When World War II Came to Canada

The Battle of the Atlantic and the Sinking of the SS Athenia

Early hours, Monday, September 4, 1939, almost exactly 75 years ago.

Most Canadians are still asleep. They have no way of knowing that across the open Atlantic, 200 miles off the Hebrides west of northern Scotland, a tragedy is unfolding that will bring Canada face to face with the horror of World War II.

Less than 24 hours earlier, before noon local time on September 3, Britain had declared war on Germany following Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1. Britain’s ultimatum to Germany to withdraw had gone unheeded, and at 11:15 a.m., British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had informed the nation that “consequently this country is at war with Germany.”

The first air raid sirens went off immediately. France declared war on Germany in the afternoon of the same day. Canada would enter the conflict exactly one week later, on September 10, for the first time as a sovereign nation, but, as Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King explained to Canadians, “at the side of Britain,” intending to curb Germany’s aggression and “lust for conquest.”

In the early morning of September 4, however, Canada is not yet at war and feeling safe, perhaps, in the luxury of distance. Similarly, the Canadians from across the country who make up the majority of the more than 1400 passengers and crew on board the British ocean liner SS Athenia, bound for Montreal, don’t feel too concerned. World War II is a mere hours old, and strict orders have been issued by Hitler (who is still hoping for a diplomatic resolution) not to attack passenger liners. The night starts out calm and pleasant.

At 19:40 hours local time (early morning in Canada), the calm is shattered when, without warning, a torpedo hits the Athenia. It rips open the ship’s port side, causing explosions and fire and penetrating into the engine room. Water gushes in through the hole; within 20 minutes, she lists heavily and the lower decks are flooded. Panic and chaos race through the ship.

The attack, as would become apparent, was executed in error by a German submarine, the U-30, whose commander, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, mistook the Athenia for an armed merchant or troop ship. He provided no assistance to the victims nor did he report the attack until he got back to base.

When Canadians found out about the torpedoeing of the Athenia through news reports on Monday morning, September 4, they had reason to fear for those from their midst. Among the many Canadians from across the country aboard the ill-fated ship were Sir Richard Stuart Lake, a former Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, and Lady Dorothy Lake, of Victoria; Mr. and Mrs. Alyn Edwards, of Winnipeg. Mr. Edwards, who came to Canada in 1895, was a prominent figure in the western Canada wholesale and grocery business. Also feared onboard from Winnipeg was a contingent of Jewish-Canadians, who were on their way home from the World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland (along with 500 Jewish refugees keen to leave Europe).

Further, the Reverend William Allan, pastor of the Dovercourt Road Presbyterian Church, and his son Andrew, a radio announcer, both of Toronto; Mr. Fred Blair, a prominent composer, musician, and organist at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, of Montreal; Margaret Hayworth, only ten years old, who was travelling back to Hamilton, Ontario with her parents Georgina and John, and her sister Jacqueline.

Although the Athenia was relatively lucky to stay afloat—thanks to calm seas—until the next morning and the arrival of the first rescue ships, 118 lives were lost, 54 of these Canadian. Sir Richard Lake and his wife survived the attack on the ship, as did the Edwardses. Andrew Allan, who went on to a distinguished career with the CBC as national head of Radio Drama, was also rescued.

His father, William Allan, however, drowned. According to reports, Rev. Allan had laboured tirelessly to save others. Mr. Blair was crushed to death during rescue operations. Most tragically, little Margaret Hayworth died five days after the attack on the Athenia, also from crush injuries she sustained. Her death became a rallying point for Canada’s entry into the war. When her body was repatriated, flags across Canada flew at half-mast and the funeral train to Hamilton was met by 1000 people.

The Athenia’s loss wiped out Canada’s ‘safe’ distance from the battlefields. It sent a clear signal even to a geographically remote country such as Canada that war is always hideously personal—to the extent that ordinary Canadians could become targets and victims of U-boat attacks.

Christa Thomas, PhD, is a writer and blogger with a special interest in social history and literature from 1860-1950.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.