On September 17, 1940, at a little after ten at night, a German submarine torpedoed the passenger liner S.S. City of Benares in the North Atlantic. There were 406 people on board, but the ship's prized passengers were 90 children whose parents had elected to send their boys and girls away from Great Britain to escape the ravages of World War II. They were considered lucky, headed for quiet, peaceful, and relatively bountiful Canada.
The Benares sank in half an hour, in a gale that sent several of her lifeboats pitching into the frigid sea. They were more than five hundred miles from land, three hundred miles from the nearest rescue vessel.
Miracles on the Water tells the astonishing story of the survivors--not one of whom had any reasonable hope of rescue as the ship went down. The initial "miracle" involves one British destroyer's race to the scene, against time and against the elements; the second is the story of Lifeboat 12, missed by the destroyer and left out on the water, 46 people jammed in a craft built and stocked for 30. Those people lasted eight days on little food and tiny rations of drinking water. The survivors have grappled ever since with questions about the ordeal: Should the Benares have been better protected? How and why did they persevere? What role did faith and providence play in the outcome?
Based on first-hand accounts from the child survivors and other passengers, including the author's great-uncle, Miracles on the Water brings us the story of the attack on the Benares and the extraordinary events that followed.
Tom Nagorski is currently the Executive Vice President of the Asia Society following a three-decade career in journalism - having served most recently as Managing Editor for International Coverage at ABC News. Nagorski has won eight Emmy awards and the Dupont Award for excellence in international coverage, as well as a fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.
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MIRACLES ON THE WATERThe Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack
By Tom Nagorski
HYPERIONCopyright © 2006 Tom Nagorski
All right reserved.
Chapter One"We've Been Hit!"
Beth Cummings sat upright, lifted suddenly from sleep, and not sure why. It was dark, black-night dark, nothing stirring in her small cabin, and she was wide awake.
A bad dream, perhaps. But then she felt the ship shudder. Rough seas, Beth thought. Very rough seas.
She felt for the light switch. The light wouldn't come on.
An alarm sounded nearby. She heard groans and rustling, someone in the adjoining cabin. That might be her friend Bess, up and about. Maybe she knew what was happening.
Beth Cummings stepped gingerly from her bed into a gathering pool of water.
BESS WALDER HAD NEVER BEEN a sound sleeper. She was in the top bunk next door. The jolt woke her instantly.
That's a torpedo! she thought.
She heard another bang, felt the floor shake, then a sound like a closet full of glass, things rattling and breaking inside. Bess came down the ladder and called to the girl in the lower bunk.
"C'mon! Get out!"
The girl shivered under her blanket. She didn't want to go.
Bess Walder was fifteen years old. Beth Cummings was fourteen.
* * *
FRED STEELS WAS ELEVEN, AND in his cabin there was chaos. Theroom shook, glass shattered, an armoire crashed, and when Steels tried to leave his bed he found himself trapped. Heavy planks of wood had fallen, making a misshapen X just inches above his body.
Parts of the bunk had collapsed, right on top of him.
Steels, a strong and stocky child, pushed up at the wood. Good thing there's nobody in my top bunk, he thought. One of Steels' cabinmates was crying for his glasses. Alarm bells rang. He heard nothing from the third boy in the cabin, an eleven-year-old named Paul Shearing. He sleeps through anything.
Steels worked at the wood, nudged a fat piece up, away from his face. I can do it, he thought. I can get out. He shoved another plank aside.
Then Fred Steels realized he was soaking wet.
It's blood, he thought, but then he felt a soft spray coming from the wash-basin. Water, not blood. The pipes had burst.
Suddenly Steels understood what had happened. "We've been hit!" he cried, trying to rouse his cabinmates. The two other boys shifted in their bunks, still fuzzy-headed.
"Come on, then!"
Finally Steels was free, squirming through a narrow space he had made between the wood planks and the side of his bed. He pulled on his bulky life jacket and felt for his shoes in the dark. There they are.
He tried to find his suitcase, then realized there was no point in carrying anything to the ship's deck. Water shot from the basin. Steels' life jacket was getting wet.
Paul Shearing was up now. He had found his life jacket, and a coat his mother had bought for her son's journey. Then, searching for his shoes, Shearing felt a jab in his foot.
Steels spun around. "What's happened?"
