The sinking of the Athenia

One of the survivors being lowered to the deck of the tender

One of the survivors being lowered to the deck of the tender

The Second World War had only started for 10 hours, and the passenger liner Athenia was steaming across the Atlantic on its way to Montreal from Glasgow. It was 20.00 hours, on smooth seas, and many of the adults on board were preparing to eat dinner while some were putting their children to bed. Some others of the 1,103 passengers were relaxing on deck or in the lounge. There were 305 crew on board.

At 20.40 hours, the German U-boat U30 spotted the lights of the Athenia and lined her up in her sights and fired a single torpedo. No one on board spotted the silver wash coming towards them, and at 21.00 hours the warhead of the torpedo ripped open the port side of the ship and penetrated into the ship’s engine room. Panic ensued as people tried to reach the berths where their children had been tucked away for the night. Some waded through water trying to find a way up to the deck. Within 20 minutes there were further explosions, huge volumes of water were pouring into the forward engine room, and most of the accommodation below decks was filled with water.

The crew were very orderly and disciplined, and by their actions, saved many people. The ship was now listing very heavily to port, and though many of the lifeboats on that side were impossible to launch, the crew managed to cut the anchoring ropes and securing chains and get those boats into the water. Passengers were organised into various lifeboats, and thus all but 112 people were saved.

At dawn the following day, Captain T Tierney, the harbourmaster in Galway, was radioed and asked to prepare for the arrival of a Norwegian tanker, the Knute Nelson, which had picked up 430 of the Athenia’s passengers. Galway was the nearest port to the tragedy and we were the first town in the world to be asked to succour the first of the war’s victims. A meeting of the heads of all emergency services and civic and religious leaders was immediately called, and a plan of action was soon drawn up.

Hospitals, nursing homes, guest houses, hotels, and institutions were visited to find out what accommodation was available. Plans were made for every available ambulance, bus, and car to stand by with drivers and attendants to escort survivors to temporary homes and hospitals. Emergency canteens and field kitchens were prepared on the tender and in the transit sheds at the docks. Captain Meskill, senior pilot, was on his way to Black Head to pilot the Knute Nelson to the roadstead.

The tender met the Knute Nelson and had great difficulty drawing alongside such a large ship. Medical teams hurried aboard, treating broken limbs, burns, and other injuries. Hot drinks and stimulants were given to all. Many of the survivors were in a bad way and when the tender docked they were rushed to hospitals accompanied by nurses and orderlies, while others were taken to hotels and institutions. There were many cases of grief when survivors realised that members of their families were missing. Virtually every one of them required new clothes. Vouchers were provided for those able to visit shops and purchases were made by committees for those unable to do so. All were given ‘the freedom of the city’ as far as cinemas, dances, and buses were concerned. It was several weeks before the last of them left Galway due to delays in getting new passports and other documents. By then all of the injured were able to travel.

Our photograph today shows one of the survivors being lowered to the deck of the tender. It was a delicate operation getting the stretcher cases off, but all 10 of them were handled carefully by army personnel. After them came the walking wounded with burns, scalds, cuts, fractures, and lacerations of all descriptions, and finally those who had no injuries. Many were in a state of shock and hysterical.

The photograph was given to us by the National Library which has recently digitised thousands of old photographs from all over Ireland. These can now be viewed on the internet at www.nli.ie/digital-photographs aspx. This is a wonderful resource and well worth a visit.

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