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SS City of Benares

Coordinates: 56°43′N 21°15′W / 56.717°N 21.250°W / 56.717; -21.250
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City of Benares during her sea trials
United Kingdom
NameCity of Benares
NamesakeBenares (now Varanasi)
OwnerEllerman Lines Ltd, London
OperatorEllerman City Line Ltd
Port of registryGlasgow
RoutePeacetime: Liverpool - Mumbai, Karachi, Colombo, Madras, and Calcutta via Suez Canal or South Africa Wartime: Liverpool - Montreal, Quebec, and New York City
BuilderBarclay, Curle & Co, Whiteinch, Glasgow
Yard number656
Launched5 August 1936
CompletedOctober 1936
Acquired15 October 1936
Maiden voyage24 October 1936
In service24 October 1936
Refit3 September 1939
  • Benares
  • The Children's Ship
  • The Children's Liner
FateSunk by submarine on 17 September 1940
General characteristics
TypeOcean liner
Displacement17,000 tons
  • 509 ft (155.1 m) overall
  • 486.1 ft (148.2 m) registered
Beam62.7 ft (19.1 m)
Draught28 ft 5+34 in (8.68 m)
PropulsionThree Cammell Laird steam turbines (1,450 hp (1,080 kW)), single reduction geared driving a single steel screw
Speed15 knots (28 km/h; 17 mph) recommended 17.75 knots (32.87 km/h; 20.43 mph) maximum reached
Capacity219 passengers (single class)
ArmamentDEMS (wartime)

SS City of Benares was a British steam turbine ocean liner, built for Ellerman Lines by Barclay, Curle & Co of Glasgow in 1936.[1] During the Second World War, City of Benares was used as an evacuee ship to transport 90 children from Britain to Canada. German submarine U-48 sank her by torpedoes in September 1940 with the loss of 260 people out of a complement of 408,[2][3] including the death of 77 of the evacuated children. The sinking caused such public outrage in Britain that it led to Winston Churchill cancelling the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) plan to relocate British children abroad.[4]

Pre-war history


City of Benares was built by Barclay Curle in Glasgow, Scotland. She was launched on 5 August 1936,[5] and completed in October 1936. Benares, as she was known, was 509 feet (155 meters) long, with a beam of 62 feet 7 inches (19.08 m) and draught of 30 feet 8 inches (9.35 m). Powered by three steam turbines, which were supplied by Cammell Laird.[6] They were oil-fired and drove a single screw via single-reduction gearing,[7] giving her a speed of 15 knots (28 km/h), though, amazingly, during her trials she achieved a speed of 17.75 knots (32.87 km/h), without excessively pressing the turbines.[5] Her maiden voyage departed on 24 October 1936 from Liverpool to Bombay via Marseille, Suez and Karachi.[5] Her return voyage departed on 7 December 1936, with a full cargo of Indian produce.[5] Since the beginning of her maiden voyage to the sailing of City of Port Elizabeth in 1952, she was the largest and most modern ship in the Ellerman fleet. She was also the only ship in Ellerman lines that had more than one funnel (though her forward funnel was a dummy). She was managed by City Line Ltd on behalf of her owners, Ellerman Lines Ltd.[7] The UK official number was 164096 and her call sign was GZBW.[7]

Second World War


When war was declared on Germany by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 3 September 1939, Benares was on her way to England, having just finished her usual cruise to India. When the news of war reached the ship she was immediately re-routed to Cape Town, South Africa. There, all passengers disembarked, the ship was fitted out with a stern deck gun (for defensive purposes), and she was painted naval grey to camouflage her from enemy U-boats. When Benares sailed again, she had no passengers, and looked completely different, and arguably less attractive.[8]

Later in May 1940, Ellerman Lines decided to provide three of its largest passenger ships, Benares, City of Paris, and City of Simla, for the CORB to evacuate children. These three liners were fitted out for war service, and by August Benares, Simla, and Paris were ready for service. This would be Benares' first Atlantic-crossing.[9] On 10 September 1940, Paris set sail with 45 CORB children, bound for Cape Town.

