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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

“The Finest Consignment of Curling Stones Ever…”


There should have been noise – lots of noise.  But, it was eerily silent.  Everything moved in slow motion.  Some of the crates burst open.  Red ones and blue ones toppled out.  Some rolled; some slid.  Finally all movement ceased.   Two hundred seventy-eight came to rest on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean 200 miles off the coast of Ireland.  Only curlers would mourn their fate.  The SS Athenia had been sunk by a torpedo fired from U-30 – a German U-boat.  World War II was only hours old.

My involvement in this saga began shortly after I joined the Detroit Curling Club in 1979, when I was told a story that new curling stones ordered by the club in the 1940s had been lost at sea.  “Sunk by a Bosch submarine in WWII.”  The story intrigued me and I wanted to uncover the details.  Unfortunately, the facts I found disproved the story.  On March 26, 2013, I wrote an article on (Click Here) that showed the timing of the club ordering the stones (June 1941), and receiving the stones (December 1941), and the lack of ships sunk in this time-frame did not match up to make the story viable.

That blog-posting led a member of the Wausau (WI) Curling Club to write a comment on the blog about a similar story in his club’s history.  That story was even easier to debunk since they actually ordered and received their stones after the end of WWII (same Blog:  Click Here).  The North American Curling News article of February 1, 1947, was the deciding proof.  The Wausau CC had ordered and received its stones after the end of the war.

I asked U.S. Curling News columnist David Garber to publish a request in the spring 2015 edition of the magazine asking if other clubs have had similar rumors or stories floating around their membership.  No one replied.

The story continued to attract my curiosity.  How and why could a couple of curling clubs have such similar stories of curling stones lost in WWII?  I started reading the history Webpages at various curling clubs throughout Ontario and the eastern USA.  I found one article at Toronto’s High Park Club: “… In 1939, 41 pairs of stones, weighing 41.5 lbs. each with black or white handles, were purchased for $36 per pair. The first sets of stones were lost when a German torpedo hit the Athenia, the ship carrying them. New ones arrived in time for the following year.”  We now had the name of a ship.


The SS Athenia, a passenger ship, was built in 1922 for the Donaldson Line of Glasgow.  She was a 13,465 gross ton ship, length 526 feet, beam 66 feet, one funnel, two masts, twin screw and a service speed of 15 knots.   On her maiden voyage she sailed from Glasgow to Liverpool, Quebec and Montreal and returned to Glasgow.  This became her normal route.   In March 1927 she was refitted to carry additional passengers.  The ship could now accommodate 314 cabin-, 310 tourist-, and 928 third-class passengers.    The cargo capacity was 1,000 tons.


The Athenia returned to Glasgow from Canada on August 28, 1939.  Over the next few days her cargo was unloaded.  It was mostly foodstuffs (grain, butter, eggs), but there was aluminum and copper as well, much needed for the manufacture of aircraft and munitions.  Approximately 880 tons were loaded to be transported to Canada. 

During the early morning hours of Friday, September 1, 1939 German troops invade Poland.  At 12:05 p.m., the Athenia is about to leave Glasgow.  She is bound for Belfast and Liverpool before crossing the Atlantic for Montreal.  On board are 735 people including 315 crew.  At 3:45, the United Kingdom sends “a severe warning” to the German government to withdraw from Poland.  The Athenia weighs anchor and sets course from Glasgow to Liverpool.  Another 136 passengers board at Belfast.  In preparation for wartime, she has been fitted with blackout curtains and low-wattage running lights.

Throughout Saturday, September 2, 1939, the UK and other countries try to persuade Germany to withdraw from Poland.  Italian dictator Mussolini proposes a five-power conference to settle the crisis.  At 4:30 p.m. the Athenia slips out of port at Liverpool and begins her 2,625-mile voyage to Canada.  She is now carrying a total of 1,102 passengers and 315 crew.

Trying to locate a detailed manifest of the cargo on the Athenia has been quite difficult.  Three history books (written in 1959, 2009 and 2012) about the Athenia have stated: “Her cargo amounted to 888 tons, of which 472 were simply bricks.  Among the odd items were 50 pairs of curling stones, and a collection of schoolbooks for Toronto schoolchildren.”   The two newer books nearly quote verbatim the 1959 book.  I have never found a published cargo manifest.

