The story of Lifeboat 12 

Aerial photo of large ship and small boat at sea

Lifeboat 12 next to HMS Anthony after 8 days at sea © IWM (CH 1354)

portrait photo of Douglas Critchley

Douglas Critchley, from the Maritime Archives collection, reference DX 2165

Lifeboat 12 was one of the only City of Benares lifeboats not to become waterlogged after launching. This helped protect its occupants from the exposure that claimed so many lives, but also meant that it drifted far further than any of the others. On board were 46 people: 37 crewmen, 6 children with two escorts, and one private passenger.   

By the time HMS Hurricane arrived the lifeboat’s course had led it outside the search pattern of the rescuing destroyer. Given the awful weather conditions, it was believed that Lifeboat 12 simply hadn’t lasted the night and its occupants were listed amongst the dead.

One of the crew on board was a young cadet called Douglas Critchley, whose family lived at Hoylake on the Wirral, in Merseyside.   

scrapbook page with press cuttings including photos of children from the City of Benares

Page from Sphere magazine, 3 October, 1940, from the Critchley family album, with artist’s impression of Sunderland flying boat finding lifeboat 12, and also photographs of children from lifeboat 12. From Maritime Archives, reference DX 2165, copyright expired.

In the collections of the Merseyside Maritime Museum is a scrapbook from the Critchley family about the City of Benares disaster. It includes telegrams from the City Line (part of the Ellerman Line) to Douglas’s family on the Wirral, informing them of his (believed at the time) death.    

The telegram was however premature. Aware that they had drifted out of the probable search area, food and water were strictly rationed on board. After 8 tortuous days at sea, Lifeboat 12 was spotted by a Sunderland flying boat. It returned a few hours later with the destroyer HMS Anthony. Only one man aboard had died, and another would die aboard HMS Anthony, but it was a remarkable tale of endurance and survival against the odds. 

Douglas Critchley, the young cadet, telephoned his father to inform him he was alive and well. His father, unable to fully believe what he was hearing, immediately handed the phone to Douglas's sister so she could confirm he had understood and that his son really had been saved.