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Unfortunately the sinking of the passenger liner Athenia is largely forgotten so I figured I'd post some tidbits that various survivors shared with me. But first, the back story.....
The Athenia was one of the few ships allowed to sail from the Europe as the announcement of War was days away. People were frantic to get to the U.S. Therefore the small Anchor-Donaldson liner was filled way beyond capacity. It was a warm September day when she left Glasgow with her first complement on September 1st. She then sailed to Belfast where Mary Kelly hurridly boarded with her sister Estelle. She could see fear in the eyes of many. She clearly remembers how people sang with such emotion at the church service on board. particulary with the hymn- ' For Those in Peril on the Sea '.
Finally on September 2nd, the ship stopped at Liverpool where Phil Gunyon and his family boarded. He would never forget the British school children carrying boxes with gas masks in them as they made their way to the dockside.
The Athenia then made her way to the open sea.
While at sea, it was announced that news of war was official.
As the red sun slowly dipped into the sea, the U-30 crept closer and closer to her target.
Ruth Strauss was debating what to wear when she dined with an officer, Phil Gunyon was in bed as his mother dined in the cabin class dining saloon,
Mary Kelly was reading a novel from the ship's library when it happened. With a large jolt, that the survivors have a hard time describing today, the Athenia was struck by a torpedo and according the survivors, shelled!
Mary Kelly exclaimed aloud to her sister, " Well, I didn't think they'd do it ".
The climb to the lifeboats was perilous as the stern slowly settled into he choppy sea. Vivian Hunt raced below to fetch her children and found the passage way kneedeep in sea water and rising every second. Many families were parted due to over crowding. One survivor noticed a heavy dusting of powder that came from the shelling as she milled about the decks trying to find a lifeboat. The sun disappeared and darkness covered the ocean.
As the lifeboats rowed away, some were so old they were damaged in the lowering and survivors bailed continuously.
The Athenia although settling, seemed to be alright to those who slowly drifted into the night. The people in Mary Kelly's boat were very much in dispair. Not one of the sailors knew how to man the boat. Finally when her little friend the potato peeler began to sob, with uncharacteristic strength ( she attributes this to God ) she took command of the boat telling the sailors how to row, " In-out out-in! "
Finally help arrived, but unfortunately for some, it was the cause of their demise. Two lifeboats were destroyed trying to board the rescue vessels.
All in all, 112 people were killed. 69 of them were women and children. 15 hours after being struck by the torpedo, the Athenia sank from view. What I have wrote is a mere excerpt from their accounts. When someone mentions the Titanic- try and mix it up a bit with the Athenia.
Gosh Michael that was very interesting. I never knew about this ship. Thanks. I do have some questions though. Were the two lifeboats destroyed with the poeple still in them or had some or most of the people boarded the rescue boat. You say "for some, it was the cause of their demise"ships so I guess I was wondering about the numbers in the life boats.

Thanks. Have a great day.
Those lifeboats Maureen were still chock filled with women and children. Since the sea was choppy, the stern of the yacht came right down on top of one boat and another boat was overturned because of a rescue ship. Help was so close for those people, yet so far away.
Michael Poirier.
That is so incredibly sad. Itis so sad that thing slike this happen, but aren't there other ships with similiar things that have happened with rescue boats being destroyed right next to the ship or while trying beach the ship or something like that? That would be my luck I would catch the lifeboat and manage to row for my life and get right next to the rescue ship and then pop! stern plows over me. That is really sad. Thanks for sharing it here.

I have just this afternoon discovered that a relative, Edward Owen Belton, emigrated to America in 1906, then he must have returned to England/Wales for a visit, and was on the Athenia when whe was sunk. I found this because another search on the internet found a reference to his funeral - a survivor of the sinking or the SS Athenia. And now I have found your wonderful description. You have done a good job, there, and many thanks for completing my story for me!

My happiness at finding this story is, however, tempered by the story itself: those poor people, hoping to get back to safety and becoming the first victims so cruelly.

Hilary Belton
Hello Hilary
Do you know where he was heading after the disaster. You may be able to find his account of the sinking in that local paper.

Jeanne Kelly

Mary Lou and Estelle Kelly were my aunts. I still live down the driveway from their house. Mary Lou finally passed away in 2000 at the age of 94. She traveled many places in her life, but her most glamorous story was the sinking of the Athenia. It was always the family favorite.
Hi Jeanne
Your aunt Mary Lou sent me a lenghty account she handwrote for me several years ago. I was curious, do you have a picture of them? I was wondering what they looked like.
My Grandmother, Elizabeth Brown was a passenger on the Athenia on that fateful day September 3, 1939. She was one of the fortunate ones that made it into a lifeboat as many did not. My Grandmother had just finished visiting relatives in Ayrshire, Scotland and was traveling back to the United States when this unfortunate tragedy occurred.
From The Daily Mail:

Telegrams tell of first attack by Nazi Germany on Britain when U-Boat sank passenger ship

Three chilling telegrams have been uncovered which reveal the brutal sinking of a defenceless British passenger ship by a U-boat just hours after World War II was declared.
The Athenia carrying 1,103 passengers was attacked in September 3rd 1939 when the German captain mistook her for an armed merchant ship.
Her sinking led to the deaths of 118 people including a Canadian child which brought the Commonwealth country into the conflict.
More at
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