In the early afternoon of Monday September 4 1939, Galway’s harbour master, Captain Tom Tierney, was amazed to be contacted by radio from a Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson. It was steaming south towards Galway with 430 survivors from the passenger liner SS Athenia, which had been torpedoed 250 miles north-west of Inishtrahull Island, off the Donegal coast. Many of the survivors needed medical attention. Was Galway in a position to offer aid and safety?
The news was all the more shocking as Britain had just declared war on Germany at noon the previous day (France was to follow that evening ). And yet, although Ireland had declared its neutrality, the first shots in the coming Battle of the Atlantic had been fired off the northwest coast of Ireland. It appeared that Germany was in favour of conducting unrestricted submarine warfare, as it had done during World War I which came close to strangling the shipping lanes of G reat Britain.
Capt Tierney replied that Galway would be ready to receive and care for all survivors.
He immediately informed the local authorities to be prepared to deal with disaster relief. By evening a committee was set up chaired jointly by the mayor Joseph F Costello and Bishop Michael Browne. The Central and private hospitals prepared to receive survivors who needed medical care. The Dominican, Mercy and Presentation convents converted classrooms into dormitories. Several local hotels and ordinary householders offered beds and meals free of charge. The Irish Army, the Order of Malta, and An Garda Síochána immediately agreed to cooperate with the local authorities. The Irish Red Cross started a subscription for the relief effort.
As word spread around the town, Mrs Costello organised a committee of 38 women to guide the dozens of volunteers who offered to help. It was understood that survivors would need all basic clothing and toiletries; and any specific needs. There was a special meeting of the Government cabinet in Dublin that evening. Five hundred pounds was made available to the local committee to provide all the necessities needed.
The Minister for Education, Seán T O’Kelly, authorised that the Grammar School and Coláiste Éinde were to be used as centres for the refugees. Work proceeded throughout the night.
In the days leading up to September 3, the tension across Europe must have been extraordinary. Political events were happening fast, and German submarines were already on the prowl around Britain. Hitler, however, was still hopeful of a diplomatic resolution. He believed that he might yet be able to dissuade the Western Powers from war, and to this end he issued strict orders that, in the event of war, only war ships could be attacked without warning; but that passenger ships were not to be attacked; even merchant ships could only be sunk if after a search revealed they were carrying war material.
Of course once the war got under way there was no quarter given to any Allied shipping or its crews by the U-boat fleet. Yet when on the afternoon of September 3, Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp, commander of the U-30 submarine on patrol off the northwestern sector of Ireland, received the coded message ‘hostilities with England effective immediately.’ He had already spotted the SS Athenia, and was following her.
The SS Athenia, an ocean liner of the Donaldson line, was bound for Canada carrying more than 1,500 passengers, including women and children, and 311 Americans, who were fleeing the inevitable war in Europe.
Lemp later claimed he misunderstood the Athenia‘s identity. At 7.30 that evening he began his torpedo attack. The ship was quickly dealt a mortal blow, and began to sink slowly by its stern. One hundred and twelve passengers were killed; but fortunately all of its 26 lifeboats were launched. Distress signals were picked up by a number of vessels in the vicinity, and 1,360 passengers were saved, many with wounds. Realising his mistake, that he had attacked a passenger liner, Lemp did not render any assistance to his victims. Fearing he was going to be in serious trouble for his action he did not report the incident. He simply sailed away silently.
In contrast to Lemp’s action shortly before midnight Monday September 4, the Galway pilot boat met the Knute Nelson off Blackhead, and led her towards safe anchorage on the Galway ‘roads’.
In the middle of the night, the Galway tender Cathair Na Gaillimhe, under captain William Goggin, came alongside. Doctors S Ó Beirne and R Sandys and a number of nurses climbed on board. They were accompanied by Fr Conway, members of the Army and An Garda Síochána.
While it was still dark, a launch brought out a number of other doctors and nurses, including Mayor Costello, Army Commandant Pádraig Ó Duinnín, Garda Superintendent T Ó Coileáin, a reporter from the Connacht Tribune, and the US minister to Ireland John C Cudahy, who had just arrived from Dublin.
‘Dawn broke on a cold, raw day, with low clouds and white caps on the water, as the freighter slowly made its way to the roadstead, dropping anchor off Galway just after 10am Tuesday September 5.’
More next week....
(Sources include Francis M Carroll, St John’s College, University of Manitoba, History Ireland Jan/Feb 2011, Google: Battle of the Atlantic: Sinking of SS Athenia ).