For nearly 15 hours after she was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the British passenger liner Athenia struggled to stay afloat. They proved to be the most fateful hours in the life of Barnet Mackenzie Copland, the ship’s chief officer (See blog “A Modest Hero, Part 1.” Sept. 15, 2014.)
Copland made a quick assessment of the damage to the ship immediately after the torpedo strike and believed Athenia would stay afloat long enough to launch all the lifeboats. Once all the boats had gone, Copland descended into the ship’s dark, dangerous passageways to make a more thorough evaluation of Athenia’s condition and concluded that she could not be saved. Two hours after all the passengers had left, Copland was among the last of the crew to abandon ship. He took over a dangerously overloaded lifeboat and saw it safely through the night, in spite of rising seas, to be rescued at dawn by a Royal Navy destroyer.
But the modest Scotsman’s “finest hour” was yet to come. The following morning, after discovering that a woman in Athenia’s sickbay had been left aboard the sinking ship, he rounded up two volunteers and took a small boat across to the crippled liner. Splashing through water up to their knees, the three men burst through a jammed door to rescue the unconscious woman patient, carried her back to the boat, and returned to the destroyer. Minutes later, Athenia sank, leaving only a momentary upwelling of bubbles to mark her grave. Tragically, the rescued woman never regained consciousness and died two weeks later in a Glasgow hospital.
The following January, 1940, when the King’s honors were announced, they included the appointment of Barnet Mackenzie Copland to the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for his bravery. Copland went back to sea shortly after surviving the Athenia incident, working for the Donaldson Line as chief officer on various merchant ships. In May, 1941, he was aboard the freighter Esmond when his ship was torpedoed and sunk (the subject of a future blog). Copland and all the crew survived, but shortly after this incident he left the Donaldson Line to become a pilot on the Clyde River, where he continued to work for several years after the war.
In 1951, Copland, 43, married the 31-year-old Margaret Aitken Hogg. They were married 22 years until his untimely death from a heart attack. Although their neighbors in the town of Milngavie, north of Glasgow, knew Barney had been an officer aboard Athenia, they didn’t know of his O.B.E. until they read about it in the newspaper obituary. The couple never had any children.
Aside from two sworn affidavits Copland gave of the sinking, I wasn’t able to locate any other account that he wrote about his experiences. Likewise, I received only one non-committal response to several letters I sent to persons named “Copland” in the Glasgow area, seeking to locate any descendants of the family who may have known him. Aside from the affidavits and a newsreel interview with Copland shortly after he was rescued, my portrait of the man in my forthcoming book, Without Warning, relied on second-hand accounts carried in newspapers of the day and books written about the Athenia tragedy. Still, I was able to gain a strong overall impression of Barnet Copland, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed meeting him.