Editor’s Note: The following is taken The S.S. Athenia and used with permission. 3214 Phil Gunyon (RMC 1954) survived the sinking of the Athenia on September 3, 1939.
Survivors of the Athenia, their families, friends and those wishing to participate in remembering this historic occasion are invited to attend an evening of memories on
Tuesday, September 3, 2019 6:30 p.m.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
1675 Lower Water Street, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada B3J 1S3
The Sinking of the Athenia
3rd September 1939 – A Survivor’s Story
By Philip C. Gunyon ©
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in Japan of English and Canadian parents, Philip C. Gunyon moved to England with his family in 1938. A year later, they emigrated to Canada, setting out in September on the Athenia and finally arriving in New York on the Washington. Settled in Canada, he graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada in 1955. Recently retired, he has spent all but one year of his career with Alcan Aluminium Limited. A lifelong interest in military history focuses mainly on WW1 and the American Civil War.
T.S.S. Athenia, 13,465 gross tons, was launched 28th January 1922 at Glasgow, Scotland for owner, Donaldson Atlantic Lines. Sailing from Glasgow on 1st September 1939, she arrived at Belfast the same day and loaded passengers. Departing for Liverpool that evening she arrived at 0700 hrs 2nd September. Here she boarded more passengers and departed for Quebec City and Montreal at 1630 hrs. with 315 crew and 1,102 passengers. Of these, over one quarter were United States citizens, 40% were Canadians and the rest were British or European. Three quarters were women and children. Within 24 hours, Britain would be at war with Germany and 112 of the ship’s complement, 85 of them women and children and 26 of them United States citizens, would perish.
Athenia – 2nd September
In the early morning hours of Saturday, 2nd September, 1939, my mother, younger sister, brother and I left our home in London, bound for Canada. Father was in Brazil, where his company had posted him several months before. We passed through sad, quiet streets to Euston Station. Silent, tired people were setting out to work; children with gas masks in cardboard boxes slung around their necks were on their way to school.
The threat of imminent war hung over the whole country. Yesterday’s newspapers had announced Hitler’s invasion of Poland and that Britain and France had now completed mobilization of their armed forces. The station was crowded with other refugees leaving the city for safety , mostly mothers with small children and older people. Looking out the window as our train slowly wound its way into Liverpool, I remember looking down into the rear of depressing looking tenements. During that trip, the only smiling face my mother saw was on the agent who put us aboard the tender Skirmisher, headed out to the Athenia. She was anchored in midstream Mersey, ready for a quick getaway after loading the 546 passengers and baggage who boarded in Liverpool. Of these, 101 were American citizens, lucky enough to have secured a berth for their return home on the last available liner.
Although very tired by now, mother was feeling glad that we were on our way and that we children might be spared the inevitable air raids on London. But deep in her heart she still had a strange feeling of insecurity. Our cabin was small, with three bunks for the four of us and she spent that first night curled up at the foot of my two year old brother ’s bunk. Other passengers, no longer depressed, settled down for a pleasant evening of dancing, card playing, and sing-songs.
Chief Officer B. Copeland began his usual nightly tour of the ship, paying particular attention that the black-out provisions were in proper order. Just after darkness fell, Athenia cleared The Chickens lighthouse off the southern tip of the Isle of Man and set course on her next leg, racing through the night at 15 knots.
Athenia – 3rd September
The next morning, feeling much rested, we were ready to enjoy the glorious sea air. During the day, Captain James Cook, O.B.E. ordered a lifeboat drill. Athenia was equipped with 26 lifeboats of which 2 were motorized. Total capacity was 1,828 persons. She also carried 21 Gradwell liferafts, 18 lifebouys and 1,600 lifejackets. Mother recalled that the officers were strict and passengers understood the seriousness of it all. Our boat station was on the deck just above our cabin. To reach it, we walked down a passage, through the smoking room, up a flight of stairs and then a short way along the deck. I recall the ship’s paint, shining white in the bright sun. If the grown-ups were worried, I didn’t feel that way.
