The City of Benares left Liverpool on 13th September with 406 people on board, including 90 children who were being evacuated from wartime Britain to Canada. Late on the 17th September 1940, in rough mid-Atlantic seas, U-48 made two unsuccessful attempts to torpedo her. The third shot was successful and City of Benares sank in about 30 minutes. There was difficulty getting all the boats away. Rescue was still a long way off even for those that did make it into boats or rafts.
Dr Peter Collinson was the Medical Officer on board the destroyer HMS Hurricane, which went to the rescue:
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.
Read the full account on BBC People’s War.
One lifeboat was missed by HMS Hurricane. The 46 occupants, including six boys, were only spotted by a flying boat eight days later and picked up by HMS Anthony.
In total 248 people died from the City of Benares, the loss of 77 children leading to the abandonment of further overseas evacuation.