The Blitz is in full swing in 1940, and English parents are worried about their children and a possible invasion by the Germans.
The Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) organizes the evacuation of children from England. The City of Benares sailed for Canada and carried 90 children evacuated through the CORB program. The children are excited for their journey and especially thrilled with the food on board. The ship is crewed by a mix of English sailors and Indian lascars. The first few days of the voyage are filled with bad weather and seasickness, but everyone settles in to life aboard ship.
What no one knows is they are also being stalked by a German U-boat.
The evening of Sept. 17, the ship believes it is in safe waters. The escort has departed, and they are headed to Canada. That is when the torpedo strikes. The damage is catastrophic, and the ship is sinking fast. To make matters worse, they are in the middle of a storm. The children are all in light-weight pajamas and unprepared for the cold. Everyone heads to their muster stations and the lifeboats, but the high winds and waves cause problems. Some lifeboats capsized, some fill with water and very few are lowered perfectly. Many of the people in the water and the water-logged boats drown or succumb to the elements.
Bess and Beth had become friends during the voyage, and their bond strengthened as they clung to a capsized lifeboat through the night. Jack Keeley was fished out of the water and spent the night clinging to a raft. Marguerite Bech had gotten herself and two of her children, Derek and Sonia, onto a raft. They were eventually picked up by a lifeboat, but they didn't know if other daughter, Barbara, survived. Colin Richardson spent the night watching those around him die from exposure. Johnny Baker spent the night wrapped in sacking and tied to the boat so he didn't float away.
Rescue arrived nearly 24 hours after the City of Benares sank. Those still alive were saved by the hurricane.
Unbeknownst at the time, they mistakenly counted a lifeboat from the Marina, another torpedoed ship, as from the City of Benares. That left lifeboat 12 alone on the cold Atlantic. Lifeboat 12 was actually in good shape, but they only had enough water to last a week for the 40 people on board. The sailors weren't sure when help would arrive so they rationed their supplies. The lifeboat contained sailors and lascars from the City of Benares, but also Father Rory O'Sullivan, Mary Cornish and six of the CORB boys: Fred Steels, Paul Shearing, Ken Sparks, Howard Claytor, Bill Short and Derek Capel.
None of those in lifeboat 12 were prepared for the week they spent drifting at sea.
Two books explore the sinking of the City of Benares and tell the stories of those who survived. "Torpedoed" by Deborah Heiligman explores the events leading up to the torpedo strike and the compelling story of the lucky 13 CORB children who survived the sinking. Heiligman interviewed survivors and there are many personal accounts in addition to the historical details. It can be paired with "Lifeboat 12" by Susan Hood, which is a novel in verse told from Ken Sparks' point of view and details the harrowing days on Lifeboat 12.
Angie Bayne is the children's services manager at Missouri River Regional Library.