Henry Reid's recollections of the sinking of Athenia

In April of 1939, my mother, sister and myself went to England to spend the summer with my Grandmother and other members of the family.

In late August, we received passage aboard the S.S. Athenia. I do not remember what time we boarded the ship, but we boarded in Liverpool.

Sunday, Sept. 03, 1939 11:00 hrs Boarded Athenia 

18:00 hrs hours at sea, 200 miles West of Hebrides Athenia torpedoed

I don’t know what time we boarded the Athenia. I recall the cabin had two bunks, upper and lower, and a cot that folded although I do not recall sleeping on it.

My main recollection of the ship was dinner on Sunday night. I had finished dinner and my sister and mother were not quite finished. I asked if I could go up on deck and go to the ship’s gym. I received mother’s permission and I left our table, walked over to the stairs and went up on deck; port side, aft. 

I opened the door. There was a loud noise (explosion) and the ship listed to the port side. I began sliding toward the ship’s railing, when a tall man grabbed my right hand, or arm and pulled me back to the open door, pointed toward the front of the ship, yelled “Lifeboat” at me and went down the stairway to the diningroom.

I made my way forward, down steps, across the deck and went up steps toward the lifeboat the man had pointed to. As I arrived at the lifeboat, there was a lot of confusion and a lot of people being pulled up or climbing up to the deck from a large hole toward the center of the ship. 

I saw a woman standing on deck, she was wearing a long brown coat with a big fur collar. I grabbed this woman’s arm and yelled “mom”. She looked at me and it wasn’t my mother. However, she took my arm and said “Stay with me”. She would not let go of my arm.

We stood in a short line up to get into a lifeboat. I could see the lifeboat swinging out away from the ship and back to the ship side. When the lifeboat was at the ship side, a sailor yelled “jump” and the people in the front of the line jumped into the lifeboat. When our turn came we jumped into the lifeboat together.

We sat toward the stern of the lifeboat and huddled together to keep warm, but I was wet and cold. That was the way we spent the night, other than when a man let me help him row the lifeboat.

When it started to get light, it was very grey but we could see the Athenia listing heavily to the port side. 

Then I saw a destroyer in the grey, misty distance and as I watched her, she leaned over (like a speed boat turning) and came right at us. I thought she was going to run us down. The destroyer soon pulled up and stopped on our left.  There were either rope ladders or a scramble net (I am not sure which), and I got picked up by a man in the lifeboat and put on the ladder. I put my hand up toward the rung above my head, when a sailor grabbed my hand and said something like “up you come”. I was pulled up onto the deck, where another sailor caught me and pointed to a sailor standing by an open doorway further down the deck and said “go”, so I went. He sent me down the steps and a sailor showed me into a large room at the stern. The room was half round in the stern bulkhead of the destroyer.

I sat in this room for awhile and told a sailor my name, he was writing everyone’s name on a pad of paper. I told him I had lost my shoes and socks. He left and came back later with a pair of big woolen socks and told me they were the Captain’s socks and I was to go with him. We went along a passage way to another room where my mother and sister were sitting on the deck, near a stove. My mother and sister were happy to see me because they didn’t know where I was, if I was rescued or had been killed. 

We all stayed together in this room and sat on the deck. There were no chairs or tables, just the stove. There were many other survivors in the same room, sitting on the deck. Later on we all got plat of mashed potatoes and three sausages (bangers and mash) and a fork. Mother gave her sausages to a big sailor who was sitting near the stove. 

After we ate, the big sailor slung a hammock over top of the stove, climbed into it and went to sleep. I went to sleep, leaning against mother.

My next recollection was getting off bus and we went into a large hotel in Glasgow.

I didn’t like the hotel because we had only a wash basin in the room and the only toilet was down the hall and there was always a lineup to use it.

Later that day we went to a larger room in the hotel to get some clothes and things. I got to pick out a pair of hobnail boots, they were great! I made lots of noise when I walked up and down the hall or staircase. I would walk down the staircase and then ride up on the elevator with another boy I met until the elevator man stopped giving us a ride up.

My last recollection was arriving back at my Grandmother’s house in Wickham Lane, Woolwich, London, England. We stayed with my Grandmother until early November, when we got passage aboard the S.S. Duchess of Richmond and returned home to Canada.


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