Final voyage


On Friday, 13 September 1940 Benares left Liverpool, England, sailing in Convoy OB 213, bound for Montreal, with 408 people — 90 CORB children (ages five to fifteen), their ten escorts (3 men, 7 women), 91 fare-paying passengers (including ten children and forty-three women), 6 convoy representatives, 168 Indian Lascars (the catering crew was from Portuguese Goa) and 43 British crew (including five women).[9] She was under the command of Captain Landles Nicoll, 51 and the commodore of the convoy, Admiral Edmond J. G. Mackinnon, 60. Because she was the lead ship of the convoy, she was placed in the centre column, column 5.[9] The convoy had the protection of a destroyer, HMS Winchelsea, accompanied by two corvettesHMS Gloxinia and HMS Gladiolus.[10]

Some of the CORB children could rightly be called refugees. Two of the children, Patricia (Pat) Allen (of Liverpool), twelve, and Michael Brooker (of Kent), ten, called 'veterans' by the other children, had survived the U-boat attack on Volendam, which had been carrying 321 CORB children, 31 escorts, 255 other passengers, and 273 crew.[11] U-60 hit Volendam with two torpedoes, only one of which detonated. The other was found later in the ship's bow. The ship did not sink, but all the passengers were still evacuated in eighteen lifeboats.[9] Fortunately, there was only one casualty, the ship's purser, Rijk Baron, who fell between a lifeboat and the ship, and subsequently drowned.[12] Patricia Allen came home to discover her house had been destroyed, while Michael Brooker's had an unexploded bomb in it.[10]

The Grimmond home in Brixton had been bombed too, so Edward Grimmond and his wife, Hannah, decided to send five of their eleven children off to Sherwood Lane School in Liverpool (where the CORB children were staying before they boarded Benares).[11] They were Augusta (Gussie), thirteen; Violet, ten; Constance (Connie), nine; Edward (Eddie), eight; and Leonard (Lenny), five.[9] These children had been on the reserve list but when the escorts saw the ordeal the children had been through, they took them off the reserve list and added them to the list of children who would be sailing on Benares. It was a decision they would regret for the rest of their lives.[9]

The six escorts assigned to care for CORB children were Miss Mary Cornish, 41, an accomplished pianist who taught lessons; Miss Sybil Gilliat-Smith, 25, a preschool teacher, accomplished artist, and ambulance driver during air raids. Mrs. Maud Hillman, 44, an infant teacher; Mr. Michael Rennie, 23, who felt a calling to the church and was going to go into theology after the trip; Reverend William Henry King, 28, an Anglican cleric; and Father Roderick (Rory) O'Sullivan, 32, a Roman Catholic priest. Accompanying the escorts who cared for the children were senior escort Miss Marjorie Day, 53 and a teacher at a private girls school; reserve escort Mrs. Lilian Towns, 30, an ambulance driver from New Zealand, plus doctor Mrs. Margaret Zeal, 30, and her assistant, as nurse, Miss Dorothy Smith, 28.[11] Two of the paying passengers, Anne Fleetwood-Hesketh (the mother of Roger Fleetwood-Hesketh) and movie director, Ruby Grierson (the sister of John Grierson), also spent their day with the children. Mrs. Fleetwood-Hesketh had volunteered early on in the voyage to help with the children, while Grierson filmed the children for a new movie about the government evacuation of children.[9]

Among the paying passengers were some twenty foreign passengers, several of whom were fleeing from the Nazis. Many had made heart-wrenching escapes, in which they had to leave their families behind. Helen Schoenbach, a twenty-two year old German girl, had escaped from Germany with her family, now she had to leave them in England.[13] She remembered the streets in Germany, Catholics, Jews, Slavs and the other so called 'inferior races' being taken away by soldiers, either to be killed or to work in death camps and concentration camps.[13] One of the passengers, Mrs. Amelie von Ingersleben, a German Baroness and Author, had managed to cleverly escape from a concentration camp.[9][14]

