City of Flint to stop and be boarded. Gainard wasn’t worried. The United States and Germany weren’t at war and he considered his ship’s cargo to be quite innocent. In his memoir, Gainard described his initial meeting with the officer in charge of the German boarding party:

“I saluted, then held out my hand. ‘Glad to have you aboard,’ I said.

“He was pleased with our formality and politeness and did his best to match it himself. He said, ‘Captain, I am sorry to cause you inconvenience, but this is war. I must ask to see your papers.’

“…We had apples, asphalt, wax, machinery, lumber, tractors, canned goods, cereals, tobacco, lard, flour, oil, grease and general cargo. ‘This is bad,’ the German said. ‘You have 20,000 drums of oil on board. What kind of oil is it?’

“‘Lubricating oil,’ I told him

“‘That is bad,’ he said. ‘And this flour, what is it?’

“‘White-bread flour.’

“‘Is it easily accessible?’ he asked. I told him that it would take at least five hours to unload the flour and showed him the cargo plan to prove it.

“‘Under the laws of my country, you are guilty of carrying contraband to the enemy,’ he told me.”

To Gainard’s dismay, the Deutschland sent across an armed prize crew and ordered City of Flint to sail to Germany. Though he and his crew would operate the ship, they would do so under the close supervision of the prize crew commanded by Leutnant Hans Pushbach, a veteran of the Imperial German Navy who spoke excellent English.

The Yankee skipper was in an awkward position. The German crew proved to be reasonable and polite, but they were armed with pistols, machine guns, and grenades, and made it clear they would not hesitate to use their weapons to maintain control of the ship. Like the rest of his men, Gainard resented being under German control. But he had to keep his crew from taking any action that might cause an incident serious enough to jeopardize America’s neutrality. International prize rules at the time gave the Germans authority to commandeer the American ship’s cargo.

Nevertheless, the crew constantly schemed to find a way to rid their ship of the Germans. Flaws inevitably appeared as these plans were being worked out and they would be abandoned. Once or twice, however, the plans seemed almost plausible. But as Gainard observed in his memoir, the Germans inevitably sniffed them out:

“They fraternized with my crew and a couple of [the Germans] knew English but never let on about it. They would stand around watching card games in the crew’s quarters and listen to everything that was said. Then they’d go and report to their Captain.

“Every few days [Pushbach] would come up to me and say: ‘Well, tonight I think we have monkey business.’

“So I would then go the rounds and talk to the crew, and tell them there wasn’t a chance of their scheme getting across, that the Germans were already wise to them.”

A problem with City of Flint’s radio could not be fixed by the German technicians, who refused any help from Gainard’s crew. As a result, the ship could not communicate with the rest of the world. The best they could do was listen to news broadcasts over the short-wave radio to find out what the world knew about their situation. Unable to talk to his superiors, or to determine the extent of British fleet operations, Leutnant Pushbach decided City of Flint should make for Norway, a neutral country, where he might be able to gain information through German diplomatic channels.

It was a risky move for the German, and it would prove to be Pushbach’s undoing, but not before City of Flint’s odyssey would take it all the way to the Soviet Union, as we will see in our next blog.

During the war, David Jennings (second from right at table) served in the Canadian Royal Navy. Here he enjoys liberty with fellow officers in Honolulu, Hawaii, four days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo credit: Jennings family photo.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 4

The survivors of the German submarine attack on the British passenger ship Athenia returned to the British Isles, Canada, and the United States to heroes’ welcomes in the waning days of summer 1939. But the headlines quickly faded, superseded by news of German conquests on the Continent, the British Army’s retreat from Dunkirk, and the London blitz.

Athenia survivor David Jennings returned home to begin his senior year at the University of Toronto, albeit a few days later than planned. (See blog post: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3, Aug. 16, 2015.) While Canadians answered the call of their government to serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen, Jennings completed his engineering degree and in the summer of 1940 and went to work at a local de Havilland Aircraft Company plant. Read More

Survivors (from left) John Woods, David Jennings and Tony Cassels return home Sept. 23, 1939 to Toronto after being rescued from the torpedoed passenger ship Athenia. Photo credit: The Evening Telegram, Toronto, Canada.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3

The Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson was the first ship to respond to distress signals from the British passenger liner Athenia after she was torpedoed in the North Atlantic on the first day of World War 2. David Jennings, a University of Toronto senior, and his friend and fellow student, Tony Cassels, watched from one of the 26 lifeboats arrayed around the sinking ship as the freighter approached shortly after midnight, came to a stop and began rescue operations.

Working at their oars for nearly two hours, Jennings and Cassels helped bring their boat alongside the big Norwegian ship. As he waited to climb aboard the Nelson, Jennings heard a shout from the deck above and was surprised to see his friend and fellow student John Woods, who had been separated from Jennings and Cassels a few hours earlier. 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. Photo credit:

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

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

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

Meet the Character: Barbara Cass-Beggs, An Accomplished Life, Part 2

A little more than 24 hours after coming aboard the British passenger liner Athenia, Barbara Cass-Beggs came face to face with the war she hoped she would never see. Barbara, her husband David, and their 3-year-old daughter, Rosemary, were on their way to Canada where David would lecture in electrical engineering for a year at the University of Toronto. (See blog “Barbara Cass-Beggs, An Accomplished Life, Part 1,” Nov. 1, 2014.)

It had already been a difficult voyage, with both Barbara and David feeling the effects of sea-sickness. They had gone to bed early the evening of Sept. 3, 1939, when a torpedo from a German U-boat slammed into Athenia’s port side. The explosion crippled the engines and shut down the electrical system, plunging the ship into darkness.
Read More