By Mark Carlson
In the summer of 1940, the world watched with rapt attention as the citizens, airmen, sailors, and soldiers of Great Britain steeled themselves for imminent invasion by the victorious German Army. From July 31 to September 15, the daily air raids by the Luftwaffe rained death and destruction on airfields and cities.
Only the determined efforts of Royal Air Force Fighter Command denied the Luftwaffe its objective—air superiority. In the end, the German air raids were nothing more than vengeful reprisals against an implacable British spirit that refused to die. Hundreds of young and brave airmen had been lost while Britain fought on, but not all of those who died were combatants, or even adults. Some were innocent children doomed to die a cold and terrifying death far out to sea during what they thought was a great adventure.
On June 17, three weeks after the evacuation of Dunkirk, Under Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Geoffrey Shakespeare had formed the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), which developed a means to evacuate children from the British Isles to relatives overseas. CORB, which was sanctioned by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet, was intended to save as many children as possible from starvation or death. The government would cover most of the cost of transportation. Applications were arranged through schools and churches.
In two months more than 211,000 children were registered with CORB. While traveling they would be accompanied by one teacher and one nurse for every 15 children. Traveling without passports, they were issued CORB numbered luggage tags and ID tags. The relocation was meant as a temporary measure, and the evacuees would be returned home after the end of the war.
By August, 24,000 children with 1,000 adult volunteers were ready to be sent across the sea. Canada would receive the largest percentage, followed by Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Others were bound for the United States. Ocean liners provided by several shipping companies would join organized convoys in Liverpool and sail west.
Parents, who were understandably concerned for the safety of their children, were assured by CORB representatives that the ships would be escorted by Royal Navy warships. That was true, but only up to a point.
The Royal Navy had to stretch its assets as far as possible. With dozens of convoys on the open sea, 1,000 miles of coastline to patrol, and few experienced crews, priority was given to the protection of the Home Islands. But the threat of German submarines was deemed slight. Prior to the fall of France, German U-boats had sailed from Kiel and Wilhelmshaven on the Baltic coast of Germany and could not range far out into the North Atlantic for long periods. However, the Kriegsmarine quickly established U-boat flotillas in western France at the port cities of St. Nazaire, Lorient, Brest, and La Rochelle, adding greatly to the U-boats’ range. By August the undersea predators could stay on patrol in the North Atlantic for many days, and they were even able to reach the East Coast of the United States.
Given the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, no vessel, even an unarmed passenger liner, was safe.
Bess Walder was a 15-year-old London schoolgirl. She and her younger brother Louis had been among the first children to be registered for the CORB program. Her parents, Bernard and Rosina Walder, had followed the events on the Continent as far back as the Spanish Civil War. Stories of terrible atrocities and barbarism from Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and France left little doubt as to what lay in store for innocent civilians if the Nazis came. Finally, the letter from the CORB arrived. When the children were told they would be taking a ship to Canada, they were ecstatic with joy.
“Wonderful! When can we go?” exclaimed nine-year-old Louis, who thought it would be a great adventure and imagined he might see real cowboys and Indians.
On the morning of September 9, Bess and Louis, carrying their single small suitcases, were taken to Euston Station and boarded a train. Rosina hugged her daughter and said, “Now grow up to be a good girl.” Then she wept while her husband told Bess, “Look out for your brother.” Bess, not understanding the pain her parents were feeling, said she would.
After several train delays due to bombing, they arrived in the port city of Liverpool on September 11 and were directed to a large hall with hundreds of straw mattresses on the floor. A girl of Bess’ age, Beth Cummings was a Liverpudlian whose widowed mother was determined to get her daughter to Canada. The two girls became friends.
Colin Richardson, an 11-year-old from North London was wearing a thick red jacket made by his mother. It was stuffed with Kapok to make it into a lifejacket. “Never take this off,” she told him as they said their goodbyes.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, the children were herded down the streets to the docks, where the ships of Convoy OB-213 were preparing to depart. Bess, Louis, and Beth stared wide eyed at the huge vessel towering over the dock, the Ellerman City Line’s SS City of Benares.
Queen of the England to India run, the ship was an 11,080-ton, 480-foot liner launched in 1935. She was known for her speed, which was her best defense against submarines, and was painted a dusky brown for camouflage. Some of her stewards were dressed in turbans, blue sashes, and pointed slippers to amuse the children on their first sea voyage. Bess remembered that the stewards called them “Little Madams” and “Little Sirs.” The liner was still fitted out for the comfort of her passengers. Among them was Mary Cornish, a concert pianist and CORB escort.
