I am particularly moved by this story which graphically demonstrates the caring nature of people placed in extreme danger. We cannot comprehend what the victims of this disaster went through – many died but the surviving children were tenderly cared for as they awaited rescue.
The sinking of the passenger liner City of Benares with the loss of 81 of 100 children on board brought home the ruthlessness of German U-boat submarines to newspaper readers and radio listeners all over the world.
The 11,081-ton Ellerman Line ship left Liverpool on 13 September 1940 as leading vessel on the19-strong convoy OB213. Ninety of the child passengers were part of a government scheme to evacuate them from heavily-bombed British cities to the safety of North America.
On 17 September the convoy’s naval escort ships had left to accompany another convoy. Some hours later the City of Benares was spotted and torpedoed by the German U48 submarine.
There were more than 400 people on board and 250, including the children, were lost. As a result, the evacuation of children by sea was scrapped.
The attack came during a period of the Second World War known to the U-boat commanders as the Happy Time. This came after the fall of France in June 1940 when the Germans were able to use the French Atlantic ports as bases.
This allowed U-boats to reach far out into the Atlantic and the Mediterranean for the first time. Germany soon began to wage unrestrained U-boat warfare around Britain’s coast.
Despite the continuing shortage of submarines and air support, the U-boat fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Karl Dönitz became increasingly successful. For the first time, small U-boat pack attacks were used with devastating effect against still largely unprotected British convoys.
On display at Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery is a contemporary newspaper report of the City of Benares disaster under the headline “Hitler’s Worst Crime”.
A photograph (pictured) shows five of six boy survivors who were rescued after spending eight days in a crowded open lifeboat. They are pictured being given piggy-back rides by rescuing sailors.
Another shows a heroine of the disaster, accomplished classical pianist and music teacher Mary Cornish who had volunteered as a children’s escort. She was awarded the MBE for looking after the six small boys during their horrific lifeboat journey.
Miss Cornish, from London, calmed the terrified children by telling them: “It’s all right, it’s only a torpedo.”
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).
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