841.857 Athenia/835

Memorandum by Miss Anna O’Neill, of the Office of the Legal Adviser, for the Counselor of the Department of State (Moore)1

Dear Mr. Moore: The evidence secured from survivors of the Athenia, mostly Americans, is of two classes: First some 126 who made affidavits immediately after the disaster before our representatives abroad, and, second, approximately 230 who were circularized by the Department. Obviously because of the time element, the first group should be the more important. Of this group 26 specifically stated that they did not see a submarine; 11 stated that they had seen a submarine, while 89 were non-committal.

Of the 11 who stated they had seen a submarine, the following is a description of what they saw:

“… I saw coming out of the water about 800 yards distant what looked like a long thin pole, probably a periscope.” (Mrs. Hessie Hislop was born in Ireland, 1902; American passport.)
“While in the lifeboat we saw at a short distance what looked like a stick above the surface of the water.” (Mrs. Florence Davis was born in Pennsylvania, 1913.)
“… we went to the stern deck and a cabin boy said ‘There’s a submarine’. I saw the periscope and I ran to reach the forward deck, …” (Mrs. Mary B. Dick was born in England, 1890; American passport.)
“Then there was another explosion and looking to sea I saw smoke, like smoke from a gun, and faintly visible the bow and stern of a submarine.” (Thomas Edward Quine was born in the Isle of Man, 1885; American passport.)
“I did see what looked like a metal rod sticking out of the water and it was not until then I realised that we had been torpedoed.” (Ruth Rabenold was born in New York, 1915.)
“I ran to the rail and saw what I took to be the submarine rushing away in a small cloud of smoke close to the water. It was very near.” (Elnetta Lamyra MacDonald was born in New York, 1876.)
“When I got to the top of the stairs I saw the submarine on the surface partly covered by smoke.” (Thomas MacDonald was born in Scotland, 1878; is a British subject.)
“… As I [was] making my way along the starboard side of the vessel I looked out to sea and distinctly saw the conning tower and part of the deck of a submarine at a distance of less than a mile from the Athenia. I also noticed clouds of smoke around the submarine.” (Mrs. Isobel Campbell Bruce was born at Glasgow, Scotland, 1894; American passport.)
“… and saw at a distance I should judge to be between 100 and 200 yards two unmistakable geysers of water. Until I saw these large geysers of water I thought the explosion might have been caused by something in the engine room. As soon as I saw these geysers of water I knew we were then being shelled.” (Watson Bidwell, affidavit of September 9, 1939.)
“… I saw something like a long stick which was sticking straight out of the water.” (Mrs. Jessie Morrison was born at Greenock, Scotland, 1901; British passport.)
“At that moment, a mast came crashing down on deck near me and at the same time I noticed something sticking right out of the water, at no great distance from the ship, which looked like a part of the broken mast until suddenly there came from it a dull red glow, which was followed by thick black smoke which spread like a large cloud low over the water.” (Mrs. Mary Ellen Tinney was born at Bailieston, Scotland, 1902; British passport.)

A number of these persons also identified smoke on the water as being evidence of a submarine. The description of this smoke is as follows:

[Here follow extracts from 38 statements.]

Of the approximately 230 replies received from the survivors who were circularized by the Department, 37 stated specifically that they did not see a submarine, while 20 stated that they had seen a submarine. The description of what these 20 persons saw follows:

[Here follow extracts from 20 statements.]

Evidence Submitted by the British Government

Excerpts taken from the depositions of six officers, seven members of the crew, and three passengers of the S. S. Athenia which were made before a Receiver of Wreck under Section 467 [465?] of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, and transmitted to the Department from the American Embassy, London, April 8, 1940.2

[Here follow extracts from 16 statements.]

The above depositions were transmitted to the Department on the understanding that since they “are not public documents His Majesty’s Government have no right to disclose them to any outside party without the consent of the deponents”. The documents were submitted [Page 298] “on the express understanding that they will be used fully for administrative purposes and not in any proceedings before a court of law”. In addition to the depositions cited above, Mr. Hoyer Millar of the British Embassy on May 28 left two documents for the Department’s consideration. These documents read:

“Ministry of Shipping
19th April, 1940

The Under-Secretary of State,
Foreign Office, S. W. 1.


With further reference to your letter (A.1550/405/48) of the 3rd March, and subsequent correspondence regarding the loss of the S. S. Athenia, I am directed by the Minister of Shipping to state for the information of Secretary Viscount Halifax that a Formal Investigation has not been held into the sinking of this vessel.

