The City of Benares, an 11,000 ton passenger vessel of City Lines and under Captain Landles Nicoll, was torpedoed by the U-48 on 17th September 1940 en route from Liverpool to Canada. It was 600 miles and 5 days into it's journey carrying 400 passengers and 99 evacuated children. 325 people were killed, including 77 of the children. HMS Hurricane (lost in 1943) picked up the survivors. The disaster ended the British Government's Children's Overseas Resettlement Scheme.
By coincidence, last night I saw on TV a survivor of City of Benares. She appeared in the third episode of the BBC series Their Finest Hour. Her name is Bess Cummings.
She was 15 at the time, so her memory of the affair was good. She was very eager to go to Canada. She had the idea that it was close to the US and the wonders of Hollywood. She told how the ship left Liverpool, with everybody singing Wish me Luck as you Wave me Goodbye. The ship was in its normal passenger-carrying form and she recalled the younger children playing in a playroom that included a very large rocking horse. The food was amazing to somebody used to wartime rations. She especially recalled the giant slices of ham, of which she was very fond. She was supposed to look after her young brother, but he was sent to the other side of the ship, as the girls had one side and the boys the other.
After a few days, the ship ran into a heavy gale and the children were sent below. Most were asleep when the ship was torpedoed at about 10-30 p.m. Somebody grabbed her and dragged her to the boat deck. By then, the ship was listing badly and she was thrown into a lifeboat. The boat was soon filled and lowered but it soon capsized. When she surfaced, she was close to the boat and she managed to climb on and hang onto the keel. She noticed the rocking horse bobbing on the waves nearby. Another girl of about the same age joined her. They hung on for about 20 hours. Bess was determined to live to tell her parents what had happened.
Because children were involved, it was decided to break the rules and send help. The destroyer HMS Hurricane was allowed to leave a convoy and search for survivors, normally a dangerous thing to do with U-boats around. The lifeboat was sighted and a boat was lowered. Bess could hear the boat's crew cheering as they rowed and from the ship came more cheering. When the boat arrived, the coxswain had to prise Bess's figures off the keel.
The eleven surviving children were placed in the officers' quarters. When Bess had recovered a little, the captain told her he had a present for her and produced her brother. The survivors were returned to Britain, just in time for the blitz! The disaster put an end to evacuations of children to Canada.
I interviewed Colin Ryder Richardson for the book I am writing for the RNLI. He was something of a hero on the Benares and was decorated by the King for his services. At the time he was only 11. He is a charming man and it was a pleasure meeting with him.
W.D. Roberts of Avid Publications has asked me to post this message on their behalf:
The book 'Children of the Benares 'by Ralph Barker, which tells the definitive story of the prelude to the disaster and its repercussions is available from Avid Publications...they are on the web at http://www.avidpublications.co.uk/benares.htm
A forgotten factoid of the disaster is that the ship was probably targeted by the last man on earth that you'd want to have shooting at you: Reinhard "Teddy" Suhren, the IWO of the U-48 on that cruise. Suhren had the highest percentage of hits to torpedoes fired of any submariner in history.