Among the paying passengers, ten of whom were the young sons and daughters of civilians, were the British Parliamentarian, Colonel James Baldwin-Webb, on his way to Canada to help with the Red Cross.[9] Rudolf Olden, a German author, was forced to sail to North America, as he had been exiled from Germany for criticizing Hitler in his newspaper.[9] With him was his wife Ika, though their daughter, Mary Olden, had been sent ahead of them on another passenger liner.[9] Monika Lanyi, daughter of the famed German writer Thomas Mann (who had also been exiled from Germany) was traveling with her husband, Jeno.[9] Alderman William Golightly, of the Northumberland Miners' Association, was on his way to a business meeting.[9] Also aboard was the playwright, Arthur Wimperis, 65 and the fashion couple Henry and Phyllis Digby-Morton.[9]

The ten children among the fare-paying passengers included the three Bech children — Barbara, fourteen; Sonia, eleven; and Derek, nine — were travelling with their mother Marguerite.[11] They were leaving their home in Bognor Regis, while their father, Emil, would stay in London to continue his Danish porcelain business.[11] Patricia (Pat) Bulmer, fourteen, was traveling with her school-friend, Dorothy Galliard, fifteen, and her mother, Alice Bulmer; she was leaving her home in Wallasey.[9] Lawrence and Patricia Croasdaile, two and nine, were traveling with their mother Florence, an American woman, to live with their grandmother in Canada because their father had been captured by the Nazis when his ship was torpedoed and they were waiting for news about him.[11] Diana "Honey" Pine, six, was traveling with her mother Emma.[15] Anthony Quinton, fifteen, was traveling with his mother Letitia, whose mother had asked them to join her in Canada away from the war ("You're no use there," she wrote to them).[11] Colin Richardson, eleven, was traveling alone, as his mother and father (who was an air raid warden) were staying in England with his brother, Julian, who was only five.[10] His mother, instead, had him assigned a private escort, named Laszlo Raskai, a Hungarian BBC reporter, traveling with colleague Eric Davis, also a BBC reporter.[9]

There were also four teenage children, three of whom were part of the Choat family.[9] Frank Choat had served in Gallipoli and had been handicapped by his injuries. When he was taken to England he met his wife, Sylvia, and they fell in love.[9] Now, after finishing their three children's education, they were returning to Canada.[9] Their children were Russell Choat, sixteen; Peter Choat, eighteen, and Rachel Choat, nineteen.[9] The other teenage child was Norma Jacoby, sixteen; she was traveling alone.[16]


HMS Anthony rescues survivors from a lifeboat from City of Benares which had been adrift for eight days.

Late in the evening of 17 September, City of Benares was sighted by U-48, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Bleichrodt, who fired two torpedoes at her at 10:00 PM. Both torpedoes missed, and at 10:01 PM on 17 September, the U-boat fired another torpedo at her. The torpedo struck her in the stern at 10:03 PM, causing her to sink within 31 minutes, 253 miles west-southwest of Rockall and 630 miles from the nearest inhabited land.

