The sinking of the S.S.Athenia 

3rd September 1939

S.S. Athenia : Built in Glasgow and launched January 28th 1923


The 'S.S. Athenia' was a passenger liner en-route from Glasgow, Scotland to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It passed into history as  the first ship to be sunk in WWII. On board was John Sorbie, a steward from Coalburn, Lanarkshire. Below is the full military background to this incident, followed by John's eye-witness account.


The first incident of the U-boat war occurred just hours after the declaration of hostilities between Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939, when Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, commanding U-30, attacked and sank what he took to be an armoured cruiser. His target was, in fact, the S.S. Athenia, a 13,500 ton passenger liner, carrying 1,103 civilians, including more than 300 Americans hurrying home ahead of the clouds of war. This case of mistaken identity set in motion a large-scale cover-up on the part of the Reich, and had far-reaching consequences both for the subsequent conduct of the U-boat war, and for some of the key players in the affair - Lemp, Dönitz, and Raeder.

On the afternoon war was declared, OKM sent three radio messages, at intervals of about an hour, to all Kriegsmarine vessels indicating that a state of war was in force, that attacks on enemy shipping were to commence and that vessels should feel free to begin hostilities without awaiting provocation. Lemp at that time was patrolling the area north-west of Ireland. Having absorbed these instructions, Lemp spotted a ship on the horizon, heading away from Britain in a north-westerly direction. He ordered U-30 to dive to periscope depth, took a look at the ship, and observed that the vessel was blacked out and zigzagging, and appeared to carry guns on her deck, all indications that she was an armed merchant or auxiliary cruiser, and therefore a legitimate target. 

U-30 on the surface.

According to the testimony of Dönitz at Nuremberg, Lemp had been specifically warned to be alert for armed merchant cruisers. Believing it was one of these which he had in his sights, he fired two torpedoes, one of which struck squarely, and one which misfired. U-30 dived to avoid the danger that the defective torpedo might circle back toward the U-boat. Surfacing once more and observing that the ship did not seem to be sinking, he fired a third torpedo, but this too missed. (Perhaps this third torpedo was responsible for the claims of survivors that U-30 shelled the Athenia after the initial torpedo strike.) Close enough now to note its silhouette, Lemp compared it with his Lloyd's Register and discovered his mistake. Soon afterwards, U-30 intercepted a plain-language transmission from the stricken ship identifying itself as the Athenia.

Although the Athenia's distress calls had eliminated the need to conceal his position, Lemp did not take the opportunity to make a report. Knowing full well the magnitude of his blunder, he opted to maintain radio silence, and did so until September 14. On this date, eleven days after the sinking of Athenia, he broke radio silence to report damage received in a confrontation with two destroyers following the sinking of British freighter Fanad Head, and to request permission to debark a wounded man in Iceland for medical attention. He still did not mention the Athenia. He also did not aid the survivors, as the Prize Rules required, although he did do so after sinking S.S. Blairlogie some days later. Probably he had observed the Norwegian Knut Nelson in the area earlier in the evening, and felt that help would soon come to those in the lifeboats. Doubtless he believed that departing the scene before further attention was focused on U-30 was the wisest course.


The Knut Nelson was indeed soon on the scene. Two other merchant ships, City of Flint and Southern Cross, as well as three British destroyers, Electra, Escort, and Fame, aided in rescue operations. Berlin learned of the sinking from British news broadcasts. The rude surprise of hearing of it in such a way was compounded by despair; the years of effort to erase the world's memory of the unrestricted submarine warfare of the first World War were cancelled out in an instant, in the first hours of the new conflict.

A familiar sight in the battle for the North Atlantic

By comparing the location of the sinking with the U-boat deployment charts, it was clear that only one boat could have been responsible. Seeing the phantom of the Lusitania rising again, Hitler decreed that accusations would be confronted with categorical denial. To throw the British off the track still further, the Propaganda Ministry under Göbbels spread the story that the British had torpedoed the liner themselves in a scurrilous attempt to bring the United States into the war. 

Lemp in the damaged U-30 limped slowly back from Iceland (having landed the wounded man there on Sept 19), arriving on September 27. He immediately reported to Dönitz that he had sunk the Athenia, and was sent to Berlin for a full debriefing. The pretence that U-boats had had nothing to do with Athenia's demise was maintained for the duration of the war. The risk of admitting it was too great. Dönitz' own war diary recorded that the only successes of U-30's first mission were S.S. Blairlogie and S.S. Fanad Head. Lemp's own Kriegstagebuch was altered, although clumsily. The original carefully detailed pages were removed, and a false page inserted which did not match the rest of the diary as to handwriting. This new version of events placed U-30 200 miles west of her actual position on September 3.

There remained the matter of the wounded Adolf Schmidt, who had been left in Iceland. Lemp assured Dönitz that Schmidt would not be a security risk. In fact, before he had been taken off the boat, Lemp had made him swear an oath never to speak of the matter. Although he became a prisoner of the British when they occupied Iceland in 1940, and was interrogated repeatedly, he kept his silence. After the war, Schmidt provided testimony that was used at Nuremberg, believing that the oath was nullified by the termination of the war.


In spite of initial fears in Berlin, the Athenia did not become another Lusitania; it was not as great a public relations disaster as it first had seemed. However, the very first U-boat success of the war did have far-reaching ramifications. The next day, September 4, Hitler ordered that under no circumstances were attacks to be made on passenger ships, even in convoy, regardless of nation. This caused confusion as to what sort of vessel it was now permissible to attack. Freighters sometimes carried passengers; passenger ships sometimes carried troops. Were these legitimate targets?

