- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dr. Peter Collinson - Dr. F.R. Collinson
- Location of story:
- North Atlantic
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 October 2005
Dr. Peter Collinson.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Dorothy Wright, and has been added to the site with her permission. Mrs. Wright fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I recall an incident that has etched itself on my memory forever more. Some parents accepted the Government's offer to send their children abroad as evacuees to Australia, Canada and the United States. One such party was leaving on a ship called The City of Benares, and they were bound for America. Each small group of children was put in the charge of a volunteer chaperone and they were really enjoying the luxury of the liner as they set sail for America for the duration of the war.
The boat was well equipped and had a plentiful supply of food, perhaps such as these children had never seen before. The ships travelled in convoy with the support of some Naval vessels to protect them, until they reached waters where attack was unlikely. Then one midnight, the 17th September, 1940 when they were all in their beds a torpedo struck the Benares and the evacuees and their chaperones had to try to remember the Boat Drills they had been taught, and hurry to make their escape.
The escorts and their charges had left Liverpool on September 13th. 90 children were aboard in the care of 10 adult escorts. Other passengers were travelling privately to Canada. About 600 miles out in the North Atlantic, in the convoy, the ship was attacked by torpedo and boat drill was necessary at once. Some of the children got separated from their escorts and there was a rush for the lifeboats.
One of the escorts was a 41-year-old music teacher by the name of Mary Cornish, and she had in her charge a group of girls. When the order to abandon boat was given, Mary tried to gather her charges together and got them all but one little girl, and she left the group in the charge of an older girl and began to search for the missing one. The crew had declared 'all clear' but she felt bound to search for the missing girl, and she went below. The group of children were ordered to board Boat 10, which was the boat Mary was the escort for, and when she returned empty handed, she was ordered to join Boat 12 joining Father O'Sullivan and six boys he had grouped together.
The Benares was sinking fast, 600 miles from the nearest shore, and the escort vessel had left them 21 hours before. The sinking ship was in danger of sinking the lifeboats themselves. Several lifeboats capsized, the sea was very turbulent, but because Boat 12 was the last to be launched, it was the furthest astern and was away from the currents which had capsized the other boats and was able to get free.
We were reading in the newspaper about the missing boat and I followed the story closely. It was at 1300 hours on Wednesday September 25th when we heard that they had been rescued after 8 days at sea without any support. 46 persons were on this boat, many were crew, and many were Lascar seamen. In all 134 passengers died.
5 adults and 77 children, 121 Crew died, 20 were Europeans and 101 Indians. This brought the overseas evacuation plan to a stop. No more children were sent overseas after this.
Some years later we got a new G.P in our Family Practice and he was the Sailor Son of Doctor F.C.Collinson, who had been John's family Doctor for many years. After some time I met Doctor Peter Collinson and was most interested to learn his story of the part he played in the other part of the Benares Drama.
Doctor Peter later wrote an account of the part in which he was involved, so I will take the opportunity to use his words to describe what happened. I have always been very interested in this incident, so I am glad to record it in my memoirs. I do not think he will mind my using his account to include here.
"The ship sailed from Liverpool on Friday 13th September 1940 with 191 passengers, including 90 Children with 10 adult escorts, proceeding to Canada under the Government Evacuation Scheme. She was torpedoed about 600 miles out in the North Atlantic.
”At about midnight on the 17th September, I unscrambled the ciphered signal in which their Lordships commanded H.M.S. Hurricane to proceed with 'utmost despatch' to position 56.43 21.15 where survivors are reported in boats. On taking this to Captain Simms, he remarked 'Utmost Despatch' I bet this means there are women and children amongst them. Apparently a normal signal would say 'proceed forthwith'.
”We sighted the survivors at about 2pm. The first raft about 6 ft by 3 ft had two men and a boy clinging to it. These were Eric Davis and John McGlashen who were shielding Jack Keeley, aged 6. As we manoeuvred alongside the raft, I managed to take a photo with my box Brownie, which I later sold to the Daily Mirror for 6 pounds. It has since reappeared in several publications. Unfortunately I was unable to take any more photographs of the rescue, as the survivors needed medical attention.
”All survivors were suffering from severe exposure, and varying degrees of shock, being physically and emotionally exhausted. Some were dehydrated and most were suffering from bruised and sprained bodies, limbs, and suspected fractures. Several had severe swollen legs due to prolonged exposure to sea water, the so called' Immersion Feet'
”Three little boys could not be revived in spite of the valiant efforts of the Petty Officers' Mess at artificial resuscitation. They were later given a full Naval Burial by the Captain.
”After being dried, warmed, and given dry clothing, given warm drinks and food, the majority of the survivors became temporarily somewhat elated, but by the next day, reaction set in when they realised the enormity of the tragedy.
”S.B.A, Hunt and I did not sleep for three nights except for the occasional catnap in the Wardroom chair.
”We landed the Survivors at Gourock where they were taken to the Bay Hotel and received by the rather portly proprietor commonly known as 'Two Ton Tessie'. Geoffrey Shakespeare, under Secretary for the Dominions, the Press, and the BBC were all there to welcome them and take their statements. Several of the more seriously injured were transferred to the Smithston Hospital by ambulance."
I was so interested in this incident when it happened, and the anxiety about the boat still missing with the boys aboard, so I was particularly interested when I met Doctor Peter, and have been interested ever since. I am grateful to be able to add the account written by Doctor Collinson, as he was involved with the rescue personally.
A number of those involved in this incident, survivors, rescuers, and even attackers have kept in touch over the years and there is even to be another meeting in September 2005, although the numbers will be less, for many have passed away now.
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