‘I have lost everything except my sense of humour’

Some of the rescued Athenia passengers disembarking from the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson.

Some of the rescued Athenia passengers disembarking from the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson.

Week II

‘As we went alongside the Knute Nelson a tremendous cheer went up from the survivors who lined the decks’, wrote the Connacht Tribune correspondent, Seán Kenny. ‘Many of them broke down completely and wept openly.’ US Minister to Ireland, John Cudahy, was the first up the ladder to greet the survivors, and to confer with Captain James Cook of the Athenia. He was followed closely by Fr Conway and the doctors. Under the direction of the doctors, the Irish soldiers brought the stretcher cases and injured on to the tender first. Ten seriously injured were removed from the ship; among them were several elderly people, two Athenia crewmen who had been badly hurt in the explosion, and three children.

Then the walking survivors made their way down the stairway, many only partially clad or wrapped in blankets, and some wearing makeshift footgear made of gunny sacks and bits of cloth. A number of survivors suffered from broken bones, burns and bruises.

Many people seemed still in a state of shock, particularly the children, who were crying or calling for their parents. Even so, when asked how she was doing, one young woman called down blithely from the Knute Nelson: ‘I have lost everything except my sense of humour.’

Most survivors expressed their gratitude toward Captain Carl J. Andersson and his crew. When all the survivors were on board the tender and the Knute Nelson began to weigh anchor to return to sea, one of them called out, ‘Three cheers for the captain of the Knute Nelson’, which was followed by still another shouting: ‘Three cheers for his crew.’ Grateful farewells were said to the Norwegian crew who had worked to provide as much comfort as possible to the survivors.

A bedraggled lot

When the tender came into Galway at about noon, hundreds of people lined the quay and gave a heartfelt cheer to the survivors themselves. But many observers were shocked and brought to tears at the sight of the distressed survivors, dressed in their borrowed sweaters and dungarees or cloaked in blankets. They were a bedraggled lot, and the children were most pathetic. The gardaí assisted people off the tender, the injured first. White-uniformed nurses from the Galway Central Hospital and the Army medical corps, the Order of Malta, waited on the pier to assist all those with injuries. Once ashore, each person was given a hot cup of Bovril, good Irish bread and butter, and tea. Each of the survivors registered with the authorities, both for purposes of entry and to sort out the tangle of who was saved and who was lost. The gardaí assisted people through this registration process.

‘Greatest sympathy’

Eventually, people were taken by bus to the Royal Hotel, where the survivors were given something more to eat and were directed to other hotels, homes, and facilities where they could stay for the next several days. Toilet articles—combs, toothbrushes, shaving equipment—were provided, and in many instances new clothing was given. Galway opened its doors to the survivors. ‘The people of Galway have the greatest sympathy for these victims of the first casualty of the sea’, said Bishop Browne, ‘and are anxious to give them the Christian reception which should be afforded to human beings in such circumstances.’ Countless stories were told of shopkeepers refusing to take money for goods, not to mention the offer of free drinks for any survivor who made it to a pub.

‘Deeply appreciative’

On Saturday September 9, arrangements were made by the steamship company for most of the Athenia survivors to take the train from Galway to Dublin, and then from Dublin to Belfast and Larne, where they boarded the ferry to the Scottish port of Stranraer and a return to Glasgow. Some of the Athenia people were still in hospital; and some had left Galway to stay with friends or family in Ireland. Some had already departed for London.

By the end of the week most of the grateful survivors had left. Eventually, all of them made it safely across the Atlantic; the Americans on a relief ship, the Orizaba, and the Canadians on Canadian Pacific Line steamers. Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent instructions to the American legation in Dublin on Thursday September 7 to say to the Irish Government that the United States ‘is deeply appreciative of the hospitable assistance given to the American survivors of the S.S. Athenia by the authorities and people of Éire’.

The Galway Observer published Minister Cudahy’s generous statement: ‘I cannot praise too highly the efficient handling of the situation by the Galway people and the Irish government and their splendid human spirit’. The Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, sent notes to both Bishop Browne and Mayor Joe Costello informing them of his pleasure at the remarks of the American minister and of American gratitude. He extended his own thanks on behalf of the Irish Government for their good work. The Canadian high commissioner in London also sent thanks to the Irish government: ‘The Government of Canada is deeply appreciative of this generous action, and wishes to extend to the government and people of Ireland their sincere gratitude’.

Indeed despite our limited resources at the time, it was a remarkable example of how quickly the people of Galway responded to the call for help, its magnificent preparation to accommodate 430 survivors (both the wounded and those who were in a state of shock and fright ), and to quickly help them back on the road to recovery and home.

It was also a sobering warning, that despite Ireland’s neutrality, World War II had come to Galway.

Next Week: Germany denies that it had anything to do with the sinking of the Athenia, and accuses W Churchill of engineering the attack; the fate of U-30 submarine commander FJ Lemp; and a lesson in diplomacy for the American ambassador’s young son in London, John F Kennedy, and his mission to Glasgow.

(Sources essay by Francis M Carroll, professor emeritus at St John’s College, University of Manitoba, History Ireland Jan/Feb 2011 ).



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