Fifteen minutes after the torpedo hit, the captain ordered the vessel abandoned, though there were difficulties with lowering the lifeboats on each side of the ship (only one lifeboat of twelve aboard were lowered correctly). HMS Hurricane arrived on the scene 24 hours later, picked up 105 survivors, and landed them at Greenock. Among the survivors were 21 women, seven CORB children (four boys and three girls), and six fare-paying passenger children (three boys and three girls). Only one family that included more than three people completely survived (Barbara, Derek, and Sonia Bech — aged 14, 9, and 11 — with their mother, Marguerite). Of the other families or groups of passengers travelling together that contained more than three people, all the Grimmonds died, all three Pugh brothers (travelling with CORB) died, all three Beasley sisters (travelling with CORB), all three Moss sisters (travelling with CORB), all three Croasdailes (travelling privately), Frank Choat died (his wife and children survived), and Pat Bulmer was the only survivor of her group (her mother and school friend both died, likely in the capsizing of Lifeboat 1). During the attack, SS Marina was also torpedoed. Hurricane's crew was unaware that the lifeboat was from Marina, but it was still searching for lifeboats and rafts. Lifeboat 12 had drifted out of the "search box" organized by a Hurricane crew member named Patrick Fletcher, but night came and Hurricane abandoned its search. It was assumed that Lifeboat 12 had been overcome by the seas. As a result, Lifeboat 12 was left alone at sea. Its passengers had three weeks' supply of food but enough water for only one week. In the lifeboat were about 32 lascar crewmen, Bohdan Nagorski (a paying passenger), five British crew (Fourth Officer Ronald Cooper, Signalman John Mayhew, Steward George Purvis, Gunner Harry Peard, and Cadet Doug Critchley), escorts Mary Cornish and Father Rory O'Sullivan, and six evacuee boys from the CORB programme — Kenneth (Ken) Sparks (aged 13), Harry Frederick (Fred) Steels (aged 11), William (Billy) Short (aged 9), Derek Capel (aged 12), Paul Shearing (aged 11), and Howard Claytor (aged 11). They spent eight days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, before being sighted by a RAF Short Sunderland, piloted by Australian Bill Garing, and then rescued by convoy escort HMS Anthony.[17] In the end, of the 90 children, 77 died of exposure on lifeboats, died in the sinking, or were missing presumed lost at sea.[18] 3 children taken aboard Hurricane died (these were Alan Capel, aged 5; Derek Carr, aged 10; and Terrence Holmes, aged 10). One boy had been killed in the explosion. 100 of the 119 children aboard were killed in the attack.[18]


Ullapool, Old Telford Church: memorial to Nurse Agnes Wallace, lost in the sinking of SS City of Benares 1940. She died in the arms of Colin Ryder Richardson, in Lifeboat 2.

In total, 258 of the 408 people aboard were lost. This included the master, three convoy staff members (including the commodore), 122 crew members (including 4 women and 19 children) and 134 passengers (including 31 women and 81 children). Only 13 of the 90 child evacuees and 6 of 10 paying passenger children embarked survived the sinking.[19] The sinking was controversial: the Allied powers criticised the "barbaric" actions of the Germans, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and support for those who had lost children in the sinking.[20] The Germans defended the attack as being on a legitimate military target, and insisted that the British government was to blame for allowing children to travel on such ships in war zones when the German government had issued repeated warnings.[21] They claimed that Baldwin-Webb and Olden were travelling to America with the aim of persuading the United States to enter the war, and that City of Benares would be used to transport war materiel back to Britain on her return voyage.[21]

The future of the CORB was already in question after U-60 torpedoed another evacuation ship, Volendam, two weeks earlier. 321 children had been aboard, but all had been rescued by other ships.[22] The directors of the CORB were hopeful that the programme could be continued, and presented a report into the sinking which made recommendations for future operations, which included the use of faster transports and escorts on the North Atlantic routes, and the concentration of the evacuation programme on routes to Australia, India and South Africa, where the weather was better and there were felt to be fewer enemy submarines.[23] The Admiralty pointed out that there were too few fast escorts and ships available, and public opinion was opposed to the continuation of overseas evacuation, fearing further tragedies. Winston Churchill also opposed the scheme, believing evacuations gave aid and comfort to the enemy.[24] The government announced the cancellation of the CORB programme, and all children who were currently preparing to sail were ordered to disembark and return home.[23] Official child evacuation efforts came to a halt with the end of the CORB, but large-scale private evacuation of a further 14,000 children continued until 1941.[23][25]

