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Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack that Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic. By Francis M. Carroll. Annapolis, MD. Naval Institute Press, 2012. 254 pp. 41 photographs. Notes, bibliography and index. $29.95

Reviewed by Walter Hall

“It’s the end of the world; the end of everything.” US Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy reported to President Roosevelt on eve of Britain’s declaration of war, Sept 3, 1939.

December 14, 2012 (San Diego)--Very few readers today will remember that the first Americans killed in World War II were not at Pearl Harbor. Almost two years earlier, 30 Americans were among the 112 lost when the German torpedo that opened the Battle for the Atlantic struck and doomed the Donaldson Lines ship Athenia

The memory lapse is forgivable. The Athenia’s story has not been told, in English, since 1959. This book remedies that and does so with a deft interweaving of research and unforgettable storytelling. While Professor Carroll’s narrative does not dwell on the feint and thrust of interwar diplomacy, the author includes just enough perspective to orient the reader. 

American writer E. L. Doctorow made a useful distinction between history and the novel. The historian will tell you what happened, he once said, and the novelist will tell you what it felt like. Here Professor Carroll’s exhaustive culling of the first-hand accounts and other primary sources gives him the material to do both. And the result is a rewarding read, quite unlike any other. 

The use of testimony taken from surviving passengers and crew members at the time lends immediacy and uncommon poignancy to Carroll’s account. The reader is drawn inexorably into their journey as passengers recall where they were, what they were doing, what they wore, what they were thinking. Does such detail matter? Not much, or not until a torpedo upends the ocean liner and changes their lives forever. Ordinary concerns were gone in an instant. One young man strolling on deck, peeling an orange, remembered his annoyance as the fruit was jarred out of his hands. It took a moment before the awful realization hit him. Then as the ship shuddered and began to list, he ran. Ran for his life.    

Escape, survival and rescue in the dark, on leaking life boats, with injured companions and family, adrift on a cold and rising sea is harrowing enough. But that was only half the story. What subsequently happened to the rescued and the rescuers was not as fraught with danger, but is just as fascinating.

The maddening complexity of disaster response and recovery as an ongoing, interagency, multinational effort drawing upon public and private resources added to the agony and exasperation. With 1200 survivors, a miraculous number by any yardstick, seemingly simple questions such as “who pays?” took years to sort. Compensation claims were still being settled into the 1950s.

But it is the sheer human drama, related in the first person, that keeps the reader riveted. The sailors, whether on the stricken liner or the rescue vessels, displayed a keen understanding of human nature in times of crushing stress, assigning tasks that kept people occupied. Gratitude and praise were deflected in favor of the self-effacement typical of that reticent era. As Captain Joseph Gainard, skipper of the rescuing freighter City of Flint, observed “There is no such thing as a hero. You’re either a man or a bum.”

On a broader canvas, the Athenia crisis prompted the first direct conversations in what would become the celebrated partnership between President Roosevelt and British PM Winston Churchill. Less than three weeks after the Athenia went under, the president called Congress into a special session to begin work on amendments to the Neutrality Laws so that the US could sell weapons and war materials to belligerents. To the distress of the German Admiralty, this was the first step toward the Destroyer-for-Bases Agreement and eventually the Lend Lease Program.   

Professor Carroll’s account also provides insight to events on the German side. The loss of an Enigma cipher machine, resulting from a subsequent misjudgment by the very same U-boat commander who sunk Athenia, was an enormous windfall for British cryptanalysis. The lesson was not lost on future Soviet submarine skippers. 

The Naval Institute Press deserves a salute for its continued commitment to supply readers with the tools and resources for further exploration. The notes and bibliography in this volume are superb. The selection of photographs adds another fine dimension. Here is a boyish John Fitzgerald Kennedy on a mission for his father, then Ambassador to London, providing comfort and assistance to the survivors, just four short years almost to the date, from the night a Japanese destroyer would rip apart his own torpedo boat in the Solomon Islands.

This book is an obvious choice for those interested in the Second World War. But maritime buffs of any stripe will find treasure among Carroll’s cited sources. For example, see Mac Gregory’s Ahoy-Mac website Mac’s Athenia page offers moving portraits of the people who made her last voyage.

One of America’s best-known contemporary generals once asked of a different conflict “Tell me how this ends?” Thanks to Professor Carroll’s extensive research, we now know how the Athenia story ends – for the ship’s passengers and crew, the various vessels that responded to her distress and even the ill-fated U-boat commander who realized his torpedo was a terrible mistake – and we are much the richer for it.    

What an extraordinary time; what extraordinary people. Whether the reader agrees with Captain Gainard’s salty observation or not, the loss of the Athenia offers a rare close-up view of human frailty and human nobility on the high seas.  A perfect read for long winter nights.

Walter Hall is the pseudonym of a La Mesa-based writer and national security analyst. He is a principal at Black Swan Advisors, a communications consultancy.