In the first days of September 1939 Canada marked its first human losses of the Second World War. This timeline may come as a surprise too many of us, as the Nazis had only invaded Poland two days before and Britain had only entered the war earlier in that same day. It turns out that our first casualties were civilians traveling home on a cruise liner, and not military personnel.
The SS Athenia had set sail from England to Canada on September 2nd, 1939. Aboard the cruise liner were 1,103 passengers, many of them Canadians, Americans, and Brits; there were even Jewish refugees attempting to escape Nazi occupation.
As tensions increased in Europe, the SS Athenia was advised to employ evasive actions such as turning the lights off at night, staying in shallow waters, and traveling in a zigzag pattern, to avoid any possibility of an attack. These manoeuvres would prove to be successful until the cruise liner was forced to enter deep waters off the coast Ireland on September 3rd. It was during this time that the patrolling U-boat 30 came across the ship and mistakenly opened fire on the vessel. No order had been handed down from Adolf Hitler and in fact, he had warned his navy to avoid conflict because negotiations with Britain were ongoing.
Even though it took several hours for Athenia to sink, 117 people would lose their lives, including 16 Canadians. U30 Captain Fritz Julius Lemp claimed that the evasive actions used by the cruise liner are what led to its attack. Regardless of what caused the mistake, the incident was quickly covered up by Lemp and his men.
A narrative was quickly spun by Germany’s Goebbels who aimed to keep the U.S. from entering the war. The propagandist said that Britain’s Churchill had planted a bomb on board in order to win the Americans to his side.
Photo: The SS Athenia leaving port before it was sunk by U- 30. (Clifford M. Johnston / Library and Archives Canada / PA-056817)