BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

City Of Benares

by actiondesksheffield

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Royal Navy

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.


© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Forum Archive

This forum is now closed

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 - City of Benares

Posted on: 18 October 2005 by Hugh Ferguson

I was in school at the time when one of the schoolmaster's sons was evacuated in this ship. He did not survive and that is all I know of his fate.
After reading this story I am left wondering if perhaps he had been taken on board H.M.S. HURRICANE and was buried at sea.
His name was Roger Poole and I remember him well.
Yours, Hugh Ferguson.

Message 1 - City of Benares

Posted on: 20 November 2005 by JulieAlison

My family and I watched the story told by Timewatch on Friday 18th November 2005 about the sinking of the SS City of Benares. My father, who had strangely enough only recalling the story to us earlier that very day having just read a book from the library about the sinking, was an engineer on the Merchant vessel alongside the City of Benares as it was torpeoded. My fathers recollection differ from that reported the convoy had not left the ship as has been reported. He also wonders if any other merchant seamen are still alive to tell the tale. He was torpeoded on another MVS some two years later and thankfully lives to tell the tale.

Message 1 - City of Benares/Timewatch BBC2.

Posted on: 04 December 2005 by paulrpratt

I was most interested in the City of Benares programme. I was sent on the evacuation programme by the same route through the American committee for the evacuation of European Children.The main group came by train from London to Liverpool. Living in S.Yorks. I came with my family by train on Sept 16th,1940.Penistone to Liverpool I know that date as my father bought a return ticket for myself in case things did not work out in Liverpool(I still have that ticket!) We went to a holding centre in Liverpool,for two days. One night was spent in the air raid shelter; during the bombing the second house from our centre received a direct hit. We joined the ship(I dont remember its name but believe it was Cunard White Star) We spent one night in the river when Liverpool was bombed again and sailed the next morning.which must have been Sept 19th. which means that if the news of the sinking of the City of Benares was made public by that date the evacuation of children was not immediately halted. We were not informed about the sinking until our safe arrival in Halifax. We also had naval escort for 3/4 days. A Sunderland flying boat flew low and the crew waved goodbye.and we were on our own also told that we should be safe. We did however, have one Uboat warning as we mustered at boat stations only to have a good laugh later when informed that it was only a whale.This was I gathered later the usual explanation on childrens evacuation ships. From Halifax we went by train to New York and later to various homes in USA.My experience in the USA like most of my life was very much up and down. When the course of the war had changed for the better I returned by ship to England in 1943. My first trips by sea across the North Atlantic in wartime were a memorable and great experience. which resulted in my serving in the Merchant Navy for five years as an R/O. Though the sea did not become my permanent career. I still much prefer to travel by cargo ship rather than by plane. However, there is always the feeling of guilt that I did survive that passage in 1940 so close to the time and route of the "City of Benares" and my viewing of the programme concerning the fate of those unfortunate children on the City of Benares was a very emotive experience. One point not mentioned in the excellent Timewatch programme was the persuasion exercised by the Government of that very critical time on parents for evacuation overseas each child at home could not be of much help in the war effort yet at a time when great efforts were being made to get sympathy in the USA for joining the war, the arrival in the USA of British evacuees could have great potential publicity value.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Royal Navy Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy