Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Six Small Boys in a Lifeboat - The Story of the City of Benares
The SS City of Benares was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1940, the British Children’s Overseas Reception Board shipped children overseas to safe homes until September 17, when U 48 sank the city of Benares.
In 1940, while Germany blitzed London and its suburbs, the British government felt that children between the ages of five and sixteen would be safer in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The British Children’s Overseas Reception Board placed children in overseas homes. The first contingent of British children reached New York City on June 1, 1940, on the S.S. Britannia, seeking sanctuary for the duration of the war. The United States took 2,000 children, Canada about 1,000, Australia 5,000 and New Zealand, 2,500.
The SS City of Benares Tosses in the Stormy North Atlantic
The event that changed the British government policy toward sending children abroad for their safety happened on the night of September 17, 1940. A British passenger ship, the SS City of Benares tossed the in stormy North Atlantic waters 600 miles off the coast of England. Commanded by Master Landles Nicoll, the City of Benares had departed Liverpool on September 13, 1940, bound for Quebec and Montreal. She was Rear Admiral E.J.G. Mackinnon’s flag ship of the convoy OB 213 and the first ship in the center column.
Among the 406 people on board were twenty-one year old Mary Cornish, an accomplished classical pianist who acted as a children's escort, Father Rory O’Sullivan, a Roman Catholic priest and also an escort, James Baldwin-Webb, a parliamentarian, and Ruby Grierson, a documentary film director.
Ninety Eight English Children Seek Refuge in Canada
There were also 98 English children between five and fifteen years old on their way to refuge in Canada. The children all came from government aided schools in London, Liverpool, and other ports. The children included five of the Grimmond children – August 13, Violet, 11, Constance, 10, Edward, 8, and Leonard, 5.
The Grimmonds Evacuate Five of their Children
J.E. Grimmond and his wife and twelve children had lived in a house on Lilford Road in Camberwell, London. Then one Saturday in September 1940, a German plane dropped a bomb on their house and exploded it into rubble.
The Grimmonds safely weathered the bombing in their Anderson shelter. When they emerged to survey the damage, Mr. and Mrs. Grimmond worried that the children’s new clothes were ruined. The new clothes were for the five of their children who were being evacuated to Canada. The British authorities assured the Grimmonds that they would provide substitute clothing for the children.
German Submarine U 48 Locates the City of Benares
A few hundred miles off Scotland, Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt, commander of German submarine U 48, located the City of Benaresthrough his sonar and stalked it through the rough seas. When U48 got close enough, it launched torpedoes and one of them struck the City of Benares in the stern, causing her to sink within thirty minutes about 253 miles off of Rockall, a remote island in the North Atlantic.
Lifeboat Number 12 is Left Behind
As Lifeboat Number 12 carrying 46 people was being lowered, a group of small boys sang, “Roll Out the Barrel,” at the top of their lungs. Besides six small boys it carried approximately 30 Indian crewmen, a Polish merchant, several sailors, Mary Cornish, and Father Rory O’Sullivan. The lifeboat did not founder. After all the others in lifeboats had been rescued, it wallowed in the gray Atlantic, unseen by the rescue ship.
Mary Cornish and the only woman on board put the boys under the canvas in the bow. She massaged their legs and arms, gave them setting up exercises and told them serial stories. They were given half a biscuit for lunch with sometimes a piece of sardine and once an eighth of a peach apiece.
Plentiful Storms and Scarce Food and Water
The men put up a sail and headed across the 600 miles of water toward England. They kept the boat relatively dry despite repeated bitter storms. On the eighth day the food and water ran out. The stout hearted party then agreed that this meant they were about to be rescued. One ship had passed them by already that day, but then they saw an Australian Sunderland flying boat returning home from convoy duty.
The twenty-ton flying boat, running short of fuel, signaled her relief plane which in turn signaled and brought the British destroyer, Anthony, commanded by Ronald Brooke. Six boys and forty adults were rescued about 600 miles off the Irish coast after spending eight days afloat in the Atlantic Ocean.
Rescue and Reckoning
Out of the 406 people on the City of Benares, only 82 men, 18 women, and 13 children were rescued. The week that the Germans torpedoed the City of Benares – the week of September 15-22, 1940 – Britain suffered her highest weekly shipping losses of World War II. During this week Germany claimed the sinking of 201,862 tons of shipping and Britain acknowledged a loss of 131,857 tons.
The cost in human lives can’t be calculated. Mr. Grimmond was a laborer, not a soldier, but he wanted personal revenge on the Nazis for the murders of his children. He went to enlist, but was judged too old for anything but home defense. After the tragedy of the City ofBenares, the British Government decided that it could not risk the lives of its youngest citizens in the dangerous Atlantic crossing. It did not send any more children across the Atlantic Ocean to safety.
Tom Nagorski, Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack, Hyperion, 2007.
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.