A Harrowing Journey Remembered In 1940, an oceanliner sailing on the North Atlantic was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk. The ship was transporting British children away from the German blitz to safety in Canada. Miracles on the Water by Tom Nagorski chronicles the disaster in harrowing detail.

A Harrowing Journey Remembered

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ROBERT SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris.

On September 17th, 1940, a lavish ocean liner called the S.S. City of Benares was sailing on the North Atlantic. 406 crew and passengers were on board, among them, 90 British children on their way to Canada. They were pioneers in a controversial program that transported youngsters to safety, away from the German blitz in England.

But the Nazi bombs followed them to the high seas. On that September night, the City of Benares was tailed by a German u-boat. A little after 10, the submarine torpedoed the passenger ship. The ocean liner sunk in less than half an hour.

A new book chronicles that disaster in harrowing detail. It's called, MIRACLES ON THE WATER, by Tom Nagorski. He's a senior producer at ABC World News Tonight and his great uncle, Bogdan Nagorski, was among the 108 survivors.


NORRIS: The sinking of the Benares sparked sensational news coverage.


Unidentified Announcer: The youngsters were marvelously looked after by one of the escorts, Ms. Cornish, a London music teacher. She massaged their limbs to keep the circulation going in the bitter cold. She told them stories to keep them cheerful.

NORRIS: The actual survivors, their recollections are not so chipper.

BESS WALDER: Dreadful, it was just terrible. The rain was incessant and the wind was howling and an Atlantic storm in September is not very nice to be in.

NORRIS: Bess Walder was one of the children en route to Canada. She was 15 at the time. After the torpedo roused her from bed, she fought through the chaos on deck to find her best friend, Beth Cummings. The two teens made it into lifeboat number five. The Benares was sinking fast, its stern already below water. And their small wooden vessel swung precariously as it was lowered onto the sea.

WALDER: It fell into the water sideways and all the water in the ocean started to pour in at the other end. So there were children already in the boat that were drowned in the water, in the lifeboat, which was dreadful.

NORRIS: Tom, you write about this and there's a scene in the book that is so vivid in its description. I'm hoping you can read it for us. It begins on page nine.

TOM NAGORSKI: Sure. The teenagers Bess Walder and Beth Cummings reached their lifeboat, lifeboat number five. It was upside down. Beyond that, Bess could see only hands, a row of wrists and knuckles curled over the opposite side. Perhaps a dozen people were clinging desperately to the keel of lifeboat five. Beth Cummings watched as a pair of hands on the keel lost their grip and slipped away.

NORRIS: That image of the hands gripping on the side of that lifeboat and watching one slip away, is that something that you saw over and over again, hands disappear.

WALDER: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. And you know, it was because the adults were being much more sensible about their fate. Children of course were not so, because they were absolutely certain that somewhere, somehow, they were going to be rescued. So they were going to hang on. But the adults knew better. It's just as simple as that really.

NORRIS: Were you holding onto that boat when you saw the Benares slip away into the ocean?

WALDER: Yes, yes. And one old seaman said to me many years later, did that ship cry when it went down, Bess? And I looked at him and I said, yes, how did you know about that? He said, they all do. Ships have souls. Well, it was just heart rending. There was that wonderful ship and there it went down with a groan and a great big sort of heave and it was just like some huge animal crying.

NORRIS: How did you survive in those hours at sea? What did you say to each other?

WALDER: Not much, because we needed all our strength to hang on. See, our hands were gripped very tightly on this keel so all my strength had to be in my hands. And I sometimes look at my hands now and think, however did I do it? Because I've got rather skinny hands.

NORRIS: And you were wearing nothing but a nightgown?

WALDER: That's right, and a dressing gown, which was useless. Clothes were just wet through.

NORRIS: You were on board with your brother. After that...

WALDER: I was.

NORRIS: After that torpedo attack, did you have any idea where he was?

WALDER: No, none at all. I just assumed that he was dead. I'd seen so many children die, I couldn't expect that he would be alive. But my father had said to me, look after that young man. But then I had to stop thinking about him and think about how I was going to survive. So at least I could get back to my parents.

