SS City of Benares
SS City of Benares was a steam passenger ship built for Ellerman Lines by Barclay, Curle & Co of Glasgow in 1936. During the Second World War the City of Benares was used as an evacuee ship to evacuate 90 children from Britain to Canada. The ship was torpedoed in 1940 by the German submarine U-48 with heavy loss of life, including the death of 77 of the evacuated children. The sinking caused such public outrage in Britain that it led to Winston Churchill cancelling the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) plan to relocate British children abroad.
|Name:||City of Benares|
|Owner:||Ellerman Lines Ltd, London|
|Operator:||City Line Ltd|
|Port of registry:||
|Builder:||Barclay, Curle & Co, Whiteinch, Glasgow|
|Launched:||5 August 1935|
|Fate:||Sunk on 18 September 1940|
|Class and type:||Steam passenger ship|
|Length:||486 ft 1 in (148.16 m)|
|Beam:||62 ft 7 in (19.08 m)|
|Depth:||30 ft 8 in (9.35 m)|
|Propulsion:||Three Cammell Laird steam turbines (1,450 hp (1,080 kW)), single reduction geared driving a single screw|
|Speed:||15 knots (28 km/h)|
|Capacity:||219 (single class)|
City of Benares was built by Lithgows Ltd, Port Glasgow. She was launched on 5 August 1935, and completed in October 1936. City of Benares was 486 ft 1 in (148.16 m) long, with a beam of 62 feet 7 inches (19.08 m) and draught of 30 feet 8 inches (9.35 m). She was powered by three steam turbines which were supplied by Cammell Laird. They were oil-fired and drove a single screw via single-reduction gearing, giving her a speed of 15 knots (28 km/h). Her maiden voyage departed Bombay on 7 December 1936. She was managed by City Line Ltd on behalf of her owners, Ellerman Lines Ltd. City of Benares had the UK Official Number 164096 and used the Code Letters GZBW.
City of Benares was part of convoy OB-213 and was being used as an evacuee ship in the overseas evacuation scheme organised by CORB. She was carrying 90 child evacuee passengers who were being evacuated from wartime Britain to Canada. Also aboard were Mary Cornish, an accomplished classical pianist who had volunteered as a children's escort; James Baldwin-Webb, a parliamentarian; Rudolf Olden an exiled German writer, and his wife, documentary director Ruby Grierson; Anne Fleetwood-Hesketh, mother of Roger Fleetwood-Hesketh; 15-year-old Anthony Quinton, with his mother, Letitia; Monika Mann with her husband; and the miners' leader William Golightly. The ship left Liverpool on 13 September 1940, bound for the Canadian ports of Quebec and Montreal, under the command of her Master, Landles Nicoll. She was the flagship of the convoy commodore Rear Admiral E.J.G. Mackinnon DSO RN and the first ship in the centre column.
Late in the evening of 17 September, the City of Benares was sighted by U-48, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt, who fired two torpedoes at her at 23.45 hours. Both torpedoes missed, and at 00.01 hours on 18 September, the U-boat fired another torpedo at her. The torpedo struck her in the stern, causing her to sink within 30 minutes, 253 miles west-southwest of Rockall.
Fifteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the vessel had been abandoned, though there were difficulties with lowering the lifeboats on the weather side of the ship. HMS Hurricane arrived on the scene 24 hours later, picked up 105 survivors, and landed them at Greenock. During the attack on the SS City of Benares, the SS Marina was also torpedoed. Hurricane mistakenly counted one of the lifeboats from the SS Marina for one of the lifeboats from SS City of Benares. As a result, Lifeboat 12 was left alone at sea. Its passengers had three weeks supply of food but enough water for only one week. In the lifeboat were approximately 30 Indian crewmen, a Polish merchant, several sailors, Mary Cornish, Father Rory O'Sullivan (a Roman Catholic priest who had volunteered to be an escort for the evacuee children), and six evacuee boys from the CORB program. They spent eight days afloat in the Atlantic Ocean before being sighted from the air and rescued by HMS Anthony. In the end, of the 90 children, 73 died of exposure on lifeboats or were missing presumed lost at sea. (inconsistency: 80 died of 100 children )
In total, 260 of the 407 people on board were lost. This included the master, the commodore, three staff members, 121 crew members and 134 passengers. Out of the 134 passengers, 77 were child evacuees. Only 13 of the 90 child evacuee passengers embarked survived the sinking. The sinking was controversial, the Allied powers criticised the "barbaric" actions of the Germans, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and support for those who had lost children in the sinking. The Germans defended the attack as being on a legitimate military target, and insisted that the British government was to blame for allowing children to travel on such ships in war zones when the German government had issued repeated warnings. They claimed that Baldwin-Webb and Olden were travelling to America with the aim of persuading the United States to enter the war, and that the City of Benares would be used to transport war materiel back to Britain on her return voyage.
