FROM TRAGEDY COMES
|The ship was torpedoed in
Turn the clock back 64 years and
imagine yourself in the middle of the North Atlantic. Now imagine
you are a passenger on a ship that has been hit by a torpedo and is
sinking, fast. This was reality for Beth Williams, who is about to
meet the man who tried to kill her.
Two people inextricably linked by a tragedy are about
to meet, a lifetime after the event that would change their lives forever.
Inside Out North West are bringing together Rolf Hilse,
83, who as a young man was the dangerous enemy, and Beth Williams, 78,
who became a survivor.
Liverpool in 1940 was a dangerous place. In the height
of World War II, during the German bombing campaign, whole areas of the
city were flattened, homes were destroyed and thousands were killed.
homes were destroyed during World War II|
The Liverpool docks were an integral part of the Allied
This caused Liverpool to become the most heavily attacked
English city outside of London.
Families were desperate, trying to protect their loved
ones any way they could.
Thousands of children were sent on ships to the safe
shores of Canada; Beth Williams was one of those children.
"I felt as if I wasn't really leaving. I thought
I was on my way and would be coming back," she remembers.
City of Benares sets sail
On Friday September 13, 1940 a passenger ship called
City of Benares began its 2,500 mile crossing of the North Atlantic.
On board were around 400 people, 100 of which were children.
was 14 years old when she boarded the ship|
Designed for the tropical trip to Bombay, City of
Benares, accompanied by a navel destroyer, entered the rough seas
patrolled by German U-boats
"We'd hardly found our cabins when the alarm bells
went. That was our first lifeboat drill," remembers Beth.
As the morning of the fourth day at sea dawned, the passengers
awoke to find their escort had left them - apparently now safe to continue
the journey alone.
"We were told we were out of the war zone
so we were all feeling a bit happier."
An enemy lurking
U-48 was the most successful German submarine of World War II, claiming
thousands of tonnes of allied shipping.
Nineteen-year-old radio operator Rolf Hilse remembered,
"We sunk approximately 55 to 60 ships in the first two years of the
was a radio operator on U-48|
Nine days before Beth left Liverpool, U-48 was sent out
to patrol the Atlantic.
By September 17, 1940 it was 600 miles from the west
coast of Ireland - lying beneath City Of Benares.
With no escort vessel Rolf said they didn't know it was
a passenger ship.
"The Captain said 'we start in the middle as this
is the biggest ship'.
"That was the City of Benares," said
As U-48 launched its attack on the Allied fleet, Rolf
manned the radio. "I listened to our torpedo, so when I heard a bang
I said 'It's a hit'," he explained
|"It was a horrible feeling. I couldn't
Onboard Beth found herself amidst a panic. "It was
the explosion that woke us up," she said. "It almost threw us
out of our beds."
As water engulfed the ship, Beth and her newly found
friends were thrown out into the freezing ocean.
Survival instincts kicked in and Beth grabbed onto a
rope and crawled up out of the water onto the side of a lifeboat.
Of all the friends she had made on the journey only
one remained. There was no sign of the other children.
Beth and her friend Bess held on to that rope and lifeboat
for 19 hours.
"We knew we were alone but that made us feel it
was up to us to survive," Beth said.
"We needed each other and we wanted to survive for
our parents' sake."
Beth and Bess were eventually rescued by a warship but
many others weren't so lucky.
The torpedo attack left 175 adults dead and of the 100
children on board only 13 survived.
Life goes on
Beth was reunited with her parents and was treated in
hospital for exposure after her rescue.
says she will never forget that day|
Physically she recovered well from the event but lives
with the constant memory.
"Wind, rain, hailstones - they all remind me of
that day. It never leaves you," she comments.
Rolf surrendered in 1945 just off the US coast and was
held as a prisoner of war.
He ended up at a POW camp in Cumbria and settled in Windermere
as a builder on his release.
It wasn't until Beth wrote a foreword in a book about
the sinking that the two would become reunited.
A local paper reviewed the book which Rolf read and followed
Former "enemies" come face to face
Inside Out followed Beth and Rolf as they met at the
Liverpool docks where City of Benares set sail.
The pair exchanged pleasantries, somehow made easier
by their awful link.
|Rolf and Beth
are reunited 64 years after the tragic event|
As with any tragic event Beth still wants to know "why?"
Rolf tried to explain how it all happened. "There
was no escort there. The Captain gave it plenty of time to go and the
Benares was the biggest.
"Why choose the smallest ship when there is a bigger
fish behind it?" he said.
"You wouldn't have known, and he wouldn't have known,
there were children on board?" Beth asked.
"No. No idea at all," replied Rolf.
"I was in two minds, wondering it she would accept
me, knowing that I was the enemy who tried to kill her, but Beth made
it quite easy for me," said Rolf after their meeting.
"There's no point in holding a grudge. He's a charming
gentleman - of course I forgive him," commented Beth.
There will never really be a satisfactory answer to how
the event could have happened, yet at least two people with a tragic link
have found some peace.