The Germans were running rampant in 1940. They’d destroyed Rotterdam. London, it seemed, was next. An ambitious plan to evacuate 210,000 British children to Canada, New Zealand and Australia began, including a group of ninety children sailing to Canada on September 13. They never made it, and the Children’s Overseas Reception Board was disbanded.
|A prewar postcard of the City of Benares|
The City of Benares was an 11,000-ton ship of Ellerman’s City Line. In peacetime, it ran a route to India. Indians made up the crew, dressed in turbans, sashes, and shoes that curled up at the toe. They bowed to the ninety young refugees, called them Little Madam and Little Sir.
Said one evacuee, “They looked after us just wonderfully well. We were in seventh heaven. We felt we’d stepped into the Arabian Nights.” They received an immediate tour of the ship. Girls roomed on one side of the ship; boys on the other. An amazing array of food unavailable or rationed at home awaited them. They feasted on ham, not Spam. And chocolate, hardly ever seen in England. Fresh fruit―apples, bananas, grapes, oranges, pears―were theirs for the asking.
The City of Benares led nineteen ships in convoy OB 213, sailing at the head of the center column. The other ships were smaller and slower. They did not zigzag. After four days, their naval escort turned back to accompany an inbound convoy. That night, the convoy was spotted by German submarine U-48.
The children had been put to bed early. They were traveling in a force eight gale that caused the ship to pitch and roll. Just after midnight, a violent explosion rocked the ship worse than the storm. They’d been torpedoed.
People struggled in the steeply listing ship to reach the boat deck. Launching the lifeboats was difficult in the stormy weather. The lifeboats swung against the ship, overturned in the sea, and were overcrowded. The other ships did not stop to help, scattering instead, as standard procedure to avoid becoming another victim. The City of Benares sank in 30 minutes.
Late the next day, the HMS Hurricane arrived and picked up survivors. Of 407 people on board, 260 died. Out of 134 passengers, 77 were child evacuees. Only 13 child evacuees survived the sinking.
Two weeks earlier, another evacuation ship had been torpedoed. All of the 320 children aboard had been rescued by other ships. With the loss of the City of Benares, the government canceled the program.
After the war, the commander of U-48 was tried for war crimes in the sinking. Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt denied any prior knowledge of the presence of children, and refused to apologize for the sinking, stating his actions were within the bounds of military policy. His argument was accepted. Several of his crewmen expressed their shock and regret when it became known that the ship they’d sunk had been carrying children. They reaffirmed there was no way that the submarine could have known who was on board.