A BC Perspective on the Sinking of the Athenia

Posted by Daniel on Aug 30, 2009 - 5 comments

This Thursday, September 3, marks the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the passenger liner Athenia in the north Atlantic. The Athenia, a day out of Liverpool heading for Montreal, was the last passenger ship to leave Europe before the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939. There were 1,103 passengers on board, many of them East European refugees. Among the 469 Canadians, was my future mother-in-law, 26-year-old Dorothy Dean Brealey. She had been in England with her mother visiting friends and was returning home to Vancouver to be married.

At 7:30 that evening, when the war was less than nine hours old, a torpedo from a German u-boat struck the Athenia. 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," she wrote home. "The whole ship seemed to stand still, then from stem to stern, gave a horrible shudder.” The vessel lurched violently to one side, then righted itself and began to settle at the stern.

Dorothy helped her mother slide down a rope into one of the lifeboats. There were 50 other people in the boat, mostly women and children. Every able-bodied person took a turn at the oars. They could hear the submarine prowling beneath them and had no idea whether it would return to finish them off. For hours they rowed aimlessly. The rolling swell left most everyone seasick and passengers were retching over the side. They were 650 kilometres out in the North Atlantic with no help in sight.

A mayday had gone out and around midnight the first rescue vessel arrived. It was the Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson, but it did not see Dorothy's boat. Four more hours passed. Then suddenly bright searchlights pierced the darkness.It was the Southern Cross, a private yacht belonging to the Swedish industrialist Axel Wenner-Gren. It had responded to the distress call and was aiding 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 rescued 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.

Except for the clothes she stood up in, everything that Dorothy owned was now at the bottom of the Atlantic. At first it looked as if she and her mother were going to have to return to England but Dorothy feared that she might never have the courage to tackle a trans-Atlantic voyage again. Fortuitously, another ship appeared, an American freighter named The City of Flint that was taking survivors on to Canada. The two women transferred to the Flint.

The new vessel 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. 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,” she explained. Her account of the sinking, written as a letter to friends, 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. Back in Vancouver, Dorothy settled into her life and her job at the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company. The following summer Axel Wenner-Gren and his wife arrived in BC to cruise the coast in the Southern Cross. They invited the six survivors of the Athenia who lived in Vancouver on board 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. She used the money to take two of her children, one of them my future wife, back to England in 1959 on a holiday. They travelled by boat.