University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Official sources – The Merchant Ship Movement Card of SS Athenia

Anna-Lena Schneider, second year history student at Portsmouth, wrote the following article on the use of merchant ship cards to shed light on the circumstances behind the sinking of merchant ships during World War One for the Introduction to Historical Research Module.  The module is coordinated by Dr Jessica Moody, Lecturer in Modern History and Heritage at Portsmouth.

Using Official sources: the merchant ship movement card of SS Athenia

When thinking of official sources, one usually refers to the very basic formats of those, such as acts, identification documents, or taxation forms. However, there are less commonly used types of official sources historians can draw upon their research, such as merchant ship movement cards. Originally used as a type of taxation form, these records include a ship’s owner, tonnage, route, cargo, and cause of sinking, and therefore provide valuable information, which still need to be questioned. William Kelleher Storey, Professor of History at Millsaps College, argues that official documents “reveal some things, but remain silent on others [1].” In the following article I will discuss this statement by analysing the ship card of the cruise liner SS Athenia, through which I will outline and explain the advantages and limitations of that source and official sources in general, as well as the historical context of the source.

Merchant ship movement card (catalogue reference: BT 389)

Merchant ship movement card (catalogue reference: BT 389)

Ship card, SS Athenia, National Archives http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/merchant-shipping-movement-cards-1939-1945/




On 3 September 1939, SS Athenia was sunk by the German submarine U-30 [2]. Just like the sinking of RMS Lusitania in the First World War, this attack was brought into direct connection with the unrestricted submarine warfare [3]. Immediate responses by the Allies – predominately Britain – were inevitable consequences, which would change the course of naval warfare in the Atlantic. The use of convoy systems — a large group of ships escorted by destroyers – became a vital tactic used by Allied naval operators to protect their vessels from the German U-Boats [4]. These convoys proved themselves efficient, as German U-Boats could not sink all the ships, and brought themselves into great danger of being spotted and sunk by the destroyers.

The merchant ship movement card that is used here reveals information about Athenia’s last voyage. The advantage of it is the information about the ship itself, but also the further consequences of the loss of the ship. For example, the ship’s card records that Athenia was sunk, and therefore it is useful to historians, who collect the numbers of British or Allied vessels that were sunk during WWII. It also gives a clear account of Athenia’s final route, and therefore a historian can track the ship’s journey. As Athenia was eventually sunk, the Admiralty now knew that German submarines were operating in that area, and a historian can further explore what measures were taken to avoid these attacks, e.g. route changes, use of convoys, escorts, etc. Thus, this source does not only provide good information in regards to Athenia’s final voyage, but also leads up to discover the consequences of her sinking.

Yet, despite the advantages of information given, official sources can be misleading as they may withhold information [5]. As mentioned previously, the sinking of Athenia and Lusitania have several things in common: both British ships, sunk by German submarines, and both their records did not match the accounts of the submarines that sunk them. In the case of Lusitania, a second, bigger explosion caused a century long debate whether the ship had ammunition on board or not [6]. Thus, official sources must be questioned, especially when it is in the context of war, as they may be manipulated as a means of war propaganda.

As historians we have to evaluate sources to uncover their usefulness. Official sources, especially the ones of war that are likely to be manipulated for propaganda, propose a threat to truthful delivery and reproduction of an event. Butler and Gorst advocate including secondary readings as well as other primary sources on the same event in order to avoid producing “‘semi-official’” history [7]. Therefore one must always question an official source in its context, while also asking for what purpose it may have been manipulated or changed. In order to do so, other primary (or secondary) sources must be considered, which in the case of Athenia would be the official accounts of the submarine U-30 and the German government. As it turned out, U-30 thought Athenia to be an auxiliary cruiser, and therefore a military target [8]. Athenia’s card, however, does not have any notes on weapons or ammunition as cargo, as it claims to have only passengers on board the ship. The accounts do not match, which means that one of the accounts is manipulated. Again, this shows similarities to the case of Lusitania: the official records of the passenger liner did not note any ammunition on it, but the log of U-20, as well as descriptions of the second explosion, suggested otherwise. Thus, one official source is giving false information. One of the main reasons for that is, especially during wartime, the strategy of war propaganda. For instance, some historians argue that Lusitania’s sinking was used as war propaganda, in order to bring America into the war against Germany [9]. Thus, the manipulation of the information on the ship cards may have been done as a means of war propaganda. On the contrary, the accounts of the submarines could have been manipulated, in order to minimize or even avoid the consequences of the sinking. Another rather unlikely scenario would have been that of an honest mistake, as the environment of war can be very hectic and mistakes can occur. However, this one would be least likely to uncover.

In conclusion, Kelleher Storey’s statement proves itself true, at least in the cases of Athenia and Lusitania. The official sources of these events withhold information, as they do not match with one another. This does not, however, minimize their usefulness. The ship card of Athenia makes a useful contribution to a historian’s research, as it gives good information about the ship’s cargo, route, and fate. The key is to bring that information into context by examining it. The important thing about Athenia’s ship card, and official sources in general, is to bring them into context—that is, using other types of sources to answer the same question to view the similarities and differences. In this case study, this includes examining U-30’s log, in order to get the context of the sinking. As they do not match they need to be put into the wider context, which emphasizes the reactions of the British and German government. In doing so they provide vital insight into the course of naval warfare in the Atlantic, and eventually World War II itself. Thus, even when being manipulated as a means of war propaganda, these official sources are not less useful, as they reveal themselves as part of war strategy, which when put into context, helps to uncover the further course of the war.



Anna-Lena Schneider is a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth and works as a guide at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. She is also a member of the German U-boat Archive. Her interests include the history of the great passenger liners from 1900-1950 and the German Navy of both World Wars.



[1] William Kelleher Storey, Writing History: A Guide for Students, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford Press, 2016), 33.

[2] Jürgen Rohwer, War at Sea: 1939-1945 (London: Chatham Publishing, 1996), 32.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Storey, Writing History, 33.

[6] Liz Mechem, Disasters at Sea: A Visual History of Infamous Shipwrecks (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), 117.

[7] L.J. Butler and Anthony Gorst, Modern British History: A Guide to Study and Research, ed. L.J. Butler and Anthony Gorst (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997), 46.

[8] Rohwer, War at Sea, 32.

[9] John Protasio, The Day The World Was Shocked: The Lusitania Disaster and Its Influence on the Course of World War 1 (Philadelphia and Newbury: Casemate Publishers, 2011), 173, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01619a&AN=up.1200550&site=eds-live.

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