Eighty years ago tomorrow, a Nazi torpedo slammed into liner killing 112 innocents

Eighty years ago tomorrow, Britain declared war on Germany and so began a worldwide conflict that lasted almost six years, and would claim the lives of 50 million people.

On Saturday, Jonathan Mayo recreated the heart-stopping moment when Britain’s ambassador in Berlin delivered an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw from Poland, or face all-out conflict. 

He also recounted the events in Westminster leading up to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast to the nation, and the preparations on the Home Front.

This final part of our gripping minute-by-minute reconstruction reveals that it took only hours for the horrific reality of war to start to unfold … and the first fatalities.

German submarine U-30 fires four torpedoes. Two miss the ship, one gets stuck in its tube but the fourth hits the Athenia and explodes. Dozens are killed instantly, including ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth returning home to Canada with her family. Survivors are pictured above

German submarine U-30 fires four torpedoes. Two miss the ship, one gets stuck in its tube but the fourth hits the Athenia and explodes. Dozens are killed instantly, including ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth returning home to Canada with her family. Survivors are pictured above

German submarine U-30 fires four torpedoes. Two miss the ship, one gets stuck in its tube but the fourth hits the Athenia and explodes. Dozens are killed instantly, including ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth returning home to Canada with her family. Survivors are pictured above

12.00pm

In the Atlantic Ocean, Captain James Cook of the SS Athenia, a liner bound for Montreal, asks his Chief Purser to put up a notice telling the passengers that war has been declared. ‘The important thing,’ Cook says, ‘is not to alarm the passengers.’ 

On board are 72 British citizens, 311 Americans, 469 Canadians and about 500 Jewish refugees. 

When the Athenia left the Clyde on Friday, some shipyard workers assumed the passengers were all fleeing the war, and shouted: ‘Cowards! Cowards!’

News that the British are coming to the aid of Poland has reached Warsaw — ‘God Save the King’ is being played on the radio and crowds are singing it outside the British Embassy. A group of students have a banner saying ‘Cheers for England!’ 

Elsewhere in Poland, whole villages are being burned to the ground by German troops.

In Truskolasy, 55 peasants are rounded up and shot; in Wieruszow, 20 Jews are ordered to assemble in the market place and when a girl runs to her father’s side, a German soldier tells her to open her mouth then fires a bullet into it, killing her ‘for impudence’.

The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, confers with his artillery officer and they agree that it could be a British armed merchant cruiser. Lemp gives the order to attack and U-30 dives. The ship is, in fact, the unarmed liner SS Athenia

The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, confers with his artillery officer and they agree that it could be a British armed merchant cruiser. Lemp gives the order to attack and U-30 dives. The ship is, in fact, the unarmed liner SS Athenia

The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, confers with his artillery officer and they agree that it could be a British armed merchant cruiser. Lemp gives the order to attack and U-30 dives. The ship is, in fact, the unarmed liner SS Athenia

12.06pm

The House of Commons is meeting on a Sunday for the first time in over a century. About ten MPs are in military uniform. 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Simon, is sitting in the exact same place as he was in 1914 when the start of World War I was announced in the House.

Neville Chamberlain stands up to address MPs and is cheered by both sides; his hands are shaking. 

‘This is a sad day for all of us, and to no one is it sadder than me… I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been re-established.’ Chamberlain dies of cancer just 14 months later.

Watching in the Strangers’ Gallery is the American Ambassador Joe Kennedy and three of his children: Joe Jr, Kathleen and the future president 22-year-old Jack. 

The ambassador, who had supported the Prime Minister’s appeasement of Hitler, becomes emotional when Chamberlain says: ‘Everything that I have believed in during my public life has crashed in ruins’.

The German submarine U-30 is sailing on the surface to the west of the Irish coast. The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, sees in the distance the silhouette of a large ship

The German submarine U-30 is sailing on the surface to the west of the Irish coast. The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, sees in the distance the silhouette of a large ship

The German submarine U-30 is sailing on the surface to the west of the Irish coast. The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, sees in the distance the silhouette of a large ship

12.21pm

Winston Churchill, who for the past six years has been an outspoken opponent of appeasement, gets to his feet. In his pocket is a note from Chamberlain asking to see him — Churchill knows that it will mean a role in a War Cabinet.

He says: ‘This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man.’ 

The young JFK, watching keenly above in the Gallery, will never forget that speech.

12.40pm

Scores of barrage balloons are rising up all over the London skyline and some are soon given nicknames. Two over Chelsea are called ‘Flossie’ and ‘Blossom’.

The French Ambassador in Berlin, waiting since midday to hand over their ultimatum, is finally allowed to meet German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

1pm

Having met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Winston Churchill gets into his car where his wife Clementine is waiting. Chamberlain has asked him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty. 

‘It’s the Admiralty,’ he tells her with a smile. ’That’s a lot better than I thought!’

Clementine had been worried that Chamberlain would offer her husband ‘a silly little job’. So they head off to their Westminster flat to celebrate with champagne. 