The objects of holding these Formal Investigations, which are normally held in public and the Reports of which are published, are to ascertain, in the interests of safety at sea, the cause of a casualty, when this is in doubt, and to investigate any question which may be raised by the occurrence as to possible defects in the ship or her equipment, or failure on the part of the personnel to carry out their duties or to deal satisfactorily with the situation.
The question of holding a Formal Investigation into the loss of the S. S. Athenia naturally received full consideration, but the information already available was sufficient to provide answers to all the questions indicated in the preceding paragraph.
The Ministry was satisfied that when the vessel left Glasgow on 1st September last she was in good condition. A complete survey of the vessel for Passenger and Safety Certificates in accordance with the requirements of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, had been carried out by Board of Trade Surveyors in March and April of 1939; and on the 11th April, 1939, a Passenger and Safety Certificate was issued to her. In addition, a very thorough inspection of the life-saving appliances, fire fighting equipment and passenger accommodation was made by the Board of Trade Surveyors at Glasgow during the four days prior to sailing with a final inspection, including a boat and fire drill, on the sailing day, and all was found to be in order.
The sworn statements of survivors in the possession of the Ministry of Shipping left no doubt as to the causes of the casualty or the effectiveness of the measures taken to deal with the situation. It was clear that the causes of the disaster were in no way connected with any defect in the ship or with any failure on the part of the ship’s personnel. It was established to the satisfaction of the Ministry that the explosion which caused the casualty originated outside the ship. The ship’s manifest showed that she carried no explosive material, the carriage of explosive materials on passenger vessels being in fact prohibited under the Merchant Shipping Acts. As regards the suggestion of a boiler explosion which was made in the German broadcasts (among other and inconsistent suggestions as to the cause of the loss of the vessel) this is for all practical purposes negatived by the [Page 299] nature and results of the surveys mentioned in paragraph (a); and the evidence available does not support the suggestion that the explosion originated in the boiler room, since the damage to the ship occurred partly in No. 5 hold and partly in the engine room, which in this particular vessel was situated at some distance from the boiler room. Added to this is the fact that the only members of the crew who lost their lives other than stewards and stewardesses were a donkeyman and a greaser who were killed in the engine room. There were no casualties in the boiler room, a fact which corroborates the conclusion stated under (IV) in the Admiralty letter of 25th March.
Members of the ship’s company stated that they felt the ship receive a heavy blow on the port side, a submarine was later seen by several persons and there is no doubt the ship was torpedoed.
[sic] The Ministry’s investigations further showed that after the explosion the officers and crew dealt admirably with the situation. The lifesaying apparatus was in good order and the work of abandoning the ship was carried out efficiently and effectively, and no loss of life occurred during the operation.
In all the circumstances this Department had no hesitation in reaching the conclusion, in agreement with the other Departments interested, that nothing would be gained from a technical or disciplinary point of view in holding a Formal Investigation into the loss of the ship. It was also felt that the holding of an Investigation would play into the hands of the German propaganda Department whose broadcasts were reiterating various suggestions as to the cause of the loss of the vessel and claiming that, if these were not correct, a Formal Investigation should be held to disprove them.”

extract from letter from admiralty to foreign office, dated march 25th, 1940

With reference to your letter of the 3rd March, No. A. 1550/405/45, the following remarks are offered in connection with the enquiries into the responsibility for the sinking of the Athenia which was torpedoed during the evening of September 3rd, 1939, and sunk, as the result of the injuries inflicted during the morning of September 4th. Other methods of sinking the vessel, suggested by the German authorities at various times in their broadcasts programmes, and the dates of the suggestions are:—

September 4th: (I) By British warship in error.
(II) By floating mine of English origin.
September 5th: (III) English submarine.
(IV) Boiler explosion.
(V) Bomb.
September 22nd }
October 21st
(VI) By three British destroyers by gunfire.

It is, however, beyond the bounds of probability that the Athenia was sunk in any of the methods suggested, for the following reasons:—

No British warships were in the neighbourhood at the time of the attack, and in fact although H. M. Ships were despatched to the scene of the disaster, they did not reach there till many hours afterwards.
No British minefield had been laid anywhere near the scene of the attack, and it would have been quite impracticable for a mine to have drifted from a British minefield to the position, even if British mines did not become safe upon breaking adrift.
No British submarine was within several hundred miles of the Athenia when sunk.
There is no evidence of any kind that a boiler explosion occurred.
Any bomb would have needed to have been placed on board before the ship sailed from this country on the 2nd September and during peace, and if it were possible for the British Authorities to have stooped to this, which is quite unthinkable, it would still have involved fore knowledge of the outbreak of the war, which was of course in doubt until September 3rd.
The British destroyers that arrived on the scene on the morning of September 4th did not fire at the ship in order to sink her as a danger to navigation, but the ship sank soon after their arrival, as the result of her original injuries.”

[The available evidence collected by the Department regarding the sinking of the Athenia was assembled with a 91-page covering memorandum by Miss Anna A. O’Neill of the Legal Adviser’s Office, dated July 15, 1940, summarizing the evidence. The conclusion was that evidence was insufficient to establish responsibility for the sinking.

(841.857 Athenia/836)

After the war it was fully established from German sources that the Athenia was sunk by the German submarine U–30. See Office of United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Volume II (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1946), pages 854 ff., and Der Prozess gegen die Haupthriegsverbrecher vor dem Intenationalen Militargerichtshof, Nürnberg, 14 November 1945–1 Oktober 1946 (Nürnberg, 1948), Band XIV, pages 91 ff.]

  1. In a memorandum of July 5, 1940, to the Legal Adviser, Mr. Moore wrote: “The disaster could only have been caused by the use of some external force or the use of some internal force or by some defect in the equipment or operation of the vessel. The evidence presented strongly supports the presumption that the vessel was torpedoed, and contains nothing to support any other presumption”.
  2. Despatch No. 5035, not printed.