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 forget.
They stood on the platform waiting for a train, “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 morning in Liverpool while waiting to board Athenia, Rhoda sent a cable to her family in Rochester, NY, saying she would arrive in Montreal, Canada, Sept. 10.
Shortly before noon Sept. 2, she came aboard ship and discovered there would be many more passengers than usual. There were so many children and babies, she wondered how they were all going to find accommodations.
“I soon found out they had turned the smoke rooms and gymnasium and all the space they could, into dormitories, and I couldn’t help thinking what an emergency trip it was going to be,” she later wrote. “No one seemed very happy.”
Rhoda was assigned to a cabin with three other women then found her way to lunch. She stayed on deck most of the rest of the day before retiring to spend a restless night, recalling how she had left her friends and relatives so hurriedly, and thinking how close they were to war.
The next day, Sunday, Sept. 3, a dining room steward told Rhoda at lunch that war had been declared with Germany. Passengers talked about the danger posed by German submarines, but almost everyone believed the ship would be out of the danger zone before anything could possibly happen.
That evening after dinner, Rhoda went up on deck with her heavy coat to get a breath of fresh air before retiring. Seated with a friend on the starboard side of the ship, she watched the last rays of sunset.
“All at once, there was a terrific explosion. Something struck [the] port side of the ship and she seemed to keel over on her side and the water came over the deck. The lights went out all over the inside of the ship and a dense cloud of gas-filled smoke seemed everywhere. I was thrown down and as I picked myself up and turned around, I saw out on the water about a half a mile away, a long-shaped dark object with black smoke around it, and in a flash I knew what had happened.”
Athenia had been torpedoed by a German U-boat only hours after the declaration of war. Rhoda knew she would have to find a way off the ship and hope to survive the night in a lifeboat, as we will see in Part 3.