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Sonia Bech, aged 11 - survivor of the "City of Benares"

by Sonia_Bech

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Sonia Bech
Location of story: 
Atlantic Ocean
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 April 2004

I remember the days on board “The City of Benares” as a very exciting, luxurious holiday. The food was marvellous and it was so grand to be served by lascars in their pastel robes. My brother Derek was not allowed to stay up for dinner but when he was alone in the cabin the lascar steward asked if he felt like a little snack. All this was luxury beyond our belief.
On the night of the disaster the ship was rolling more than usual and I was so pleased that it did not make me feel sick. I remember a thud and being woken up by my sister Barbara and automatically getting into my duffle coat and putting on socks and sandals and of course carrying my life jacket. There was a sinister atmosphere along the corridors up to the Muster Station in the lounge and I remember an odd smell in the air. We sat quietly and I said a prayer and thought of the few Air Raids we had experienced in Bognor Regis. Then we were jolted into action by the Officer who told us to go on deck.
The next few minutes are still very vivid in my memory and are like a long bad dream. I remember waiting for the rope ladder and my brother Derek coming back to us and being told that our lifeboat had gone and my sister Barbara was in it. I recall stumbling after a man who called out that he would throw over a raft for us. At that very moment Mummy said “Let us take my papers and jewel box out of the emergency bag and have them in our pockets”. The jewel box fell into a gulley by the edge of the deck and in spite of the emergency we found the rings and other jewels and put them back and I have the box to this day. Mummy had our Identity Cards and money in her pocket and I had the jewel box in mine.
I found getting over the side of the sinking ship and hanging onto a rope ladder very frightening as I have never been particularly athletic.
How I reached the tiny raft beneath I will never understand. When I got onto the raft I remember thinking we were laying very close to the ship’s side and I thought we would be sucked under when she actually sank. By some fantastic good luck a strong man was in the water at that minute and he pulled the raft out of danger. I believe his name was Mr. Davies: he certainly saved our lives.
The long dreary night clinging to the top of the raft seemed endless, but I remember falling off the raft and obviously my head went under the foaming water for a moment and I felt a tremendous peace and a sense of great light. Then I was hauled back on the raft by the sailor and felt very shivery. After many hours Mummy said “Sonia, let us take off our life belt and go to sleep in the water”; and I was very insistent that we waited a little longer. It was not long after this that we saw the sail of Mr. Lewis’s lifeboat from S.S. Marina. He was the second person who saved our lives that night. I believe his lifeboat was already very full, but he managed to steer towards us through the rough seas, a notable feat in such conditions. We were hauled aboard and revived with rum and Nestle’s Milk. I remember licking out of the tin that was handed round to everyone and being rather ashamed of not enjoying the experience due to my fastidiousness.
I have a very vivid impression of H.M.S. Hurricane appearing on the horizon in the evening sunshine on the day after the City of Benares was torpedoed. I recall the line of sailors hanging from the scrambling net heaving me up the side of the ship with cheerful comments and that wonderful sense of relief when I tried to stand up on the deck. I found this very difficult so I was carried into the Captain’s Cabin. My Mother gave me and Derek a hot bath and we were put in the Captain.’s bed for a short time. However, it was far too exciting to stay resting for long. I remember baked beans and sausages, wearing a beautiful white tropical sailor’s uniform (rather large) and the big moment when my sister Barbara was rescued from her lifeboat and the four members of the Bech Family were re-united. I recall sleeping on the floor under a table and hanging onto the leg to prevent myself rolling about on the floor. The ship’s cat was very lively and my big aim in life at that moment was to get back home to Bognor Regis and see our own cat Tim and my Scottie Dog Mac, both of which I had been heart-broken to leave behind.

Entered by Petersfield Library

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Sonia Bech, aged 11 - survivor of the "City of Benares"

Posted on: 04 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Sonia

This is a valuable addition to the WW2 archive, a first hand account of a terrible tragedy. You were very lucky to have survived such an ordeal.

Kindest regards,


Message 1 - Roger Poole

Posted on: 21 October 2005 by Hugh Ferguson

Dear Sonia Bech,
Roger,(aged 11), was a school-fellow of mine and all I know about his fate on board the City of Benares is that he was not one of the survivors. His father was the gym master at the school.
Is it possible that you may have met, and remember him from the 4 days at sea before the ship was torpedoed.
Best wishes, Hugh Ferguson.

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