Around 7 pm, mother dressed us for bed and helped us with our prayers, which ended “keep me safe ‘till morning light”. Putting on an evening skirt and blouse (blue with large black buttons, which I loved to play with) she tucked us into our bunks with our favorite stuffed animals and went down to dinner.
U.30 – 3rd September
For 26 year old Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, commander of U.30, this was the 13th day at sea. His was one of 18 U-boats straddling the Western Approaches – waiting. He had sailed from Wilhelmshaven on 22nd August and reached his position six days later. On the 10th day out, he received a message stating that Germany had invaded Poland. Now there would be no turning back. Finally, at 1400 hrs on September 3rd came the message that Germany was at war with Britain. Lemp swung U.30’s bows south and moved into his operating area. Breaking the seals of his operations orders at 1500 hrs Lemp read that he was to wage war in accordance with German naval Prize Regulations, which accorded with the Hague Convention. Lemp was aware of concerns at the highest German Naval command levels that Von Tirpitz ’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign during World War I had been the primary cause which brought the United States into that war. While armed or escorted merchant ships were fair game, unarmed passenger ships were not. However, before leaving Wilhelmshaven, Lemp had been personally warned by Doenitz to be on the look-out for “armed merchant cruisers”.
The sun had set just before 1900 hrs. Twilight would remain for nearly another hour. Standing on U.30’s bridge, Lemp called his artillery officer, Leutnant Peter Hinsch and pointed out a large approaching ship just off the submarine’s starboard bow. He was unsure of its type and could not read its name. But it certainly resembled the “armed merchant cruisers” which Commodore Doenitz had warned him about. Perhaps it was a troop carrier. In fact she was the Athenia. Lemp decided to make a closer inspection and ordered a dive and battle stations.
Peering through his periscope, Lemp examined the ship. It was moving through the water at 15 knots and was totally blacked out, obviously hoping to escape attention. Did the excitement of having just heard that his country was at war affect his judgment? Did the opportunity to strike the first blow against Germany’s enemy influence him? Weighing the arguments in his mind he made his decision. Attack!
As Athenia came within range, U.30 began her run-in. As she closed from 1,600 yards, he ordered “Torpedoes loose!”. Four were launched. Two missed completely. The third struck Athenia in her No. 5 hold and exploded against the engine-room bulkhead. The fourth torpedo stuck in its tube.
This is from Caulfield’s account. Others, notably Blair in “Hitler’s U-Boat War” state that the first salvo consisted of two torpedos of which the first hit Athenia, the second missing. A third torpedo, fired soon after went wild. Blair makes no mention of a torpedo sticking in its tube. Other works have other versions. The consensus seems to lie with Caulfield.
Athenia – 3rd September – 7:39 p.m.
Lying in my bunk in the dark cabin, I was not quite asleep. Suddenly I heard and felt a terrific, thump. In later years, watching war movies which showed merchant ships being torpedoed on the Atlantic convoys, I couldn ’t reconcile those spectacular explosions with the one I had felt on Athenia. Still, it was severe and the huge ship suddenly lurched and took on a decided list, then slowly went dead in the water. I sat up in the bunk and waited. I have no vivid memory now of fear, only a wondering of who would come and tell us what next to do. The stewardess arrived first, followed very soon by mother.
Down in the dining room, she had been seated at a table near the stairs. She ordered soup. While waiting for it to arrive she read the Captain’s notice apologizing for the reduced level of service. The soup soon came and she laid the notice down, took up her spoon and dipped it into the soup. It never reached her mouth. She recalled a “tremendous thud and the crash of breaking things”. The floor seemed to lift. There were shouts and screams. Then the lights went out. She was shocked!
The stewards made for their stations without panic or hesitation. Mother made for the nearby stairs at once. The ship lurched, listed and then stabilized. She asked herself “Am I to die now?” Then she suddenly realized that so much depended on her. “What will my husband feel?”. “My children, quickly, I must reach them.” She remembered the directions – two flights up and turn left twice. She was helped by men’s lighted matches and their encouraging entreaties to “Keep calm – steady now”. Reaching our passageway she turned into a cabin. It was empty!