On Friday, September 13, the City of Benares, one of 20 ships in Convoy OB-212, left Liverpool for Quebec and Montreal. On board were 191 passengers, 90 of whom were children, along with 216 officers and crew.
Convoy OB-213 was commanded by Rear Admiral E.J.G. Mackinnon, who chose the City of Benares as his flagship. Captain Landles Nicoll maintained the lead position in the center line of the westbound convoy.
The children were given tours of the ship and shown their cabins. Each one was told where their lifeboat station was and how to put on the bulky lifebelts. Yet even with the dark reality of the danger that awaited them, few children felt any fear. Bess shared a cabin with two other girls. Comfortable bunks, wardrobes, and clean bathrooms were provided. The boys, who included Louis Walder, Fred Steels, and Paul Shearing, all not yet 12 years of age, occupied the port cabins, while the girls were on the starboard side of the ship.
The destroyer HMS Winchelsea and two armed sloops comprised OB-213’s escort. After the convoy had rounded the northwestern tip of Ireland, a large aircraft was seen to the south. It was a German Focke-Wulf FW-200 Condor reconnaissance plane on patrol, looking for convoys. Mackinnon and Nicoll knew their chances of avoiding German submarines had greatly diminished. The passengers and children were given lifeboat drills and told to sleep in their lifebelts.
On the morning of September 17, OB-213 reached 17 degrees longitude, where the escorts were ordered to join an incoming convoy. From that point on the ships of OB-213 were undefended. But the news that the RAF had claimed 180 German planes two days before only bolstered the spirits of the passengers and crews of the 18 remaining ships.
At 8 pm, 41-year-old Mary Cornish put the 15 girls in her care to bed and went to meet her friends for coffee in the lounge. After a couple of hours they decided to walk out on deck. At 10:02 pm, 250 miles off Rockall, Ireland, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt, commanding U-48, a Type VIIB U-boat nine days out of Lorient, found OB-213.
A storm had been building all day, and by 11 pm the rain was slicing across the ship, driven by a bitter wind. A Force 10 gale was building. The ocean’s crenellated gray surface made it impossible to see a periscope, but an attack was unlikely during a storm. Bleichrodt, who would soon become known for his aggressiveness, continued stalking the convoy and chose the largest ship in the center line, the City of Benares, as his target.
With the weather steadily growing worse, U-48 was able to approach undetected. At 11:45 pm, Bleichrodt fired two torpedoes from his bow tubes. Both missed the ship, and the lookouts failed to see them in the turbulent waves. At one minute after midnight, Bleichrodt fired again. This torpedo struck the City of Benares on her port side just under the children’s sleeping quarters. The ship was mortally wounded. The torpedo destroyed a large area under the main deck, ruptured steam and water lines, and damaged the generators. The cold Atlantic rushed in.
Mary Cornish was just stepping down to the main deck when she heard a loud thump and the entire ship shuddered. Suddenly, the stairway and corridor below were cluttered with fallen debris and water. She realized her girls were in danger and pushed her way along the dark corridor to reach them.
Young Bess Walder was asleep when the torpedo hit. Instantly she was awake, knowing what had happened. The three-berth room was heaving from the ship’s increasing list. The wardrobe door fell open, dumping things on the deck. She tried to get the girl in the lower bunk to awaken, but she refused, not recognizing the danger.
In one of the boys’ cabins, 11-year-old Fred Steels fell from his bunk and was instantly trapped under the fallen wardrobe. He heard alarms sounding and managed to force his way free. At the sink, water was spraying from burst pipes. The boy yelled to the others, “We’ve been hit!” However, like Bess’ roommates, they were slow to respond. Finally, Paul Shearing rose from the lower bunk, and the boys put on their lifebelts. With another boy they made their way out to the corridor. It was already crowded with running and screaming passengers and crew.
They had to get to the lifeboats, but every step was like climbing up a mountain in an earthquake. When they reached the upper deck, Steels saw a huge smoking hole in the deck. A dirty seaman picked him and Shearing up and threw them into a lifeboat.
Colin Richardson was reading a penny novel in his bunk when he heard the torpedo explode underneath his cabin. At first he thought the ship had collided with another, but the familiar scent of explosives told him it was a torpedo. He had been through German air raids before being sent to Surrey to live with his grandparents.
