The War and CORB Scheme

City of Benares

City of Benares, from Maritime Archives collection, reference DX-2165, from Shipbuilding and Shipping Record, October 3rd, 1940, p334, copyright unknown believed to be expired.

By the summer of 1940 the war was not going well. German forces had swept through Europe and France had fallen. In the skies, the Battle of Britain raged as Allied planes desperately fought the German Luftwaffe for air supremacy. At sea, it was the U-boats ‘Happy Time’ as the fall of France allowed Germany to establish U-boat bases at Atlantic ports much nearer to North Atlantic targets and convoy routes, and U-boat packs were hunting allied shipping with devastating effect.  

Against this depressing backdrop, the loss of the war and invasion of Britain by German forces was a real and imminent threat, and many families were afraid for the safety and future of their children. Some who could afford it were already sending their children abroad to relatives, but for many this was not an option. The British Government was well aware of this, and in June 1940 they founded the Children’s Overseas Reception Board or CORB, to facilitate the evacuation of children from Britain to the relative safety of the British dominions including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These countries had promised help and hundreds of households in each had offered to open their doors to take in British children.  

Families had to weigh up the real dangers of bombings and invasion at home against the risk that every ship leaving British shores was subjected to – the U-boat threat. After just one week of the CORB office opening, requests had flooded in from families across the country – there were more than 210,000 applications for just 20,000 places. Disadvantaged families from the areas deemed most at risk were prioritised. Children would be looked after during voyages by adult escorts (1 to every 15 children); parents were not allowed to travel with their children under the scheme.

A fresh reminder of the dangers of ‘going’ came on 29 August 1940. SS Volendam left Liverpool carrying 320 children under the CORB scheme. On her second day out from Liverpool, Volendam was torpedoed 70 miles off the Donegal coast of Ireland. They were lucky; the ship was still close to land, it was a calm night and all of the ship’s 18 lifeboats were safely deployed. All the children survived.

City of Benares would not be so lucky. Her last voyage was to be her first Atlantic crossing.