In Downing Street, the nine-member War Cabinet is meeting for the first time, pictured above in November 1939. Its members decide to put into action ‘Western Air Plan 14’, the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr

In Downing Street, the nine-member War Cabinet is meeting for the first time, pictured above in November 1939. Its members decide to put into action ‘Western Air Plan 14’, the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr

In Downing Street, the nine-member War Cabinet is meeting for the first time, pictured above in November 1939. Its members decide to put into action ‘Western Air Plan 14’, the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr

Churchill is convinced that the role of Prime Minister is within his grasp; he told his cousin Shane Leslie a few weeks ago: ‘It will come to me to deal with Mr Hitler.’

The BBC announces that sandbags are available for any London business keen to protect a property from bomb blasts. It is the first of many official announcements throughout the day.

2pm

The Admiralty sends a message to the entire fleet ‘Winston is Back.’ [He had been its First Lord once before between 1911-15.]

Three London jails are releasing a thousand short-term prisoners so their beds can be used for war casualties. 

Each prisoner is given five shillings before they walk out of the gates.

Having met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Winston Churchill gets into his car where his wife Clementine is waiting. Chamberlain has asked him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘It’s the Admiralty,’ he tells her with a smile. ’That’s a lot better than I thought!’

Having met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Winston Churchill gets into his car where his wife Clementine is waiting. Chamberlain has asked him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘It’s the Admiralty,’ he tells her with a smile. ’That’s a lot better than I thought!’

Having met the Prime Minister in Downing Street, Winston Churchill gets into his car where his wife Clementine is waiting. Chamberlain has asked him to be the First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘It’s the Admiralty,’ he tells her with a smile. ’That’s a lot better than I thought!’

3pm

Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh, whose film Gone With The Wind is about to be released, are on a yacht moored off the coast of California with their friend Douglas Fairbanks Jr when they hear the news of the outbreak of war. 

Olivier proceeds to get drunk and is soon rowing round other boats shouting: ‘This is the end! You’re all washed up! Finished! Enjoy your last moments! You’re done for!’

Britain has been joined in the war by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Palestine, India, Hong Kong and Tonga. 

The Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, said: ‘Where Britain stands, stand the people of the Empire.’

In Belfast, six armed members of the IRA attack a Territorial Army soldier, strip him of his uniform and then burn it, before running away. 

In January, the IRA had announced that they were at war with Britain and ever since have been carrying out a campaign of bombings and sabotage across Britain and Northern Ireland.

3.45pm

In Poland, the ruthless attacks on civilians continue. The town of Sulejow, its population of 6,500 swelled by 3,000 refugees, is bombed by the Luftwaffe. 

Buildings are soon on fire, and as people run for the safety of nearby woods, they are strafed by machine guns from German fighters.

How the Daily Mail covered the outbreak of World War Two is pictured above. This front page is an early edition on September 4th, 1939

How the Daily Mail covered the outbreak of World War Two is pictured above. This front page is an early edition on September 4th, 1939

How the Daily Mail covered the outbreak of World War Two is pictured above. This front page is an early edition on September 4th, 1939

4.30pm

At BBC Broadcasting House, announcer Stuart Hibberd is reading out a Government public information bulletin. 

‘All places of entertainment will be closed until further notice… carry your gas masks with you always. Make sure that every member of your household has on them their names and addresses clearly written on an envelope or a luggage label.’ 

By the side of the final paragraph he has written a reminder to himself about his delivery: ‘Slowly and emphatically’.

The Emergency Powers Act passed a few days ago gives the Government wide-ranging powers — from the right to seize any property to telling farmers what they can sow, to banning the flying of kites.

5pm

In Downing Street, the nine-member War Cabinet is meeting for the first time. Its members decide to put into action ‘Western Air Plan 14’, the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and the Ruhr. 

The aim is to persuade the public that the Nazis are leading them into a war they cannot win. 

It will also serve as a stark reminder that their country is within range of RAF bombers. 

The Cabinet is told that the German fleet has been located at the port of Wilhelmshaven and they agree that it should be bombed when it puts to sea.

Such is the level of anxiety about the outbreak of war, and in particular that food supplies will run out, that some are deciding they have no choice but to kill the family pet. In the first four days of the war, around 400,000 pets will be put to sleep.

5.20pm

George VI’s speech therapist Lionel Logue is dropped off outside Buckingham Palace by his son Laurie. 

Logue leaves his hat, umbrella and gas mask in the Privy Purse Hall and makes his way up to the King’s private study. His Majesty hands Logue the speech he is due to make to the nation and the Empire in just 40 minutes time. 

The King is wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet as he has decided that he will only wear civilian dress once the war is over. 

Logue studies the text of the speech, marks places where there should be a pause, and removes any word that may cause the badly stammering monarch difficulty. 

The word ‘government’ becomes ‘ourselves’, and ‘summon’ replaces ‘call’.

5.55pm

Churchill is walking from Downing Street to the Admiralty, which is surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries. 

He makes his way up to the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty that he last left in 1915 after the failure of the Dardanelles campaign. 

There, he strides over to a cupboard and opens the door, revealing a map showing the positions of German ships 24 years ago.

