On September 3, 1939, the British passenger liner SS Athenia was sunk by the German sub U-30. This was the first British ship sunk in World War II, and because it was a passenger vessel, rather than a cargo ship, it was a violation of existing treaties between Germany and England. In fact, the Germans did not admit to sinking Athenia until well after the end of the war. Many didn’t believe that the Germans would have sunk a passenger liner, as there was much to lose, and little to gain, by doing so.
118 people lost their lives, from more than 1100 on board, and much that loss occurred during the rescue. Because the seas were calm, many vessels were able to assist Athenia, and most did so successfully. A Norwegian vessel, Knute Nelson, caused about 50 deaths when it suddenly steamed full speed ahead, sucking a full lifeboat that was aside it into its propeller.