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The Athenia

by Donald Mitchell

Contributed by 
Donald Mitchell
People in story: 
James Mitchell
Location of story: 
Atlantic Ocean
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 November 2003


On Sunday 3rd September 1939, within a few hours of war being declared the Donaldson Liner Athenia, bound for Montreal with passengers of many nationalities who had boarded at Glasgow, Belfast and Liverpool, was torpedoed by German submarine U30 about 200 miles into the Atlantic. She was the first target, and many of those on board the first casualties, of World War II. I personally was not involved when the Athenia was torpedoed as I was only six years old but it is a time I have never forgotten as my father, Jimmy Mitchell, was the Athenia's carpenter. Thankfully he was one of the survivors. My mother and I spent several frantic days checking survivor lists at Donaldson's Offices, hotels and shops where lists were displayed.

Ninety three passengers including 69 women and 16 children were killed in the explosion and in accidents when lifeboats capsized, along with 19 of the Athenia crew. With 1101 passengers and 315 crew on board it was a miracle that so many survived. This was due entirely to the efforts, skills and courage of the crew.

Fortunately the Athenia was slow in sinking enabling those trapped below to find alternative means of reaching the boat deck as many of the stairways had been destroyed in the explosion. The slow sinking also played its part in the rescue of a patient from the ship's hospital. It was not realised that she was still there until checks were made on the rescue vessels which had responded quickly. These vessels were the Knute Nelson a Norwegian merchant ship, the Southern Cross from Sweden, the City of Flint from the U.S. and HMS Escort, HMS Electra and HMS Fame. The Southern Cross was a large cruising yacht owned by Swedish manufacturer and millionaire Wenner-Gren.

The Athenia's First Officer, whose name I believe was Barney Copland, and two other crew members returned and boarded the stricken vessel and rescued the unconscious woman about 20 minutes before the ship finally sank.

The Commander of the submarine, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp created panic in the German Naval Command as his actions contravened the Hague Conventions regarding submarines attacking passenger vessels and, amongst other things, they were fearful that Lemp's actions would bring America into war against them as U.S. citizens had been on board. I seem to remember hearing that they even tried to blame a British submarine.

The American Ambassador's son John F. Kennedy, future President, was given the task of checking for U.S. survivors arriving in Glasgow when they arrived there several days after the sinking.

By a quirk of fate First Officer Copland and Lemp crossed paths again in 1941 when Lemp was in command of U boat 110. He torpedoed another Donaldson ship the "Esmond" which had been in convoy and had naval escorts. This time all of the Esmond's crew survived including, for the second time, Chief Officer Copland.

The U110 was immediately attacked with depth charges by the escorts and forced to surface and Lemp ordered his crew to abandon ship. HMS Aubretia rescued her crew and HMS Bulldog sent a boarding party to the submarine which remained afloat for a considerable time. HMS Broadway was damaged in a collision with the U boat during the action.

Amazingly the boarding party was able to remove, amongst other things, an "Enigma" machine together with its invaluable naval codes and instructions which Lemp ordered his operator to leave behind when abandoning ship. Lemp did not survive. He apparently decided not to be rescued when he realised the enormity of his error in allowing the codes to be captured. These had been changed from land based codes upon orders from Admiral Donitz.

One might say that Lemp, besides starting the war at sea had, by virtually handing over the "Enigma" and codes to the British Navy, greatly contributed to the defeat of the German Submarine Services and to its navy in general.

It surprises me that nothing has ever been made of the "Athenia" affair either on TV or in a film. I do not recall even having heard of any official comment about it although it was brought up at the War Crime Tribunals.

Donald Mitchell.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - The Athenia

Posted on: 02 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Donald

It is very interesting indeed. You might like to see another contribution about the sinking of U-110 here: A2131363

Kind regards,



Message 2 - The Athenia

Posted on: 03 February 2004 by Donald Mitchell

Dear Peter,

Many thanks indeed for your message. I found the U-110 article most interesting and informative. Sorry I did not reply sooner but have been away from home for a few weeks.

Kind regards.



Message 3 - The Athenia

Posted on: 03 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Donald

I'm glad you found the link of use, many thanks for your message.



Message 4 - The Athenia

Posted on: 22 June 2004 by Lee Richards

Indeed, The Nazis did try to make out the Anthenia had been sunk by the British.

At the end of 1939 Goebbels sent out what he called the "Jerry Letters". Thousands of letters per week were sent via the mail from Germany and neutral countries to addresses in Britain, the USA, Eire, and South Africa containing propaganda leaflets.

The leaflets covered a variety of subjects, one claimed the British had supplied mustard gas to the Polish Army. Two others claimed the British were responsible for sinking the Athenia.

I'll try to attach a sample of one of these leaflets here.




Message 5 - The Athenia

Posted on: 02 July 2004 by Donald Mitchell

Dear Lee,

Many thanks for your message. You said that you would try to attach a sample of a leaflet but there was no attachment. As I have never seen a copy of one of those leaflets I would be delighted to receive a sample. If you could send it to I should be most grateful.

Kind regards


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