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History Personal Accounts

The Sinking of the Benares

The SS City of Benares was a steam passenger ship built for Ellerman Lines by Barclay, Curle & Co of Glasgow in 1936.  On 13th September 1940 she departed Liverpool bound for Canada.  On board were 90 evacuee children, who were being relocated as part of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) plan to take British children abroad away from the effects of the Blitz.

Just four days after leaving Liverpool, the Benares was torpedoed by a german U-boat in the Atlantic with heavy loss of life.

city of benares postcard
A pre-war post card of City of Benares' produced by the Ellerman Line

city of benares

Once hit, the ship quickly took on a list preventing many of the lifeboats from being launched and trapping many passengers and crew members below deck.  She sank within thirty minutes.

Mary Cornish was a music teacher responsible for a group of children traveling aboard the Benares and saw the shocked reaction of those aboard when the ship was hit.  Many passengers believed the adjacent ships would pick them up, but the ships’ officers were under strict admiralty orders not to attempt rescue work once their escort had left if it involved risk to themselves.  The U-boat was still lurking nearby.  As the minutes passed so the sea became more violent.  Still many hoped for a rescue which never came.

Those who managed to survive the sinking of the ship, were then left struggling in the water trying to clamber aboard the few lifeboats.  With the nearest allied ships 300 miles away, many more people drowned or died of exposure in the 24 hours it took for help to arrive.

A Mrs. Bech from Bognor Regis was traveling to Canada with her 3 children: Barbara, Sonia and Derek.  Sonia Bech remembers the moment the torpedo hit, “I remember a thud and being woken up by my sister Barbara and automatically getting into my duffle coat and putting on socks and sandals and of course carrying my life jacket. There was a sinister atmosphere along the corridors up to the Muster Station in the lounge and I remember an odd smell in the air. The next few minutes are still very vivid in my memory and are like a long bad dream.

How I reached the tiny raft beneath I will never understand. When I got onto the raft I remember thinking we were laying very close to the ship’s side and I thought we would be sucked under when she actually sank. By some fantastic good luck a strong man was in the water at that minute and he pulled the raft out of danger.  I believe his name was Mr. Davis: he certainly saved our lives.

Eric Davis was amongst the first survivors to be spotted by HMS Hurricane the following day, clinging to a small raft along with one other man, John McGlashen, and 6-year old Jack Keeley.

raft with survivors of the city of benares

Derek Bech, aged 9, recalls, “Some of the children were killed in the explosion, some were trapped in their cabins, and the rest died when the lifeboats were launched incorrectly and children were just tipped into the sea.  All I can remember were the screams and cries for help.  It was one of the worst disasters at sea concerning children, and it should always be remembered.

Barbara Bech managed to make it onto a lifeboat after the ship was hit, whereas Sonia, Derek and her Mother only survived by clinging onto a tiny raft in the freezing, rough seas… “The long dreary night clinging to the top of the raft seemed endless, but I remember falling off the raft and obviously my head went under the foaming water for a moment and I felt a tremendous peace and a sense of great light.  Then I was hauled back on the raft by the sailor and felt very shivery.  After many hours Mummy said “Sonia, let us take off our life belt and go to sleep in the water”; and I was very insistent that we waited a little longer.  It was not long after this that we saw the sail of Mr. Lewis’s lifeboat from S.S. Marina.  He was the second person who saved our lives that night.  I believe his lifeboat was already very full, but he managed to steer towards us through the rough seas, a notable feat in such conditions.  We were hauled aboard and revived with rum and Nestle’s Milk.

Fortunately all four members of the Bech family survived the horrific ordeal and were picked up by HMS Hurricane on 18th September.

city of benares survivors
Left to right: Sonia Bech, Colin R. Richardson and Derek Bech safe on dry land

Dr Peter Collinson was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Hurricane.  He remembers what state the survivors were in when they were finally rescued, “All survivors were suffering from severe exposure, and varying degrees of shock, being physically and emotionally exhausted.  Some were dehydrated and most were suffering from bruised and sprained bodies, limbs, and suspected fractures.  Several had severe swollen legs due to prolonged exposure to sea water, the so called ‘Immersion Feet’.  Three little boys could not be revived in spite of the valiant efforts of the Petty Officers’ Mess at artificial resuscitation.  They were later given a full Naval Burial by the Captain.

City of Benares survivors
Survivors safe aboard HMS Hurricane

Lifeboat 12, under the charge of the unflappable scottish 4th Officer Ronnie Cooper, was the last to be lowered from the sinking ship and so was very overcrowded.  The 46 survivors aboard lifeboat 12, including 6 boys, were not picked up until 9 days after the Benares had been sunk.  On Sunday 22nd September the next of kin of all the children aboard the lost lifeboat were informed of their death.

As the days passed and no help came, those on board lifeboat 12 settled into a routine.  Father O’Sullivan said prayers and rations were allocated twice a day.  Mary Cornish was also aboard lifeboat 12 and kept the boys entertained with thrilling stories of lone exploits against villains and Nazis and survival against all odds.  She massaged their cramped limbs and feet.  They all baled but could not clear the few inches of water in the bottom of the boat.  Then they began to hallucinate.  11-year-old Fred Steels from Eastleigh was one of the six boys on this lifeboat and remembers, “we were virtually out of water and food, what was left the crew in the stern were giving to us kids.  They tried to collect any rainwater they could on the sails, but the trouble is as soon as it hit the sail it was salt, so we couldn’t use it.

