Nova Scotia

Survivors recount how SS Athenia steamed into disaster on first night of WW II

Survivors of the sinking of SS Athenia by a German U-boat gather to mark their role in a major turning point in world history on its 80th anniversary.

Passengers tell their stories of this major turning point in world history to mark 80th anniversary

After a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the passenger liner SS Athenia on Sept. 3, 1939 — the first British ship sunk in the Second World War — survivors were taken to docks in Galway, Ireland, as well as Halifax. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"As we were falling asleep, at about 20 minutes to eight, there was a big boom and then the ship went dead in the water."

Philip Gunyon, 7 years old at the time, was in his bunk aboard the SS Athenia on Sept. 3, 1939. The transatlantic passenger liner had been struck on the port side by a torpedo from a German U-boat.

Now 87, Gunyon was one of those at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax recently to mark the 80th anniversary of the final voyage of the Athenia — the first British ship to be sunk by the Germans in the Second World War.

Three of the Athenia's survivors decided the event would be a good chance to bring others from the ship together for a reunion. So they set out to track down as many as they could.

Nine people from across North America, who were children aboard the Athenia and who are now in their 80s and 90s, gathered in Halifax to reconnect, many for the first time since that fateful night in 1939.

For Vivian Collver, one of the organizers, spending time face to face with other survivors of the ordeal helped put their unwitting role in history into perspective.

The passenger liner Athenia is seen sinking after being hit by a German U-boat's torpedo on Sept. 3, 1939.

"It is powerful. It is powerful. It is something we all need to acknowledge. We have to recognize this was a turning point in our lives," Collver says.

  • WATCH | The National's story on the survivors of the SS Athenia, Sunday Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station, and online on CBC Gem.

The rarity of such a gathering was not lost on historians.

"For Canadians and Americans and Brits, this is where World War II began," retired history professor Francis Carroll explains. 

"You know the war is 80 years ago, almost a century ago, and there were nine survivors of the first blow of the war here today, which is incredible when you think of it."

Survivors of the Athenia were reunited recently at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax to mark the 80th anniversary of the ship's final voyage. (CBC)

'Caught in the opening moments'

The passenger liner had been making its way across the North Atlantic to Montreal with more than 1,400 aboard, mostly women and children escaping the threat of the Second World War.

Instead, they sailed right into it.

Heather Watts, who attended the reunion, was a three-year-old passenger at the time and blissfully unaware of the danger. She says her mother, on the other hand, was plenty concerned.

"Everybody knew war was coming. It was common knowledge," Watts says. "She just wanted to get back to Canada before it started, but we were caught in the opening moments."

Heather Watts was a three-year-old passenger aboard the Athenia the night it was sunk. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Just a few hours after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared war against Germany, a German U-boat spotted the Athenia roughly 300 kilometres off the coast of Scotland. Its overly zealous captain tracked the passenger ship for hours and then, against all rules, fired his torpedoes.

Before long it was listing badly, and Gunyon says he still clearly remembers the commotion. The crew frantically began to prepare the lifeboats as night was about to fall.

Collver was just three at the time. Even so, she has a vague memory of the 11 agonizing hours she spent in a crowded lifeboat that night with other survivors, waiting to be rescued.

Vivian Collver was just three when the Athenia was attacked, but remembers the hours she spent in a crowded lifeboat that night. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"So I am sitting in a lifeboat with 65 scared people who are vomiting, and who are screaming and yelling and doing whatever scared people do," explains Collver. "And I would've felt that."

Collver says in researching the ordeal recently, the sense of anxiety came rushing back to her.

"So where is this coming from?" she asked herself.

"And the only thing I could pin it to was probably this repressed memory of not just sitting in the lifeboat, but the fear I must have felt that emanated from the people who were there."

Passengers and crew of the doomed liner Athenia aboard a lifeboat. (Imperial War Museum)

Several ships in the area responded to the distress calls and rescued as many passengers as possible. Even so, more than 100 people perished.

One of the tragic stories that night involved the Kucharczuks. They were seven family members immigrating to Canada from Poland. They all made it into lifeboats, but only three survived.

Violet Kasianiuk remembers her mother talking about that night.

Survivors from the Athenia being helped to safety by a soldier. The Athenia was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat a few hours after the start of World War II. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

"The only thing mom said [was that] when they were put in the lifeboat, she was holding her sister. All of a sudden they got pulled under the propeller and the lifeboat smashed, and she said her sister was gone."

The disaster left the family's father, Spirydon Kucharczuk, and two of his surviving children to continue on to Canada to rebuild their lives.

Violet Kasianiuk says her mother talked about the night the Athenia went down, killing four members of her family. (David Laughlin/CBC)

A common bond

Those aboard the Athenia lived an experience that helped shape world history. At their reunion in Halifax, overlooking the same port some of them were taken to 80 years ago after the sinking, many of the survivors say they felt a bond forged by tragedy. 

They shared stories and commemorated the dead.  And more than anything, they tried to fill some of the gaps in the shared knowledge of that night's events.

Survivors from the British liner SS Athenia are brought ashore from the Norwegian cargo ship MS Knute Nelson at Galway, Ireland, on Sept. 6, 1939. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"You know, knowing what the experience was you want to find out even more … just because it's part of my life," says Watts.

For Gunyon, the day spent with fellow survivors left him feeling whole.

"We're not strangers anymore. On a personal level, I got the feeling that I now have a new family. And everyone who's spoken to me has said isn't it wonderful that we're all here and sharing this experience."

SS Athenia's terrifying final night

4 years ago
Duration 1:34
SS Athenia survivor Philip Gunyon describes his experience as a child passenger on the transatlantic liner the night it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1939, the first British ship to be sunk by the Germans in the Second World War.


Tom Murphy is co-host of CBC Nova Scotia's supper hour news program and correspondent for The National. He also hosts Land and Sea and is brother to Bob.