Sunderland children lost at sea in wartime tragedy

Remembering those lost in the Benares tragedy of 1940.

Remembering those lost in the Benares tragedy of 1940.

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Just before midnight on September 17, 1940, Wearside schoolboy Bill Short was shaken awake when a huge explosion ripped through evacuation ship City of Benares.

Seconds later a bunk bed clattered down on the nine-year-old, leaving him trapped. As the liner started to sink, so the boy tried to claw his way free.

German u-boats on display.

German u-boats on display.

Bill, then of Fordwell Cottages, Hylton Lane, survived the disaster. Tragically his five-year-old brother, Peter, was among 77 children to perish. “I was lucky. Very, very lucky,” he admits.

Benares, a passenger liner designed for tropical travel, had been bound for Canada with a cargo of 102 evacuees - 11 from Sunderland - when it was attacked by German U-boats in the Atlantic.

As panicked passengers scrambled to abandon ship, beneath the waves the crew of U-48 – the most successful German submarine of World War Two – were celebrating a successful mission.

“I listened to our torpedo, so when I heard a bang I said ‘It’s a hit’,” former German submarine radio operator Rolf Hilse later recalled. “We thought it was an ordinary liner going to America.

I listened to our torpedo, so when I heard a bang I said ‘It’s a hit’. We thought it was an ordinary liner going to America. We had no idea the ship was carrying children.

Rolf Hilse, former German U-boat radio operator.

“It should have had a Red Cross sign on it. It should have been on its own, not in a convoy, and it should have had all the lights blazing. We had no idea the ship was carrying children.”

As water engulfed the Benares, so the ship started to sink. Bill was put into a lifeboat with 40 other people and spent nine days drifting at sea, before being rescued by HMS Hurricane.

“My little brother Peter had been confined to the ship’s sick bay, with either measles or chickenpox, earlier in the trip. I never saw him again,” said Bill.

“I remember being given a little dipper of fresh water once a day on the lifeboat, as well as some swigs of condensed milk. We also had ship’s biscuits and a few sardines,” he said.

SS City of Benares, torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic,. September 1940, while carrying child evacuees.

SS City of Benares, torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic,. September 1940, while carrying child evacuees.

“It was stormy and I remember having cold feet. I can also remember being in the destroyer afterwards and drinking all the orange juice in the officers’ mess.”

Reginald “Lofty” Charlton, a sailor aboard HMS Hurricane, was one of the first on the scene to help rescue those in Bill’s lifeboat.

“None of the people could walk or climb; they had to be passed from hand to hand up the scrambling nets, until they reached the safety of the deck,” he recalled.

The survivors – many of them children – were taken to the small mess deck, kept warm by the ship’s boilers, and cared for by the on-board doctor.

City of Benares victim Thomas William Watson.

City of Benares victim Thomas William Watson.

But at 4am the next morning, while Lofty was on watch, he was asked to help bury three young evacuees at sea, as the boys had died in their sleep.

“The three small bodies were wrapped in canvas by the crew. They were taken up on deck and received a Christian burial,” he said.

Bill’s parents were initially told that both their sons were presumed dead. But, when it was revealed Bill had survived, they travelled to Glasgow to collect him.

“Mammy, I haven’t got Peter for you,” were his first words to them.

Just one other Wearside youngster, 13-year-old Eleanor Wright, survived the sinking of Benares. Neither she, nor Bill, spoke publicly about their ordeal.

“We just kept our heads down. We didn’t want the families reminded of the loss of the children who died. It was a terrible time,” the retired joiner said.

In total, 260 of the 407 people on board Benares perished - including the master, commodore, three staff members, 121 crew and 134 passengers.

The sinking led to an outpouring of sympathy for those who had lost children, with Allied powers criticising Germany for its “barbaric” attack.

But the Germans claimed Benares had been a legitimate target, and insisted that the British government was to blame for allowing children to travel in war zones.

Plans to evacuate further youngsters through the Government’s Children’s Overseas Reception Board were cancelled, but private evacuations continued until 1941.

“We believe it is important to continue to remember those who were lost in the disaster,” said Katy Gill, of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade. “It was a tragedy which caused a national outcry.

“We are therefore holding a memorial service at All Saints Church, Fulwell, on October 3 at 11am, and will also be hosting a display at Roker Watch House on the afternoons of October 3 and 4. All welcome.”