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The City Of Benares

Discussion in 'Other Ships and Shipwrecks' started by Michael Shetina, Aug 5, 2002.

  1. Does anyone know anything at all about the ship City Of Benares, torpedoed during WWII while evacutaing children from Britain during the blitz?
  2. Morning Mike,

    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.

    Similar disasters can be found at:


  3. Dave Gittins

    Dave Gittins Member

    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.
  4. Noel F. Jones

    Noel F. Jones Active Member

    Search for "Children of the Benares :
    a war crime and its victims"

    Author: Barker, Ralph,
    Publication: London : Methuen, 1987
    OCLC member libraries worldwide: 26


    same title and author

    Publication: London : Grafton, 1990
    OCLC member libraries worldwide: 6

    I think I'm right in saying the vessel was distinguished as the only Ellerman City liner to have two funnels. She was their virtual flagship before the war.

  5. 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.
  6. I bought this book at the Liverpool Ship Show last weekend. A terrible tale. Colin Ryder Richardson was the little chap whose mother insist he wore his red lifejacket at all times.
  7. Morning all,

    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


  8. Mike Poirier

    Mike Poirier Member

    That is good news. I bought a copy years ago on ABE as it was out of print. It is a must for any ship buff's library.
  9. Pat Winship

    Pat Winship Member

    I did a search of uboat.net, and found a very informative thread:


    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.

    Pat W.
  10. Pat Winship

    Pat Winship Member

  11. Just to let everyone know there's a documentary on BBC2 (UK only) tonight on the City of Benares, includes interviews with survivors and one of the U-boat crew

  12. forgot to add, it starts at 9pm

  13. Paul Rogers

    Paul Rogers Member

    Thanks for the heads-up, Cliff; I would have missed this otherwise. I enjoyed the programme very much.
  14. no probs Paul, it was a great documentray, some of the links on the BBC website give a bit more info as well

  15. Mike Poirier

    Mike Poirier Member

    I sent you a private note through ET- did you get it?
  16. Noel F. Jones

    Noel F. Jones Active Member

    Poignantly interesting as a survivors' account but not nearly as informative as it should have been. Clearly the merchant service is very much a closed book to today's 'media-folk'.

    Her name was reduced to "Benares" and her crew were largely invisible. The only mention of a crew member was a passing reference to "the seventh engineer".

    As an express Ellerman City liner I would conjecture she had a Lascar crew with a 'stiffening' of white topsiders. We were not told. Not even the name of her master. Typical.

  17. Paul Rogers

    Paul Rogers Member

    I gained the impression that the documentary was deliberately focussed on the overseas evacuation programme of 1940 and the impact of the disaster upon the survivors (and on the evacuation programme itself). In other words, it was a 'human interest' story. As such, I would submit that it was successful.

    Personally, I think it was a shame that the documentary's remit was not made wider, to include more information relating to the City of Benares herself and her crew. I would imagine however that the majority of the viewing public would not find such information of particular interest. Most members of this forum share a rather esoteric interest, after all!
  18. Senan Molony

    Senan Molony Member

    Hi Cliff,

    Another hearty thanks from here for the TV alert.

    I thought it was a marvellous documentary from start to finish.

    The presence of Rolf Hilse, from the U-48, gave the programme great profundity and balance.

    Evacuating children overseas by passenger liner certainly seems to have been a reckless idea. In hindsight the risk must have been many multiples of simply sending them off to the shires.
  19. Hi Mike- yes i got your message, have sent you one via ET


  20. My Grandfather Harry Peard was a gunner on the City of Benares and was on Boat 12. Ralph Barker,Author of the Children Benares visited my Grandfather who retold his account of the tragedy. As a child growing up with my Grandfather's war stories, this one he told many times. My Grandfather recovered a menu card from the City of Benares and also the bag which was dropped from the airplane which spotted the lifeboat and the note which was inside the bag which read HELP ON THE WAY. I wish perhaps that a program could be produced on the crew and also to mention the Lascars of whom many went down with the ship.
    DeborahHeiligman likes this.