ON Sept. 3, 1939, Gildas Molgat, leader of the Manitoba Liberals in the 1960s before being appointed to the Senate, was still only 12. He was one of more than 1,400 people aboard the Athenia, a British cruise ship torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on the first leg of its voyage across the Atlantic.
In total, 1,306 people were rescued, but 112 died. Among the fatalities were 30 Americans and a handful of Canadians, including a 10-year-old girl.
This little-known dramatic story is told very well by Francis M. Carroll, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Manitoba. Athenia Torpedoed is apparently the only full book, Canadian or otherwise, written specifically about the Athenia.
In a relatively short text, Carroll tells of those who survived this savage attack, and at the same time puts the sinking of the Athenia into the larger perspective of events that determined the course of what would soon become the worst global conflict ever. It was the first engagement in the Battle of the Atlantic, which would be the longest campaign of the Second World War.
Germany had invaded Poland just two days earlier. On that fateful Sunday, Britain and France declared war against the Germans, but Canada did not do so until one week later.
It would be more than two years before the Americans entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hundreds of the survivors of the Athenia who ended up in lifeboats, including the young Molgat, his father and two brothers, were returned to Glasgow where the ship began on its intended voyage to Montreal.
The U.S. ambassador in London was Joseph Kennedy, a staunch isolationist who urged President Franklin Roosevelt to keep America out of any European war. It was a future president, 22-year-old John F. Kennedy, who was sent by his father to Glasgow to supervise the care of survivors.
Among the other passengers who later became familiar to Manitobans was a young British engineering professor named David Cass-Beggs, along with his wife Barbara and their young daughter Rosemary.
He would later serve as head of the electrical utilities in B.C. and Saskatchewan before being appointed head of Manitoba Hydro by Premier Ed Schreyer.
Receiving a lot of attention in the book is an actress named Judith Evelyn. Although she was born in South Dakota and raised in Saskatchewan, she graduated from the University of Manitoba. She was travelling with her fiancé, Andrew Allan of Toronto, and his father, Reverend William Allan.
All three had a harrowing time in lifeboats and in the water. William Allan disappeared and his body was never found.
Judith and Andrew never did marry. He enjoyed a successful career as a writer and producer at the CBC. She worked as an actress until her death in 1967 in New York. Her most memorable movie role was that of Miss Lonelyhearts in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window.
Had the sinking of the Athenia taken place in peacetime, there would likely have been a more comprehensive inquiry to determine exactly who gave the order to fire on a civilian ship. Carroll says there was some effort by the Germans to suggest that the Athenia was carrying weapons of some kind. It was a flimsy assertion that never went very far.
Several German newspapers reported that the Athenia was sunk on orders of Winston Churchill who had recently returned to his post as First Lord of the Admiralty. A number of American papers, including the New York Times, added fuel to the fire by reprinting the same stories.
All in all, Carroll shines a fascinating light on a still mysterious incident in the early hours of the war.
Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster. His interest in the Athenia began in 1967 when he had occasion to meet Judith Evelyn a few months before her death.