On the evening that France and Britain declared war on Germany, September 3 1939, the 13,500-ton liner SS Athenia, chartered by the Cunard Line, and bound for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew was torpedoed, without warning, 250 miles northwest of Malin Head in the North Atlantic*. The following day the Norwegian vessel, Knute Nelson, was steaming towards Galway with 367 shocked and injured survivors, and asked that the city be prepared to receive them. Other survivors were picked up by British naval vessels and brought elsewhere for treatment, but in total 112 passengers and crew were killed in the attack, 28 of them Americans sailing for home as war was declared in Europe.
The message for Galway to receive survivors was relayed through Malin Head radio which had already heard the distress signals from the Athenia, and witnessed the fearful drama at sea. Galway, initially stunned that it should be involved so soon in a rescue resulting from war at sea, reacted magnificently.
Hurriedly the hospital was put on full alert, two schools were emptied to act as reception centres, hotel rooms were booked. It was Race Week in Galway, but people gladly gave up their rooms. Mayor Joe Costello, Bishop of Galway Dr Michael Browne, and Commandant Padraig O’Duinnin, OC of the Defence Forces 1st Infantry Battalion, and Garda Superintendent Tomás O’Coileáin co-ordinated the Galway response. At dawn on September 5 the Knute Nelson arrived at the docks where ‘expeditious and satisfactory arrangements were made for the disembarkation of passengers who were in a very distressed state ...Most of them only half clothed.’ In fact the tender that serviced large ships, under Capt Bill Goggin, had already met the survivors at sea, near Blackhead. On board were Dr Morris and a nursing team, who tended to the injured as they lay on the deck of the Knute Nelson, who then completed her voyage into Galway. On arrival, the Army Medical Corps took charge of 10 stretcher cases and the walking wounded, while Gardai and civilian volunteers supervised the distribution of food and clothing.
The arrival of the survivors, which included the Athenia’s captain James Cook, created a huge stir in the town. Hundreds of people volunteered to help, while hundreds more watched the arrival of the Knute Nelson. Once everyone had learned that the ship was hit by a torpedo, there was unease and excitement in the realisation that despite declaring its neutrality, Ireland could not isolate itself from the conflict which would soon engulf most of Europe, and be waged in the ocean beside us.
With the help of the Irish Army Air Corps, Captain Alan Kirk, US naval attaché in London, and Commander Norman Hitchcock, US assistant naval attaché for Air, flew into Galway to interview the American survivors. The American Ambassador to Ireland, John Cudahy, was already at the docks when the Knute Nelson arrived. Initially there was some confusion about the causes of the sinking. There was annoyance among the Irish authorities at what appeared to be ‘eagerness’ from the American navy brass to establish whether anyone saw a submarine, or a torpedo hit the ship. Garda Superintendent O’Coileáin felt that Cudahy and Kirk ‘wished at all costs to establish that the SS Athenia had been sunk by a submarine’ and wished to report so to Washington. But it soon emerged that there was no doubt the ship was sunk by torpedo. Captain Cook later confirmed to O’Duinnin that it was a torpedo hit.
Later Washington instructed Cudahy to inform the Irish Government that the ‘United States was deeply appreciative of the hospitable assistance given to the American survivors of the SS Athenia in Galway’. The town had presented itself as a ‘model of efficient organisation,’ and it carried out its assistance in a ‘competent and sympathetic manner’. John Cudahy wrote personally to Eamon de Valera to thank him for ‘the excellent arrangements made’.
Help our neighbour
In the last few weeks I received some correspondence about Ireland’s ‘neutrality’ during the last war, and a copy of Michael Kennedy’s excellent book Guarding Neutral Ireland (from which I will quote in the future ).** Ireland’s neutrality was favourably disposed towards Britain and her allies during World War II. We assisted the Allies in many practical ways, while maintaining an outward show that we rigidly endorsed a policy of neutrality. If Ireland was invaded the Irish Government made it widely known that we would defend ourselves to the utmost of our ability, despite our very limited resources.
There is apprehension among some Diary readers that the Green Party may extract from the Government an Irish withdrawal from the European Defence Agency (EDA ) for its support for the Lisbon Treaty re-run. Some members of the Green Party refuse to see the positive role the Irish Defence Forces play both as guardians of our own democracy, and in peace-keeping duties in Chad and Kosovo. The EDA was set up in 2004 by EU heads with the aim to ‘support the member states in their effort to improve European defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the European Security and Defence Policy as it stands now and develops in the future’.
It is highly unlikely that a war will break out between EU member states, but it is possible that one of our member states would be attacked. In that circumstance it would surely be unthinkable that Ireland, having been a net beneficiary of the EU for decades, would run away in the opposite direction screaming that ‘it’s not our problem, we’re against war.’ Everyone is against war. But in the event of an attack, Ireland will hopefully help her neighbour as we have done in the past, and will do so intelligently, efficiently and with due caution.
What the EDA proposes is to promote military research and development so that all participating defence forces can be more effective in participating in EU-sponsored humanitarian and crisis management operations. The EDA has 26 members, including Ireland, and other ‘neutral’ countries such as Sweden, Austria, and Finland. It enjoys a high degree of co-operation between the member states. It now wants to improve safety for its members, lowering costs, and develop compatibility of training and equipment. There is a need to move the conventional arms industry away from just manufacturing ever more deadly weapons into the production of more helicopters, armoured vehicles, transport aircraft, drones, and other equipment to make our Defence Forces safer and more efficient. It is surely the duty of this and other states to ensure that our Defence Forces are properly equipped, and properly trained, and with a voice in how we want the future of Europe’s defence policy to be.
Opt out, and we have no voice. We effectively emasculate our Defence Forces, and our own ability to defend ourselves. No party in Government should even countenance such a thing happening on their watch.
Notes: *The sinking of the Athenia (which had sailed from Glasgow ), was probably the first outrage committed by German U-boats in the Atlantic in World War II. Commanded by Leutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, U-30 was ordered, following the declaration of war earlier that day, to attack enemy vessels ‘without provocation’. Though visibility was good and the sea calm, Lemp would later claim that he mistook the unarmed passenger liner for an armed cruiser, and fired two torpedoes. Berlin feared that the sinking of the Athenia could be another Luistania, which on a voyage from New York to Liverpool on May 7 1915 was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale. More that 1,190 people lost their lives, and it was probably a decisive factor which brought the US into World War I. Bearing that in mind, on September 4 1939, the German legation in Dublin protested that ‘it was impossible that German naval forces took any part in the sinking of the ship. There were no German naval forces stationed in the area’.
In the event America did no more than protest to Berlin in the strongest possible terms; and in turn Berlin ordered that no more passenger liners were to be sunk. Both countries were just biding their time.
** Guarding Neutral Ireland - The Coast Watching Service and Military Intelligence, 1939-1945, by Micxheal Kennedy, published by Four Courts Press, 2008.
Next week: A new book tells the story of a US navy bomber ditching in the sea near Clifden in 1944; and another look at the unexpected arrival of some serious American army brass in Athenry in 1943.