841.857 Athenia/95: Telegram

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Kennedy) to the Secretary of State

1463. For the President and Secretary. My 1444, 5th.76 Report of Commander Hitchcock, Assistant Naval Attaché, and agreed to by Captain Kirk,77 who together made investigation regarding Athenia survivors landed at Galway, follows:

“We proceeded immediately to Galway, Ireland, where we landed in an improvised field and proceeded to the dock where the tender was disembarking the refugees from the Athenia.

The officers and crew of the Athenia talked freely to Captain Kirk and myself. They were courteous, and under close questioning no conflict in their stories could be discerned.

It was established by the evidence of the Commander of the Athenia, the Officer of the Watch, the Assistant Officer of the Watch, the Quartermaster of the Watch, the Quartermaster off duty but on the bridge, the Chief Engineer and Assistant Engineer Officer and several other crew members that at evening twilight, 3 September, a torpedo struck the port side of the Athenia, slightly abaft midships in the way of the bulkhead between the fireroom and the engineroom.

The explosion caused a large volume of water in the outside of the ship to be blown into the air; destroyed the bulkhead between the fireroom and the engineroom, shattering the oil tank and destroying access of stairs from the third class and tourist dining saloons to the upper decks. It was impossible for the passengers trapped in the dining rooms to escape and they were drowned below decks.

From evidence given by a Quartermaster not on watch, submarine conning tower broke surface about 800 yards on the port quarter of the Athenia. A gun or explosive signal was fired from the conning tower platform. If a gun, it was of small calibre according to one of these men who had served for years as a gun layer in the Royal Navy.

As the submarine was on the weather side of the Athenia the smoke from this discharge blew down over the Athenia and a distinct smell of cordite was recognized. No witness heard a shell in the air; no witness heard a shell strike the ship: only one such discharge was seen. The flash was distinctly reported by three witnesses; the smoke of the discharge was seen by the Commander and many witnesses. No splash of the projectile was seen. The Commander of the Athenia stated that it occurred to him that the submarine might be attempting to destroy their radio but said that any statement by him that this was so was an error as he had no evidence to this effect.

Immediately after the explosion which sank the Athenia the Officer of the Watch sounded eight short blasts and one long blast of the whistle and the submarine submerged and was not again seen.

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The Officer of the Watch immediately closed the ‘long arm watertight doors’ which apparently prevented the ship sinking for many hours. All officers and crew and a few passengers interviewed indicated there was no panic aboard the ship and women and children passengers, as well as the crew and men passengers were calm in going to their boat stations and in abandoning ship.

Some little difficulty was had in lowering the starboard side life boats as the ship primarily took a considerable list to port, but all boats got off without casualty. One boat alongside the rescue ship, Knute Nelson, drifted aft into the propellers and was sunk, resulting in the loss of several of the occupants.

The Irish authorities kept a careful list of all survivors disembarking at Galway.”

  1. Not printed.
  2. Alan G. Kirk, Naval Attaché in the United Kingdom.