It’s a beautiful sunny day as I write this, one of the last of the summer’s blue sky weekends with many families outdoors making the most of the fine weather. But, just before the weather deteriorates and winter descends, everyone knows that hundreds more migrants will attempt to make the dangerous journey from Northern France to Southern England, across the Channel, some of them children apparently literally forced on to boats, not wanting to come and with no idea where they are when they get to the UK, because, it turns out, the organisers don’t get paid until they’ve put their human cargo on that last leg of the journey. Some of these refugees will die in the attempt.
The Home Office estimates that more than 5,600 migrants, most having fled some of the most desperately impoverished and war torn areas of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, have crossed the English Channel from France by sea in small boats already this year. The number has risen sharply over the summer and one young man was tragically found drowned after trying to leave the French coast even though he could not swim.
Some Conservative Party MPs are demanding that the government use ‘stronger enforcement’ efforts against ‘invading migrants,’ others blame so called ‘activist lawyers’ for helping asylum-seekers, while human rights groups criticise the government’s stance for inflaming the toxic nature of the migration debate and call for safe routes to be established for those seeking refuge. As the debate gets angrier but nothing seems to be done, I am reminded of another maritime tragedy involving children, many of whom did not want to be on the ship that sealed their fate but were powerless to prevent it.
Exactly 80 years ago this September the SS City of Benares was carrying 407 passengers, of whom 90 were terrified children, * when it was torpedoed by the Nazis. Many passengers were Jews, occasionally whole families, hoping to escape Britain in case the Nazis invaded and occupied. They hoped they were going to live in peace and safety in Canada, where there was no war. But fear was also rife on board partly because of the dangerous German submarines – U boats – known to be patrolling as they attempted to stifle British trading routes, and partly from the speed at which illness on board spread. In addition the sea was rough and many of the children suffered appalling seasickness.
Initially, the Benares was part of a twenty-vessel convoy, escorted for the first part of its journey by a Royal Navy destroyer and two accompanying sloops. But, as it was thought that the risk of U-boat attack was greatest in the first few days at sea, once the ship was thought to be out of the most dangerous zone, it went on alone, without the support ships.
On Tuesday 17 September, when the Benares was 250 miles (402 km) west of the Hebrides, the ship was spotted by U boat commander Captain Heinrich Bleichrodt, who ordered the firing of torpedoes. The first two missed but the third penetrated the ship’s hull and exploded, immediately filling the interior with the acrid smell of explosives. Captain L Nicoll gave the order to abandon ship. Children, escorts and passengers who had been warned to wear life jackets at all times, started boarding their lifeboats, a process hampered by the bad weather and the ship’s loss of power, and at around 11pm, the City of Benares sank, its bow rising from the sea, before disappearing into the rough Atlantic Ocean with its emergency lights still blazing. They were 600 miles away from land.
Only 13 of the 90 children survived on life rafts before they were picked up almost 24 hours later by a Royal Navy destroyer. Among the few adults who survived was the journalist Phyllis Panting with her husband, the fashion designer Digby Morton en route to a trade mission. Phyllis always found it hard to talk about what happened the night of the torpedo although more than a year later she did write: ‘I learned during those interminable 20 hours that those who seem too delicate and highly strung to stand any fierce ordeal are the ones who face up magnificently to danger and endure silently.’
Phyllis spent the night trying to comfort 14-year-old Pat, ‘who had swum to [my] boat when her own overturned and who didn’t know what had become of her mother and sister … and trying to keep Fred, the ship’s carpenter, awake because he’d had no sleep for two nights and the cold of the sea is like snow, once you fall asleep it is fatal… Perhaps when the war is over I may be able to tell the full story,’ she wrote. But she never did. Of the 26 passengers who started in Phyllis’s lifeboat only half survived the night time ordeal.
The sinking of the Benares with a loss of 260 lives in all, led to widespread public outrage and controversy. Was this a war crime on the part of the German commandant who faced Allied charges after the War but was acquitted on the grounds that he maintained he did not know there were children on board. Were the British inadequately prepared for such an attack? In the immediate aftermath all agreed it was an enormous wartime tragedy and Prime Minister Winston Churchill cancelled all future overseas evacuations of children.
2020 feels an appropriate time to remember this tragedy because of the constant pictures of child migrants trying to reach other countries by sea and the often tragic consequences of their desperation forcing us to examine how do we save children in time of war?
** Memorial Plaque remembering many of these children is at Willesden Jewish Cemetery