6pm

The King is nervously waiting for the red light which will signal the start of his broadcast; Lionel Logue is next to him. 

Both men are standing, as Logue believes that this helps the King’s breathing. The Queen is listening next door.

The red light comes on and Logue gives the King a reassuring smile. The King manages a brief smile back and then takes a breath. 

‘In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself. For the second time in the lives of most of us — we are at war…’

Winston Churchill, who for the past six years has been an outspoken opponent of appeasement, gets to his feet. In his pocket is a note from Chamberlain asking to see him — Churchill knows that it will mean a role in a War Cabinet. The two men are pictured together that same year

Winston Churchill, who for the past six years has been an outspoken opponent of appeasement, gets to his feet. In his pocket is a note from Chamberlain asking to see him — Churchill knows that it will mean a role in a War Cabinet. The two men are pictured together that same year

Winston Churchill, who for the past six years has been an outspoken opponent of appeasement, gets to his feet. In his pocket is a note from Chamberlain asking to see him — Churchill knows that it will mean a role in a War Cabinet. The two men are pictured together that same year

6.04pm

The red light goes out. ‘Congratulations on your first wartime speech, Your Majesty,’ Logue says. The King replies: ‘I expect I will have to do a lot more’.

The King then leaves the room and poses for an official photograph seated at his desk in front of two microphones. The Queen says to her husband: ‘That was good, Bertie’.

She, too, has rehearsed a radio address that was written for her by Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne, but it is considered by Palace officials to be too ‘Christopher Robinish.’

6.45pm

In Berlin, a statement by Hitler railing against the Allies is being read by an announcer: ‘I had for years been aware that the aim of these war inciters had for long been to take Germany by surprise at a favourable opportunity… we have never been a nation of slaves, and we will not be one in the future.’

7pm

The German submarine U-30 is sailing on the surface to the west of the Irish coast. The U-boat’s skipper, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, sees in the distance the silhouette of a large ship. 

He confers with his artillery officer and they agree that it could be a British armed merchant cruiser. Lemp gives the order to attack and U-30 dives. The ship is, in fact, the unarmed liner SS Athenia.

7.38pm

U-30 fires four torpedoes. Two miss the ship, one gets stuck in its tube but the fourth hits the Athenia and explodes. Dozens are killed instantly, including ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth returning home to Canada with her family. A thousand people will meet the train that brings her body back to her hometown.

7.45pm

In Balsall Common, near Solihull, Clara and Jack Milburn are delighted when serviceman son Alan pays them a surprise visit just in time for an evening meal. Alan will be taken prisoner during the fighting at Dunkirk but survives the war.

7.55pm

In Berlin, Hitler boards his armoured train on his way to the Polish Front. He tells his valet that he intends to have a simple wartime diet. ‘You will see to it that I have only what the ordinary people of Germany can have. It is my duty to set an example.’

8.15pm

U-30 surfaces and Oberleutnant Lemp is handed a copy of one of Athenia’s SOS transmissions. He realises he has attacked a civilian liner. ‘What a mess!’ he says. 

In his office in the Admiralty, Churchill is sending out memos asking for detailed answers on subjects from the state of the German U-Boat force to the number of rifles the Royal Navy has. 

The memos begin ‘Pray let me have…’ so they soon acquire the nickname ‘Daily prayers’ by his staff.

A British soldier kisses his wife and daughter goodbye before heading to France just two weeks after war is declared. Over the next six years, the conflict spreads around the globe, and more than 50 million people will be killed

A British soldier kisses his wife and daughter goodbye before heading to France just two weeks after war is declared. Over the next six years, the conflict spreads around the globe, and more than 50 million people will be killed

A British soldier kisses his wife and daughter goodbye before heading to France just two weeks after war is declared. Over the next six years, the conflict spreads around the globe, and more than 50 million people will be killed

9pm

The third night of the black-out in Britain begins. Public Information Leaflet No. 2 issued in July told householders to use either close-fitting blinds, dark-coloured material or sheets of dark brown paper. 

Many people use paper, believing that the war will be over by Christmas. Most passengers on the Athenia are in lifeboats. 

Those that remain are singing Nearer My God To Thee, the hymn played by the band on the Titanic 27 years before.

11pm

The King retires to bed alone. The Queen is on her way to Balmoral to be with her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, so that she can share the news.

All the Athenia’s surviving passengers are now in lifeboats. The captain is changing into civilian clothes as he knows that in the Great War, ships’ captains were taken prisoner by the German Navy. 

The Athenia will stay afloat until the following morning. Some 112 people lost their lives, including 28 Americans, but the United States won’t enter the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Midnight

Thirteen tons of leaflets are falling all over northern Germany, dropped by ten RAF bombers. 

On them is printed: ‘Your rulers have condemned you to the massacres, miseries and privations of a war they cannot ever hope to win. It is not us, but you who have been deceived.’

The leaflets fail to stop the war. Over the next six years, the conflict spreads around the globe, and more than 50 million people will be killed.

Jonathan Mayo is the author of D-Day: Minute By Minute (Short Books, £8.99).

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