Shearing winced. He had cut his heel on a piece of glass. "It's all right."
He stepped gingerly in the water, feeling a sharp sting in his foot. After a while he found a pair of sandals. The third boy in the cabin had found his glasses.
They fumbled about in this way, and then, perhaps two minutes after the initial jolt, the three boys shuffled out the cabin door and along an already-crowded hallway.
Bess Walder and Beth Cummings were making their way somewhere behind them. Together they were among the youngest, and arguably the most important, passengers on board the British liner SS City of Benares.
THE BENARES CARRIED 215 CREW and 191 passengers, including 90 boys and girls who were pioneers in a program designed to spirit British children to safer shores. These young evacuees had been chosen from the country's most vulnerable communities, from households particularly battered by the German bombardment. It was a bold and controversial experiment, involving thousands of children. They were sailing for Canada, away from war, and they had no idea how long they would be gone.
It was mid-September, 1940. World War II was one year old.
For several days the mood on board the Benares had been cheerful, almost festive. They had left home and family, to be sure, but they had also bid farewell to air raids and rations, put behind them what one of the boys called the "everyday horror" of the German Blitzkrieg. Adolf Hitler's air force had pummeled Liverpool in the days before the Benares set sail from that same port; the children and their escorts had watched the bombs as they fell. Now their home was an eleven-thousand-ton luxury liner, clean and elegant, comfortable and richly stocked. Onboard meals were feasts-heaping buffets of meat and chicken, fresh fruit in large baskets, limitless ice cream for dessert-served by Indian waiters in bright blue and white uniforms. The ship's decks were a virtual playing field, the playroom a huge and colorful space where imaginations might run, and memories of war recede.
Jack Keeley, an eight year-old from Brixton, told his little sister, Joyce, "We've gone from one world to another." Indeed they had. The ship's older passengers relished the calm and opulence, unheard of commodities in wartime England. All manner of terror and deprivation had disappeared.
MARY CORNISH WAS A PIANIST and music teacher from London, one of ten children's escorts traveling on the City of Benares. She was forty-one years old. On the night of September 17, Cornish had tucked in her charges-fifteen girls aged six to thirteen-at about eight o'clock. After dinner, she and two of the other escorts had chatted over coffee in the lounge. At perhaps half past nine, they had decided to take a stroll on deck.
It had been a rough day on the water. Now a steady rain blew across the deck, but every so often the women could make out the moon, nearly full, fat clouds drifting past. The women sang songs, gazed out at the water, and compared notes.
They had been at sea for four days. Seasickness had come and passed for many of the girls in their care. Homesickness, too. Now the mood and camaraderie were first-rate, they agreed, children and escorts smitten by the thrill of the journey. In five days they would land at Montreal.
Mary Cornish was relaxed and happy when she left her fellow escorts and descended the stairs to the main deck. She was a few steps from her cabin when she felt a sharp thud and heard the sounds of smashing glass.
The passageway went dark. She stumbled, feeling for a hallway railing. Some faint light showed itself in the distance, illuminating the bulkheads. The path ahead was cluttered with debris. It was also filling rapidly with water.
The torpedo had struck port side, one deck below. It had detonated directly beneath the children's bathrooms.
My girls are down there, Mary Cornish said to herself, peering into the blackness. I must get to the girls.
BOHDAN NAGORSKI HAD BEEN WALKING on deck, too, and he was still there when the Benares shook, at three minutes past ten. To Nagorski the sound was like the report of a revolver, fired close to the ear. But that was a fleeting impression; in fact he knew almost immediately what had happened.
Three Royal Navy vessels had flanked the City of Benares as she moved into the Atlantic, precisely because British commanders understood the risks associated with the journey. Hitler's submarines had torpedoed more than three hundred vessels in the previous four months. Two weeks earlier the SS Volendam had been hit, carrying 320 children from the evacuation program. But the Volendam had been struck close to shore; all her children had survived.
The Benares had sailed for four days and nights without incident. By the time her naval escort turned about, on the morning of September 17, the ship was nearly five hundred miles northwest of Liverpool. Royal Navy officers supervising the escort-as well as the Benares' crew and passengers-had believed their liner was safe, far from the prowling U-boats, and beyond the theater of war.
