Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Sinking of the Athenia

Apr 1, 2006


By Daniel Francis


At the beginning of September, 1939, as Great Britain moved toward war with Germany, my future mother-in-law, Dorothy Dean, then 26 years old, approached the most awful adventure of her life. Years later, after I had married her daughter and become a part of the family, Dorothy would entertain us with her stories. She had transformed her harrowing ordeal into a set of humorous anecdotes, featuring herself in the role of the plucky English girl prevailing over adversity with a joke and a smile. It was classic British understatement.

At her death in 1998, Dorothy left behind a small archive of documents in a cardboard box. They included letters, yellowed newspaper clippings and magazine articles describing her wartime experience. They convey a different picture, one less suitable for dinner table conversation, one that reveals more of the horror of Dorothy’s war and less of the humour.


When Germany invaded Poland to begin World War Two, Dorothy and her 58-year-old mother were in England visiting friends and relatives. They made plans to return immediately to Canada. Their original passage was scheduled for a week hence, but Cunard found them a cabin on the liner Athenia, belonging to the Donaldson Line and leaving Liverpool for Montreal the next day. In the evening they boarded a train in Nottingham and arrived in Liverpool close to midnight. Dorothy lay awake all night listening to the tramp, tramp of soldiers on the move through the blacked-out streets outside their hotel.

            The Athenia sailed late the next afternoon. As it turned out it was the last passenger vessel to leave Europe before the outbreak of war. It was spilling over with several hundred more passengers than it usually accommodated, a total of 1,103. Of these, 469 were Canadians. The decks were crowded with German and East European refugees and the crew busied themselves boarding up the windows and painting the portholes black. The next day about noon, 3 September, as the ship buffetted its way through heavy swells, Dorothy was standing in line to present her passport at the purser’s office when the announcement came. Britain had declared war. “So it had now come – after all the anxious hours; all the waiting, -- hoping and praying that some other way would be found,” she later wrote.

            Feelings of anxiety and depression pervaded the ship. Dorothy spent the afternoon with her mother in the lounge, napping and reading. Towards evening they moved out onto the deck where they sat waiting to be called for dinner. Around them, a group of passengers kept their spirits up by assuring one another they were in no danger. It was 7:30 p.m. The war was less than nine hours old and the Athenia was about 400 kilometres west of Ireland when the torpedo struck. The force of the explosion tossed Dorothy and her mother out of their chairs and up against the deck railing. “Never, never have I heard anything like it in my life before. The whole ship seemed to stand still, then from stem to stern, gave a horrible shudder.” The vessel lurched to one side, throwing everything that wasn’t nailed down to the floor. Then it righted itself and began to settle at the stern. It was the first shot fired in the Battle of the Atlantic.

People began to scream. Curiously, on such a crowded vessel, Dorothy’s first impression was of being alone, abandoned. As passengers rushed past in a panic, looking for friends and relations, and crewmen hurried to get the lifeboats away, no one spared a moment to help her or tell her what to do. She stood in the middle of this swirl of activity and thought to herself: we are going to die. But then a friend arrived with a lifebelt and Dorothy realized that she had to look after her mother, who seemed completely helpless.

The ropes that held their lifeboat were tangled and had to be cut with axes. The boat dropped into the water and as it rose and fell on the waves passengers had to shimmy down a rope into it. As she waited her turn, Dorothy observed the horror around her. Parents cried out for their missing children in several languages. A girl jumped from an upper deck into the water and sank without a trace. A steward appeared carrying another girl who was unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. “It is beyond all imagination to put down on paper the frightfulness of those terrible minutes waiting for that lifeboat.”

Somehow Dorothy got herself and her mother down the rope into the lifeboat. As the boat smacked against the side of the Athenia, someone tossed a baby down and Dorothy caught it. The infant was wearing a torn sleeper streaked with blood and Dorothy held it for the next nine hours except when she was bailing or taking a turn at the oars. Once the boat was full the steward in charge ordered it away. Two children, already in the boat, begged the officer not to leave their mother but the last Dorothy saw of her she was hanging from a rope alongside the Athenia watching her children disappear into the night.

