I have a confession to make, this history has a personal connection. Point one, the book is written by a former American History professor of mine from my years at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Francis M. Carroll is a fine scholar and I remember his course fondly. An Amercian, who made his way to Canada, Prof. Carroll has written many books and I believe is now at least semi-retired from full-time work at the university. But it is a treat to read that he couldn’t avoid writing about the Athenia–it is a great story. And as in all great stories, there is a cast of great characters for this book.
Professor Caroll takes us back to the late summer of 1939 to set the scene. From our vantage point we know that the second world war is about to be declared, but in that summer many people found themselves in Europe for a variety of reasons. A group of university girls from Texas were on a sight-seeing tour, teachers were on research tours, and family members were visiting with European relatives. As the situation darkened on the continent, the Canadian and American governments warned their citizens to make their way homeward.
One group that were on their way homeward was Mr. Louis Molgat, and his sons Andre (became heart surgeon in Winnipeg), Gildas (became provincial Liberal leader and Speaker of the Senate), and Jean. And this is my second personal connection to this book. My French teacher for six years was that Jean Molgat. In fact our families have an entwined history as Mr. Louis Molgat was a close friend of my grandfather (also named Jean-Louis) and they immigrated from France together and made their homes in Ste. Rose du Lac, MB. Professor Carroll interviewed Dr. Andre Molgat in the preparation of his book. The personal details included in the book–and the Molgat family’s story is but one of many–make this book a fascinating read for anyone who is interested in a compelling story of courage upon the high seas.
But the sinking of Athenia by a German U-Boat, on the first day that war was declared, is also a fascinating historic incident which marked the very beginning of the Battle of the Atlantic. Because many Americans were also aboard the Athenia when she was sunk, the incident had a further import in terms of the politics of the war. Professor Carroll gives us all the politics, the relationships between Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, his son Jack, Winston Churchill, and the valiant men who commanded the Athenia and the several ships which came to her aid. But the story never loses sight of the of the brave women, children, and men who survived the attack. Of the 1418 aboard the ship, 112 did lose their lives, as would thousands more in the months and years to follow during WW2.
While I was his student my teacher never once spoke of the war and he has since passed on. My mother told me that he served in the war as a soldier and I know that in his family life Jean Molgat was a shop keeper and a teacher. His family went on to serve our community and country in many many ways as did many of the passengers who survived the sinking of the Athenia. Thank you Professor Carroll for telling the story of the Athenia and of her many passengers.