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Survivors tell of how SS Athenia fell into disaster on first night of World War II

"As we fell asleep, at a quarter to eight we saw a big boom, then the boat fell to the water, into the water."

Philip Gunyon, then 7 years old, was in his berth aboard the SS Athenia on September 3, 1939. The transatlantic liner had been hit on the port side by a torpedo from a German submarine.

Now 87 years old, Gunyon was part of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the last voyage of Athenia – the first sunken British ship by the Germans during the Second World War.

Three of the survivors of Athenia decided that the event would be a good opportunity to bring together other people from the ship for a meeting. They therefore undertook to find as many people as possible.

Nine people from across North America, children aboard Athenia and now 80 or 90 years old, gathered in Halifax to meet, often for the first time since that fateful night of 1939.

For Vivian Collver, one of the organizers, spending time with other survivors of the event allowed to put in perspective their involuntary role in history.

The liner Athenia is sinking after being hit by the torpedo of a German submarine on September 3, 1939.

"It's powerful – it's powerful – it's something we all need to recognize – we must recognize that this has been a turning point in our lives," said Collver.

  • WATCH | Nationals story about the survivors of SS Athenia, Sunday, November 10 at 21h. AND on CBC News Network and at 10 pm local time on your CBC TV station and online on CBC Gem.

The rarity of such a gathering has not been lost for historians.

"For Canadians, Americans and British, it's here that the Second World War began," says retired history professor Francis Carroll.

"You know that the war took place 80 years ago, almost a century ago, and that there were nine survivors of the first blow of the war here today, which is amazing when you think about it. "

The survivors of Athenia were recently gathered at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax to mark the 80th anniversary of the ship's last voyage. (CBC)

"Taken in the first moments"

The ship had crossed the North Atlantic to Montreal with more than 1,400 passengers, mostly women and children who had fled the threat of World War II.

Instead, they sailed directly into it.

Heather Watts, who attended the meeting, was a three-year-old passenger at the time and completely unaware of the danger. She says that her mother, on the other hand, was very worried.

"Everyone knew that the war was coming in. It was common knowledge," says Watts. "She just wanted to come back to Canada before the game started, but we were trapped in the first moments."

Heather Watts was a three-year-old passenger aboard Athenia the night of her sinking. (David Laughlin / CBC)

Just hours after the declaration of war by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to Germany, a German submarine spotted Athenia about 300 kilometers off the coast of Scotland. His overzealous captain followed the passenger ship for hours, then fired his torpedoes against all the rules.

Shortly after, the list was bad, and Gunyon says that he still clearly remembers the unrest. The crew began frantically preparing the lifeboats while the night was about to fall.

Collver was only three years old at the time. Nevertheless, she still has a vague memory of the painful eleven hours spent in a crowded lifeboat that night with other survivors, waiting for her rescue.

Vivian Collver was only three years old when Athenia was attacked, but remembers hours spent in a crowded rescue boat that night. (David Laughlin / CBC)

"So I'm sitting in a lifeboat with 65 people who are scared, who vomit and scream, scream and do what people are afraid of," says Collver. "And I would have felt that."

Collver explains that recently, during his research on this ordeal, the feeling of anxiety returned to him at ease.

"So where did it come from?" she asked for it.

"And the only thing I could understand was probably that repressed memory of not sitting in the lifeboat, but of the fear that I had to feel that emanated from the people who were there."

The passengers and the crew of the Athenia condemned liner aboard a lifeboat. (Imperial War Museum)

Several ships in the area responded to the distress calls and saved as many passengers as possible. Despite this, more than 100 people died.

One of the tragic stories of that night concerned the Kucharczuks. They were seven members of the immigrant family in Canada from Poland. They all did in the lifeboats, but only three survived.

Violet Kasianiuk remembers that her mother had talked about that night.

Survivors from Athenia getting help with security from a soldier. The Athenia was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine a few hours after the start of the Second World War. (Fox Photos / Getty Images)

"The only thing mom said (that is, when they were put in the lifeboat, she was holding her sister in her arms.) Suddenly they were pulled under the umbrella. the propeller and the lifeboat crashed, and she said that her sister was gone. "

In the wake of the disaster, the family's father, Spirydon Kucharczuk, and two of his surviving children traveled to Canada to rebuild their lives.

Violet Kasianiuk says her mother talked about the night the Athenia fell, killing four of her family members. (David Laughlin / CBC)

A common link

The people aboard the Athenia lived an experience that helped shape the history of the world. At their meeting in Halifax, some of whom were taken away 80 years after the sinking, many of them said they felt the tragedy had created a connection.

They shared stories and commemorated the dead. And most of all, they tried to fill some of the gaps in the shared knowledge of the events of that night.

Survivors of the British steamer SS Athenia landed from the Norwegian cargo ship MS Knute Nelson in Galway, Ireland, on September 6, 1939. (Central Press / Hulton Archives / Getty Images)

"You know, knowing what experience you want to know more … just because it's part of my life," Watts said.

For Gunyon, the day spent with other survivors left him feeling whole.

"We are no longer strangers." On a personal level, I feel like I have a new family, and all those who have spoken to me have said that it does not matter. was not wonderful that we are all here and we share this experience. "

The survivor of SS Athenia, Philip Gunyon, describes his experience as a child passenger on the transatlantic liner the night he was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1939, the first British ship sank by the Germans during World War II. . 1:34

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