It was a callous act of aggression that was a factor in turning public sentiment, ultimately leading to Canada entering World War II.
But it was “By the grace of God” a six-year-old girl survived and 80 years later is living in Drumheller. That is just what Noreen McKenzie’s father Jesse Carswell Bigelow told a BBC reporter days after the SS Athenia was sunk in 1939.
September 3 marked 80 years since the sinking of the SS Athenia. This was a passenger ship that left the United Kingdom destined for Canada. Onboard were 1,103 passengers, including the young Biglow family.
Noreen was just six years old when a U-boat fired two torpedoes at the ship. One exploded on the Athenia’s port side in her engine room.
Noreen tells the Mail her father was a CNR Station agent in Sibbald, Alberta, and her mother was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she had sisters and brothers. In 1939 they had the opportunity to visit.
“My Dad got tickets to go over to Scotland,” Noreen tells the Mail.
She, her mother Catherine, father Jesse, and brother David, 5, embarked on the journey. War tensions were high in Europe. Germany was on the brink of invading Poland and Britain was on high alert.
“The war scare was on and my mother wanted to come back to Canada earlier because my sister was with her grandparents in Delia,” said Noreen.
She said because of the war scare, they had tickets for accommodation below on D deck and it was close to the engine room where the torpedo hit.
“All they could get was two berths, like bunk beds, and my mother was reading us a story sitting on a chair, and when the torpedo hit, of course, all the lights went out and she was in water,” said Noreen.
The family was scrambling, but her father managed to find a lantern and was calling out for his wife. Her mother was able to get Noreen to some steps where she was safe, and her father had to dive to rescue David.
Catherine made it to the deck and was loaded aboard a lifeboat. Jesse soon arrived with Noreen and David in tow.
“This one man said to my dad ‘get in the lifeboat with your family’ so he got in and we were all together,” she said.
For the next 11 hours, they were in the lifeboat on the open ocean.
Other ships in the area responded to the distress call of the Athenia and support came rushing in. the family was rescued from the ocean by the HMS Electra.
“The guys from the Navy pulled us up in a sling, and Mother said she had to scramble up the ropes like a monkey,” said Noreen. “We
were covered in bunker oil from the explosion.”
Of the 1,418 onboard including crew, 98 passengers and 19 sailors were killed, 54 were Canadian, including 10-year-old Margaret Hayworth, and William Alan, a Presbyterian minister from Toronto who died when a lifeboat was struck by one of the rescuing vessel’s propellers.
The Electra took them to Greenock to safety.
“My dad broadcast on the BCC, he was interviewed by Matthew Halton. Some people in the area heard the message from my dad and phoned my grandparents and they said they heard my dad on the BBC broadcasting from Scotland. He said it was “By the grace of God that we were saved, and all was well.’”
“My dad was my hero.”
At the time, the German government took no responsibility and said no U-boats were in the area. It was not until after the war when the truth came out. This was in part from testimony from a crewmember of the U-boat who was later taken prisoner and held in Lethbridge.
The family remained in Scotland for about two weeks and then returned to Canada on the Duchess of York, a CPR ship and landed in Quebec City.
Much of the account was written down by her mother in 1991 for an article in a ship magazine called Sea Breeze. Noreen said she has blocked out most of her memories.
“All I remember is floating.”
On the same day as the sinking, Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war. A few days later on September 10, Canada entered the war.
Last week there was a reunion of the survivors in Halifax, organized by Heather Watts, who was on the Athenia with her mother. Noreen spoke to her about the reunion. There were about 80 there including nine survivors and their families.
“She was just so thrilled that everything went well.”