In the water

model of a simple raft made from wooden pallets

Model of life raft in the Battle of the Atlantic gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum, similar to rafts on the City of Benares.

Most of those (including Barbara) who had survived the sinking were now shivering in one of the twelve lifeboats. These had buoyancy tanks fitted to help keep them afloat even if they took on a great deal of water. They also had fitted Fleming hand propelling gear which was a lot easier to handle then oars.   

The rest of the Bech family were on one of the smaller life rafts about 8 foot square, with oil drums fixed underneath to aid ballast (stability).

Listen to Derek describe the conditions for people on the rafts, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

The hours following the sinking were a desperate struggle for everyone.  Many of those who survived the sinking died in the lifeboats of exposure and exhaustion, brought on by hours of sitting in the cold and wet conditions in icy water. Some boats were so full of water that there was a real risk of floating out of the boat altogether.

Listen to Derek describe the rough sea, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

In several of the lifeboats, less than half of those who started the day huddled in the boats would survive. The escorts did their best to keep up the spirits of the children. In turn, the bravery shown by many of the children was an inspiration to the crew and older passengers.  

Sonia and Derek Bech and their mother were picked up by a lifeboat from the SS Marina, the other ship that had been sunk during the convoy attack. It was better then being on the tiny life raft.

Listen to Derek explain how they were rescued from their raft, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

For those still alive, salvation came in the afternoon when the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Hurricane, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Crofton Simms, arrived in the area and began rescuing survivors from the lifeboats and life rafts. City of Benares had managed to get an SOS message away which was passed onto the Western Approaches Command Centre in Liverpool. In turn, they instructed HMS Hurricane, the senior vessel in the escort for convoy OB 214, to break away and search for survivors. Derek, Sonia and their mother were picked up, followed later by their sister Barbara.  

ship painted with dazzle camouflage

HMS Hurricane, © IWM (FL 22670)

Listen to Barbara describe waiting to be rescued on her lifeboat, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

Various life rafts were gradually picked up by HMS Hurricane, and almost the lifeboats were accounted for, including the second one from SS Marina which incredibly sailed all the way back to Ireland. All but one lifeboat was accounted for.  Lifeboat 12 from City of Benares had not been spotted.  It was soon the question on the minds of everyone on HMS Hurricane: Where was Lifeboat 12?

Transcripts

On the raft

Derek: "I think I, we all, dozed and my mother had one arm round me and was hanging on to me and of course we had to hang on with with our fingers round this duckboard and all the time when we hit the trough of a wave and the next wave came there’d be a bang and these these drums would come up and pinch our fingers."

Rough sea

Derek: "The sea was very rough, it had been blowing a, we were told 8, force 8 gale and of course the Atlantic in those day that’s a great mountain of sea. And we were on our little raft in pitch darkness in the night time and all you could hear all of a sudden was *impersonates wave noise* and we all said ‘hang on tight’ and we used to go through this cascade of water coming down, rather like going up through the Niagara Falls.  And I think that was when Sonia got washed off, she got washed off twice, but how the raft didn’t turn turtle I do not know."

Rescue

Derek: "We were eventually spotted by a lifeboat who thought we were a raft with all children and he’d circled all night where he’d plotted us, of course we could only see each other when both of us were on the crest of a wave and that happens not very often, and of course he he knew roughly where we were and he just circled round until he was fortunate to find us again at the top of a wave. That was a lifeboat from a little ship called the SS Marina, which a little cargo ship, and she apparently had seen the Benares being torpedoed and they’d just well the instructions were they mustn’t stop they must go full speed and soon after we were struck they were torpedoed as well. But they got, being a smaller ship they had two lifeboats only and they launched both lifeboats and the captain had one and the first officer that picked us up had another and we were fortunate to be picked up by a destroyer and the other lifeboat sailed all the way to Ireland."

Awaiting rescue

Barbara: "It was dark and I was sort of sitting there quietly, as I say, thinking the others must be alright because I’d know if they weren’t but I’d no idea what had happened to them and I think, as Derek says, you get these sort of breaking waves because we our lifeboat hadn’t filled much with water it was just wet round one’s feet but every so often you’d get one of these breaking waves and then you’d find you were suddenly fairly wet again but otherwise it was fairly stable (but you’d just go up I mean it’s you see it’s not choppy because the waves are so big so you sort of slide up this mountainside, top for a moment and then down you come again and I I have the feeling I probably, I was sitting in the middle of a lot of other people, I think I must have dozed a bit until daylight and then you know one began to see round and as I say I was telling you earlier that it’s so surprising to me that although we’d all come from the same boat by then we’d got so completely separated you know we couldn’t see anybody else at all to start with and then for a while we could see this lifeboat that was upturned with these two girls on it but again you know we couldn’t get very near them. That was Beth and Bess.

And then at about, I suppose about, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I wouldn’t know because I didn’t have a watch, I’d left it on the boat, but suddenly at the top of one of the waves somebody said ‘Ah, I can see a ship', so everybody perked up and then everybody on the next crest of the wave looked and yes we could see a ship and one of the experts said ‘oh yes I think it’s one of ours’ so we fired off a distress rocket to say ‘Come on’ and then we had a very worrying oh 2 or 3 hours because what happened was the destroyer, it was HMS Hurricane, apparently actually picked up the boat Derek, the lifeboat, Derek was on first.

What they realised was that an awful lot of the lifeboats that were around, everyone was in great distress, because you see apparently what had happened in many of the surviving lifeboats was that they have floatation chambers underneath so they can nearly fill with water without sinking but all the people in it of course are sitting up to their waists in water and a terrible lot of people had died of exposure, they hadn’t actually drowned, but spending all night in an ice cold sea up to your neck in water doesn’t exactly sort of improve your health and sadly we subsequently heard that both the mothers with the small children none of them survived and a lot of older people died and so what the destroyer was trying to do they’d got people up in the crows nest with binoculars trying to direct them to the boats that looked in greatest distress and of course our lifeboat wasn’t in distress so we were the last people to be picked up.

And we kept thinking ‘God has it missed us’ because it kept shooting past and we’d think ‘it’s slowing down, that’s for us’ no, no, and then it shot off in another direction."