Feeling desperate, she realized she had made a mistake and turned in too soon. Hurrying out, she found the right cabin and found us, “quiet but frightened, but oh! So very brave. It was they who gave me courage.” Together, the stewardess and mother put life-belts on my sister Barbara and I. Little Andrew was too small for one, so putting on a life-belt herself, mother lifted him up. It was very dark and I suggested that we should get the flashlight from the dresser drawer. With Andrew and Barbara in her arms and followed by the stewardess and I, we moved into the passage. It seemed smoky and smelt of cordite. The smoking room floor was wet and mother fell. But she was up again quickly, and moving through the swelling crowd, we hurried to our boat station to see the boat being lowered as we arrived. The stewardess gave us two blankets and mother gave her the flashlight as she wanted to return to see that all her passenger’s cabins were empty.
Right after the explosion, mother had taken off her skirt in order to move freely. I was wearing only pajamas and Barbara a nightie. Andrew had on his pajama jacket. Mother took off her blouse and wrapped it around Barbara and her stockings were put on Andrew. This left her just decent. Then she dropped one of the blankets and somebody took it away!
Now we prepared to enter our lifeboat. It was swinging from its davits – in and out, in and out. Somebody lifted me onto the ship’s rail. Looking down I saw the dark and angry waves below. As the lifeboat swung in to the rail, I was pitched headlong into it and grabbed by helping arms. How mother made it with the two other children, I don’t know, but she did.
Then began the lowering. It couldn’t be quick enough for mother. There was trouble with the ropes at one end when we finally reached the water and they could not be released. Two men who seemed to be managing things finally got them cleared, but it was a nasty moment and she dreaded a spill. I recall all of this, but had the supreme confidence of a seven year old that the grown-ups would eventually get us away.
We moved out quickly in case we should be drawn in by suction. A young girl took Andrew and the blanket and mother held Barbara. I sat nearby. It was not fully dark and we could still see what we were doing. Not far away we also saw the huge, beautiful ship remaining very steady and with only a very slight list. Only later would we know that Third Officer Colin Porteous, on the bridge when the torpedo struck had immediately pushed a button which closed all watertight doors throughout the ship. As he sounded eight short and one long blast on the ship’s whistle, Athenia had heeled violently about 5 or 6 degrees to starboard, then slowly swung back to port and settled at about 3 degrees. She would remain afloat for another 15½ hours and soon after 11am the next morning, tipping her bows skyward and slipping quietly, stern first, faster and faster, would be gone, her grave marked only by debris, bubbles and a vortex on the sea’s surface.
U.30 – 3rd September – Night, 3rd September 1939
After its attack, U.30 apparently dived to between 20 and 30 meters and attempted to dislodge the armed torpedo stuck in one of the forward tubes. Failing to do so, Lemp moved away and when darkness fell, he surfaced. By the light of the moon, now 10 degrees above the horizon, he could see Athenia in the distance, listing and down by the stern, surrounded by lifeboats. U.30 now picked up distress signals coming from the torpedoed ship. Reading a transcription, Lemp now realized what he had done. It read “Athenia torpedoed 56.42 north, 14.05 west”. He had torpedoed a passenger liner. What a mess!Again Lemp blew compressed air through the blocked torpedo tube. This time he was successful in dislodging it. Now he could get away.
Athenia’s lifeboat – Night, 3-4th September 1939
Although the lifeboat was crowded, nobody panicked. There was water in the boat up to our knees and the seats were wet and cold because the lifeboat’s drain plug was not in place and could not be found. People took turns bailing to keep the boat from filling up. After an hour of frantic searching, someone found the drain plug, to everyone’s great relief. Although the sea was not very rough, some people were being sick. Others struck up a hymn and tried to keep spirits up by singing. That lasted for a while, but eventually everyone settled down to wait for rescue and try to keep as warm as possible. A 12 year old girl gave Barbara and mother her rug. She was wearing a warm dress and had noticed that Barbara had only a nightgown and mother her three pieces of underwear. Toward morning, I got close to mother and she pulled me to her. The three of us huddled under the rug like a tent, to keep off the rain and the wind. What a joy it was!
