Athenia is sinking slowly, torpedoed by the German submarine U-30. The Germans fiercely denied their role in the disaster, and tried to convince the public opinion that sinking of Athenia was a British provocation.



Emergency signals, radioed by the torpedoed Athenia in the Royal Navy's code, within more or less 15 minutes were received by the radio-stations in north-western Ireland. After that captain James Cook ordered to repeat the message in open text. This time almost immediately responded the Norwegian tanker Knute Nelson. She was steaming some 40 miles south-west to the site of torpedoing, and responded that she was changing her course and hastening with help.

The Norwegian tanker was expected to arrive around the midnight, but it did not solve the problem, since Knute Nelson was not able to accommodate more than 1400 castaways. Therefore Athenia kept transmitting SOS signals, but it took a long time before another two ships responded: a Swedish yacht Southern Cross and an American freighter City of Flint. The clocks were showing 9:30 p.m., so the answer from the City of Flint that she would arrive at the given position at 10 o'clock, raised a lot of enthusiasm. Yet, when Athenia's radio-officer asked for confirmation of the arrival time, it turned out that they were looking at 10:00 next morning, not 22:00 in the evening.

Meanwhile, without waiting for the arrival of the rescue ships, Athenia's crew started a rescue operation of its own. Explosion, death and wounds of many passengers, and the darkness, which followed the shut-down of the power generators, caused an understandable confusion, and even panic. Some passengers were trapped in their cabins, since the shock from the explosion and sudden tilt of the hull jammed their doors. The panic grew further as it was difficult to find in the darkness the way to the deck, especially so, that nobody was sure that the ship was not sinking yet. Athenia was filled with the moaning of the wounded, screams of the panicked, and commands of the crew. Yet the panic gradually yielded to some order.

The situation was taken under control thanks to the professional response of the officers, sailors and hospitality staff. They quickly organized medical help to the wounded and shocked; powering the electrical system from the emergency dynamo also positively influenced everybody's morale. Ship's listing did not increase - thanks to officer Colin Porteous, who at the time of torpedoing was on watch on the bridge, and once realised what happened, ordered to shut down Athenia's bulkhead doors. In that situation captain's assurances that the ship was not in immediate danger, and there were sufficient means of rescue for everybody, were met with trust and growing confidence in a fortunate turn.

Of course it was most difficult to calm down those, who for ever lost their relatives, or were not able to find them in the darkness and chaos. The biggest lament came from parents, who lost their children, and children, who lost their parents. Yet some order had been gradually introduced with great help of the stewardesses and nurses. Passengers started gathering on the upper deck, as a rule - next to their designated life-boats, and masters of the individual boats prepared them, under officers' supervision, to be lowered on the water. Refugees had caused most of the troubles, mainly due to language barrier. British sailors rather did not speak foreign languages, while the refugees chiefly lacked knowledge of English exactly. There were also cases of resistance to the orders among the men, who tried to take their places in life-boats before the women and children, but in such cases the crew intervened resolutely. In general, passengers' behaved well, co-operated, and sometimes even showed signs of heroism, when husbands offered their places to strange women and this way parted with their wives - sometimes for ever.

Lowering life-boats on the water generally was carried out well, although it was not possible to avoid the situation, in which some boats became overcrowded, and some half-empty. No wonder that later some passengers tried to help themselves, not always successfully, to the life-boats that were already on the water.

About 21:00 as many as twenty-two life-boats were already lowered on the water. Lowering of the remaining four ones lasted nearly half an hour, since the crewmen, who manned them, were already exhausted. Finally, all the life-boats were lowered on the water, and twenty men gathered adeck around captain Cook to take some rest and discuss the situation in a calmer atmosphere.

Suddenly, the ship listed badly, and then returned to the previous position. It was believed that misplacement of the cargo caused the listing, and that the ship would not stay afloat too long. Porteous and some passengers, who remained aboard Athenia, started lowering rescue rafts on the water. Meanwhile the radio-officer kept communicating with Knute Nelson, which was slowly closing Athenia. And right at the time when the last two life-boats were thrown on the water, that is shortly before 21:30, another two ships, aforementioned City of Flint and Southern Cross, made radio-contact. Castaways' hopes for prompt rescue were becoming to look more and more real.

