On September 3, 1939, the first day of World War II, the British passenger ship Athenia was steaming 250 miles northwest of Ireland, bound for Canada. Many of the 1,100 passengers on board believed they had outrun the danger of a submarine attack, but they were wrong. As dusk fell that Sunday night, a young German U-boat commander fired the first torpedo of the war at what he thought was an armed merchant ship. It was a colossal mistake.
Without Warning tells the story of eight people – six passengers, Athenia’s chief officer and the U-boat commander – whose lives were dramatically upended by the mistaken torpedo attack.
The book begins in June, 1939, with the clouds of war ominously gathering over Europe, and quickly proceeds to the last week of August, when all eight characters were caught in the vortex of events leading to the war. We follow conditions aboard the submarine, U-30, secretly waiting for word to attack British shipping, and also aboard Athenia as she picked up passengers in Glasgow, Belfast, and Liverpool before sailing into the Atlantic Ocean.
Athenia’s passengers made the best of crowded shipboard conditions; some were happy to be returning home as war broke out in Europe, some were escaping Nazi occupation, and some hoped to start or re-kindle a romance on the high seas. As night fell on Sunday, September 3, passengers were sleeping, dining, or watching the last glow of sunset when the torpedo slammed into the ocean liner.
Many passengers were separated from loved ones as they boarded the lifeboats, a result of evacuating women and children first. In the lifeboats, a misting rain and persistent leaks made for challenging conditions, especially for those wearing only night clothes or evening dresses in the cold, biting wind. When the first rescue ships arrived shortly past midnight, passengers faced more dangers climbing out of their lifeboats in rising seas. One boat was chopped up by the propeller of a rescue ship, leaving a few survivors clinging to wreckage in the cold waters until dawn. Another boat capsized as it neared a luxury yacht, causing a desperate mother to swim through the oily seas searching for her son. On board U-30, the young commander faced his own dire emergency before finally discovering his tragic mistake.
When rescue operations were completed the next morning, Athenia’s chief officer discovered that a woman in the liner’s sickbay had been left on board, and he led a rescue expedition to save her shortly before the ship sank. Survivors were taken to three different ports by the rescue ships and spent many more anxious days before learning the fate of their loved ones. The book ends twenty months later, when fate brings the chief officer and the young U-boat commander together again in a battle only one of them will survive.