The SS City of Benares was launched from Glasgow in August 1935. A steam passenger ship on the Ellerman Line, during the Second World War it was used as an evacuee ship.
On 13 September 1940, City of Benares left Liverpool to cross the Atlantic to Montreal and Quebec, Canada. She was carrying 90 evacuee children escaping the Blitz, accompanied by other civilian passengers.
Late at night on 17 September, the Benares was spotted by a German Uboat, U48. Three torpedoes were fired. The first two missed but the third one struck the stern, causing the ship to sink rapidly.
A storm made launching lifeboats difficult and many of the passengers found themselves sat in icy cold water, with just their life vests to keep them afloat. Although a Royal Navy ship, HMS Hurricane, later picked up survivors, many died due to exposure.
The hurricane missed one of the lifeboats containing some 30 Indian crewmen, a Polish merchant, several sailors, Mary Cornish and Father Rory O’Sullivan two of the adult volunteers accompanying the children, and six evacuee boys. They spent eight days adrift before being rescued.
As ever in wartime, accurate figures are difficult, but some 77 of the 90 children who’d embarked on the Benares to safety died. Also among the dead were the ship’s Master, the Commodore, three staff members and 121 crew. Some 134 adult civilian passengers were also lost.
The City of Benares had been travelling along the same routes as British ships with a military purpose and the German Uboat captain believed it was a legitimate target. He was unaware of the children on board and many of the crew later expressed their shock and regret when they learned the children had been killed.