Bleichrodt was tried for war crimes related to the sinking of City of Benares, after the war. He denied any prior knowledge of the presence of children, stating his actions were within the bounds of military policy.[26] However, according to the crew of U-48, Bleichrodt never recovered after hearing that there were children aboard. Reportedly, the next time he went to sea, he had a mental breakdown.[11] Several historians have supported the contention that Bleichrodt was unaware of the presence of children, including Kate Tildesley, Curator at the Naval Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence, who wrote "What was not known by Bleichrodt was that the liner he was attacking carried 90 children ... Only 13 of the children survived, and the understanding that Bleichrodt could not have known which passengers were aboard the liner made little difference to his perceived culpability."[27] Several of the crew of U-48, including the radio operator, later expressed their shock and regret once it became known that the ship they had sunk had been carrying children.[25] They "reaffirmed the German position that there was no way that the submarine could have known who was aboard."[26]

Culture and media


The full story is told in Children of the Benares, A War Crime and its Victims by Ralph Barker, published by Methuen London, 1987.

Elizabeth Hawkins wrote Sea of Peril (Published 1995), a fictional account of a boy being sent aboard Benares; when the ship is torpedoed, he ends up in Lifeboat 12.

The poet George Sutherland Fraser, who served in World War II, wrote a poem, "S.S. City of Benares (drowned refugee children, 1940)", about the sinking.[28]

City of Benares is the setting of the book Wish Me Luck by James Heneghan, the story of a boy from Liverpool being sent away to safety on City of Benares.

The play Lifeboat by Nicola McCartney tells the story of Bess Walder and Beth Cummings, two survivors of City of Benares.

Janet Menzies wrote Children of the Doomed Voyage (Wiley, 2005. ISBN 978-0-470-01887-3). The story tells the events and tragedies that night in the survivors own words, plus their rescuers stories.

Tom Nagorski wrote Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack (Hyperion Books: New York, 2006. ISBN 1-4013-0871-6) collecting eyewitness accounts about the people and events connected with the attack and sinking of the liner SS City of Benares. His grandfather, a Polish émigré and diplomat, was one of the adult survivors.

There is a memorial to Michael Rennie, an escort who died of exhaustion after rescuing several evacuee children, in the Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London NW11. A painting by Walter P. Starmer represents the last moments in the life of the vicar's son.[29]

An exhibit about the City of Benares disaster is in Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade Watch House and Museum.

The sinking reportedly inspired actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr to develop and patent a system of spread spectrum radio as a means to guide anti-ship torpedoes. The concept is today the basis of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other communications technology.[30]

The book September 17 by Amanda West Lewis (published 2013), tells the story of three children, Bess Walder, Kenneth Sparks, and Sonia Bech, using real events, but fictional conversations.

The children's book Lifeboat 12, by Susan Hood (published 2018), tells the story of Kenneth Sparks, one of the children who survived from the "forgotten" Lifeboat 12.

The book Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of "The Children's Ship" by Deborah Heiligman (published 2019) tells the story of many children aboard SS City of Benares and their experience of the sinking and the subsequent night and rescue.[31]

In 2019 the story of 9 year old Audrey Mansfield, who died on City of Benares, featured on the Antiques Roadshow. Expert Bill Harriman was shown a collection of papers related to her voyage and death.[32]