On Wednesday September 25th, their eighth day in the boat, the survivors aboard lifeboat 12 saw a speck in the sky which, fortunately, was an R.A.A.F. plane – a Sunderland flying boat.  They waved frantically and soon it turned towards them but had insufficient fuel to rescue them.  It signalled, “Help coming“.  Airborne for many hours on escort duties, it was sheer chance the Sunderland’s  return route took them within sight of the lifeboat.  They were thrilled to realise they were looking at 46 survivors of the Benares.

city of benares lifeboat 12

HMS Anthony dropped out of convoy to rescue lifeboat 12 and on Thursday 26th September the 46 survivors were at last on dry land.  Ronnie Cooper, assistant steward George Purvis and Mary
Cornish were all decorated for bravery.

mary cornish and peter collinson city of benares
Mary Cornish and Dr Peter Collinson

12-year-old Derek Capel and the other boys on lifeboat 12 were weak, thirsty, starving and frostbitten when they were rescued, but he will always remember the warmth of the welcome they received in Glasgow, “We came into Gourock, then on to Greenock and they put us to bed and we didn’t think any more of it.  But the next day they picked us up to take us to Glasgow and there were crowds of people.  We thought ‘what do they want?’  Then we realised that we were headline news.

Derek had been traveling with his 5-year-old brother, Alan, who he had lost when the ship sank, “I kept asking about my brother, but nobody could tell me anything and that was so worrying.”  It wasn’t until a reunion in 1982 that Derek found out Alan had been rescued after the ship sank but, along with two other little boys, died from exposure aboard HMS Hurricane.

city of benares survivors 4
Left to right: Ken Sparks, Derek Capel and Fred Steels having survived 8 days adrift on lifeboat 12

In total, 248 of the 406 people on board, including the master, the commodore, three staff members, 121 crew members and 134 passengers were lost.  77 of the 90 children on board the City of Benares tragically lost their lives, resulting in the complete abandonment of further overseas evacuation plans.  The U-boat responsible had moved its searchlight over the area where the Benares had sunk and knew there were survivors, but made no effort to rescue them.  The total disregard for the plight of the survivors horrified the civilised world.

History

The Evacuation of Liverpool

During World War II approximately 130,000 people were evacuated away from Merseyside.  These weren’t only school children, but also pregnant women, young mothers with babies and disabled adults.  By 1st September 1939, war with Germany seemed inevitable.  Although nothing was official, people feared they would be attacked as soon as war was declared, so evacuation began days before Prime Minister Chamberlain declared war over the wireless.

The Liverpool Corporation arranged for children to be moved to the quiet countryside of Cheshire and North Wales, where they would be much safer from bomb attacks.  Many children were evacuated by ship from Liverpool to Canada, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia and many of these evacuees never returned home. However hard it might have been, for many parents this was one way to ensure their children would survive even if Britain was invaded.

world war II evacuation lime street

Unexpectedly, after war had been declared, months passed by and the bombs didn’t arrive… this was known as “the Phoney War” and many children were brought back home to Liverpool.  However, once France fell to the Nazis in May 1940, german planes moved much closer to the English Channel and soon after the Blitz on Britain began in earnest!

evacuees liverpool
© Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Like parents in all major industrial cities, those in Merseyside had to be persuaded to let their children go to strangers many miles away for an unknown length of time.  Newsreel reports showing bombs and gas attacks in Spanish cities helped persuade many parents, as did information from schools, loud hailers, churches and newspapers.  Understandably many parents did not want to let their children go, so they stayed in Liverpool.

evacuation poster wwII

world war II evacuation lime street

Inevitably, children reacted differently to this stressful upheaval… some were frightened, others saw it as a great adventure!  Many had not been to the countryside before, nor seen fields or farm animals and were overwhelmed by their new surroundings.

Once children arrived at their destination with their gas masks across their shoulders, they were chosen by billeters who often made their choice based on how the child looked and how strong and healthy they seemed.  Many were separated from their siblings, which was often very traumatic.  Some children were not selected at all and were taken from home to home by the organisers who tried to find them places.

evacuated children wwii

There were many reports of billeters being shocked by the condition of children from poorer inner-city areas; they were very often dirty and ill-dressed.  Lice, malnutrition and diseases such as impetigo, scabies, and diptheria were common in densely populated urban areas, but were very rare in the countryside.

evacuation bathtime

Experiences varied dramatically and inevitably a lot of it was down to pure luck.  Many children had a wonderful time and some even refused to leave at the end of the war.  Some even chose to be adopted by their billeted parents.  Thousand of children lived away from Merseyside for several years.  In that time they had grown a lot and become accustomed to being distanced from their parents; some reunited families were practically strangers.  Many children returned to Merseyside able to speak Welsh fluently – some had forgotten almost all the English they knew.

The most unlucky children were placed where they were not wanted.  Some had a miserable time; fed poor food, forced to live outside and work long hours.  There were several cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Mothers often suffered terribly.  They missed their children and at the same time were struggling to cope with bomb raids, rationing and the absence or even death of their husbands.  They were also asked to pay what they could towards their children’s upkeep.  Parents could visit their children but were encouraged not to do so often as this could unsettle the children.  Consequently, mothers usually knew little about the people who were raising their children.

evacuees return home

For most children and parents, the return home meant a very emotional and happy reunion.  There’s no doubt the evacuation of children from Britain’s cities during the Blitz did save lives.