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First shot of WWII Sept 1st: trumpet call in Poland; Sept 3, 1939, torpedo sank British ship: passenger survivor's ordeal

By WcP.Observer - Posted on 03 September 2009

a Polish veteran looks at navy soldiers and honor guards during ceremonies marking the anniversary of the first day of World War II at Westerplatte Monument in Gdansk


This article was originally published on September 2 2009, at the time of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War
Free City of Danzig

70 years on, wartime rifts still run deep

Trumpet call in Poland: Around dawn, as the morning light pushed the darkness away from the city of Gdansk, a company of Polish sailors stood at attention as a trumpet call rang out. At 4:45am, 70 years to the minute after the first shots of WWII were fired, Poland's prime minister & president bowed their heads in remembrance. In a day of high emotion for Poland &, heads of state & dignitaries from around the world gathered at Westerplatte, the tiny peninsula overlooking Gdansk's harbor where battle first commenced, to remember the start of a conflict that would engulf the world & claim 60 million lives. At 4:45am on 1 Sept. 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein – on a "friendly visit" to Danzig – trained its sights on the vulnerable outpost & opened fire.

a rose and a Polish flag is placed on the grave of Major Henryk Sucharski who defended Poland during the first days of the World War II at Westerplatte

Second World War 70th anni- versary: the first shot

On Sept. 3, 1939, Barbara Rodman was lying in her berth on the SS Athenia in the grip of a 2nd day of seasickness, trying unsuccessfully to persuade a stewardess who was insisting she should eat some food in the dining room to go away. A short while later, as the 23-year-old American picked over her chicken, a torpedo fired by a German U-boat struck the liner – blowing a hole where her berth had been – in the 1st hostile act of WWII between Britain & Germany. Miss Rodman had narrowly avoided becoming one of the 1st casualties of the war, but she was still in a sinking liner in the N Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from safety.

What followed was "just as macabre an experience as anyone could possibly have," says the now 93-year-old widow, Barbara Wilson, from her home in Garden City, NY. "I'm just lucky to be alive. Had the stewardess not insisted, I would not be talking to you now because my section of the boat was blown up completely. I think everybody in that section just had it." She had planned a 6-week tour of England, France & Germany with a friend & when the friend backed out, she decided to go alone in early August 1939.

Gdansk at night. Inset: Battleship Schleswig Holstein at Danzig. Completed 1906, she was one of three inherited pre-dreadnought battleships to serve the Nazi cause.

It was not until the final week of August that it became clear that war was about to break out; even when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, Claire Hollingworth, the Daily Telegraph reporter who broke the news, had to hold the telephone out of the window so that doubting British Embassy officials could hear Nazi tanks rumbling over the border. On that same day, Mrs Wilson had sailed from Liverpool on the SS Athenia, bound for Canada, after a frantic search for a place on any ship crossing the Atlantic. "I sent a cable to my family saying 'Athenia Montreal 10th' so they knew I was coming home & knew I would be on the Athenia," she says. "It was very frightening [in Britain], it really & truly was, & I was so relieved to get on board. It was just the greatest thing, I thought, because I was going to be safe." Almost immediately, she became sea sick in the "very rough seas" & she struggled for two days.

On the morning of Sept. 3, Britain declared war on Germany after an ultimatum to withdraw from Poland was ignored. The SS Athenia, having been warned about the danger of U-boat attack, began to zigzag in an attempt to avoid the feared torpedoes. However, on board U-30, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp mistakenly interpreted the evasive maneuvering as a sign that this was an armored merchant cruiser and, after tracking the liner for three hours, opened fire at 7.40pm. One torpedo misfired, the other did not.

The Donaldson Liner Athenia, on charter to Cunard, had already left Glasgow on the 1st September and was heading for Montreal with 1100 passengers, more than 300 of which were American

"I was sitting in the dining room with a young man & his father when the torpedo struck. Some people were knocked to the floor; everything was flying all over the place," she says. "I noticed there was a staircase in the distance & I thought I had better try to get to it. It was absolutely hideous because everything was flying all over the place: people, furniture, dishes, everything. Somehow, I made my way up the staircase & got up on deck.

