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Wreck of U-boat's first WW2 kill - liner Athenia - 'discovered' in the Atlantic

6 October 2017
This is probably the very first ship sunk in World War 2 - the first of 3,500 merchant ships sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.

The man who found legendary battle-cruiser HMS Hood, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney and the ill-fated cargo ship MV Derbyshire believes he was located the wreck of the liner SS Athenia.

Helping to provide the most comprehensive map of the waters for Irish Government and European Union, leading shipwreck hunter David Mearns is "98 per cent" convinced the remains of a large ship located 650ft down around 50 miles south of Rockall belong to the Athenia, torpedoed within 12 hours of war between Britain and Germany breaking out.

The liner had been bound for Canada with 1,400 souls aboard, blacked out and zig-zagging, when she was sighted by German submarine U-30, mistaken for an armed cruiser and torpedoed.

It's a rich, compelling story and there are still survivors alive today - children aged six, eight, ten at the time.

David Mearns

Some 117 people - including 28 Americans - were killed by the blast, drowned by the inrush of water, or killed when a couple of lifeboats capsized.

But because it took more than 14 hours for the 13,000-ton liner to sink, most of the passengers and crew were saved as Royal Navy destroyers and merchant ships came to Athenia's assistance.

As the first British ship lost in the war - and the presence of a good smattering of politicians and celebrities aboard (among the latter, actress Carmen Silvera - best known to Britons years later as Rene's wife in sitcom 'Allo 'Allo) - the liner's sinking made front-page news on both sides of the Pond.

Among those meeting survivors when they landed was a 22-year-old John Kennedy, dispatched by his father Joseph, the US Ambassador in London.

During the Phoney War, the Athenia's loss became a cause célèbre. The Nazis claimed Churchill had ordered the ship sunk - and even falsified the log of U-30 when she returned to base to 'prove' she'd been nowhere near the liner when she was hit.

As a result, finding the Athenia was high on Mr Mearns' 'wish list'.

"It's a rich, compelling story and there are still survivors alive today - children aged six, eight, ten at the time," said Mr Mearns.

The wreck he discovered is roughly the same dimensions as the Glasgow-built liner, broken in two, and knowledge of other vessels lost in the area rules them out.

"It's in the right location, research rules out other shipwrecks - they're too small - and with my 30 years' experience I would say with 98 per cent certainty that it's highly, highly probable that it's the Athenia," the explorer said. "The only thing missing is a photograph of the wreck which says 'Athenia'."

The truth of the Athenia's loss was only revealed at the Nuremberg trials after the war, but U-30's skipper was not able to atone for his war crime.

He died when he abandoned his next command U-110 in May 1941 - a submarine a Royal Navy party famously boarded to recover an Enigma coding machine.

That would eventually help codebreakers such as Alan Turing understand German radio traffic, defeat the U-boats and help win the war.

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