There were about 50 people in the boat, mostly women and children except for a half dozen members of the crew. Every able-bodied person took a turn at the oars. The first urgency was to get away from the ship, which everyone believed was moments from sinking. Once at a safe distance they lit a lamp and some flares. “The sea was black and shiny and a faint breeze was blowing. We began to spot various lifeboats dotted here and there, their bright red flares lighting up the darkness in a strange and eerie fashion.”

The two children whose mother had been left behind – Jewish refugees from Austria as it turned out – spent the entire night bailing. “Two wonderful children, not once did they complain.”

Not long after leaving the ship, the passengers were terrified to feel their boat scrape across something in the water and hear a low rumble from below. It was the submarine, prowling near the surface to get a look at what it had done. They expected it to attack, but instead it slipped away.

            For hours they rowed aimlessly. The rolling swell left almost everyone seasick and passengers were retching over the side. “We tried to sing, and we prayed. Rain came and it was cold.” They didn’t want to get close to another boat for fear the people in it would need their bailer or an oar or some flares. “That is something I will never be able to understand, how in a great crisis when the opportunity to help someone arises, the instinct for self-preservation is so great, that no one else matters as long as ‘your boat’ stays afloat.” Someone else did matter, of course, her mother, who was slumped beside her in a daze. All night Dorothy slapped her face, rubbed her hands and spoke to her to keep her from losing consciousness. Afterwards, the older woman hardly remembered a thing.

            Around midnight the first rescue vessel arrived. It was the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson. The people in Dorothy’s boat saw the lights in the distance and tried to reach the freighter, but they were exhausted and the wind and current seemed to be against them and they had to give up the attempt in frustration. Lucky for them.

Andrew Allan, later a mainstay of radio drama in the CBC, was on his way to Canada aboard the Athenia with his elderly father. The Allans were in one of the boats that managed to get close to the Knute Nelson. Years later Allan recalled what happened. Just as the lifeboat rounded its stern, the ship, which had been lying quiet while it took on survivors, started its engine. The huge propeller turned, sucking the boat into it and smashing it to pieces. Allan, who was at the back of the boat, watched his father, who was at the front, swept into the propeller’s froth, now red with blood. Andrew managed to swim to a large piece of wreckage to which he clung for the rest of the night as one by one his fellow survivors weakened and dropped away into the icy water. Early the next morning Allan and five others who remained of the 86 occupants of the boat were picked up by a British destroyer.

In her own account, my mother-in-law describes how, just as they gave up their own attempt to reach the freighter, they heard cries from that direction and began to see pieces of wreckage drifting past, some with people attached. It was at this point that she endured the worst moments of her ordeal and faced the guilt experienced by so many survivors.

“This was terrible. Horrible slippery upturned boats with people sitting on the top, sliding off the sides. People in the water clutching at each other, faintly calling for help. Calling ‘We’re over here, don’t leave us. Help.’ From the light of the moon we could see faint figures moving about in the inky water, trying to make for our boat. We rowed harder, anything to keep from being upturned ourselves, all the while those awful cries ringing in our ears. We could not help them – our boat was overloaded as it was – that is the terrible part of it all – the callous people we became with no feeling at all.”

As Dorothy sank into despair, expecting that the worsening seas would soon capsize the boat, the scene was suddenly illuminated by huge seachlights. It was the Southern Cross, a private yacht belonging to the Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren. It had responded to the Athenia’s distress call and was aiding the Knute Nelson in the rescue effort. As the lifeboat rose and fell on the waves, Dorothy, her mother and the others were hauled on board with ropes. They found half-frozen survivors lying in the passageways, on the staircases and along the outside decks. In total, the Wenner-Grens would rescue 376 people. Dorothy and her mother were directed to the yacht’s salon where they found space for themselves underneath the grand piano and received hot soup and cheese sandwiches.

