As the remains of the first British ship to be sunk in WW2 are thought to have been found, international maritime charity Sailors’ Society’s archives reveal the tragic aftermath.
Marine scientist and author David Mearns claims to have found the wreck of the SS Athenia, which sank into the Atlantic off the Galway coast 78 years ago, torpedoed by a German submarine the same evening that war with Germany had been declared.
More than 100 people died in the tragedy.
Sailors’ Society, which is approaching its bicentenary in March next year, found an account of the rescue efforts of its Galway chaplain, painting a dramatic picture of wartime spirit from the very start of the war.
The Rev. A. J. Gailey, Presbyterian Minister at Galway, had recently accepted the office of Honorary Representative of the Society when, on September 3, 1939, a message came from a Norwegian ship, the Knute Nelson, to say it was carrying hundreds of survivors of the attack.
“Within 20 minutes of first hearing the news we were busy,” said Rev Gailey in the charity’s October 1939 edition of its Chart and Compass magazine.
“In company with a young priest I was allocated to the pilot-boat, which was to leave Galway at midnight. Home for a coat and rug and hot coffee in flasks. With the doctors, two police officials and the priest I joined the pilot at midnight and put in one of the most uncomfortable nights of my life.
“We were a party of 10 in a small cabin which accommodated four at a pinch and we were in the open on a rough night until we picked up the Knute Nelson at about 8am on Tuesday. When we came alongside we went up a rope ladder, 60 feet to deck, to meet a sight I have no desire to see again. There were nearly 600 people on a boat which had accommodation for 40 in her cabins. They were on deck, ‘tweendecks, in corridor, everywhere; but they were able to manage a cheer.
“The doctors went at once to the casualties, the police officials to the task of listing survivors, and the priest and myself about the task of talking to the nervous and anxious and bereaved. Morale was wonderful, but clothing was bizarre in the extreme. Some had dry clothes and some had shrunken clothes; some in night attire and some in flimsy frocks; if your boots and stockings were gone, wisps of straw did duty – or bare feet. Failing all else many had blankets. Bruises, burns, cuts were the order of the day, but everyone was making the best of it.
“In two hours we joined the tender off the harbour at Galway, and it was then that the nerves of some began to fail and they broke down. Casualties first and then the motley collection of the saved were carried or helped down to the tender where they had at last full surgical and medical aid and also food. With a cheer for the Knute Nelson we made for the dock and the last trans-shipment. In the customs shed was a meal for everyone who had not to go at once to hospital. By the time folk were fed they were also labelled for a hotel, and were sent off by car or bus. When all was cleared up and the victims were in their homes we were just fit to have a sort of meeting and stagger home.
“Next morning and afternoon and evening I spent in charge of the accurate detailing of information about the hospital cases an in getting in touch with their relatives. That was Wednesday and the task of clothing 500 people was well under way. Since that the authorities and our volunteer helpers have been busy at hotels, hospitals, docks, and police barracks from 9am until midnight and after.
“Some of our guests are gone and the majority seem likely to go soon; but some will remain for days yet and we have still 19 hospital cases.
“We have Americans and Canadians, British, French, Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Lithuanians and many Poles. Of the total number, crew and passengers, about 40 per cent are Presbyterian. These hail from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Canada, USA and New Zealand; 10 of them are in hospital.
“The crew were chiefly Presbyterian and were tremendously pleased to see a Presbyterian parson, albeit unshaven and dirty, tumbling over the side from the pilot-boat. Altogether the experience was unforgettable and has justified the link I have maintained for our church and the Port of Galway.”
The charity also supported survivors in Glasgow, where port chaplain J.R. McDonald, spent time with anxious relatives and visited hospitalised men who were injured in the sinking.
Almost 80 years on from the tragedy, the charity continues to support seafarers and their families affected by crisis.
Earlier this year, the charity held the 30th anniversary service for those lost in the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster.
The charity also launched its second Crisis Response Network, which supports those affected by piracy and other traumas at sea.
Its CEO Stuart Rivers, said: “Sailors’ Society’s chaplains and ship visitors have been supporting traumatised people for almost two centuries now. Reverend Gailey’s moving personal account highlights the amazing compassion and bravery they show on a daily basis.”