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September 17: The Sinking of the City of Benares


September 17 is a novel based on true events. I came across the story when I was in England a couple of years ago. I was at an exhibit called The Children’s War in the Imperial War Museum in London. In the exhibit, I saw a photo from 1940 of a group of young boys, about 10 years old, with huge grins on their faces. They were wearing oversized sailor’s hats and waving from the deck of a ship.

I think the caption might have read “Six Children Back from the Dead.” It went on to explain that the boys had been in a lifeboat for 8 days, after being torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic. I looked again at their faces, at their smiles. I was hooked. I started to read everything I could about these boys.

On Friday, September 13, 1940, the SS City of Benares left the port of Liverpool with 90 children from the CORB program, plus another 10 who were paying passengers. 100 children all told. The ship was headed for Halifax and Canadians were waiting to welcome them and look after them.

The children felt as though they were leaving the war far behind. There were no nightly bombing raids. They put away their gas masks. There was no rationing – in fact there was as much food as they could eat! Ice cream at every meal! The Lascars, the East Indian crewmen, treated them as though they were royalty. By all accounts it was luxurious.

On Tuesday, September 17th at 10:03 p.m. when The City of Benares was 650 miles west of Ireland, it was hit by a torpedo from a U-boat.

It was night. The middle of a gale force-10 storm. 406 people, 100 of them children, had to take to the lifeboats while waves the size of skyscrapers crashed over them. Many of the lifeboats weren’t properly launched and they flipped their inhabitants into the icy waters of the Atlantic.

Within 31 minutes the Benares was gone. It took another 18 hours before a rescue ship, the HMS Hurricane, arrived. Only 14 children were found alive at the disaster site. Two girls had survived by lashing themselves together over the hull of an overturned lifeboat. They said later that it was their friendship that had kept them alive. Three boys died on the rescue ship. For them, rescue had come just too late.

The HMS Hurricane headed to Scotland with the 11 remaining children. They had no idea that they’d missed a lifeboat with another 6 children on board. The 6 little boys that I saw in the photo.

In the archives of the Imperial War Museum, there are audio tapes of some of these survivors, telling their stories. I spent hours listening to their accounts, as they tried to explain why they survived when so many others didn’t. In the end, there were no answers. There was bravery. Determination. Mostly there was luck. 

The novel I have written is from the point of view of 3 of the children who survived the disaster -- 15 year old Bess Walder, 13 year old Ken Sparks and 10 year old Sonia Bech. I have used verbatim and remembered dialogue to create a fiction based on the terrible facts of the sinking, and the children’s struggle to stay alive. I have also told some bits of the stories of those who didn’t survive. I have used the lens of the children’s perspective. Children are the true victims of war.

The kids didn’t have the larger perspective. They didn’t know how horrifying their situation was. For the longest time, they thought it was the best adventure in the world! Sitting in the lifeboat one of the boys asked the pertinent question:

“Which would you rather be? Bombed in London or torpedoed in the Atlantic?”

September 17 is an adventure story, a story of hope, of survival and of the terrible cost of war.

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Ken Sparks's family had given him up for dead. When he arrived home to Liverpool two weeks after the ship went down, it was to a jubilant welcome. You can see him still wearing his father's overcoat, the overcoat that probably saved his life. It was only through Ken's actions that the lifeboat with 43 people on it was found at all.

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