To many, the sinking of the SS Athenia was the event that formally ushered the British into the Second World War. As with many wars, there were different starting events depending upon who you ask. What makes the destruction of this British passenger ship so special, however, is that it was the first shot fired against the British. The SS Athenia was not a warship, yet it was chosen as the first target of Germany’s naval forces during the war.
To those aboard the ship, the attack seemed rather sudden. The situation in Germany had been tense, but many did not know for certain that war was on the horizon until the hostilities began. Britain made their formal declaration of war against Germany on the third of September in 1939, the same day that the SS Athenia was unexpectedly struck by a torpedo. Those in charge of the ship had been made aware of the situation, and had hoped to avoid such an attack by taking evasive maneuvers as they continued their voyage. Unfortunately, these same maneuvers were precisely what drew the attention of U-30, the sub that struck them.
The sub struck the liner under orders from Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, who assumed that the evasive actions were sure signs that the ship was of military manufacture. He actually fired two torpedoes at the SS Athenia, but only one of them hit. This was lucky for those aboard the liner, as the ship might have gone down much more quickly if both torpedoes had hit their intended target. As soon as the ship was struck, the passengers began fleeing the vessel.
In many ways, the evacuation was more dangerous than the actual torpedo strike. While only slightly over one hundred passengers died, most of them died trying to escape. They abandoned the SS Athenia and piled into lifeboats, where they waited to see what fate would bring them. Some of the survivors were saved by a British destroyer, while others were not so lucky. It was actually one of the rescue ships that caused the deaths of some of the passengers, when the ship’s propeller hit their lifeboat, The Telegraph reports.
The attack on the SS Athenia was as surprising to the Germans as it was to the passengers aboard the liner. They had been given strict orders not to attack unarmed ships, and ceased their attack the moment they caught wind of the ship’s distress signal. The first act of hostility between the Germans and the Allies was nothing more than a tragic accident, and the passengers of the SS Athenia were nothing more than victims of a disastrous misunderstanding.