The attack 

SS Marina

SS Marina, also sunk on 17 September by U-48. From Maritime Archives, McRoberts Collection, reference MCR/45/64

Unknown to City of Benares and the rest of convoy OB 213, they had been followed discreetly for some time by a German U-boat, U-48. The U-boat had quickly identified City of Benares as its top target in the convoy, because of its tonnage and appearance, and her position in the convoy gave her away as the Commodore (lead) ship, always a desired target because the panic and confusion hitting the lead ship could spread to other ships in a convoy. U-48 does not seem to have been aware of the precious cargo City of Benares was carrying.

At 10pm a torpedo struck the City of Benares on the portside aft (back) end of the ship.  

Listen to Barbara describe the moment the torpedo hit, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

life jacket in museum display

Lifejacket similar to those worn by the Bech family, in the Battle of the Atlantic gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum, accession number 1971.71

Very quickly the ship started to go down towards the stern (back) end. The alarm was raised. City of Benares was 600 miles from the nearest land. The convoy escort had left some 21 hours previously. In accordance with standard procedure, the other convoy ships were under strict orders not to stay and undertake rescue missions but to scatter and carry on their way independently.One other ship in the convoy was also hit and sunk – the SS Marina. 

Marguerite Bech had been prepared and quickly made sure that Derek, Barbara and Sonia had their lifejackets on.

Listen to Barbara describe the lifejackets, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

The torpedo had struck very close to where the CORB children were sleeping, and some had been injured in their rooms by splintered wood or by being thrown from their beds. The CORB escorts worked quickly and calmly to take the children out to the lifeboat muster points on deck, as they had done in the practice drills. The vast majority of the children were accounted for on deck. For the Bechs, segregated with the other paying passengers, it was a big shock to suddenly see all of the CORB children.

Listen to Barbara and Derek talk about seeing the CORB children for the first time, or read the transcript below.

Transcripts

The torpedo hits

Barbara: "I think Derek was fast asleep and Sonia was fast asleep, I’d been reading in bed and I think I’d literally just put my bedside light out when I heard this thump and I thought ‘oh lord, what’s that’, I think it was a sort of double kind of bump bump and that was all.  And then, after about a minute, the bells began to ring so then I shot across to Sonia’s bed and shook her awake and said ‘Sonia, come on, we’ve got to get up, something’s happened’."

Lifejackets

Barbara: "We did have these perfectly horrible, well they weren’t lifejackets, they were four pieces of cork they were about 8 inches square and they were in canvas bags with a sort of hole in the middle so you put them over your head and as a result two great blocks were on your front left shoulder and your front right shoulder and two at the back and then you tied them round you with tapes and that was meant to keep your head out of the water but you couldn’t wear them all the time because I mean they were hard as nails and you couldn’t you couldn’t possibly have slept in them or anything so were just told to always have them handy."

CORB Children on board

Barbara: "And that was the first time I thought ‘Heavens, there are children on board!’ because suddenly you could see some of the lifeboats and this wail this sort of..." [makes a wailing sound].

Derek: "You could hear the children crying because we, subsequently we heard, that the lifeboats, first of all the torpedo struck where the children were, many were trapped in the cabins, some were injured, some were killed, and then when they they eventually reached the lifeboats, the torpedo had struck at the stern and a lot of the lifeboats were very close to the water and when they launched the lifeboats they they capsized. And one or two of them obviously drowned immediately, others washed away, some of them were rescued and put back into waterlogged lifeboats."

Barbara: "And they were so tiny, I mean some of them were only about 5 years old."

Derek: "And of course they’d all been fast asleep, ten o’clock at night, they’re all drowsy and of course they’d they’d undressed for the first time, many of them had only flimsy clothes on."