NORRIS: Bess, how long were you at sea on that lifeboat?

WALDER: The ship went down around half past 10 to 11:00. And by the time Beth and I had got round to the next day, we knew that unless help came soon, we should die. And so as the sky grew darker, we became very silent and when the first few streaks of dawn came the next morning we looked in some horror at our scene. Because there we were, two young girls on the top of a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic, with no other boat anywhere near. And that was a very lonely feeling, let me tell you.

NORRIS: For almost 20 hours, Bess Walder and Beth Cummings clung to their overturned lifeboat on stormy seas. Without food or water, their lips cracked, their tongues swelled and their eyes played tricks on them. Both had seen countless black dots on the horizon, mirages. But then, one of the specs grew larger, becoming a thing of substance and eventually the unmistakable silhouette of a ship. A British warship called the H.M.S. Hurricane had come to the rescue. Sailors literally had to pry the girls' hands off the keel, carefully lifting one bloated finger at a time.

Author Tom Nagorski picks up the story from there.

NAGORSKI: The next morning, one of Hurricane's officers was leading a tour for the few boys who had survived and could still walk. They stopped for a visit to the ship's boiler room. Suddenly one of the children cried out, that's my sister's. A few articles of clothing were drying on lines, children's clothing mostly, hanging in the warm boiler room. The boy was pointing to a girl's green dressing gown. Within minutes, this news had reached the destroyer's senior officers. Soon Hugh Crofton Simms was banging on the door of the captain's cabin, his cabin, which was for the moment occupied by two teenage girls named Beth Cummings...

WALDER: The captain came and he banged on the door and said, wake up, miss, sit up. When the captain speaks to you like that, you do what you're told. And from behind his back, he produced my brother. Well, it was just absolutely unbelievable.

NORRIS: The two of you probably didn't want to let go of each other.

WALDER: Oh no, my brother didn't like being kissed, he never did. Not until he got a bit older, of course. But we did have a very emotional time.

NORRIS: Tom, what was the aftermath of this disaster like? There were so many questions. What happened afterward?

NAGORSKI: Well, the first thing that happened was they canceled the program. Beyond that, there was a flurry of activity focused on whom, if anyone, to blame. The full fury of public opinion and the press, not only in England but around the world, was directed at the Germans, first and foremost. Not just that they had torpedoed a ship, but there were accusations in the press that they had torpedoed a ship knowing full well that there had been children on board. It was used in a way as part of the propaganda battle that Great Britain was waging at the time to draw the United States and others into the war.

There's never, in my opinion at least, been any evidence that the German crew knew anything specifically about the fact that there were children on board. There's a separate question of whether they would have behaved differently had they known.

But I must tell that those questions I think were overtaken by other events in the war. I have not met a single survivor or even participant in the story who has really been bitter, strangely enough, either about the Germans or about Great Britain in any way for what happened.

NORRIS: Bess, I wanted to ask you one last question. You're now here in New York and you could've traveled to America by plane, but you chose to sail here aboard the Queen Mary.

CUMMINGS: Yes, I did.

NORRIS: Any trepidation at all about travel by sea?

CUMMINGS: None whatsoever. I'm so thrilled to be here, having traveled on that wonderful ship. My husband died in October and left me some money with two words, Travel QM2, and that's what I've done. Now my husband just turned out to be the brother of Beth whom I was rescued with.

NORRIS: Beth Cummings, your companion that night.

CUMMINGS: Yes. I'm not afraid of the sea, not in any way. I love the sea, I love ships, I love swimming, I love anything to do with water.

NORRIS: And I have loved talking to you. Thank you so much.

CUMMINGS: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Bess Cummings's tale is one of those featured in the new book MIRACLES ON THE WATER: THE HEROIC SURVIVORS OF A WORLD WAR U-BOAT ATTACK. We were also joined by the author, Tom Nagorski. You can read an excerpt from the book at NPR.org.

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