It was just before ten o'clock at night on the seventeenth when Nagorski took his after-dinner stroll with his friend and compatriot Zygmunt Gralinski, a Polish diplomat. Two other passengers joined them-the British parliamentarian James Baldwin-Webb and an Indian medical student who was traveling to the United States for postgraduate research. The men were examples of an eclectic passenger list, reflecting what the historian Ralph Barker called "a colorful mixture of the cosmopolitan, intellectual and the persecuted." Bohdan Nagorski was a bit of each-a port engineer and shipping executive who had been made a refugee by the war. For a half hour or so they talked about Canada, and they discussed the situation in Poland. At about a minute after ten, Gralinski said he was tired. Nagorski suggested it might be wise to spend the night on deck; if a torpedo struck, he said with a smile, better to be here-closer to the lifeboats, fully dressed, and wide awake.
His remark had been meant as a joke. Gralinski chuckled, Baldwin-Webb bade them good night, and then came the crash. The force of it shook the deck. In a matter of seconds the four men were separated.
Nagorski righted himself and searched for his friend. In these first moments, as the Benares listed slightly and the rain turned hard and icy, he felt strangely calm. I need to get to a lifeboat, he said to himself. And I should get some of my things.
But as he made his way below deck, he also imagined that this would be the last night of his life. In the last year alone Bohdan Nagorski had fled the German bombardment of Poland, traveling "in a railway carriage or motorcar or a peasant's cart." He had escaped Nazi occupied France and survived the opening salvos of the London blitz. Now Nagorski stood in his cabin, studying the little room in an almost disinterested way, wondering what belongings were worth carrying to the lifeboat station. He had made similar calculations before-gathering possessions in his home in Gdynia, on the Baltic Sea, stuffing a small suitcase in Bordeaux.
After a quick survey, Nagorski took his coat and homburg hat and a diplomatic pouch, leaving a trunk and that same small suitcase behind.
All the while the thought beat in his mind like a drum: I am going to die. I will lose my life, somewhere in these waters.
NOT FAR FROM THE City of Benares, the submarine Unterseeboot 48-U-48, for short-cut through the water, just below the surface. Several of her crewmen had gathered to celebrate their latest achievement.
U-48 had already distinguished herself as a fearsome piece in Hitler's maritime arsenal, and in time this submarine would achieve unparalleled successes for Nazi Germany. Her commander was Heinrich Bleichrodt, a hard drinking thirty year old who had taken the reins only a few days earlier. U-48 had left L'Orient, in Nazi-occupied France, on September 8. For Bleichrodt the mission would mark the beginning of a storied career. Eventually U-48's commander would win Germany's prized Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, for leading a crew that sank more enemy vessels than any other submarine during World War II.
Bleichrodt had spotted the slow-moving shapes of Convoy OB213 in the early afternoon of September 17. Under his orders, U-48 had tailed the City of Benares in a zigzag pattern for nearly ten hours.
In Heinrich Bleichrodt's mind there was no question that the Benares was fair game. She was sailing in a large convoy, she had gunners positioned at either end, and she was a large liner, an inviting target at a time when U-boat achievements were measured by the tonnage of ships destroyed.
These were arguments the Germans would make years later, when they stood in the dock at Nuremberg, charged with crimes against humanity for attacks including the one on the SS City of Benares. For now U-48's men were jubilant. "A success," Bleichrodt said simply. Through U-48's conning tower they could see that the liner was sinking by the stern and listing badly. Some of her lifeboats bad already begun their descent. Bleichrodt knew they had struck a particularly stinging blow that night in the North Atlantic.
THE EXPLOSION HAD TORN INTO the Benares' side, throwing children from their bunks and crushing furniture and equipment over a wide swath of the ship. Lights flickered, dimmed, and went dark; water cascaded into the ship's interior from burst pipes and from the Atlantic itself. Within minutes several people on board the Benares were dead.
Mary Cornish kept looking for "her girls." After a frantic quarter hour she found some of them, only to miss her own lifeboat's launch. At an officer's order, she went instead to a boat jammed with men, and six of the evacuee boys. All right, then, she thought, I shall care for these children instead. It comforted her somewhat; if she was here, perhaps the boys' escort was in another lifeboat, tending to her girls. The boat went down on the command of an officer, teetering for a moment and then landing with a splash.
Excerpted from MIRACLES ON THE WATER by Tom Nagorski Copyright © 2006 by Tom Nagorski. Excerpted by permission.
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