Generous Galway

Norwegian freighter M/S Knute Nelson, transferred nearly 450 survivors from the sinking of the Athenia to the Irish tender Cathair na Gaillimhe (City of Galway) in Galway Bay Tuesday 4 September 1939. The freighter had picked the survivors from the lifeboats and from the sea around the torpedoed liner. Others had been transferred from the Swedish yacht Southern Cross, the largest luxury yacht in the world at the time, belonging to Electrolux owner Axel Wenner-Gren.

The Swede had apparently earlier tried to act as a go-between for Goering, who wanted to persuade Britain to stay out of any coming war. As the month of August saw tensions continue to build and Britain not listening to clandestine German overtures, Wenner-Gren and his wife probably decided to relocate to the Caribbean for the duration of the war. As they rounded the top of Scotland and set a course for America, they unwittingly strayed into the path of the first U-boat action of WWII.

Fritz-Julius Lemp, in U-30 was in charge of one of the U-Boats that had been dispatched at the middle of August, (See Officers’ Party). He had spotted a blacked-out ship zig-zagging he said. To his mind, this suggested the behaviour of an Armed Merchant Cruiser. Thus, in violation of the rules to ‘stop and search’, Lemp launched his torpedoes and sank an unarmed passenger liner with more than 300 Americans on board. In total, the Athenia carried around 1420 passengers and crew; refugees from the coming war and Americans returning home from a holiday in Europe. Lemp’s action would guarantee front page headlines both sides of the Atlantic.

The Southern Cross was one of the first ships to arrive on the scene of the sinking, followed by the City of Flint and the Knute Nelson, others followed, including three British warships that brought numerous survivors into Glasgow. The City of Flint, on her way to Halifax, brought her share of survivors to Canada, where many of them actually lived. The Southern Cross comforted all the many survivors they picked up, before handing them over to the City of Flint, a British warship and to the Knute Nelson, who in the strong swell and the dark, experienced one of the saddest incidents of the sinking. One of the fully laden lifeboats drifted around the back of the freighter and was ripped open by her propeller. Of the 50 passengers, less than 10 survived. Captain Carl J. Anderssen in the Knute Nelson, decided to land the survivors on the Irish west coast and was apparently advised to head for Galway where the Harbour Master, Captain Tierney received a telegram informing him of what was about to happen.

Photograph supplied by British Pathé

The tender hove to on Galway Bay early in the morning that Tuesday and around 10.30 the freighter drew alongside. The transfer of survivors, many on stretchers, commenced immediately. Nurses from Galway Central Hospital were ready to tend to any injuries, whilst others were provided with hot food and drink. In a few short hours the tender had been prepared and seemed to handle the emergency very well. Meanwhile the American envoy to Ireland, Minister Mr. J. Cudahy had managed to travel from Dublin to Galway in time to join the tender. He was accompanied on the ship by Alderman J.F. Costello, the Mayor of Galway.

When they docked back in Galway, those ashore, who had dropped everything to help the survivors, were in tears when they saw their condition. Barely clothed, blackened by smoke and oil, some badly burned, with broken limbs, or carrying injured children, they struggled ashore. Again hot food seems to have been available and private cars, made available by the owners, help transport the survivors to hotels and guest houses whilst ambulances shuttled to and fro the local hospital.

Photograph supplied by British Pathé

A short article from the Connacht Tribune sums up the help Galway provided:

“Mr. ‘Bill’ Burgoyne, William Street, Galway, placed the services of his staff, both in the ladies’ and the gent’s hairdressing saloons, free at the disposal of survivors of the Athenia.”

By the following day, consular staff representing various nations arrived in Galway to look after their citizens and help them with their onward journeys. The Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society provided the Athenia crew members landed there with clothes, rail vouchers and subsistence monies for their travel home free of charge. During their stay in Galway the crew members were accommodated at the St. Enda’s College.

The Knute Nelson was unfortunately in Norwegian waters when the Germans invaded in April 1940. She was therefore forced to sail for the occupation during the war. She probably hit a mine whilst in convoy from Stavanger to Oslo at the end of September 1944, and sunk with the loss of 8 crew (

Lemp died when HMS Bulldog forced his U-Boat to the surface and the crew abandoned ship. Unbeknown to them, the British managed to rescue the Enigma machine, which was a major contribution to WWII codebreaking at Bletchley Park.

Main Sources:

The Connacht Tribune 9 and 16 September 1939.

Dagens Nyheter, 6 and 7 September 1939