On Friday 1 Sep 1939, the Donaldson Atlantic liner T.S.S. Athenia left Glasgow, calling at Liverpool and Belfast and bound for Montreal. Captained by James Cook, she was carrying 1418 people and 1103 passengers, of which 311 were American. Britain’s Prime Minister had declared war with Germany at 11:15 on 3 Sep 1939 and the Athenia was just off the coast of Inishtrahull, Northern Ireland when she became the first British ship to be attacked in WWII.
At 19:45, during the dinner sitting, the port side of Athenia was struck by a torpedo fired by U-30. The submarine then broke surface at 800 yards distance and fired two shells, killing many on deck and causing the liner to list dramatically. One lifeboat, crowded with passengers, fell from the davits and threw all her occupants into the seas. Another capsized and a third ran into the propeller of a Norwegian cargo ship at the point of rescue.
H.M.S. Escort came to the aid of the stricken Athenia as H.M.S. Fame conducted an anti-submarine sweep of the sea. Escort’s Jim Bass was one of the sailors ordered into the water, littered with flotsam and jetson, to assist survivors. He recalled the ‘hysterical screams, with women begging sailors to save their babies and one distraught mother frantically trying to reach her already dead baby, but only succeeding in gouging Jim’s face with her nails into which oil and fuel seeped, later resulting in a terrible skin condition. Our very own Joseph Edward Chamberlain would go on to talk deliriously about a ‘pretty young girl with long hair and fur boots who had died in his arms.’ He, too, never recovered his health and died in Sep 1942.
Athenia remained afloat for more than 14 hours, until she finally sank stern first at 10:40 the next morning. Of the 1,418 aboard, 98 passengers and 19 crew members were killed. Athenia had been carrying no munitions or armaments and U-30 returned to Germany and reported the incident to Admiral Donitz. However, Hitler and Goebbels decided to announce that the British had deliberately torpedoed its own liner in an attempt to bring the United States into the war. The inevitable newspaper headlines of accusation followed, such as The Mirror’s: ‘Liner Survivors Say Warship Sank U-Boat’. However, Germany maintained the subterfuge throughout the war and altered U-30’s log, but the handwriting was different and false position too far west as to be feasible. It wasn’t until the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 that Admiral Donitz gave a full account of Kapitanleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp’s actions, who claimed that he believed the Athenia to be an armed merchant cruiser, but admitted to being excited by the recent British declaration of war. Athenia was an unarmed passenger ship, and the attack violated the Hague conventions and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 that allowed all warships, including submarines, to stop and search merchant vessels, but forbade capture as prize or sinking unless the ship was carrying contraband or engaged in military activity. The incident greatly influenced the American public, with the majority of people disbelieving Germany’s claims.
Joseph Edward Chamberlain was born in New Barnet, Hertfordshire on 24 July 1905 and worked as a farm hand, living at 1 Oak Cottage, Albert Road, New Barnet before joining the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class on 12 Oct 1920, serving as a torpedoman in the Mediterranean Fleet and Royal Navy and H.M.S. Royal Oak welterweight boxer, enrolling in the Royal Fleet Reserve on 24 July 1935, awarded the R.F.R. Long Service & Good Conduct Medal on 5 June 1939, before being recalled the next month and joining the crew of H.M.S. Escort on 31 July 1939. After the famous Athenia incident, Chamberlain's ship took part in escorting the first units of the British Expeditionary Forces. Chamberlain was declared physically unfit for service on 20 Nov 1940 and died on 18 Sep 1942. According to his daughter's publication 'despite being a Navy boxer, the Atlantic weather did him no good and he was discharged as no longer fir for duty. He spent the next couple of years in and out of naval hospitals and when he was delirious he kept talking about the Athenia and the pretty young girl with long hair and fur boots who had died in his arms. Sadly, my dad never recovered his health and died in September 1942.'
Able Seaman Joseph Edward Chamberlain is buried at the City of London Cemetery.
View a video of Chamberlain's artefacts.