Fourteen-year-old Beth Cummings thought she was having a bad dream, but when she awoke to alarms and loud crashing sounds she tried to turn on the light. It did not work. That was when she realized the deck was slanted. The ship was sinking. She got into her lifebelt and reached the corridor, finding Bess already there. “We have to get to the boats,” she said, trying to be heard in the din of alarms and shouting. The two girls helped a third girl named Joan, who was very seasick.
Bess had lost her little brother, Louis. She had to find him, but in all the chaos she did not know where to look. The children were trying to do what they had been told about reaching the lifeboats, but the drill had been done in daylight on calm seas and without panic.
The boat deck was totally different from what they had seen a few days earlier. The lurching ship’s motion caused the hanging lifeboats to swing wildly in their davits while the crew tried to fill and launch them. Some adults were hysterical, while others remained calm and helped the children.
On the port side, the boats swung far away from the side of the ship, while those on the high starboard side were almost impossible to lower as they caught on the ship’s rivets. Cornish managed to corral some of her girls and get them into their assigned boat. She went below again to look for her last girl but was unable to find her.
Boat No. 2, carrying Colin Richardson still wearing the red jacket his mother had given him, was lowered into the water. As soon as it touched the waves, it was swamped, staying afloat only because of its buoyancy cells. Colin was sitting in freezing water up to his neck.
On the port side Boat No. 8, nearly overloaded, swung back and forth at the end of the falls and smashed into the unyielding side of the ship. Nearly every person in the boat was thrown into the heaving waves. One of them was young Louis Walder. He struggled to stay afloat until an older boy named George Crawford managed to pull him back aboard. When George tried to pull another child out, he fell overboard and was lost.
Fifteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the City of Benares was almost gone. The lifeboats were being tossed in the storm like corks. In water-filled Boat No. 8, four of the crewmen who had been working feverishly to bail succumbed to the cold and died. Young Colin helped to lift them from the boat and over the side. Removing the bodies helped to keep the boat afloat. An elderly nurse next to Colin sank into despair and listlessness. Colin tried to comfort her and keep her awake.
Beth and Bess had managed to stay together. The crew herded them into Boat No. 5 on the starboard side. One of the last boats to be lowered, it was grossly overloaded. When it hit the water, it was almost immediately swamped. Then a heavy wave flipped it over, and everyone was dumped into the sea. Bess and Beth, choking on seawater forced into their mouths and nostrils by the wind, struggled to stay afloat. Bess was a good swimmer and tried to find the boat. She saw it in the dim light, managing to reach it and cling with numbed hands to the keel. And then she saw her friend Beth also holding desperately to the clinker planking. She saw a dozen other pairs of hands hanging on to the wet planks.
By the time Cornish was back on the boat deck her boat was gone. An officer ordered her to go to Boat No. 12, already filled with men and boys. She resolved to take care of them.
Number 12 was the last boat launched. It reached the water as the doomed City of Benares heeled far over and seemed to be descending like a huge steel cliff. The men began to pump the steel Flemings cranks that drove the lifeboat’s propeller and move it to the relative safety of open water.
Among the boys were Fred Steels and Paul Shearing.
Steels, freezing in the wind and spray, saw what the men were doing and bent to add his tiny weight to the task. At least it would keep him warm.
Cornish comforted and held a young boy who was shivering violently from cold and fear. As she rubbed his shoulders, she saw men and women in the water, some waving for help while others floated limply in their lifebelts. Already many of the ship’s passengers and crew had died, either from the explosion, drowning, or exposure to the near-freezing water. Cornish felt deep despair but tried not to show it. Holding the boy, she said in a soothing voice, “Don’t worry, it’s only a torpedo.”
Just then the glare of a searchlight cut through the dark night, spreading pools of light on the stormy seas. U-48 had moved into the area to see the results of its attack. At 12:30 am as Bleichrodt watched, the City of Benares sank, taking Mackinnon, Nicoll, and more than 250 others with her.
U-48 moved away, searching for more targets. Bleichrodt had no way of knowing he had sunk a ship carrying 90 children.
Back in Liverpool, the Royal Navy’s Office of Western Approaches copied a message that a ship in Convoy OB-213 had been torpedoed. The eastbound destroyer HMS Hurricane was ordered, “Proceed with utmost dispatch to position 56.43 North, 21.15 West, where survivors are reported in boats.”
Lieutenant Commander Crofton Simms immediately ordered his destroyer to make a 180-degree turn to the west and headed for the position. It was 300 miles away.