Searching through newspaper archives, I found this article published in The Ottawa Journal on September 8, 1939.  A similar article appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Now we know there were at least 50 stones on the Athenia, perhaps 50 pairs.  Maybe more, with the references to clubs in London and Toronto.  I figured it was time for a shot-in-the-dark – I sent an e-mail to the current offices of curling stone manufacturer Andrew Kay & Co. asking if they knew of the loss of stones with the sinking of the Athenia.  I was fortunate to have piqued the interest of James Wyllie, who – as I now understand – is secretary and a director of the company.  He told me that his father would have been involved in shipments in 1939.  I also have learned that his grandfather had taken over stewardship of the company from Thomas & Andrew Kay in the late 1800s.

Mr. Wyllie spent hours going through old records.  His findings have solved the mystery with all the proof anyone could ask for.

I had also sent e-mails to the Toronto High Park Club, the Lindsay CC and the London CC to inquire what type of information they have to back up claims that their ordered stones were lost.  Their replies also helped to uncover the truth.

On Sunday, September 3, 1939, at 3:40 a.m. the Athenia passes Inishtrahull, an island off the northwestern corner of Ireland.  Poland has been under attack for over 48 hours.  At 8 a.m. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sends his ultimatum:  Germany must stop all aggressive action in Poland by 11 a.m. British Time.  At 11:14, having received no word from Germany, Chamberlain announces in a radio speech that France and the United Kingdom are now at war with Germany.  At 11:15 on the Athenia, Second Radio Officer Donald McRae picks up news of the UK’s declaration of war from the radio station at Valentia, Ireland.  Captain James Cook of the Athenia draws up a notice to inform the passengers that war has been declared.  The passengers crowd around the notice board to read the announcement.  The news is greeted in silence. 

Meanwhile, German Commodore Karl Dönitz signals his U-boat crews: “U-boats to make war on merchant shipping in accordance with operations order.”   At 2 p.m. on the U-30, Oberleutnant Fritz-Julius Lemp, 26-year-old commander of the 650-ton submarine, receives signal confirmation that the UK has declared war on Germany.  He gives orders for the U-boat to make for its operational area.

At 7 p.m., Lemp is on the submarine’s conning tower as a Force 4 wind is whipping up the waves around U-30.  He and his artillery officer see the silhouette of an approaching big ship.  They wonder if it is one of the British armed merchant cruisers that they have been warned to be on the lookout for.  On the Athenia, Captain Cook joins the first-class passengers for dinner.  At 7:15 Lemp orders the submarine to dive, and the klaxon sounds ‘battle stations’.  He is still unsure of the identity of the approaching ship but thinks it suspicious that she is showing no lights even though dusk is now falling.  Lemp decides to attack.

On the Athenia’s deck at 7:38, a group of children are singing that summer’s big hit, “South of the Border, Down Mexico Way.”  On the U-30 Lemp gives the order to fire the torpedoes, 1,600 yards from the Athenia.  Two torpedoes miss the Athenia completely.  Another is faulty and is stuck in its tube. The fourth finds its mark.  It explodes in the Athenia’s No. 5 hold and against the engine-room bulkhead.  Its impact claims the first victims of the war in the West.  Edith Lustig is blown overboard by the force of the explosion.  She is never seen again.  Ten-year-old Margaret Hayworth is mortally wounded by a flying metal splinter. 

Among the documents uncovered by Mr. Wyllie we find a cablegram to Andrew Kay & Co. from the sales representative in Toronto inquiring about the status of his upcoming shipments of curling stones.  On August 28, 1939, the company replied via cablegram: “Mr. H.H. Chisholm:  London, Toronto and Lindsay orders sailing Athenia Friday Insure War Risk.”  On September 4, the company wrote a letter to Mr. Chisholm that said in part: “… your orders for London, Toronto and Lindsay went forward from here, after inspection by Mr. Faulds, for shipment on the ill-fated SS Athenia…  We now learn that the Athenia was this morning sunk off the coast of Scotland, and we regret that the finest consignment of curling stones that have ever yet left our factory has gone with it.”  Mr. Wyllie also found the three bills of lading:

London Ontario CC   £201/12/-  (old British money)
                16 cases.  Each case contained 3 pairs Curling Stones
•             48 pairs Blue Hone Ailsa Curling Stones 40 lbs.
•             5-inch cupping on both sides
•             Countersinking for square-headed bolts
•             White Metal Handles
•             Vulcanite Handle Inserts

Toronto High Park CC   £172/40/-
                Cases Nos. 1-13 contained 3 pairs Curling Stones
                Cases No. 14 contained 2 pairs Curling Stones
•             41 pair Blue Hone Ailsa Curling Stones 40 lbs.
•             5-inch cupping on both sides
•             Countersinking for square-headed bolts
•             White metal handles
•             Vulcanite Handle Inserts

Lindsay CC   £210/-/-
                Cases Nos. 1-16 contained 3 pairs Curling Stones
                Case No. 17 contained 2 pairs Curling Stones
•             50 pair Red Hone Ailsa Curling Stones 40 lbs.
•             5-inch cupping on both sides
•             Countersinking for square-headed bolts
•             White metal handles
•             Vulcanite Handle Inserts

The total being:
          278 Andrew Kay & Co. Excelsior Ailsa Curling Stones with handles
·         47 cases.  Weighing nearly 12,000 lbs. or 6 tons.
·         1939 Value – £585/12/- or approximately $2,550.00 USD ($23,740.00 today’s value).  (This does not take shipping or sales commissions into account).

