The sinking of the S.S. Athenia (1939)


Night was falling as the British liner Athenia, Montreal bound, plowed steadily westward across the North Atlantic. Just nine hours before, Great Britain had declared war on Germany; three hours earlier France had followed England's lead. At 7:45 p.m. a terrific explosion rent the Athenia's side, sending terror into the hearts of the passengers and crew. A waterspout leaped high into the air, to fall back over the decks and lifeboats. Passengers were hurled over the ship rails into the sea. Water surged into the engine and boiler rooms.

Far off across the waters some of the passengers saw the grim outline of a submarine. Its gun, they said, fired a single shot at the mainmast before vanishing into the night. The sea around the mortally wounded Athenia filled with lifeboats, swimmers, and wreckage. Around midnight the Knute Nelson, ‘a Norwegian freighter, ar-rived, followed shortly by the yacht, the Southern Cross. Early the next morning, the Athenia rose on her bow in a last convulsive throe, and then plunged stern-first to the bottom of the sea, the first victim to fall prey to submarine in the present war.

Within the next 21 days, forty-two merchant ships of all nations, with a total tonnage of 184,909, had been sunk by torpedoes, mines, and shell fire, and the world found itself wondering just how big a part submarines would play in this war.


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