History

SS Athenia: The British Passenger Ship Sunk At The Outbreak Of World War Two

Aware of the US casualties, Nazi propaganda portrayed the incident as an act of British sabotage.

The sinking of SS Athenia (Picture: PA).

Eighty years ago, and just hours after Britain declared war on Germany, the transatlantic passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by a Nazi U-boat.

The British Donaldson-line ship had left for Canada, with those on board attempting to escape the imminent dangers of the war.

However, her journey was stopped short around 200 miles north-west of Ireland, when she was sunk after being hit by a torpedo from the U-boat U-30.

The boat's captain, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, mistook her for a merchant vessel or a ship carrying personnel.

His crew tracked the ship for several hours, before they fired torpedoes at around 19:45 BST.

One of them struck her port side, which proved fatal.

More than 100 people, including 28 Americans, were killed, and the incident is believed to be the first involving British deaths during the Second World War.

Tragically, three quarters the Athenia’s passengers were women and children.

Then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain initially pursued a policy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany (Picture: PA).

Aware of the US casualties, Nazi propaganda portrayed the incident as an act of British sabotage, pretending it was their ploy to blame the Nazis, turn neutral opinion against Germany and bring the US into the war.

The true account of events would only be heard at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946.

Just hours before the sinking, at 11:15 BST that morning, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had admitted to the nation in a sombre radio broadcast, that his "long struggle to win peace" had failed.

Later, France issued its own ultimatum to Germany, setting in train the Second World War.

It was a conflict which lasted nearly six years and cost around 50 million lives.