"I stumbled over one man, who was obviously dying. He was stretched out on his back & his eyes were rolling around in a way I had never seen in my life. I knew it must be the last moments for that poor man." She climbed down a rope ladder, her hands being stepped on by a man above, & then jumped the last few feet to a lifeboat below. "It was like an overgrown rowing boat & it began to leak – that was all we needed. We had to take off our clothing to stuff in the hole at the bottom of the boat. Fortunately we kept afloat," she says.

as the world remembers the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, three former child evacuees relive their experiences of strange lands and even stranger times

"We had two men in our lifeboat & one was a library steward. He was our commander-in-chief. I don't know if he knew about sailing, but he was great, trying to keep this little lifeboat in the direction of the waves. Otherwise we would have been overturned. "We must have been in the lifeboat for 10 hours; it was just terrifying. I really didn't think there would be a chance of being saved." They drifted away from the Athenia, not knowing whether a distress message had been sent. A light on the horizon faded, leaving them "all alone in this rough, rough water in a leaky boat".

Then at 5.30am on September 4, they saw lights approaching. They were told to be "particularly quiet" as it was feared it would be a German ship. "At that point I didn't care whether we were picked up by a German ship or any other. I was so sick anyway. & I was wet & cold. You felt terribly cold there," Mrs Wilson says. "This ship kept coming towards us & finally it came so close there was absolutely nothing we could do to get away from it."

Jim Wright wears his evacuation label with pride

She was so convinced it was a German ship, that she reacted angrily when she was helped on board after climbing a rope ladder. "A blond officer grabbed hold of me & put me on my feet. I said 'Take your hands off me, you dirty old German.' He looked at me & said 'Excuse me, missus, would you like a spot of tea?' Turned out it was a British destroyer," Mrs Wilson says. Out of more than 1,400 people on board, 117 were killed, including 28 Americans. A 10-year-old girl, Margaret Hayworth, was the first Canadian to die as a result of enemy action. However, most of the fatalities were caused not by the blast itself, but accidents as people tried to abandon ship. In one horrific incident, a lifeboat was smashed to pieces by the propeller of a rescue ship.

On board U-30, radio operator Georg Hoegel heard the distress call from Athenia & realized this was an unarmed passenger ship, which Hitler had issued orders not to attack for fear of drawing America into the war. "We had seen the ship was sailing zigzag & was blacked out," says Mr Hoegel, speaking on the ITV1 documentary Outbreak, to be broadcast on Thursday evening. "It wasn't usual for a passenger ship to zigzag. The captain assumed she was already a warship.

"I picked up the SOS from the Athenia & was shocked to learn there were 1,400 passengers on board. Of course, we didn't launch any more attacks." Mrs Wilson was initially listed among the dead, but was able to send a telegram with the single word "safe" to her family, after being taken to Glasgow with the other survivors. After a spell staying with a family near Loch Lomond, she was taken back to the States on a ship sent by the American government to take the survivors home. In the aftermath, she said she "hated the Germans' guts & would have liked to have gone out & killed every last one of them". However Mrs Wilson, who worked as a secretary for the Rockefeller Foundation on returning home, later mellowed on marrying her husband Bob, who was half-German.

But she will never forget the horror of the night of September 3, 1939. "This anniversary coming up, I have to say it brings things back pretty vividly," Mrs Wilson says. "About six months after I came home I had nightmares, all kinds of horrible things. & when I talk to you, I'm not really reliving it. I'm telling you facts, but I'm not reliving them. "If I were to do that, I think it would drive me insane."


Photos courtesy of Reuters, Xinhua / AFP Photo,,,, and BBC News

Original Source: The Scotsman, The Telegraph, Xinhua

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