It was 4:30 in the morning. They had been in the lifeboat for nine hours. But Dorothy went to work helping to warm up women who had been adrift, some of them in nothing but their night clothes. Many survivors were coated with fuel oil that had spilled into the sea when the torpedo ruptured the ship’s fuel tanks. At mid-morning Dorothy went out on deck and saw the bulk of the Athenia wallowing in the water. Ten minutes later a member of the crew came into the salon and announced that the stricken ship had just stood on its stern and gone down. Except for the clothes she stood up in, everything that Dorothy owned was now at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Word circulated among the “refugees” on the Southern Cross that they were going to have to go back to England aboard a trio of destroyers that had arrived on the scene. My mother-in-law had emigrated to Canada in 1924 when she was 12 years old. Her life was in Vancouver where she had a fiance waiting. She knew that if she returned to England she might never find the courage to go to sea again. Her luck held. An American freighter, The City of Flint, was offering to take any survivors wanting to go to Canada. At noon on 4 September, Dorothy and her mother made the transfer and continued their voyage.

Rescue meant neither safety nor comfort. “The first night on board, I thought I’d die.” A fierce storm swept down on The City of Flint, which rocked horribly in the crashing waves. “All night long the rescued kept getting up and walking about all clothed in their lifebelts. No one slept. Women hysterical. It was awful.” The only consolation was that if the storm had arrived the night before, everyone in the lifeboats would have perished.

The Flint had 250 passengers instead of its usual thirty. There were only three bathrooms. Water was severely rationed. Dorothy slept in her clothes in a coal bunker on a piece of canvas. “Everyone is so jittery that if anyone slams a door a woman screams.” She kept herself busy running a shipboard ‘newspaper’ for the rescued. “I take down the news from the radio in the Chief Engineer’s quarters, type it out and post it on the bulletin boards.”

On the 12th, the day before the Flint arrived at Halifax, Dorothy wrote her first letter home. For her family, it was the first news of her since the Athenia went down. “Well, I’m still perking along,” it began. Six days later, as Dorothy and her mother made their way across Canada by train, the letter appeared on the front page of the Vancouver News-Herald under the headline “Vancouver Girl Tells Horrors of Athenia Disaster”.

In all, 112 people lost their lives in the Athenia disaster, 93 of them passengers. There were more than 300 Americans on board, hurrying to return home before the war trapped them in Europe. Of these, 28 died. Fearful of arousing American public opinion and perhaps drawing the US into the war, the Germans denied they were involved in the sinking. They went so far as to falsify naval records and even put it about that the British had sunk their own vessel in the hope of luring the Americans into the war. Hitler himself was furious, aware that the unprovoked attack on an unarmed vessel could become a flashpoint for anti-German sentiment, just as the sinking of the Lusitania had in World War One. Nobody believed the German denials, but as it turned out the Athenia did not become a cause celebre. It would be two years before another suprise attack on the other side of the world catapulted the US into the war.

            In Vancouver, Dorothy settled back into her life and her job in the mortgage loan department of the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company. The following summer Axel Wenner-Gren and his wife arrived in British Columbia to cruise the coast in the Southern Cross. They invited the six survivors of the Athenia who lived in Vancouver on board the yacht for tea. Mrs Wenner-Gren greeted Dorothy warmly. They recalled the moment that Dorothy had been hauled out of the lifeboat onto the deck of the Cross and Mrs Wenner-Gren exclaiming, “She must be English, my god she’s smiling.”

Dorothy lost everything when the Athenia sank. She had been shopping in Europe for a trousseau and had many wedding gifts as well. They all went down with the ship. It took the Cunard Line twenty years to compensate her for what she had lost. Dorothy used the money to take two of her children back to England in 1959 on a holiday. They travelled by boat.


The details of Dorothy’s story are from three documents in the author’s possession: a typescript of Dorothy’s account of the events, written some time after she returned home; a letter which she wrote from one of the rescue ships and which appeared in the Vancouver News-Herald, 18 Sept 1939; and an article titled “Epilogue” in The Manuscript (August 1940), a monthly magazine published by the Manufacturers Life Insurance Co., in which she describes the role of the Southern Cross. Other details are from Patricia Hale, “I Was On the Athenia”, Canadian Home Journal (Dec. 1939), pp 8-9, 18, 28-31, 66.

General details are from Max Caulfield, Tomorrow Never Came  (London, 1958), a popular history of the Athenia sinking, and Tonya Allen, “The Sinking of the S.S. Athenia” on the website uboat.net (www.uboat.net/history/athenia)

Andrew Allan, “One went to sea—in a ship called Athenia”, The Globe Magazine, 29 August 1959, pp11-12.