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The Children of the City of Benares

The Children of The City of Benares.  

 

 

The City Line steamship, The City of Benares, sailed from her home port, Liverpool, on Friday September 13th 1940. On board she carried a very special cargo, children, 90 city kids who their parents deemed would be safer overseas than facing the bombing at home. Friday the 13th!

 

The City of Benares was a fine modern ship, built on the Clyde in Glasgow in 1936, 11,080 tons and capable of sixteen knots. She had two centrally mounted funnels in yellow, white, and black, and she certainly did not look like a freighter, more of a cruise ship.

 

When she was 600 miles from the nearest land she was hit at approximately ten o'clock at night by a single torpedo fired from the highly successful German submarine U48. The pandemonium that broke out after that can only be imagined as survivors attempted to find their way to the lifeboats. Sadly, due to very rough seas and Force 5 winds, lowering the lifeboats proved extremely difficult, and several actually capsized.

 

248 people of the 406 on board, were lost, including more than 70 of the children.

 

One day and one night later HMS Hurricane, a modern Havant class destroyer launched in September 1939, came to their rescue and picked up most of the survivors. Unfortunately, they missed one of the lifeboats, Lifeboat 12, and this remained alone on the ocean for eight days and nights in heavy seas.

 

In that lifeboat were 30 Indian seaman, a Polish millionaire trader, several merchant sailors, 6 evacuee boys, a Roman Catholic priest who had volunteered to accompany the boys, and Mary Cornish their supervisor. Whilst on the boat their rations consisted of one ship's biscuit, a piece of tinned fruit, a little juice for the lucky ones, and a sip of water, per day. Nothing else. One of the Indian seamen died after drinking salt water.

 

Luckily, another British destroyer finally spotted them, the Acasta class HMS Anthony, built in 1931, a fast little ship capable of 36 knots. In the intervening time, some of the parents of the boys who were in that boat, were informed that their children had been lost. They were in for a big surprise.

 

The sinking of the City of Benares prompted an immediate end to the policy of overseas evacuation for British city children, though there are conflicting reports as to whether that was entirely the case. Certainly private evacuations continued on afterwards.

 

Incidentally, HMS Hurricane had a chequered history. After being launched in September 1939, she was sunk whilst in Liverpool docks by German raiders on the night of May 8th 1941. But she was raised and repaired and returned to service, but was sunk again in the mid Atlantic near the Azores in December 1943, while serving with the task force of the American escort carrier USS Card.

 

At the time of the sinking of the City of Benares, the U.S. Secretary of State Mr Cordell Hull described the action as a "Most Dastardly Act".  Perhaps it was one more small event that hastened America's entry into the war. Please see my article British Evacuees of World War II, for more information on the adults and children evacuated in Britain during the war.

 

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