Morning Forum talk highlights SS Athenia, first naval victim of World War II


Journalist and author Thomas Sanger told the compelling story of the World War II torpedoing and sinking of the British passenger ship SS Athenia in his Nov. 20 Morning Forum of Los Altos presentation, “The Athenia Story: The Forgotten Tale of a Passenger Ship Torpedoed on the First Day of WWII.”

The Athenia was the first ship attacked in World War II. Sanger was inspired by the ship’s story, as his grandmother, Rhoda Thomas, was a passenger and a survivor. She wrote 14 letters about her experience and then stashed them away. Finding the letters after she died prompted Sanger to write about the ordeal. His book “Without Warning” is a fictionalized account of the sinking and of the heroism of the crew, especially Chief Officer Barnet Copland.

Fateful journey

The SS Athenia set sail from Glasgow to Montreal Sept. 1, 1939. Sanger said England was not yet in the war, but on that day Adolf Hitler launched the invasion of Poland, and the British had begun to move children to the country. Sanger’s grandmother had been visiting an ailing relative in England, even though she knew that war was close at hand. She and 1,400 fellow passengers, three-quarters of them women and children, were persuaded to leave for home, boarded the Athenia and set sail.

The ship was very crowded, Sanger said – everyone was aware of the impending war and wanted to leave England. Despite the concern, the Athenia was traveling without escort.

Aside from the usual ship activities, a woman passenger fell just after sailing. She was badly injured and unconscious. Placed in the sick bay, where she remained under observation and treatment, she would play a major role in the drama about to ensue.

Sanger related that two days later, Sept. 3, 1939, the Athenia came within sight of a German U-boat on patrol. War had just been declared that day. The German U-boat commander, Fritz-Julius Lemp, saw the Athenia, but due to its position, he could not see that it was a passenger ship. Contrary to international protocol, an agreement signed by 35 nations, including Germany, Lemp decided to attack.

The first torpedo killed 50 passengers and cut all electricity. The second caused more damage, and the third torpedo misfired, which Sanger said probably saved many lives. Surviving passengers were now in lifeboats, many Sanger noted in nightclothes with no coats or any kind of warm cover. They would remain in the frigid waters nearly 10 hours before being rescued by Norwegian and Swedish ships.

Heroic rescue

The survivors watched as the Athenia listed and sank. Many of the passengers had escaped to lifeboats, thanks to the skill of the crew, especially First Officer Copland.

As he watched the doomed ship from a lifeboat, Copland suddenly remembered his search for the woman sequestered in the sick bay. When looking for her earlier, he thought the infirmary doors were locked and closed, and the woman clearly not there. But as he watched, he realized that the doors were not closed but jammed. The woman, unconscious, was still onboard in the sick bay.

Against time, Copland and a crew member raced back to the half-submerged ship. They descended many floors to the sick bay, forced the door and found the woman still unconscious. They brought her to the deck and off the ship into their lifeboat. Twenty minutes later the ship sank.

Sanger said survivors were in the frigid lifeboats nearly 10 hours until they were rescued. In all, 112 people died and many suffered. The woman from the sick bay was among the casualties.

German Commander Lemp finally realized that he had hit a passenger ship. Sanger said Lemp left without identifying himself or his ship, defying international protocol regarding passenger ships. Lemp died late in the war after another sea battle. In that battle, the British were able to recover his ship and the Enigma machine and codes the ship carried. According to Sanger, at the postwar Nuremberg trials, the recitation of so many overwhelming and horrific war events made the story of the Athenia a footnote.

Sanger said that though Copland received the Order of the British Empire, the highest accolade, for his valor, he never discussed it. He became a river pilot and lived a quiet life until his death in 1973.

Sanger’s grandmother’s diaries and family stories compelled him to bring the important story of the Athenia to light.

Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets twice a month at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. The series is open to new members. For more information, visit


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