See also



  1. ^ "City of Benares (survivors report)". Ships Nostalgia. 12 August 2020.
  2. ^ "Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic by Kate Tildesley. The Second World War Experience Centre - Battle of the Atlantic". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
  3. ^ "Illustrated London News 1940 September 28th".
  4. ^ "SS Nerissa". www.ssnerissa.com.
  5. ^ a b c d "City Of Benares - Shipping Today & Yesterday Magazine". Shipping Today & Yesterday. 13 November 2018. Retrieved 14 February 2022.
  6. ^ "City Of Benares | Ships | Archive & Library | Heritage & Education Centre". hec.lrfoundation.org.uk. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  7. ^ a b c "Steamers & Motorships". Lloyd's Register of Shipping (PDF). Lloyd's Register of Shipping. 1937. Retrieved 28 September 2009 – via Southampton City Council.
  8. ^ Payne, Kenneth (1992). Ellermans in South Africa, 1892–1992: The Story of a British Shipping Company's 100 Year Involvement in Trade with South Africa and the History of Ellerman & Bucknall, its South African Subsidiary. Board of Ellerman and Bucknall. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-0-620-17592-0.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Barker, Ralph (2003). Children of the Benares: A War Crime and Its Victims. England: Avid Publications. ISBN 978-1-902964-07-2.
  10. ^ a b c Heiligman, Deborah (2019). Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of "The Children's Ship". United States: Henry Holt and Company. p. 46. ISBN 978-1-250-18755-0.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Nagorski, Tom (2015). Miracles on the water: the heroic survivors of a World War II U-boat attack. Hachette Books. ISBN 978-0-316-34865-2. OCLC 917179067.
  12. ^ "Volendam (Dutch Steam passenger ship) - Ships hit by German U-boats during WWII - uboat.net". uboat.net. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  13. ^ a b "Gurvitch, Helen (Oral history)". Imperial War Museums. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  14. ^ Menzies, Janet (2005). Children of the Doomed Voyage. United States: Wiley. ISBN 978-0-470-01887-3.
  15. ^ Archives, The National (17 September 2015). "The National Archives - Remembering the City of Benares tragedy". The National Archives blog. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  16. ^ SS City of Benares Passenger List
  17. ^ Nesbit, R. C. The RAF in Camera 1939-1945 1998 pp63-64 photographs ISBN 0750915331<
  18. ^ a b Children of the Doomed Voyage. Testimony Films for BBC, 2005, BBC History. ed. John Farren
  19. ^ "Bess Cummings". Telegraph. 19 August 2010.
  20. ^ Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 95.
  21. ^ a b Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 96.
  22. ^ Edwards. Between the Lines of World War II. p. 144.
  23. ^ a b c Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 98.
  24. ^ Jackson. Who Will Take Our Children?. p. 97.
  25. ^ a b Edwards. Between the Lines of World War II. p. 147.
  26. ^ a b Edwards. Between the Lines of World War II. p. 148.
  27. ^ Tildesley. "Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011.
  28. ^ David Goldie; Roderick Watson, eds. (2014). From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914–1945. Glasgow: ASLS. p. 100. ISBN 978-1-906841-16-4.
  29. ^ "City of Benares". St Jude on the Hill. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  30. ^ Richard Rhodes (2012). Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Knopf Doubleday.
  31. ^ "Torpedoed". Macmillan.
  32. ^ The Story of 9 Year Old Audrey, BBC, 09 September 2019


  • Crabb, Brian James (2006). Beyond the Call of Duty: The Loss of British Commonwealth Mercantile and Service Women at Sea During the Second World War. Shaun Tyas: Donington. ISBN 1 900289 66-0.
  • Edwards, Paul M. (2010). Between the Lines of World War II: Twenty-One Remarkable People and Events. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-4667-4.
  • Jackson, Carlton (2008). Who Will Take Our Children?: The British Evacuation Program of World War II. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-3785-6.
  • Tildesley, Kate. Voices from the Battle of the Atlantic. The Second World War Experience Centre. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 6 December 2011.

Further reading

  • "Official Report on the Sinking of the S.S. City of Benares", October 1940, Imperial War Museum, London.
  • Children of the Benares, A War Crime and its Victims, Ralph Barker (Edition 1: Methuen London, 1987 ISBN 0-413-42310-7) (Edition 2: Grafton, 1990 ISBN 978-0-586-20823-6) (Edition 3: Avid Publications, 2003 ISBN 978-1-902964-07-2)
  • Miracles on the Water: The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-boat Attack, Tom Nagorski (Edition 1: Hyperion Books, 2006 ISBN 978-1-4013-0150-7)

56°43′N 21°15′W / 56.717°N 21.250°W / 56.717; -21.250