Con McGrath’s Role of the Irish in WWII Series

Outrage was caused on both sides of the Atlantic by the sinking of the SS Athenia, on the 3rd of September 1939. The passenger liner, operated by the Donaldson Atlantic Line, had left Glasgow for Montreal, via Liverpool and Belfast, under the command of Captain James Cook, on 1 September.

Britain declared war on Germany at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939. That evening, just after 7 o’clock, Captain James Cook joined his first-class guests for dinner. Earlier, Cook had felt that the urgency of the international situation demanded his presence on the bridge, but by about mid-afternoon on Sunday, Cook told one passenger, they should be far enough into the Atlantic Ocean northwest of Britain and Ireland to be out of danger.

Alas, at 7:40, just as the evening meal was being served, a violent explosion destroyed the engine room, plunging the dining room into darkness, sending tables and chairs skidding across the deck, and causing the ship to list to port and begin settling by the stern. The German submarine U-30 had attacked Athenia. In fact, Germany was committed by treaty not to sink civilian passenger ships, but as dusk fell that evening, the captain of U-30 sighted Athenia running without lights and sailing in a zig-zag anti-submarine pattern. He concluded it was an armed merchant cruiser.

Hence U-30 fired four torpedoes, one of which hit Athenia on the port side, striking the ship a mortal blow.
Of her 1,103 passengers and 315 crew: 93 passengers (including 22 Americans) and 19 crew members were lost.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own