The SS Athenia was a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, built in 1923. It was the first British ship sunk in the Second World War.
The Athena left Liverpool at 1pm on September 2nd, 1939, with 1418 people aboard. One of them was Annie Fletcher, born in Bendigo, Australia, who had grown up in Dunedin with her sister. War had not been declared, by Britain against Germany but the invasion of Poland had begun the day before and the war clouds, as they say, were gathering. The next day, at about 4.30 pm, Britain and Germany had been at war for five hours and fifteen minutes and a German submarine sighted the Athenia. The submarine commander, Fritz-Julius Lemp, later claimed that he observed a darkened ship on a zigzag course, a course outside the usual shipping lanes and concluded that it was a vessel of war and a legitimate target.
Two torpedoes were fired at around 7.40pm and one hit the Athenia. The ship took fourteen hours to sink and a number of the deaths were caused by the torpedo explosion which trapped some passengers in the dining room where they drowned. Further deaths occurred during the rescue effort when a loaded lifeboat was sucked into the propellor of one of the rescuing ships, the Norwegian tanker "Knute Nielson," and another lifeboat capsized in the dark of the night, killing ten more people. Three further deaths were caused while transferring from lifeboats to Royal Navy destroyers and still more people died from drowning or exposure in the cold Atlantic waters. It is not known how Annie Fletcher died.
In October 1939 Annie Fletcher's sister, Mrs Elizabeth Roberts, received letters written by Annie just before she sailed in the Athenia. The first one stated "I was fortunate to get the last berth on the Athenia."
Annie had almost not gone - "I had changed my mind and thought of going to Cornwall Instead," she said in the second letter, "but they were so busy at the shipping office when I went to cancel my berth that I decided to keep to my original intention and leave by the Athenia" She had grown up in Dunedin with her sister and lived in Australia for the previous twenty years. Her British visit was one last look before returning to Dunedin to stay. She was seventy years old.
The German news service broadcast the claim that the Athenia was sunk by a British submarine, on the orders of the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. This was partially to counter the claims that torpedoing a passenger liner was a war crime and partially due to the belief that no German submarines were in the area - a belief which was corrected when Lemp returned to port.