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.
Moments later the three friends reunited onboard the Nelson, and Jennings was enjoying a hot cup of coffee when a second pleasant surprise appeared in the form of three young women from the University of Michigan, who Jennings and Woods had first met aboard Athenia the previous afternoon (see blog, Adventures of A Young Man, Part 2, Aug. 1, 2015). The three Canadians and the American girls – Barbara Bradfield, Joan Outhwaite and Alberta Wood – spent the next 24 hours in each other’s company, recounting their experiences, helping some of the injured survivors and even finding time to sing some favorite songs.
Knute Nelson landed its 430 Athenia survivors in the neutral port of Galway, Ireland, on Sept. 5. The Irish government proved more than generous, providing survivors with accommodations, clothing, food, and entertainment.
A minor crisis of sorts erupted when the Canadian government announced that all Canadian survivors would be moved to Glasgow, while there were no such plans for the American survivors. The three U of M coeds went off to see the American Consul to gain permission to go to Glasgow with their Canadian friends.
“Things, however, looked black,” Jennings later recalled, “and we thought we would have to marry the girls to make them Canadian citizens so we could stick together.” But the girls pleaded their case so effectively that the Consul agreed to sponsor their passage to Glasgow.
After arriving in Scotland Sept. 10 they learned that Canadian survivors would be taken home by the Canadian government and the Americans by the U.S. government. “So the end of our very happy family was coming into sight,” Jennings said. Meanwhile, the City of Glasgow proved to be as generous as its Irish counterpart, putting survivors up in a downtown hotel, meals included, and providing them with clothing and necessities of all kinds.
With time on their hands and financial support from their Canadian families, the boys and the Americans girls shopped and walked the city’s busy streets. Indeed, in his memoir of these events, Jennings noted, “Glasgow scarcely looked like a city at war,”
“Business life seemed to be going on normally. Many uniforms were seen, of course, and a few times we saw small detachments of recruits drilling. Everyone had a gas mask over his or her shoulder…. Hawkers sold containers for them on the streets…. There were signs of direction for air-raid shelters on the streets. The hotel, too, had an air-raid shelter in the cellar…There were no theaters or other amusement places allowed open…and so little to do. At night many people found their way into the hotel bar.”
After a fairly idyllic three days, however, Jennings and his friends were scheduled to take an overnight train to Liverpool where they would board the Duchess of Atholl for their return trip home. On the evening of their departure, the boys enjoyed a farewell dinner with the three American girls, before all going down to the train station in taxis. On the platform at the station, they held an impromptu sing-along, said another round of farewells and boarded the train.
“Thus came the end of the family,” Jennings wrote. It had been a unique experience. “We had little in common but we stuck together as long as we could.”
As he boarded the ship for Canada the next day, Jennings could not have known how the war would shape his life and indeed lead him to the woman he would marry. More about that in our next blog.