We were fortunate enough to have an American sea captain in our boat and he took charge and did it well. People took turns with the rowing through the night, including Athenia’s nurse, a steward and an elderly American gentleman who had been at mother’s table. Toward morning the rowers became weary and our boat began taking the waves broadside. By now they had grown quite big and Mother had a horror that the boat would capsize. The rescue ships Knute Nelson, City of Flint and Axel Wenner-Gren’s private yacht, Southern Cross (once owned by Howard Hughes) had arrived during the night, but we were far from them. But then, as the dawn brightened we saw two British destroyers approaching. What a joyful sight! Mother recorded that it was almost funny the way people tried not to sound too eager, but couldn’t help showing their feelings.
H.M.S. Electra – 4th September 1939
One of the destroyers, H.M.S. Electra soon drew near to our lifeboat. We heard words of warning, “sit still”, “keep your heads”, “just be patient”. Then we were alongside. Down came a rope ladder, followed immediately by a great, tall sturdy sailor. One look at him was enough – we were safe! More sailors dropped into the lifeboat and began to get us aboard. Children first, we were boosted up and had to jump for the rope ladder as the boat came up on a swell. Here mother got her only injury, a bruised leg, when she swung onto the ladder and just escaped catching it between the lifeboat and the destroyer. Her only recollection of the ascent was “Thank goodness I was a once a gymnastics teacher!”. As her bare feet came into contact with Electra’s solid deck, she knew that all four of us were safe and her next thought, from deep in her heart, was “Thank God for this”.
The sailors took us below and brought tea and dry blankets. Their complete understanding and wonderful kindness released bottled up feelings and the tears of gratefulness and relief came to her. We had all been separated coming aboard, and I was taken over by the torpedomen’s mess. Slung up in a hammock just under a beam, I fell asleep in the warmth, crying for my drowned stuffed animals. I don’t remember how long I slept, but when I woke and sat up suddenly, I hit my head hard on the steel deck overhead! Lying in my hammock and feeling quite seasick, I asked where my mother was. The torpedomen soon found her and re-united us. While we waited, one of them gave me an old Leading Torpedoman’s arm badge. I have it still today.
Mother had already found Andrew and Barbara and we were all taken to the engine room, washed up in buckets and changed into sailor’s warm dry clothing. We ate too. I recall eating so many chocolate bars that I got sick and wasn’t able to eat them again until the war was nearly over. But afterwards we were taken on deck and the clean fresh air cleared my head and I felt good once more. Electra and her sister ships remained on the spot until evening, looking for the sub and watching for survivors. Towards evening, our sailor friend set out three mattresses for us on deck and settled his own on the outside. Despite a call for “Action Stations” and a warning not to mind any depth charge explosions we might hear, we slept.
Greenock – 5th September 1939
By morning, we came in sight of Scotland. How destroyers can move! As Electra moored, people from our mess hurried on deck, but we waited below. As our turn came to disembark, one of the torpedomen, Jack Phelan, approached mother and pressed something into her hand saying, “Please take this; the men of my mess have collected it for you and the children, knowing you are without money or clothes”. This gesture meant a lot to her and she could not reply. She held back tears, her throat hurting and eyes burning until he was gone. Perhaps he misunderstood her silence for that December, safely in Canada, we received a Christmas card signed by the men of Electra’s torpedomen’s mess. With it came a letter from Jack Phelan.
Dec 23rd 1939 Dear Mrs. Gunyon. I was very pleased to know that you & the Children arrived home quite safe & going By the snaps the Children look in wonderful health. But I think you still have a lot to forget. But all that will pass in time. I have always admired your courage & Devotion which you gave to your children during that time & I wanted to help to lift that Burden off your mind During your short stay with us. I have often wondered, you had my address But you never wrote to me & I was thinking if it was on account of me Collecting that small donation for you & the Children, that it made you feel embarrassed to me. Well this is only a short note also hoping that you & the Children spent a enjoyable Xmas. Yours most Sincerely Jack Phelan
Two years later in February 1942 the first communiqué of the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea included this epitaph; “H.M.S. Electra attacked through the smoke and was seen no more…”. Electra, defending the cruiser H.M.S. Exeter, had attacked four Japanese destroyers and been sunk by one of them, the Jintsu. Of her crew of 173, fifty-four survived and were picked up later by the US submarine S.38. After surviving 17 depth-charge attacks, the S.38 reached Sourabaya and safety. Whether Jack Phelan and his mates were aboard, we never heard.