Around 22:00 captain Cook decided that the last group of passengers and crewmen had to abandon the ship, whose fate had already been sealed. Through a megaphone he called upon the life-boat closest to Athenia (it was the life-boat No. 5) to approach and take twenty-some people. Since the boat was overloaded, her commander, second radio-officer Donald McRae, had turned to the crews of the other boats for help, but everywhere he had got refused. Then captain Cook ordered Porteous to accept more castaways in those life-boats, which were not overcrowded, and the young, very energetic third officer went to the life-boat No.5 to assume command. After that he steered towards other, less crowded boats and cast off few people from the boat No.5, after which he turned back towards the Athenia to pick up remaining people.

It was 23:00, when captain Cook, at sight of Porteous' boat, ordered McRae to transmit the last message to Knute Nelson announcing abandoning ship. Knute Nelson replied soon, confirming she would arrive at the scene of the disaster in about an hour. Norwegians kept their promise, and Knute Nelson arrived about the midnight. Since her holds were empty, the ship's draught was big, and to the castaways looking at her from the life-boats she must have made an impression of a huge, iron mountain. It's the "Bremen"!, screamed one passenger, and her thoughtless words almost caused panic in the boats, especially those, which carried Jewish refugees. [Caulfield M. (1958).] Bremen was a German liner, which left New York shortly before the outbreak of the war, and was seeking return war to Hamburg. Of course, it would be an absurd to expect that the Germans saving their butts could pose any danger to the castaways, but still fear has big eyes and no wonder that few German passports landed in the water.

Meanwhile the boats approached the ship and the second phase of the rescue operation began. Life-boat No.5 was the second one to approach the board of the Knute Nelson, and once its castaways were lifted to safety, captain Carl Anderssen asked captain Cook to come to the bridge, from where they were able to control the rescue operation together.

It was 2:30 when the next ship arrived; it was a Swedish yacht Southern Cross and she too started receiving castaways aboard. It proceeded relatively slowly, for an accident could happen in the darkness; after all, calm sea did not pose an immediate danger to the people sitting in the life-boats. Yet, a tragic accident did happen. At 3:30, upon receiving several reports that a life-buoy was spotted in the water abow, captain Anderssen decided to approach and ordered full speed ahead. As the propellers were set in motion, there came the disaster - the life-boat No.5A that was slowly approaching the ship, and waiting for the life-boat No.12 still disembarking its passengers, was sucked by the vortex and dragged under the stern. There were desperate screams "Stop the propellers!" but it was too late already - the tanker's propeller ripped the bottom out of the life-boat; only nine of the people in the boat were saved.

When about 6:00 arrived further support by way of destroyers Electra and Escort, and later also Fame, picking up castaways aboard Knute Nelson and Southern Cross was still far from being completed, and the warships joined the rescue operation. Yet destroyer Fame soon received orders to come to the aid to another ship torpedoed the same night by a German submarine. About 9:00 Knute Nelson, which had lifted 430 castaways, refused to receive more of them, as her compartments became overcrowded. Another 500 castaways were picked up by Electra and Escort, and Southern Cross rescued 380 people.

It seemed that the rescue operation was over when suddenly it turned out that in result of coincidence of misunderstandings a passenger was left in the sick bay; the day before she fell down the stairs and suffered serious injuries. Master Barnet Copland, who felt responsible for that oversight, turned then to the commander of Electra, Lieutenant-Commander Stuart Austen "Sammy" Buss, with the request to postpone her departure and undertake an attempt to rescue the forgotten woman.

"You must understand I've nearly 600 souls aboard - I'm not going to risk them for one," he said.

Although Chief Officer Copland could understand how correct this attitude was,  he could not accept it.

"Well, if you won't give me a boat," he insisted, "at least put me in one of our own empty boats."

Lieutenant-Commander Buss hesitated.

"What'll my name be like in Glasgow, if I leave that woman aboard?" said Chief Officer Copland.

Buss knew when he was beaten, and he called his coxswain. "I want you to put these men aboard the Athenia, then keep clear of the ship," he said. "If and when you see them coming back with anybody, back in and get them off as quickly as possible." [Caulfield M. (1958).]

At that point Athenia's listing reached 30° and she could capsize any moment, but Copland and his men managed to get to the sick bay and bring the unconscious woman to Electra. The time was 10:38. Half an hour later the ship suddenly started taking the vertical position; her bow for a moment rose over the water under the right angle.