Outrage and horror greeted the tragic news that a ship carrying child evacuees from Britain to Canada had been sunk by a German U-boat on September 18th, 1940.
With the war just over a year old, Britain was becoming accustomed to many of its horrors, including the ‘blitz’ bombing of cities and the ever-present threat of invasion, but the loss of so many children was a bitter blow.
Of the 90 child evacuees aboard the SS City of Benares, just 13 survived, with the remaining 77 either drowned or dying from exposure while awaiting rescue. In total, 260 of the 407 people aboard the steam passenger ship lost their lives when it was torpedoed by the German submarine U-48. Also among those who died were many people who had volunteered as ‘escorts’ to look after the children during the voyage to Canada.
The ship was only five years old when she sailed from Liverpool on September 13th, bound for the Canadian ports of Quebec and Montreal. She was part of a convoy – a tactic designed to offer some protection from the German U-boats known to be patrolling the Atlantic to disrupt shipping between Britain and North America.
Although America had not yet entered the war, it had agreements to supply Britain with food and military supplies to sustain its people and strengthen its defences against possible invasion. This, claimed the Germans, made all shipping between the two nations a valid target.
Late on the evening of September 17th, SS City of Benares was sighted by U-48, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt, one of the most successful U-boat commanders of the war. After shadowing the convoy for some time, he took up position and fired two torpedoes at the City of Benares which, as the flagship of the convoy sailing at the head of its centre column, presented the most obvious target.
Both torpedoes missed, but just after midnight U-48 fired another, which this time hit home. It exploded in the ship’s stern, causing so much damage that it soon became obvious the ship would sink. With most passengers asleep in their bunks when the torpedo hit, there were just minutes to get people up onto the decks and ready for evacuation.
Lowering lifeboats on the weather side of the ship proved difficult as she began to list, but by 20 minutes after the attack, the vessel had been abandoned. Around 10 minutes later, she sank. Scores of people died in the initial explosion or drowned as water rushed into the holed ship. Those who survived now found themselves in open lifeboats in a rough Atlantic swell around 420 miles off the coast of Scotland.
It would be 24 hours before the British Destroyer HMS Hurricane arrived at the scene to begin picking up survivors. By then many of those in the lifeboats had died from exposure to the bitter cold. The children, many still in their nightclothes, were the most vulnerable.
Even then the ordeal was not over for around 40 survivors, including six evacuee boys, in one of the lifeboats, which was missed by the rescuers. They remained adrift in the Atlantic for eight days before being spotted from the air and eventually rescued by another Royal Navy destroyer.
In Britain there was an outpouring of sympathy for those who had lost children in the sinking of the City of Benares. It was a bitter irony that children being taken away from the horrors of war became victims of it. The allies criticised the sinking as “barbaric” and “dastardly”, but the Germans countered that the British Government should not have allowed children to travel on such ships in a war zone. It claimed the same ship would be used to transport military supplies on its return trip from Canada.
Horror at the loss of life was so great that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cancelled the Children’s Overseas Reception Board – the government-sponsored organisation responsible for evacuating children overseas and placing them with volunteer host families. It had already evacuated more than 2,600 children, but around 24,000 more who were registered with the scheme – including some already on ships awaiting departure – were told they could not go because the journey was too hazardous.
Anger was also directed at the Admiralty over the way the convoy was operated. At the time of the attack, its Royal Navy escorts were detached from the main convoy, which was not taking any evasive action. Despite carrying the evacuee children, the City of Benares was positioned at the head of the convoy, making it the prime target for attack. All these facts were criticised at the official inquiry into the sinking.
Despite the obvious dangers, many wealthier British families continued to privately evacuate their children overseas during the war. It is estimated that around 14,000 were sent abroad, mostly to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, staying either with relatives of volunteer host families.