Tributes paid to survivor of U Boat attack which killed nine Sunderland children

Bill Short with standard bearers at the City of Benares Memorial Service
Bill Short with standard bearers at the City of Benares Memorial Service
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Tributes have been paid to the survivor of a wartime U Boat attack which killed nine Wearside children.

In September 1940, Billy Short, full name William Cunningham Short, was one of a party of 90 child evacuees accepted to be taken abroad to Canada under the government’s scheme to move children out of vulnerable areas.

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.

Billy and his younger brother Peter, along with nine other children from Sunderland, boarded the SS City of Benares in Liverpool and set sail on the 13th.

Five days later, the ship was torpedoed by a U Boat and sunk. The German attack, which killed 77 children evacuees and 260 passengers in total, caused a national outcry and led to the total cancellation of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) plan to relocate British children abroad.

Billy, who was one of the only children to survive, was rescued after eight days drifting in the North Atlantic on a lifeboat.

The terrifying incident, which killed his five-year-old brother Peter who was confined to the ship’s sick bay, stayed with him for life.

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Bill Short with his little brother Peter, who died in the Benares disaster.

NEVER FORGOTTEN: Bill Short with his little brother Peter, who died in the Benares disaster.

Speaking to the Echo’s nostalgia writer on the 65th anniversary of the tragedy, he said: “I was asleep when the torpedo hit. The top bunk came down on me and I had to crawl out from underneath it.”

After returning to his home town Billy, of High Barnes, went on to marry Jean, who died last year, and they had a daughter together, Jan.

He died in hospital after a short illness on August 3, surrounded by his family.

The grandad had a close association with the Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade, of which he was an honourary member, and a plaque to the SS Benares tragedy remains at the VLB Watch House in Roker.

Bill Short (r) in 2005 survivor of sinking of City of Benares with VLB Capt Fred Roberts unveiling plaque to victims of sinking

Bill Short (r) in 2005 survivor of sinking of City of Benares with VLB Capt Fred Roberts unveiling plaque to victims of sinking

Every five years, the brigade hosts a memorial service to commemorate the young victims and Billy and his family had attended the last one in October 2015.

A spokeswoman from the brigade said: “A softly spoken, kind and gentle man, he will be greatly missed by all those who knew him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his daughter Jan and his two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.”

•A service commemorating Billy’s life will be held at St Gabriel’s Church, Barnes, on Tuesday, August 16 at 1.15pm.

Although most of the passengers aboard SS Benares had managed to get in the lifeboats, the cold conditions and rough seas meant that nearly all the children perished. Billy was put into lifeboat 12 which, because it had not been swamped with water, drifted outside of the main search area when HMS Hurricane arrived the following day to rescue survivors.

His lifeboat contained himself, five other boys, two children’s escorts and many of the crew.

After a week in the boat conditions were getting severe, water and food were strictly rationed and the children were becoming ill; it was the skill and perseverance of escort Mary Cornish that kept the boys alive.

After eight days, as water was about to run out, the lifeboat was spotted by a plane and rescue sent in the form of HMS Anthony which transported the survivors to Glasgow. Only one of the other Sunderland children survived, a girl named Eleanor Wright.

Billy was reunited with his parents who had already been informed that both their sons had died.

The Sunderland children who perished in the City of Benares tragedy were: Peter Short, five, of Fordwell Cottages, Hylton Lane; Dorothy Wood, nine, of Ivy Cottage, Durham Road; Ann Jordeson Watson, six, and her brother Thomas, nine, of Eyre Street, Pallion; Maureen Dixon, 10, of Lumley Street; Derek Leigh, 11, of Victoria Street, Southwick; Edith Smith, 13, and her sister Irene, 10, of Buttermere Street, Grangetown and George Crawford, 13, of Stratford Avenue.

To learn more about the City of Benares disaster visit the VLB Watch House at Pier View, Roker.