The future of the CORB was already in question after the torpedoing of an evacuation ship, the SS Volendam, by U-60 two weeks earlier. 320 children had been aboard, but all had been rescued by other ships. The directors of the CORB were hopeful that the programme could be continued, and presented a report into the sinking which made recommendations for future operations, which included the use of faster transports and escorts on the North Atlantic routes, and the concentration of the evacuation programme on routes to Australia, India and South Africa, where the weather was better and there were felt to be fewer enemy submarines. The Admiralty pointed out that there were insufficient fast escorts and ships available, and public opinion was opposed to the continuation of overseas evacuation, fearing further tragedies. Winston Churchill also opposed the scheme, believing evacuations gave aid and comfort to the enemy. The government announced the cancellation of the CORB programme, and all children who were currently preparing to sail were ordered to disembark and return home. Official child evacuation efforts came to a halt with the end of the CORB, but large-scale private evacuation of a further 14,000 children continued until 1941.
Bleichrodt was tried for war crimes related to the sinking of the City of Benares, after the war. He denied any prior knowledge of the presence of children, and refused to apologise for the sinking, stating his actions were within the bounds of military policy. Several historians have supported the contention that Bleichrodt was unaware of the presence of children, including Kate Tildesley, Curator at the Naval Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence, who wrote "What was not known by Bleichrodt was that the liner he was attacking carried 90 children ... Only 13 of the children survived, and the understanding that Bleichrodt could not have known which passengers were on board the liner made little difference to his perceived culpability." Several of the crew of U-48, including the radio operator, later expressed their shock and regret once it became known that the ship they had sunk had been carrying children. They "reaffirmed the German position that there was no way that the submarine could have known who was on board."
Culture and media
The poet George Sutherland Fraser, who served in World War II, wrote a poem, "S.S. City of Benares (drowned refugee children, 1940)", about the sinking.
The SS City of Benares is the setting of the book Wish Me Luck by James Heneghan, the story of a boy from Liverpool being sent away to safety on the City of Benares.
The play Lifeboat by Nicola McCartney tells the story of Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, two survivors of the SS City of Benares.
Tom Nagorski wrote Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack (Hyperion Books: New York, 2006. ISBN 1-4013-0871-6) collecting eyewitness accounts about the people and events connected with the attack and sinking of the liner SS City of Benares. His grandfather, a Polish emigre and diplomat, was one of the adult survivors.
An exhibit to the City of Benares disaster is housed in Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Watch House and Museum.
The sinking reportedly inspired actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr to develop and patent a system of spread spectrum radio as a means to guide anti-ship torpedoes. The concept is today the basis of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other communications technology.
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- Children of the Doomed Voyage. Testimonany Films for BBC, 2005, BBC History. ed. John Farren
- Obituary of Bess Cummings, survivor, Daily Telegraph issue 19 August 2010
- Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 95.
- Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 96.
- Edwards. Between the Lines of World War II. p. 144.
- Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 98.
- Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 97.
- Edwards. Between the Lines of World War II. p. 147.
- Edwards. Between the Lines of World War II. p. 148.
- Tildesley. "Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011.
- David Goldie and Roderick Watson (eds) (2014). From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914–1945. Glasgow: ASLS. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-906841-16-4.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 5 January 2015. Retrieved 5 January 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Richard Rhodes (2012). Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Knopf Doubleday.
- Crabb, Brian James (2006). Beyond the Call of Duty: The Loss of British Commonwealth Mercantile and Service Women at Sea During the Second World War. Shaun Tyas: Donington. ISBN 1 900289 66-0.
- Edwards, Paul M. (2010). Between the Lines of World War II: Twenty-One Remarkable People and Events. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-4667-6.
- Jackson, Carlton (2008). Who Will Take Our Children?: The British Evacuation Program of World War II. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-3785-5.
- Tildesley, Kate. Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic. The Second World War Experience Centre. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
- "Official Report on the Sinking of the S.S. City of Benares", October 1940, Imperial War Museum, London.
- Children of the Benares, A War Crime and its Victims, Ralph Barker (Methuen London, 1987 ISBN 0-413-42310-7)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to SS City of Benares.|
- SS City of Benares at Uboat.net
- Memorial painting showing lifeboat
- Sunderland, England memorial service for the dead
- NPR review of book Miracles on the Water
- SS City of Benares ship information page
- British Overseas Evacuations
- Captain Ronald Brook dies - rescued survivors of City of Benares
- An RAF photograph of survivors of the City of Benares in a lifeboat prior to being rescued by HMS Anthony
- IWM Interview with survivor Helen Gurvitch
- IWM Interview with survivor Harry Steels
- IWM Interview with survivor Kenneth Sparks
- IWM Interview with survivor Colin Ryder Richardson
- IWM Interview with survivor Jack Keeley
- IWM Interview with survivor Barbara Partridge
- IWM Interview with survivor Sonia Williams