Editor's Notebook

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Home > McGill News > 2004 > Summer 2004 > Editor's Notebook

Editor's Notebook

Tales of Treachery and Torpedoes

Diana Ayton: Editor, McGill News

We enjoy getting letters from readers, and are intrigued when one sets us off on an investigation, as did a letter from Robert Spencer, BA'41, regarding the sinking of the passenger ship Athenia on the day in 1939 that England declared war on Germany.

Robert thought that a McGill professor had survived the torpedo attack and asked us whether the News had covered the story. (See "Rescue at sea" on the Letters page.) In researching the request - how did we manage before the Internet? - I found fascinating information and even the echo of a tragedy in my own family.

According to reports, U-boat commander Fritz-Julius Lemp spotted the blacked-out Athenia sailing a zigzag course and mistook it for an armed enemy ship (all German vessels had been advised of the declaration of war). Believing the ship to be fair game, Lemp fired on the defenceless Athenia.

He soon realized his blunder and beat a hasty retreat. He didn't inform his superiors of the attack, doubtless remembering the worldwide furor that had followed the torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915. After that incident, Germany had agreed not to attack passenger ships without warning.

The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,200 lives. Among those who died was my great-grandmother. According to family lore, she was standing on deck with another passenger after lunch. All aboard had been advised to wear lifejackets, but discomfort, perhaps vanity, and confidence that the speedy Lusitania (dubbed the "greyhound of the sea") could outrun any submarine, meant passengers often ignored the warnings. Lookouts suddenly shouted as they spotted a torpedo headed for the ship. The male passenger gallantly offered my great-grandmother his lifejacket, but she declined, asking that if she drowned, he let her family know he'd been with her at the end.

Lusitania's captain, William Thomas Turner, was made a scapegoat by the British admiralty, wishing to deflect blame for leaving the ship unprotected in an area they knew to be patrolled by German subs. Following the public inquiry, Turner's estranged wife took their two sons to Australia and he never saw them again. One online account offers a final, bizarre twist to the story. It claims that Turner's son Percy was killed during World War II when his ship was torpedoed less than a mile from where the Lusitania went down.

Throughout the war, the Germans continued to deny that a U-boat had sunk the Athenia. The Nazi propaganda ministry charged that the British had downed the ship in the hopes of drawing the U.S. into the war. In 1941, Lemp was killed in battle and his ship was seized. Aboard the U-boat were secret documents and an intact "enigma machine" which proved a boon to the British, who used it to decipher messages about German naval tactics and slow down the lethal success of their submarines.

Moving back to the present day and on to a little horn tooting, the News collected some awards last month, thanks to our talented writers. The Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education handed out a gold award for "A Fine Balance: The Art and Science of Architecture," a Summer 2003 article by Daniel McCabe, BA'89, profiling three grads who are internationally recognized in the field. Judges called it "beautifully done, interesting and well written" and gave extra congratulations for landing the interviews and eliciting "the colourful and revealing quotes."

Patrick McDonagh's piece on nanotechnology, "It's a Nano World," was another CCAE gold medal winner, drawing praise for its "easy-to-understand style" and for going beyond the hype to offer "a very realistic picture of the state of the art and its potential." Finally, Helen Dyer's feature on the rebirth of a Newfoundland fishing village, "Leaning on a Legacy: Tilting Finds its Future in the Past," earned a bronze award for its "smooth and precise writing" about a "unique topic." The last two were part of our Winter 2003/2004 issue on research. Anyone who missed these prize-winning stories first time around can find them at www.mcgill.ca/news/archives.

This issue takes you on a tour of our vibrant West Island campus, introduces you to a cool prof, as well as to some movers and shakers in the business world, and asks where the boys are. Happy reading.

Signature of Diana Ayton

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