We went ashore and once more were overwhelmed with kindness. Clothing had been collected and was handed out to everyone. Mother remarked that at some other time it might have been funny to see some people’s eagerness to claim the lovely silk underwear and stockings!.
Glasgow – 5th September 1939
Next came the trip to Glasgow by bus – a crowded hotel, a hasty meal, everyone bewildered, loudspeakers never ceasing their inquiries for somebody or other. At last our names were called and a friend of my father ’s appeared like a fairy godfather. He had us installed in no time at a quiet hotel, where we rested and got warm. There mother wrote to my father in Brazil.
More’s Hotel India Street Charing Cross Glasgow, C.2. Tuesday Sept 5th /39
My Darling, I can’t write much, some day I will tell you, not just yet. I won’t look back. Just feel so thankful that we are all safe & well. I was in the dining room when it happened & was given some wonderful strength to get through the darkness to the children. Philip was so wonderful, I am terribly proud of him – so cool-headed. Suggested the torch, came to the muster station alone. Cecil, he was wonderful, all three were in that long 12 hrs. on the life boat. I really don’t want to talk about it now. Keith had a friend find us here in Glasgow (we came from Greenock) This friend has been wonderful & tomorrow we go to London & Devon. Keith has found a place near Alice & I want to take the children away for a bit until we can forget & get rested. Keith has been wonderful, everyone has. I can ’t look far ahead & don’t know what we shall do – sufficient to go to Devon now… I couldn’t even think of saving anything but the children…I am so thankful to be here with the children. When the thing hit us I knew for your sake I must save them…Oh God war is terrible & especially Hitler’s kind – I do pray it will soon end. Now don’t worry, Dear, Dear Cecil. All my love, Andy
Within 48 hours of the sinking, father had received three telegrams assuring him that we were safe. We spent a couple of weeks at a friend’s lovely private home on the moors at Dawlish in Devonshire. I got a new stuffed toy, a Scottie dog I named “Larry”, to replace those who had gone down with Athenia. But I still grieved mightily for them. On Sunday, 1st October, we embarked for New York aboard the United States Lines’ Washington, anchoring the next day off the French town of Le Verdon, near Bordeaux. Here she debarked French passengers and picked up a cargo of wines, automobiles and other cargo. On 5th October we left France and that is when I learned about the Bay of Biscay. We tossed, jumped, bumped and went through agony and I was very seasick. I recall sucking lemons as a cure. Some cure! But it seemed to work.
Arriving in New York harbor on 12th October, shipyard workers re-painted the huge American flag on each side of Washington’s hull, advertising her neutral status. Andrew’s underpants, hung out the porthole to dry, received a coat of red paint. I never learned which of the original 13 colonies they were baptised by. That evening we landed and drove through the darkening streets of the city to my Uncle Mario’s home on Staten Island. The next day we took a train north and finally arrived at my grandmother’s home in Oakville, Ontario. I still have my mother’s replacement passport, issued on 28th September 1939. It records our arrival in Canada at Fort Erie North on 13th October 1939. Another stamp testifies to our having been granted status as “Canadian landed immigrants” on 21st January 1942.
It had been quite a trip.
Gunyon, Andreana H., “Germany’s First Victim”, Manuscript, 1942
Caulfield, Max, “Tomorrow Never Came – The Story of the S.S. Athenia”. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1958
Cain, Lieut. Cmdr. T. J., “H.M.S. Electra”, Frederick Muller Limited, London, 1959
Miller, William H. Jr., “The Great Luxury Liners, 1927 – 1954, A Photographic Record”, Dover Publications, Inc. New
Gunyon, Barbara A., Private collection of letters, telegrams and photographs, 1939
Toronto Daily Star, “Battle of Java Sea Was Naval Balaclava”, 19th March 1942
Blair, Clay, “Hitler’s U-Boat War : The Hunters, 1939-1942 (1st Volume)”, Random House, 1996, ISBN: 0394588398