PortandTerminal.com, September 17, 2020
On 17 September 1940, a German U-boat sank the City of Benares. Eighty-one children were killed.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Eighty years ago today, The City of Benares, aka the ‘Children’s Ship’, was carrying children fleeing Second World War Britain when it was torpedoed on September 17, 1940. This is their story.
Children’s Overseas Reception Board
By June 1940 Britain expected enemy invasion. The British had just suffered their disastrous and humiliating defeat in Dunkirk. The German Luftwaffe was conducting devastating raids on English cities at great cost to the British.
Quickly, the government decided it was necessary to evacuate children and others living in the direct bombing approach to London.
In response to the crisis, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was established in June 1940 and organized the evacuation of hundreds of children to foreign countries during the war. Parents could apply, and if accepted could receive free passage for kids between 5 and 15 to a safe country where they would remain for the duration of the war.
The journey for the CORB children was always a dangerous proposition but, desperate for their children’s safety, parents had signed up in droves to the British government scheme. One family had lost their home and belongings only days before the Benares sailed.
In total, CORB despatched 2,664 children, who became known as ‘Seaevacuees’, over a period of three months on 16 ships. Canada received the bulk of them – 1,532 in nine parties. Three parties sailed for Australia, with a total of 577 children, while 353 went to South Africa in two parties and 202 to New Zealand, again in two parties.
A further 24,000 children had been approved for sailing in that time and over 1,000 escorts, including doctors and nurses, enrolled. At its height, CORB employed some 620 staff.
The Benares left Liverpool on September 13, 1940, bound for the Canadian ports of Quebec and Montreal. Of the 407 people on board, 90 were child evacuees who were part of the CORB program. The evacuee children were accompanied by 10 chaperones.
The Benares had a Naval escort – led by HMS Winchelsea. But by the morning of 17 September, 300 miles (482km) west of Ireland she was thought to be beyond the danger zone and her navy escorts left her to pick up a convoy of incoming ships.
By 17 September 1940, the City of Benares had been at sea for four days.
After supper, the CORB children changed into their pyjamas for bed. At 10 o’clock she was hit by a torpedo fired by a German U-Boat. Most of the children would have been already asleep when the ship was struck.
By then, the Benares was in the mid-Atlantic, 600 miles (965km) west of Ireland.
The ship was badly damaged and quickly began to sink – reports say that it took only 15 minutes for her to go under.
‘All I can remember were the screams and cries for help’
Panic. Confusion. How could only 10 chaperones hope to handle 90 children in those circumstances? There was no time for the children to change into warmer clothes, no time to do anything but send out a distress call with their position, launch the lifeboats, and abandon ship.
The fact that the children were already in bed below deck and that most were travelling without their parents meant that a far higher proportion of children than adults were lost.
The weather was stormy and the sea choppy, combined with the list caused by the gaping hole in the ship’s side, launching the lifeboats became nightmarishly difficult and unpredictable. Almost none of them launched well, some tossed all their occupants in the stormy freezing cold Atlantic, others righted themselves but were filled to the brim with water that left them sitting so low that it was a struggle to even keep the children’s heads above the waves.
Most of the children would not survive the night.
In all, the Benares was carrying 100 children when she sank – 90 of whom were part of the of CORP program, the other 10 as regular passengers on board the ship.
Only 13 of the 90 child evacuee passengers embarked survived the sinking.
In total, 260 of the 407 people on board were killed. This included the master, the commodore, three staff members, 121 crew members and 134 passengers. Out of the 134 passengers, 77 were child evacuees. Only 13 of the 90 child evacuee passengers embarked survived the sinking.
The following is part of a letter sent to 77 families advising them of what had happened:
“I am very distressed to inform you that in spite of all the precautions taken, the ship carrying your children to Canada was torpedoed on Tuesday night, September 17th. I am afraid your children are not those reported as rescued and I am informed that there is no chance of there being any further lists of survivors from the torpedoed vessel.”
Some people did manage to get aboard lifeboats.
Most of the survivors were picked up the following afternoon (September 17, 1940) by HMS Hurricane, which had steamed 300 miles in answer to the Benares’s Mayday call, but one lifeboat – containing six boys and 40 adults – had drifted off, and was picked up by HMS Anthony eight days later.
“We went through three storms, great Atlantic gales, before we were picked up,” says Steels. “We were frightened, but we tried not to show it. Every anniversary you stop and think about it – all the kids we knew. Two of the lads on the lifeboat with us lost their five-year-old brothers.”
In the wake of the sinking, the Corb evacuation plan was abandoned. Death at home among loved ones was deemed preferable to a lonely death at sea.
One family had lost five children; others two or three. Unspeakable tragedies which, amid so much wartime suffering, went unspoken.
“Each person had a life, a story, a life worth living and a story worth telling.” – Deborah Heligman author of “Torpedoed: the True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship”
In a world where desperate people seeking refuge are still tragically lost at sea, that seems something well worth remembering today.
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