informal family group photo

City of Benares survivors in Glasgow, left to right: Barbara Partridge (nee Bech), Derek Bech, Marguerite Bech, Colin Richardson, Sonia Williams (nee Bech). Image reproduced with kind permission of Derek Bech.

The survivors on HMS Hurricane and HMS Anthony were taken to Glasgow, where there was huge media interest.

Listen to Derek and Barbara describe how their father found out that they were safe, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

Of the 406 people on board the City of Benares, just 148 survived.  Only 13 of 90 CORB children survived, and 6 of the 10 non CORB children. 81 children did not survive the disaster.  This included Michael Brooker and Patricia Allan, who had survived the sinking of the Volendam, another CORB ship.  Of 10 Children from the Liverpool area, only one, Beth Cummings, survived.

The CORB scheme, which until the City of Benares disaster had seen 2662 children evacuated abroad, was suspended and never restarted. One vessel, the Nova Scotia, appears to have sailed just after the City of Benares disaster on 21 September 1940, with 29 CORB children on board, probably before the decision to suspend the scheme was taken or communicated. In retrospect, was the Volendam sinking on 29 August (with CORB children on board, all of whom fortunately survived) a warning that was not heeded?

Other questions that were asked included whether it was a mistake to put children on the lead Commodore ship, knowing that the Commodore ships were often targeted by the U-boats. And why the usual orders to other ships not to stay and help a torpedoed ship in the convoy were not replaced with special orders to assist the City of Benares, because of the children on board.

Some of the parents also complained that they thought the convoy escort would stay with the ship and convoy for the entire voyage, rather then stopping 17 degrees west of Ireland.  U-boats were known to be operating beyond this stopping point.

Listen to Barbara's thoughts on the disaster, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

Only a few weeks after the City of Benares disaster, an important addition to convoy support began – the first Rescue Ship sailed with a convoy. The job of the Rescue Ships was to stay and help any ships in the convoy that were torpedoed or damaged. The discussions to create this service were in motion before the City of Benares disaster, but undoubtedly the high profile nature of the sinking of the City Benares meant that it fed into the conversation and reinforced the need for such a service. From October 1940, more than 797 convoys had a Rescue Ship as part of the convoy escort, and they saved more than 4194 lives. What a difference they would have made to the City of Benares, where so many died from exposure in the lifeboats after the sinking.    

recent photo of City of Benares survivors Barbara and Derek

Barbara Partridge (née Bech) and Derek Bech, in Liverpool, 2013. 

There have been several reunions over the years for survivors of the sinking; some of these have included men from U-48 which fired the torpedo.  

"I think it was true what we were told ages later when we had some of the reunions that we were less affected than an awful lot of the others because we could talk about it to each other." Barbara Partridge (nee Bech)

Many thanks to Barbara Partridge (née Bech) and Derek Bech, for sharing their incredible memories of this tragic event.

In memory of all those who died on SS City of Benares.


Informing their father

Derek: "The moment we landed, which was on the, that’d be the Friday morning, the press were let loose on us and we were all pounced on by different reporters and asked to tell our story and my sister mentioned our London address so obviously the reporter she spoke to reported back to the London office."

Barbara: "That was that evening I suppose, which would have been what the Friday evening after we’d just landed when my father had a knock on the front door, this was a big block of flats in London, and it was a reporter saying ‘I’m very pleased to be able to tell you that your daughter Sonia’s been torpedoed in the Atlantic but she’s safe’. So he said ‘Yes, but, I also had a wife and another daughter and son on it.’ ‘Oh, oh I don’t know anything about any of them, I’m afraid.’

So he, luckily our uncle, my mother’s brother-in-law, was the London editor of The Scotsman, he was a journalist, so my father got straight on to Uncle Jack to say he’d got this strange reporter and could he find out for goodness sake what had really happened because he’d had no notification at that stage because they hadn’t really got around to even checking who’d been saved and who hadn’t. Well of course I think journalists have their own methods so I think Uncle Jack found out fairly quickly that all the Bechs were safe."


Barbara: "I think quite honestly it was, it was, a slip up of monumental things that nobody’d really considered what would happen to a boatful of children if it got torpedoed. Nobody settled down to think well now in actual fact what do we do in those circumstances, is it sensible to even try and send a boatload of children in the present circumstances, I mean ours was the last lot that went, they stopped it dead after that because you there wasn’t a hope really. I mean if you’ve got 90 odd children and a boat that goes down in half an hour you’re not going to save many of them are you?  In the middle, it wasn’t as if it was the coast or anything it was 600 miles out in the biggest ocean in the world."