Seventy-five years ago this week, September 3, 1939, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner Athenia in the opening hours of World War II. This tragic event is the common thread that links the nine people who are the subject of my prospective historical novel, Without Warning. Despite its historic significance as the first British ship sunk in the war, Athenia’s anniversary is likely to pass with little fanfare. Why is it that people generally are more familiar with the sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger ship sunk during World War I, than with Athenia? That is the question I want to explore with this blog.
There are interesting parallels between the two ships. Both were British owned and built in shipyards on Scotland’s River Clyde. Both were involved in the trans-Atlantic passenger trade. Both were torpedoed by German U-boats early in their respective wars, and at the time of their attacks, both U-boats were supposedly governed by “prize rules” that forbade attacking passenger ships. Finally, both attacks resulted in the loss of American lives, yet the United States remained a neutral country for two more years after each of the sinkings.
But that is where the parallels end. Lusitania was a larger and more famous ship than Athenia, having briefly held the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing from Britain to the United States. She carried nearly 2,000 passengers and crew to Athenia’s 1,418. When Lusitania sank on May 7, 1915, she did so within 20 minutes and took almost 1,200 lives — including 128 Americans — with her to the bottom of the Celtic Sea.
More famously, however, historians generally connect Lusitania’s sinking with America’s entry into World War I almost two years later. While Germany and the United States exchanged heated words at the time and President Woodrow Wilson demanded an apology from the German government, there was no broad sentiment in America for entering the war. The Germans argued (and Lusitania’s manifest showed) that the ship carried war material, a fact Germany maintained, which made Lusitania a legitimate wartime target. Before the sinking, Germany announced in February, 1915, that the waters around the British Isles were a war zone and that allied shipping would be sunk without giving any warning. Indeed, the German government placed ads in American newspapers warning passengers not to sail on the Lusitania.
Continued anger in America and other neutral countries with Germany’s U-boat tactics led the Germans to relent in September, stating they would stop attacks on passenger liners. In January, 1917, however, Germany announced it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, and the announcement helped push U.S. public opinion over the edge. America declared war on Germany in April, 1917.
When England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, less than ten hours elapsed before Athenia was torpedoed. In dramatic contrast with Lusitania’s quick demise, Athenia stayed afloat for 14 hours, which allowed her crew to deploy all the ship’s lifeboats. As a result, the death toll from the U-boat attack was 112 passengers and crew, including 30 Americans. While Lusitania had lost 61% of her passengers and crew, Athenia’s toll was only 8%, a factor that may partly account for some people diminishing Athenia’s significance.
The brazen attack without warning on the defenseless Athenia, which carried no guns or munitions of any sort, led the British and her allies to once again condemn German U-boat tactics. This time around, however, Germany denied responsibility for the sinking. Nazi propaganda settled on the story that Winston Churchill had planted a bomb on board the ship in order to kill Americans and bring the U.S. into the war on the side of the British. The Nazis maintained their denial throughout the war.
On the eve of war in 1939, America had once again declared its neutrality. The bitter experience of the First World War made isolationist sentiment even stronger this time around. America was much more cautious than Britain in assigning blame for sinking Athenia and conducted lengthy Congressional hearings to determine if U.S. citizens should seek reparations from Germany. In December, 1941, when the United States entered World War II, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, no one suggested U.S. participation had anything to do with the loss of American lives aboard Athenia two years earlier.
It might be said that with 55 million people killed, the overall horror of World War II eclipsed the terrors experienced by Athenia’s passengers that night 75 years ago. And yet, their civilian status proved emblematic of the vast majority of the war’s victims that followed. May their heroism and sacrifice never be forgotten.