Wreck of first British ship sunk in WW2 discovered off the west coast of Ireland
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Wreck of first British ship sunk in WW2 discovered off the west coast of Ireland

THE final resting place of a British passenger liner torpedoed off the Irish coast just two days into the Second World War has finally been found.

The transatlantic liner SS Athenia was sunk mere hours after Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, causing what are believed to be the country’s first deaths in World War Two.

The sinking of the 13,400 ton vessel resulted in the loss of 112 of its 1,103-strong passengers and crew.

Among those on board were 500 Jewish refugees escaping Adolf Hitler’s genocidal Nazi regime for a new life in Canada.

The German commander of the U-30 submarine which torpedoed the Athenia, Fritz Julius Lemp, later said he believed the ship was a military vessel.

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Survivors of the sinking were later brought ashore in Galway after being picked up from lifeboats by the Norwegian cargo ship MS Knute Nelson.

The wreckage lies beneath 650ft (200m) of water on Rockall Bank, an area of raised seabed a few hundred kilometres off the west coast of Ireland.

David Mearns, a shipwreck hunter who discovered the wreck while mapping the seabed, said divers are yet to visit the site but that he is “nearly certain” it is the SS Athenia.

"I can't put my hand on a Bible in front of a judge and say 100 per cent this is the Athenia, but all of my experience says it's a very, very high probability," Mr Mearns said.

"I am 98 per cent-plus certain. Only passenger liners and perhaps warships are that large.”

Shipwreck hunter Mr Mearns – who discovered the wreck in a sonar image taken by Geological Survey Ireland – first began searching for the SS Athenia 12 years ago in 2005.

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Using mayday calls and ship logs, he pinpointed a spot around 200 nautical miles North West of Ireland where the vessel was likely to have gone down.

A year later he heard the area was being mapped by the Geological Survey of Ireland and spotted a large shipwreck near to where he estimated the SS Athenia would be.

“The more I looked at that image, it was clear this had a really good chance of being the Athenia,” he explained.

“Barring a photograph I can say in my expert opinion there's a very, very high probability that that's Athenia.”

He added: “Everything fits.”