Wednesday, October 21, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Shattered Innocence: The SS City of Benares

     In case you're wondering why I always seem to write about sunken ships and disasters at sea, my best attempt at an answer is that my interest was piqued with my first taste of history as a child through the story of the Titanic, and throughout my studies I've repeatedly stumbled upon similar tragedies.
     If any of my readers follow History at Western University, you might recognize this week's topic, but I assume most of you understandably do not, so I'll fill you in on how I got acquainted with it!
     A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a gal named Claire Halstead on Twitter who is a PhD candidate at Western researching British child evacuees in Canada during the Second World War. She recently featured excerpts from original letters and quotes of accounts related to the sinking of the ship the SS City of Benares in 1940. I found these tweets to be especially moving and made a mental note to someday research the topic for a blog, but then I saw in the news the other day that Claire successfully defended her dissertation on the topic two days ago and officially earned her PhD. Congratulations, Dr. Halstead, and thanks for inspiring this post!

The Story

      The City of Benares was a steam passenger ship built in 1936 for Ellerman Lines's service between England and India. During the Second World War, she was commissioned as an evacuee ship in a scheme organized by the Children's Overseas Reception Board. According to that scheme, child evacuees from wartime Britain would be transported to Canada.

     On Friday, 13 September, 1940, the City of Benares set sail from Liverpool as part of a convoy bound for Quebec and Montreal. On board were 90 children, 406 crew, and 101 adults including accomplished classical pianist Mary Cornish, who had volunteered as a children's escort, James Baldwin-Webb, a parliamentarian, German human rights lawyer Rudolf Olden and documentary director Ruby Grierson, as well as German writer Monika Mann and a few other significant figures in British politics and academia.

     Late in the evening of 17 September, the ship was sighted by a German U-Boat, U-48 under the command of Kapit√§nleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt. He fired two torpedoes at the City of Benares, which missed, and a third fired early on 18 September struck her in the stern. The order was given to abandon ship, but rough conditions and high winds led to difficulties lowering the lifeboats and several capsized. Within 30 minutes, the SS City of Benares had sunk.
Lowering the lifeboats
     During the attack, another ship in the convoy, the SS Marina, was also torpedoed. 24 hours later, when the SS Hurricane finally arrived to collect survivors, one of the lifeboats from the Marina was mistakenly counted as one from the City of Benares. As a result, Lifeboat 12 spent eight days afloat on the Atlantic Ocean before finally being sighted. 
A letter home from a child who had had "a dreadful time on the lifeboat"

      In total, 260 of the 407 people on board were lost, and only 13 survived of the 90 children who had been evacuated. The sinking was highly controversial and created an outpouring of sympathy for the children who died at the hands of 'barbaric' German actions. The Overseas Evacuation scheme was later abandoned, and official child evacuation efforts were halted.

An excerpt from the Aberdeen Journal, September 23, 1940, with the headline "Children Perish as a Result of Nazi Barbarity"
     The Germans defended the attack as having been on a legitimate military target, and claimed that Britain was to blame for allowing children to travel on such dangerous routes in the first place, as well as their suspicions that the ship was also headed for America to persuade them to enter the war and transport war materials back to England. Bleichrodt was later tried for war crimes related to the incident, but denied any knowledge of the presence of children and refused to apologize. 

     Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the City of Benares tragedy. When studying historical events, it is sometimes easy to forget that they actually happened in real life and affected real people. This makes it difficult at times to connect with the events. However, what really struck me about this story is that there are still people alive today who have very vivid memories of this event, as it is one involving children. Information for this post is courtesy of the Wartime Memories Project, and I encourage anyone with further interest to visit the site and read some of the personal comments and stories from those connected to this tragedy in our history. I'll close with a clipping from the Aberdeen Journal, 23 September 1940, which listed the children lost in the disaster (note that some of them were later found alive on the lifeboats).

Do you think that the ship was considered a legitimate military target for the Germans? Was this tragedy a product of bad luck, having set sail on Friday the 13th? Do you detect a hidden motive, given the nature of the other British and German people on board the ship? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

Wartime Memories Project:
Original newspaper clippings and primary sources courtesy of WreckSite:

Thanks for reading,


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