City of Benares Memorial 2021
During September 2020 the Brigade would have been holding an exhibition marking the anniversary of the sinking of the City of Benares and also holding a memorial service for those who lost their lives. We have done this every 5 years since becoming the custodians of the Memorial Plaque for the Sunderland children who died. As we cannot do so this year we will commemorate them in a different way.
On 17th September 1940, the SS City of Benares was on its way across the Atlantic carrying some fare-paying passengers but also 90 children who were being evacuated as part of the Government’s scheme to move children out of the country in case of invasion.
Eleven children had travelled from Sunderland to the ship, they included 3 sets of siblings and their ages ranged from 5 to 13 years of age. They were sisters Edith and Irene Smith, brothers Billy and Peter Short, siblings Thomas and Ann Watson, Geoffrey Crawford the oldest in the group, Derek Leigh, Maureen Dixon, Eleanor Wright and Dorothy Wood.
The children and their escorts settled into a routine. The children had the use of part of the deck for games and activities. Best of all was the food – no rationing on board so the children were able to enjoy as much as they wanted.
The morning of Tuesday 17 September was wet and grey with sleeting rain and angry clouds; seasickness returned to many. That night the children retired to bed when, shortly after 10pm, the submarine U-48 released torpedoes and the ship was struck. The explosion was underneath the area where the children slept. Immediately alarm bells rang and all had to get to their lifeboat stations in the dark and chaos. Children helped each other; bunks had collapsed on some; others were injured but almost all made it to the deck. Captain Nicoll sent crew to assess the damage and very soon afterward the order was given to ‘abandon ship’.
The launching of the lifeboats was difficult due to the rough seas and the list of the ship. Some lifeboats tipped as they were lowered dropping adults and children into the icy cold water. Others were swamped as soon as they reached the sea. Siblings and friends were separated. Mary Cornish, an escort, was directed to Lifeboat 12. She saw that there were 6 boys in this so she felt it was her duty to look after them.
Most people in the lifeboats were very cold and very wet; in some the water was up to their waists and bailing had little effect in the rough seas. There were also many people in the water; some managed to get to lifeboats or were pulled onto rafts but many were just swept away. Sunderland schoolgirl Eleanor Wright gave an account of how Sunderland scout Geoffrey Crawford had leaned over the side of his boat to try to rescue a boy, Louis Walder. He pulled him into the boat but then a wave came and Geoffrey was swept over the side and the current dragged him away; he was not seen again. Eleanor was the only child to survive in her boat out of 13 children.
Once the disaster was known HMS Hurricane was detailed to go the area to search for survivors but it was the following day before she arrived. The crew of HMS Hurricane carefully plotted a course so that no lifeboats were missed but the cold had taken its toll particularly on the children and most had already died.
Survivors were taken to the mess deck where it was warm and the ship’s doctor attempted to revive those who were barely alive. Sadly three young boys who had been rescued died that night and were buried at sea the following morning.
On Friday 20th September the Hurricane docked at Greenock. Of the 90 evacuee children, only seven had been picked up and lived; these included Eleanor Wright of Sunderland.
What was not known was that one lifeboat was missing. This was lifeboat 12; it had had a smoother launch and had not been swamped with water. The search from HMS Hurricane had found 12 lifeboats, the number carried on the ship, but one of these was from HMS Marina which had also been torpedoed; it was not realised that one boat carrying children had not been found. This boat was thirty feet long and into it forty-six people were crammed.
In the boat were 6 evacuee boys and two of their escorts, Mary Cornish and Father Rory O’Sullivan. The boys were Derek Capel, 12; Kenneth Sparks, 11; Howard Clayton, 11; Paul Shearing, 11; Freddie Steels, 11 and Billy Short, 9 from Sunderland. It was bitterly cold. No one was dressed to withstand a storm in the North Atlantic in an open boat. The boys wore pyjamas and the kapok life jackets in which, luckily, they had slept.
For a few days, they were subject to gale force winds, rain squalls and mountainous seas. Early on the fourth day, the storm eased and they set sail on an easterly course hoping to reach the coast of Ireland or Scotland. Muscle cramps and claustrophobia affected everyone. The boys were encouraged to suck buttons in an attempt to ease their throats. On the 7th day at noon the steward handed out the water ration – this was the last time they would have water at noon. The next day the ration was to be halved.
At about 1pm on Wednesday 25th, a small speck was noticed in the sky. This plane, a Sunderland Flying Boat, was returning to base when the crew spotted the lifeboat. Reporting their find the Navy directed HMS Anthony to go at full speed to the area. In the meantime planes dropped supplies to the lifeboat - soup and beans kept warm in a Thermos, canned fruits and cigarettes. The passengers drained every drop of juice and sauce from the cans. As soon as the rescue ship was in sight flares were set off and the Anthony drew closer. The Royal Navy had arrived – they were saved! The boys were lifted on board the destroyer, Paul Shearing, who was in the worst condition, was taken to the sickbay while the other boys were taken to the mess and given warm milk and porridge. They were then able to take a bath and were kitted out in clothes loaned to them by the sailors. They docked at Gourock a few days later to great rejoicing; Billy Short’s parents travelled to meet him.
The sinking of the City of Benares with the huge loss of young lives brought the overseas evacuation scheme to an end.
As the years pass by it becomes increasingly important that the story of this disaster is remembered and that the young lives so tragically lost are not forgotten.
The steamship had left Liverpool on 13 September on its 2,500 mile voyage
Mary Cornish took charge of the six children in lifeboat 12 for eight days before a flying boat spotted them. During that time she told stories to the children, massaged their frozen limbs and encouraged them to exercise to resist the bitter cold. She was honoured with an OBE for her actions