THE fate of the SS Athenia, torpedoed within nine hours of the declaration on war on Germany on September 3, 1939, is recalled in a new book by the historian Evan Mawdsley, a former Professor of International History at Glasgow University.

The book, The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II, opens with an account of the Athenia’s sinking south of Rockall, some 200 miles into the open Atlantic, by the U-boat U 30. She belonged to the Donaldson Atlantic Line, and, according to this newspaper, was a familiar sight in the port of Glasgow, “and was affectionately regarded by the many West of Scotland people who had voyaged in her”.

Mawdsley writes that, in August 1939, there was a “new urgency” to get aboard among those hurrying to escape the outbreak of another European war. The Athenia left Glasgow, bound for Montreal, on the evening of September 1, the day that Germany invaded Poland. After picking up passengers in Belfast and Liverpool, she sailed for the open Atlantic on the 3rd, a few hours after the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had told the nation that it was now at war with Germany.

Without warning, U 30 fired two torpedoes at the liner; one of them struck her, and the passengers and most of her crew took to the lifeboats. Aid was summoned, and three destroyers arrived to rescue survivors.

The liner, writes Mawdsley, took fourteen hours to go down, and “most of the fatalities resulted from the initial torpedo explosion or from poor handling of the lifeboats”. Ninety-three passengers (eight-five of them women or children) and nineteen crew members died.

The book makes clear that the Germany Navy’s prize rules, which followed international law, said that merchant vessels were supposed to be warned before attack. The U-boat commander later said he believed that the Athenia had been an armed merchant cruiser; it was only when he listened to the BBC that he learned that he had sunk a passenger liner. But he escaped any real punishment; and, moreover, a replacement page was “crudely inserted” in the U 30’s logbook.

Read more: Herald Diary

Scottish newspapers ran photographs of the Athenia survivors when they arrived in Glasgow and Greenock. The Herald said members of the public expressed “immediate disgust at the barbarous attack on an unprotected vessel, “and there was the apparent the widespread feeling that Germany had restarted the revolting methods of warfare which she initiated 25 years ago”.

The Donaldson offices in St Vincent Street received many callers, including relatives of passengers who had sailed on Athenia.

The circumstances of the torpedoing were briefly reported in a sombre notice posted in a window of the office. It read: “Torpedoed 250 miles west of Inishtrahull. Passengers and crew, except those killed by explosion, taken to boats and picked up by various ships. (Signed) Cook, Master”.