At the curling stone factory there were at least two other orders that did not make it onto the Athenia.  The Hamilton Thistle Club had a 34-pair order and the Toronto CC had a 50-pair order in process.  These orders were shipped in October and December 1939.

I would like to point out that this was a watershed moment in the evolution of the game.  The Toronto Curling Club was the first club in Ontario to provide matched club stones for its members in the 1937-38 season.  These matched stones had 5-inch cupping (the running surface) on both sides since they would be used on refrigerated ice only.  There was no longer a need for one side of the stone to have a smaller running surface (3-1/2 to 4 inches) used for outdoor or natural ice which becomes “soft” or “heavy” in warmer weather.  Secondly, the countersinking for square-headed bolts was new.  Previous bolts had round heads and were susceptible to loosening handles during play.  Interesting that today we have switched back to the round-headed bolt.  Hmmm?

At 7:45 p.m., the Athenia’s radio operator makes contact with a Norwegian freighter which is only 40 miles away.  The U-30 surfaces at 8:15. From the conning tower the crew can easily see the stricken Athenia.  With a jolt, Lemp realizes that instead of an armed merchant cruiser, he has torpedoed an unarmed passenger liner.  Lemp later claimed that the fact that the Athenia was steering a zigzag course which seemed to be well off the normal shipping routes made him believe she was either a troopship or an armed merchant cruiser, and when he realized his error, he took the first steps to conceal the facts by omitting to make an entry in the submarine's log, and swearing his crew to secrecy. 

The chief radio officer on the Athenia continues to send out SOS messages.  He makes contact with the American freighter City of Flint and a luxury yacht – both are on their way to help.  By 9:15, all but two of the lifeboats have been lowered.  At 10 p.m., Captain Cook is informed that all passengers are off the ship.  The wireless room sends out its last message that they are abandoning ship.

Just after midnight the Norwegian freighter arrives on the scene to help rescue survivors.  Two Royal Navy destroyers have arrived at the scene by 4:30 a.m.  The City of Flint arrives in the early morning hours.  The Athenia stays afloat for 14 hours, slipping below the surface at 10:40 a.m.



The German government vehemently denied sinking the Athenia.  It blamed Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, for sinking the Athenia in order to draw the USA into the war.   The truth did not emerge until January 1946 at the Nuremberg trials, during the case against Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, when a statement by Dönitz was read in which he admitted that Athenia had been torpedoed by U-30 and that every effort had been made to cover it up, including ordering Lemp to alter his log book.  Lemp died on May 9, 1941, when the U-boat he commanded was captured.


During the weeks and months that followed the sinking of the Athenia, many newspapers from coast to coast reworded the original article about the lost curling stones.  It was used as filler.  Many of the papers were in cities where the readership probably didn’t even know about the sport of curling.  Examples:  Tucson, AZ; San Bernardino, CA; Brownsville, TX; Shamokin, PA.   Here is one from the Marshall News Messenger in Marshall, Texas:


On September 20, 1939, Andrew Kay & Co. dispatched a letter to Mr. Chisholm in Toronto with the schedule on how they planned to replace the stones lost at sea.  The Lindsay CC order would ship in mid-December 1939.  The London CC stones would ship three weeks later, and the Toronto High Park stones would ship in another three weeks.  This information matches the High Park Club records, which state that the new stones were received in February 1940. 

In the summer of 2017, Mr. David Mearns, an experienced shipwreck hunter, announced he had found what he believes to be the site of the SS Athenia in 650 feet of water.  He said divers had not yet visited the site.

It was a big loss for curlers to lose 278 curling stones, but we should never forget the 112 people who died that day from the sinking of the SS Athenia or the millions that died during the war years that followed.


© 2018 Angus MacTavish

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I'm a member at Lindsay and I'd just like to say what a truly awesome story this is. Of course, I'd heard about it in the club - it's the second thing all new members learn (the first thing is the membership dues!); but I can't thank you enough for the hours and weeks of research that you must have undertaken to give us something definitive to point to.
    Dave Francis

    ReplyDelete