The late summer of 1939 had been a very enjoyable time for David Jennings. A senior at Canada’s University of Toronto, he had spent August traveling with two friends up and down the British Isles, visiting relatives, seeing the sights and sampling some of Britain’s finer eating establishments. Though conscious of the threat of war on the Continent, Jennings had no idea he was enjoying the last few idyllic days the world would know for the next six years.
Davidson Cumming Jennings was the youngest of four brothers born to a prominent Toronto family. His father, John, was a very successful lawyer for Guinness Brewing Co. in Canada. Young Jennings grew up in what might be termed “well-to-do” circumstances. Every evening in the family’s large home, the butler laid out dinner clothes for David and his three older brothers, who were expected to dress for dinner. David was a serious young man and a dedicated student (studying engineering at the university), who also possessed a very dry sense of humor. He enjoyed socializing and loved to sing a variety of Irish songs at parties and family gatherings.
Jennings’s two traveling companions that summer also were University of Toronto students: his closest friend, Hamilton (Tony) Cassels, whose father was a judge, and John R. Woods, who also hailed from a prominent Toronto family.
With Germany’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Jennings detected much more excitement than tension on the streets of London, which he attributed to a general feeling that it was now “practically sure that England would go to war.” For a time, Jennings and Cassels joined a crowd outside the British Prime Minister’s residence at Number 10 Downing Street, before attending a Prayer for Peace Service at Westminster Abbey. Later that night, the three friends navigated blacked out streets and limited London Underground service for their farewell meal in Great Britain, a “most wonderful” roast beef dinner at Simpson’s on the Strand.
Saturday morning, Sept. 2, they were up early to catch the train to Liverpool where they boarded the passenger steamer Athenia, which they had booked many weeks earlier in order to assure returning in time for the start of the academic year.
By noon on Sunday, Sept. 3, Athenia was well off the northern coast of Ireland when word reached the ship that England and Germany were at war. From the perspective of the three young friends, a more immediate and promising development took place aboard ship late that same afternoon when three American sorority sisters from the University of Michigan appeared on deck. With Cassels sleeping off an upset stomach in their cabin, Jennings and Woods struck up a friendship with the three girls during a few leisurely hours in the late afternoon sun, until it was time for the women to ready themselves for their dinner seating.
With the sun setting and Athenia some 250 miles northwest of Ireland, Jennings, Cassels and Woods shared the general consensus among passengers that they had probably outrun any threat from the German Navy, and in any case their ship was a very unlikely wartime target.
Their consensus, however, was wrong on both accounts. A young German submarine commander had tracked Athenia for the past three hours and was about to fire the first shot of what would become World War 2’s longest continuous military conflict, the Battle of the Atlantic.
The attack on Athenia, the central event in my forthcoming novel, Without Warning, would touch many lives, including that of young David Jennings. More about that in our next blog.