Escaping the sinking ship

mural showing people in a lifeboat on rough sea

Michael Rennie memorial at The Parish Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. Shown with kind permission of the Reverand Alan Walker.

There were 12 lifeboats hanging from davits about 40ft from the water. In calm conditions it could be a challenge to safely lower them, in the current situation it was a nightmare. There was a Force 6 gale, large waves, it was cold and dark, and the ship was angled with the stern down in the water. Many lives were lost lowering the boats – passengers were thrown out of the boats when they were flung by the wind into the side of the ship, or fell out when the boats were tipped at extreme angles. Some boats were capsized by the large waves. 

There are many tales of bravery by passengers and crew, selflessly helping others into lifeboats on deck, or once in the water, risking their own lives to help others into boats. One such passenger was Michael Rennie, one of the CORB escorts. Rennie was 23 and a theology student, the son of a Vicar, and a strong swimmer. He had spent the most time amongst the escorts playing and organising games with the children, and when he saw many of them in the water he acted immediately. Again and again he left his lifeboat to swim and rescue boys from the water. He pulled out 12 boys into lifeboat 11. Ultimately these heroics would cost him his life. He died just before dawn from exposure and exhaustion. There is a memorial to Michael Rennie in his father's London church.   

Barbara Bech managed to climb down some ropes to a lifeboat, but was separated from the rest of her family.

Listen to Barbara describe climbing down to the lifeboat and getting separated, or read the transcripts at the end of the page.

All the lifeboats had gone, and the rest of the Bech family, Marguerite, Sonia and Derek, thought they were stranded. But there were also 22 small life rafts aboard, and a kind passenger (Eric Davis who worked for the BBC) showed the family where they were located.

Listen to Derek explain how they left the ship, or read the transcript at the end of the page.

The Bechs were now off the ship, which by now was practically vertical in the air, and by some trick most of the lights were still on, until after a loud bang they went out and the ship sank beneath the waves, leaving the survivors in a cold, dark and stormy Atlantic sea. The time was 10.31pm; City of Benares had sunk in 31 minutes.

Listen to Derek's memory of the children's thoughts as they watched the ship sink, or read the transcript at the end of the page.


Getting in a lifeboat: 

Barbara: "We looked over the edge and our boat was, or a boat was, down below our station so we assumed it was our lifeboat and the only way then to get into it was they’d thrown those sort of rope ladders that have wooden slats, they’d thrown those over the side and various passengers were being helped to come down these ladders but of course it’s about 30 foot I suppose and also the little boat at the bottom isn’t stationary it’s going up and down like a cork itself so it was a very slow process and we were all standing there and I heard one of the chaps, English sailors, who was sort of helping things he said ‘We’ll never get them all off, pity they can’t climb ropes’ well I I always fancied my gym so I said ‘Oh, I can climb ropes!’  He said ‘You, could you get down there?’  ‘Ooh, yes, of course I could’ so I turned to my mother and I said ‘Shall I go down on the rope, mummy?’ and she said ‘Oh, can you?’ ‘Ooh, yes I can!’ so the sailor said ‘Right well, here’s the rope’ because it was one of the ones hanging from the davits ‘Got it? Ok, off you go’, I had a lovely pink Jaeger dressing gown which because I’d got a coat on I I was just carrying and I remember tying it round my neck and presumably sort of coming down this rope with this sort of pink cloak billowing out behind me and you know looking, I suddenly realised that I without gym shoes I couldn’t grip my feet so I had to come down just hand over hand saying ‘now don’t let go, don’t let go’ and then as I got near the boat suddenly came up and I thought ‘right, plop’ so in I went."

Barbara separated

Barbara: "After I got down, I suddenly saw brother Derek coming down in the arms of the old sailor who I think had sent me down the rope.  He’d now got onto the ladder himself and he had Derek coming down the ladder, with his arms holding him in, and they were about halfway down the side of the boat when we suddenly, and I don’t know what we let go, we suddenly drifted away and I thought ‘God, no, they’re not going to get in it’ and then I saw the old sailor look down and say to Derek ‘No, we’ve got to go up again’ so I the last I saw them they were going up the ladder again."

Leaving the ship

Derek Bech: "Well when we got on deck and my mother, by this time I’m sure the ship was at an angle, and her instinct was to go up towards the bows and we walked up to the bows and on the way passing there was a passenger passed us and said, he saw my mother with two children, and said ‘follow me, I know where there’s some rafts’ and so we we turned round to follow this man and as we were passing the main structure of the ship there was an explosion then we were told the boilers had exploded and a lot of flame and my mother turned round again she wasn’t go to go through all this she turned round and walk up to the bows but the passenger went through this and singlehanded, as far as we know, he launched two rafts and the next we remember, or I remember, is he’d launched the rafts and came up the edge of the ship and he called up to us on deck, he said ‘I’ve got the rafts, now, now jump’.  And we literally jumped into the sea. And landed on these rafts, it was my mother, my sister and myself, and then later on an elderly passenger also jumped, she went plop into the sea and there were four of us on the raft.  And this man said ‘well, I’ll pull you away in case when she goes down the you (unintelligible) so with one arm he swam and pulled us away from the ship and he then said ‘you’ll be on your own now’ and he went back to the other raft and got on that and eventually rescued another boy and then when the ship went down we were on our own."

Watching the ship sink

Derek: "The classic remark of Sonia and myself on the raft was, we both said, ‘what a waste of good ice cream!’ Because we’d lived like Lords on the ship, there was no rationing."