The weather was horrible. Even as the first storm abated, giving the weakened swimmers and people in the boats a glimmer of hope, a new, stronger storm came in. It scattered the boats and caused the swimmers to swallow seawater as their strength ebbed.
Bess and Beth and 10 other survivors tried to climb higher on their overturned boat, but their fingers were too numb to do more than hang on. One by one, other pairs of hands lost their grip and fell away until only Bess, Beth, and two Indian crewmen were left. There was no food, no drinking water, and no rescue in sight. However, Bess was not going to give up. Beth thought of her mother, now alone. She too was determined to live.
HMS Hurricane reached the area by mid-afternoon. The crew readied the longboats and skiffs and gathered blankets and slings to lift survivors. Lookouts clad in heavy foul-weather gear were posted on the bow and mast.
Simms heard calls of “Boat in the water!” The storm was still strong but seemed to be slacking off. Rescuers stopped alongside the first boat. Inside were only corpses. Each tiny body was carried in the arms of a Royal Navy sailor, weeping in sorrow. With deepening fear, Hurricane moved on to the next boat, No. 11 with 20 drenched survivors. Only two of 15 CORB children were still alive. One of them was Louis Walder.
These survivors were lifted by strong but gentle hands into the slings and up the ladders aboard the destroyer. Sailors threw woolen blankets over them and dispensed hot tea as they led them into warm and dry rooms where a surgeon tended to them. The children were given the officers’ quarters to sleep in.
Boat No. 9, which had carried 33 people, had only eight still alive. Colin Richardson was carried aboard. He was totally numb below the waist and wore only his pajamas and the red jacket that had saved his life.
The searchers finally reached the overturned boat with Bess and Beth hanging onto the keel. A Navy coxswain named Albert Gorman reached out to Bess. “Come on, darling, let go.” But the girls’ hands were so stiff they had to be carefully pried loose. Then the two girls were gently lifted into the boat and taken back to the ship.
Hurricane rescued 117 survivors. Simms stayed in the area for several more hours, but he finally turned east to Scotland.
Bess became despondent despite her rescue. She had lost her brother Louis and would never know what had happened to him. “I promised my parents I’d take care of him,” she wailed.
The next day the door to her room opened and in stepped Simms. “Sit up, miss. I’ve got a present for you.”
Behind him was Louis, safe and sound. He had not known Bess was on board. While being given a tour of the ship he recognized Bess’ dressing gown, and Simms realized they had both Walder children.
As Hurricane sped away the sea appeared empty but for scattered bits of floating wreckage, deck chairs, lifebelts, and broken planking, but there was still one more lifeboat out there, No. 12 carrying Mary Cornish, five boys, and 40 adults had not been seen. The storm had scattered the boats far and wide, and the broad gray-green swells hid the tiny craft from view. Steels, trying to remain brave, saw bodies in the water, and some of them were children.
For the next seven days the lone boat drifted aimlessly. The only officer, Ronnie Cooper, rationed out the small supply of water and tinned biscuits. The days dragged by. The pitiful human cargo grew weaker and weaker. On the eighth day, just after noon, a lone RAF Short Sunderland flying boat flew overhead. Low on fuel, it could not land, but Cooper knew it had seen them. Fifteen minutes later another plane flew low and dropped supplies and a note saying help was on the way.
On Thursday, September 26, the destroyer HMS Anthony found the lifeboat. The 46 survivors in Boat No. 12 were the last to be rescued.
Bess and Louis Walder were the only brother and sister to be rescued. Some families had lost two, three, and four children. A family named Grumman lost all five of its children. The final death toll among the 90 CORB children aboard the City of Benares was 77, ranging from six to 15 years old.
No more shiploads of children were sent overseas.
Bess Walder became a teacher and headmistress and later married Jeff Cummings, Beth’s brother.
By the end of the war Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt had sunk 24 ships, totaling more than 124,000 gross tons. He was charged with war crimes at Nuremburg, including the sinking of SS City of Benares. Bleichrodt maintained that the ship was a legitimate target and his actions were appropriate. Some of his crew expressed shock at the loss of the children.
Historians maintain that there was no way Bleichrodt could have known of the CORB evacuees on board the doomed ship. Such is the tragedy of war.
Author Mark Carlson has written on numerous topics related to World War II and the history of aviation. His book Flying on Film: A Century of Aviation in the Movies 1912-2012 was recently released. He resides in San Diego, California.