Lemp was not court-martialled for his error, but neither was he promoted from the field as were many of his contemporaries. Thus he met his death in an incident that had far worse consequences for the U-Bootwaffe and the Reich than the sinking of the Athenia - the capture of U-110. This saw the seizure of secret documents and the famous 'enigma machine' by HMS Bulldog in the North Atlantic in 1941. It was one of the most important and far-reaching events of the whole war and remained top secret for over 30 years.

At the Nuremberg Trials, the cover-up and the accusations that the British had staged the sinking came back to haunt Raeder, who was accused of committing deliberate fraud in the Athenia affair.

Of the Athenia's passengers and crew, 118 were killed in the initial explosion or died later as a result of the sinking.

Fritz-Julius Lemp torpedoed the unarmed Athenia

John Sorbie's story 

(Taken from the 'Hamilton Advertiser' newspaper only days after the incident)

" ..A steward on the Athenia on Tuesday night, young John Sorbie, arrived back in the village. His many friends will be glad to know that apart from a severe cold and several cuts which are rapidly healing, John is remarkably well after his terrifying experience. Seen at his house in Hillview Place he gave a very clear account of much that happened when tragedy came upon the ill-fated liner. About mid-day on Sunday notices were posted that Britain was at war with Germany. The passengers were not unduly alarmed and about half-past seven in the evening the dining-rooms were crowded. It was at this time that the enemy struck. 

The lights immediately went out, but there was no panic in the room where John was serving and, getting the occupants of his table together, with hands linked to each other, he led them to the life-boat station on the top deck. He then went downstairs again for lifebelts and returned with them to the top deck. After assisting in the lowering of one boat, a second one was filled with women and children. It was to this one that the mishap occurred and the occupants were flung into the sea. The boat was successfully lowered however and those in the water picked up. There were over sixty women and children and five men including John. They pulled away from the liner's side and then began an eleven hours struggle of alternating hope and despair.

The lifeboat was shipping water as a result of the accident in lowering it and all its occupants were soaked to the skin. Continuous baling was necessary and this job was done by the woman-folk with their shoes and those of the men. The flares had been rendered useless and the only means they had of attracting the attention of the rescuing ships was by flashing a small electronic torch when the lifeboat breasted the wave. Every now and then the searchlight from the rescuing destroyer would sweep across the waters, but always it passed over their inadequately illuminated craft. Eventually they gave up rowing and concentrated on baling until the dawn broke and they were picked up by a destroyer.

The Allies lost a huge amount of men and shipping in WW11. 

The children were hoisted aboard in buckets, the injured were pulled up by ropes and those who were able climbed aboard by means of rope ladders. From the deck of the destroyer John saw the Athenia disappear and about noon on Monday when the destroyer set off for home, all that was left to mark the scene of the hideous crime was the abandoned lifeboats floating, now without purpose, on the ever-changing face of the vast Atlantic.

The fortitude of the womenfolk in their fearful ordeal is John's most vivid impression of the tragic affair. He paid a high tribute to a stewardess, Miss Johnstone, who sat throughout the night half immersed in water holding two children in an endeavour to keep them dry; and also to A.E. Angus McKinnon who, although he had a broken arm and a broken leg, remained at an oar practically all of the time. Asked if he had seen the submarine come to the surface, John said "Definitely yes" and in reply to a further question as to his future, he said "Of course I'll go back to sea, it has not sickened me".

Mr and Mrs Sorbie would like to express their deep appreciation for all the messages of hope and sympathy sent to them in their trying time of waiting..". 

Athenia and her sister ship, "S.S.Letitia" shown in the early 1930's

Click here to see copy of the article on John from the 'Hamilton Advertiser' September 1939

We have discovered that John was the son of John Lang Sorbie, born 1896 in Stonehouse and Sarah Hamilton and therefore the grandson of "Wee Tam" Sorbie the Beamer (see the 'Stonehouse Weavers' page). John Snr performed various jobs, including one as road sweeper and he was a well-known local character. John was also keen on amateur dramatics, producing a number of local plays, some of which were festival prize winners. He died in 1963.

John Lang Sorbie (standing), being presented with a clock.

John Jnr. managed a number of local hostelries, including the "Commercial Hotel" in Hamilton and also the "Sun Inn" in Strathaven. He was also highly regarded as an excellent dancer. It seems John passed away in the mid 1980's. 

We are currently trying to trace his family so we can bring this page fully up to date.

In February 2004 we were contacted by Walter McGaw, a native of Burlington, Ontario, Canada who kindly provided the following recollection of John Sorbie (Jnr): 

"..I stumbled onto your web site while researching my Scottish heritage. The name that caught my attention was John Sorbie. My mother came from Coalburn, the same town as John. In 1939 I was eight years old and lived in Montreal, Canada. My mother knew John and when the Athenia docked in Montreal he visited our house. The first time he visited alone, but every visit from then on was with about five other members of the crew from the ship. They brought accordions with them and it was party time at our house. The front door was left open and everyone was welcome. The only name I remember from the ship was Tommy. I don't remember John, but there was only one man from Coalburn, so that had to be John. 

When the Athenia made it's last trip, it had birthday presents for me from my grandparents in Coalburn (Andrew and Rachel Clark). The men were going to have a cake baked for my birthday. My gifts went down with the ship. I remember very clearly visiting the Ship in 1939 and being very impressed with the size of it. Of course we had a tour of the galley. I also remember the shock at the news of the ship sinking with all our friends on it, and my mother trying to find out if everyone survived. Everyone did. 

I still have an aunt in Coalburn, Rita Clark. She was married to my mother's brother, John Clark. I recently returned to Montreal to photograph the house where we lived in 1939. I know that none of this has anything to do with the Sorbie family tree, but I just had to E-mail you with this little bit of history.."


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